The Eildon Hills, Sacred Mountains of the “Scottish Borders”, and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”

     The Eildons.


This is a view of the Eildon Hills, near Melrose, with the Pringle Tower of Smailholm in foreground.

It was taken from just west of Kelso on the road to St Boswells.
The Eildons are one of the most important sites in the Borders, and though the obvious archeology has been at least partially investigated, much yet remains to be done.
The North hilltop is surrounded by ramparts over three miles long, enclosing an area of 40 acres which contains the rock cut platform bases of at least 300 houses.
The site has been occupied since at least 1000 BC and at the peak of its occupation the population is believed to have been three to six thousand, the largest bronze age population known in Scotland.
In the 1st Century AD, the Roman Army built the massive fort of Trimontium (Three Mountains) at the foot of the hills, on the banks of the River Tweed. They also constructed a signal tower with a tiled roof in the centre of the hillfort.
There is evidence that the Eildons have always been regarded as a holy place, and a probable site of ceremony, and there are several holy springs around the base of the hills.
Arthur and his knights are said to be sleeping in a chamber within the hills, the rock of which was by repute, cleft into three by the wizard Michael Scot.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci.
The Story of Thomas Rhymer.
Sir Joseph Noel Paton.

And of course…..The Eildon Hills are where Thomas the Rhymer met the Queen of Faerie.

Sir Thomas Learmonth, of Erceldoune,  (modern Earlston) circa 1220 – 1298, was a genuine historical personage, better known as Thomas the Rhymer, who according to legend, met with the Queen of Faerie (Elfland), near “Huntlie Banks,” on the Eildon Hills.
The Queen of Faerie, appears as a beautiful lady, mounted on a fine horse.
Thomas kisses the lady, (or has sex with her,) as a result of which she loses her beauty, and is transformed into an ugly hag.
He is then transported with her to “Elfland” via long and torturous paths. They pass three roads, the path of righteousness, the path of wickedness, and the path to “Elfland,” which they take.
Upon her arrival in Elfland the ladies beauty is restored.
Although Thomas believes that he has resided in Elfland for only a small number of days, in fact, three or seven earthly years, have passed ( depending upon which version of the ballad is consulted,)
After the passing of seven years, Elfland must pay a “Teind” i.e. a fee to the Devil, the teind being the most handsome man available, and the Queen fearing that Thomas will be chosen, returns him to the real world, having first granted him the gift of prophecy. He is thus obliged to speak the truth. Hence his other title of “True Thomas.”

A similar tale is associated with the well at Carterhaugh near Selkirk, and forms the basis of the ballad of “Tam Lin,” a young knight who falls from his horse, and is transported to Elfland by the Queen of Faerie.
Tam Lin lurks by the well, appearing when a young girl plucks a double rose. He then demands either a possession, or the virginity of the young lady in question.
Thus he succeeds in getting Janet (or Margaret depending on the version) pregnant.  When her father questions her about who the father of the child may be, she returns to Carterhaugh, plucks a second rose, and when Tam Lin appears, she questions him, and learns of his plight.
Once again as in the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer, Tam is to be a sacrifice to Hell, having resided in Elfland for almost seven years. However, he can be rescued and returned to mortal form, and if Janet performs the correct procedures as the Faerie procession passes by on Halloween, he will return to earth.
If she does this he promises to marry her.
All proceeds according to plan, and after he has been turned into a number of beasts, and a finally, a burning sword, which Janet casts into the well,  he is restored.
The Queen of Faerie is angered,  but Janet wins her Knight.

These stories are ancient, and in antiquity the Faerie were far from being small winged creatures who lived at the bottom of the garden. They were much more sinister, indeed, in witchcraft ceremonies the principal female participant actually bore the title of “The Queen of Faerie.” (See Margaret Murray, “The Witch Cult in Western Europe,”) and bearing this in mind, perhaps it is not impossible that Thomas the Rhymer did indeed go off for some time with the “Queen of Faerie,” or at least with a “Queen of Faerie.”
Now that would certainly provide a new slant on the legend.

However….. In 1819 the entire subject received a huge boost in popularity when Keats, apparently using “Thomas the Rhymer” and “Tam Lin” as his models, produced the ballad “La Belle Dame sans Merci.” a.k.a. “The Queen of Faerie.”
From that date on, the subject became one of the most popular themes for artists, and in particular for those artists associated with the Pre Raphaelite brotherhood.
Here are a few……


Frank Dicksee, “La Belle Dame sans Merci.”
John William Waterhouse, “La Belle Dame sans Merci.”
Arthur Hughes, “La Belle Dame sans Merci.”
(Note the ghostly figures she’s already carried off, in the background!)
Walter Crane, “La Belle Dame sans Merci.”
Henry Meynell Rheam, “La Belle Dame sans Merci.”
(Note, once again, see the spectral onlookers?)
Frank Cadogan Cowper, “La Belle Dame sans Merci.”
And finally, my own “personal favourite” artist….
Sir William Russell Flint, “La Belle Dame sans Merci.”

