The Young Tamlane


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Sir Walter Scott included a version of “The Young Tamlane” in the first edition of the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, where it appears in the second volume. By the second edition, however, he had altered the version of the ballad: a substantial part of it is most associated with another ballad called “The Broomfield Hill and Scott, acknowledging this, presented “The Broomfield Hill” in volume 3 of the second edition, with the verses in their more proper place. He edited the version of the ballad on several occasions and the version we include here, then, is from the fifth edition of 1833, the last edition Scott exercised any editorial control over.


Background to the Ballad

The ballad of Tamlane has a long pedigree. It first appeared in print in David Herd’s Ancient and Modern Scots Songs, Heroic Ballads, &c., under the title “Kertonha, or, The Fairy Court”: Herd's books was first published in 1769. in 1792, a version “Tam Lin” was printed in Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum – a version communicated to Johnson by Robert Burns.

However, there are are tantalising suggestions that some other form of the ballad may have been known to earlier generations. “The tayl of the yong Tamlene” is listed among songs and tales told by shepherds in Wedderburn’s Complaynt of Scotland of 1549 , and Wedderburn also lists a dance called “Thom of Lyn”.

Francis James Child, in his prefatory notes to the ballad in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, noted that in 1558, a broadsheet, entitled  “A ballett of Thomalyn” was recorded as being licensed to two printers “Master John Wallye and Mistress Toye”. There is nothing, however, to directly connect these titles with the ballad.

Sir Walter Scott states that the Minstrelsy version is a combination of Herd’s version, that in Johnson, another copy which is in the Glenriddell MS, and  “several recitals from tradition”. There is no reason to doubt that Scott was able to provide himself with copies taken down from individuals.




While there is ample evidence of belief in fairies and other supernatural entities documented in Scottish tales and reports, including trial records, there is no one event which can be connected with “The Young Tamlane”.



Carterhaugh is given as the location where the heroine meets Tamlane in the Minstrelsy version, just as it is in the Scots Musical Museum and Glenriddell MS versions, while variants, such as “Kertonha”, “Charterisha” and “Charter’s Woods” appear in other versions.


Carterhaugh lies near to Selkirk, placing this version of the ballad squarely within the Borders. There is a water source which lies nearby which is called Tamlane’s Well. The well  is marked on the six-inch 1st edition Ordnance Survey map , which was surveyed in 1858 and published in 1863. It is not referenced on earlier maps, such as Roy’s military maps. However, this may be explained by the fact that when they were surveyed, it did not lie on a roadside.


Newark Castle

Scott is simply indulging his suppositions regarding Newark castle and the ballad. There is no defined tradition which links the site with the ballad.


Fairy Abduction and the Hell Tithe


There are two main aspects to this ballad which may seem strange to a modern audience not familiar with traditional belief in fairies. The first is the belief in fairy abduction of humans, which was prevalent throughout Scotland into the 19th Century.

The concept of fairies abducting human and leaving changelings most probably grew out of a need to explain various medical conditions which caused  changes in the appearance, or created an abnormal appearance in individuals. In children, especially babies, it could be used to explain why a baby, despite the mother’s best efforts would not thrive, most probably due to an unknown medical condition or illness. It would be feared that the original baby had been stolen by the fairies and that a fairy baby had been left in its place.

Scott himself presents several anecdotes regarding fairy abduction in his notes before the ballad in the Minstrelsy. Other reports exist, which come from official documentation, such as the following, from the indictment of Alesoun Peirson in 1588, who was accused of witchcraft and,  also “hanting and repairing with the gude nychtbours and Quene of Elfame”. Details were published in Pitcairn’s Criminal Trials, and one extract is concerned with hell tithes. The man named, William Sympsoun, was Alesoun Peirson’s paternal uncle:

[Mr William Sympsoun] will appeir to hir selff allane before the Court [of Elfhame] cum; and that he before tauld hir how he wes careit away with thame out of middil-eird: And quhene we heir the quhirll-wind blaw in the sey, thay wilbe commounlie with it, or cumand sone thaireftir; than Mr William will cum before and tell hir, and bid hir keip hir and sane hir, that scho be nocht tane away with thame againe, for the teynd of thame gais everie yeir to hell. (Pitcairn, Criminal Trials vol 1, part 2: 164)


[Mr William Simpson] would appear before her when she was alone, before the Elfin Court came; and before, he told her how he was carried away by them out of middle earth: and when we hear the whirlwind blow in the sea, they [the fairies] will usually be with it, or they will come soon afterwards; then Mr William would come before her and request that she took care of herself, and bless her in order that she might not be taken away by them again, for the tithe [tenth] of them goes every year to hell. (translation © Walter Scott Minstrelsy project)


The question then arises: why do the fairies need humans? In Fairies and Folk, Emily Lyle discusses abduction, changelings and the tiend to hell in versions of “The Young Tamlane”. She offers various interpretations of the concepts, and the most logical is connected with the requirement for a sacrifice. The fairies do not want to have to sacrifice one of their own, and Tamlane, no matter how handsome or prized, is in danger of being the sacrifice.

The word “tiend” is equivalent to a tithe, which indicates a tenth of something being donated or given up. While it is only supposition, we might presume that one human is worth ten fairy sacrifices to hell.

In the closing verses, the Fairy Queen uses the word “kane”. This  is defined in the Dictionary of the Scots Language / Dictionar o the Scots Leid as a “portion of the produce of a tenancy payable as rent; a rent in kind. b. Payments of this sort, collectively”. For more definitionns, see


The Rescue


Many of the extant Scottish accounts of attempted rescues of mortals from the fairy host end in failure, especially if attempted by a girl or woman, so that the ending presented in this ballad may be considered an exception, rather than a standard rescue. There are accounts of such rescue attempts from the 19th century, but according to Emily Lyle “attempted rescue from the fairy troop of horsemen does not seem to have been recounted in the twentieth century in any part of the British Isles except Ireland” (Lyle   133). These Irish accounts, however, do allow for more successful rescues, although rescued individual is often said not to be quite themselves ever again.

For more information regarding the motifs in variants of “The Young Tamlane”, see Emily Lyle, Fairies and Folk: Approaches to the Scottish Ballad Tradition, Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier 2007.

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