Those above, are  just part of the influence of “Thomas the Rhymer,” and “Tam Lin” on the art and thought of the 19th into the early 20th Century.
As for poor old Sir Joseph Noel Paton….. These days he is listed (dismissed?) as “a painter of Fairies,” as in the little winged variety. Yet in his own day he was more renowned than the Pre-Raphaelites.
  Further, he was a collector of arms and armour, and many of his paintings are full of authentic detail.

Sir Joseph Noel Paton, “I wonder who lived in there.”
  He illustrated the ballad “The Dowie Dens of Yarrow,”……..full of swords and daggers.

And he produced at least one oil painting for the engravings for this book, but so far I have only been able to locate a single example.
Sir Noel Joseph Paton deserves better recognition than he has as yet received.
He left his arms and armour collection to the Nation, and until recently it was displayed in two cabinets on the rear stairway of Chambers Street Museum up in Edinburgh, but since the so called “modernisation” of the Museum I’m informed that it is now somewhat harder to find.

 Why not ask to see it if you’re up there!
  Our legends are disappearing rapidly.
  Last year I ended up in Borders General Hospital, (recovered now, thank you) which is built on the slopes of the Eildons.
 Nurses kept asking how I was, and I told them I would be O.K. as long as no beautiful ladies arrived on dapple grey horses. They all thought I was mad……  No-one knew what I was talking about!
  Strangely, Dingleton Mental Hospital is also on the site, although part of its function has now been transferred to Huntly Burn House. (Huntlie Burn!)
 Where Thomas the Rhymer went away with the Faerie!
 What a bizarre (and hopefully unintentional?) sense of humour officialdom does seems to have!
  And now the local Council seem Hell bent on allowing building on the slopes of the Eildons. But believe me…… not everything is known about that site,  and no developer ought to be allowed anywhere near there.
The Eildons are quite probably as important to Scotland as the pyramids are to Egypt, but of course our so called”archeologists,” along with our ever popular “television personality” historians, much prefer to work abroad and in the sunshine…… and so our own history gets ignored.
And, even in the 21st century our very own ancient folk beliefs are still pretty much a taboo subject. Never were any “Witches,” or  “Queens of Fairie” here….. Much safer to stay with the Egyptians, Incas, Native Americans etc.
And …..that’s the reason that one day, if we are not careful, some developer will be allowed to build on what ought to be our “Sacred Mountains.”
Strangely, there are fewer illustrations of Tam Lin, but a very odd movie was made of the story back in 1970. It starred Ava Gardner, and Ian McShane, and was directed by Roddy McDowell.
So…….. here’s a little “Lovejoy” from the movie.


And here’s the cast, at Ava’s birthday party.

  And in 1974, Steeleye Span took Thomas the Rhymer into the charts, but that was back when Folk was still “Pop.”

The images above are all well and very good………..But this below is how the King and Queen of Faerie were actually depicted in Shakespeare’s era…….

   Photo courtesy of FJAG

These magnificent walnut carvings date from the very early years of the 17th century, and by extreme good fortune they survived the demolition of a large country house, where they had been incorporated into a fireplace surround!

But some things, so far, defy identification. For instance……..

Photo courtesy of FJAG.

 What are we to make of this pair? A naked lady wearing three leaves on her head, and clasping a heart between her hands, and a bearded man holding an (oak?) leaf, and crowned with a Christian cross and what appear to be a pair of asses ears…..

(Addendum…. With regard to the lady with the heart… see my posting of 28th July 2015.)

….The carvings appear to be fragments of a court cupboard probably dating to the second quarter of the 17th century. It would be fascinating to know what the rest of the decoration consisted of.
But they were, it seems bought in an antique shop, and their previous history is unknown.
So far…… the best explanation is that the Lady is the Queen of Faerie, and that it is a parody of some description on the conflict between the old and “new” religions.

This is the problem. I know for certain that most of our early “folk carvings,” and in particular those of a “secular” nature, are hidden away in the basements of our public museums, both the large and the small. And…..little attempt has been made to catalogue them.
What is worse, is that our public museums now have authority to sell off items from their (usually reserve) collections to raise funds. As a result much of our as yet unclassified national heritage is under threat.  And quite frankly, no-one seems to be aware of it.
Our auction houses have little knowledge of “folk Art,” or “folk Religion,” since most of their experts have suffered a classical education, and whilst they are well versed in Greek and Roman Mythology, anything outside of that simply passes them by.
Our secular art, at least what of it has survived the ravages of both Church and State, is carved into the fabric of our buildings, and our furniture. It is engraved, etched and inlaid into our arms and armour.
It is a fertile field for study, and those who wish to make a start would do well to equip themselves with a cheap paperback copy of Sir James Frazer’s “The Golden Bough,” and perhaps, with a more expensive 5 volumes of the Child Ballads. (Now, thankfully available in paperback from Dover Publications.)
It’s all out there to be found, and written about!  So……Why not venture forth!….and find some goodies before everyone else does! By: Brian Moffatt



Published by Clan Carruthers Society - USA

We are all passionate about where we came from and where we're going. We set this website/blog up so we can all share our family stories along with the history for future generations.

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