The Scottish Legend of True Thomas

Thomas Learmonth (c. 1220 – c. 1298), better known as Thomas the Rhymer or True Thomas, was a 13th century Scottish laird and reputed prophet from Earlston (then called “Erceldoune”), which is situated on the Scottish border, not far from the towns of Galashiels and Melrose. He is also the protagonist of the ballad “Thomas the Rhymer” (Child Ballad number 37). He is also the probable source of the legend of Tam Lin. Thomas is said to have lived in various parts of the country. According to the most famous legend associated with Learmont, the man was not born with the power of prophesy, but acquired it after visiting the queen of the fairies.

Sir Thomas was born in Erceldoune (also spelled Ercildoune – presently Earlston), Berwickshire, sometime in the 13th century, and has a reputation as the author of many prophetic verses. Little is known for certain of his life but two charters from 1260–80 and 1294 mention him, the latter referring to “Thomas de Ercildounson son and heir of Thome Rymour de Ercildoun.”

Popular esteem of Thomas lived on for centuries after his death, to the extent that  fabricated prophecies have been attributed to Thomas in order to further the cause of Scottish independence. His reputation for supernatural powers for a time rivalled that of Merlin.  Thomas became known as “True Thomas,” supposedly because he could not tell a lie. Popular lore recounts how he prophesied many great events in Scottish history, including the death of Alexander III of Scotland.  

Thomas’ gift of prophecy is linked to his poetic ability. It is not clear if the name Rhymer was his actual surname or merely a soubriquet. He is often cited as the author of the English Sir Tristrem, a version of the Tristram legend, and some lines in  Robert Mannyng’s Chonicle may be the source of this association.

According to the legend, Thomas had been walking in the Eildon Hills and stopped to rest by Huntly Water under the shade of the Eildon Tree. While he dozed, a woman dressed in green silk and velvet and riding a white horse appeared nearby. The lady introduced herself as the Queen of Elfland. The fairy queen dared Thomas to kiss her, which he gladly took up the challenge. The queen said she would take Thomas to Elfland, where he would serve the fairy queen for 7 years.

Along the way, the queen offered to show Thomas three different wonders: three roads each going a different direction. The queen pointed to a road overgrown with briars and thorns. She explained few men chose to travel upon the Road to Righteousness. The second road was smooth and lined with sweet smelling lilies. It was the Road to Hell disguised as the Road to Heaven. The final road the one to Elfland. The queen warned that if Thomas spoke when they were in Elfland, he would never be able to return home. He must keep a vow of silence.

They traveled for many hours, even crossing the river which drains away all the blood shed upon the earth. They also visited a garden ladened with ripe fruit. The queen fed Thomas an apple, saying after he had eaten it, he would forever speak the truth.

His years of service passed quickly, and Thomas returned to his homeland, where he became a great prophet. Eventually, the Fairy Queen returned for Thomas. A villager reported seeing a white hart and a white kind coming from the nearby forest, and the people asked Thomas to predict what the signs meant. However, Thomas said nothing more than a fond farewell. He walked away with the two creatures, never to be seen again.

Prophecies attributed to Thomas:

  • “On the morrow, afore noon, shall blow the greatest wind that ever was heard before in Scotland.”
This prophecy predicted the death of Alexander III; the exact nature of the blow became apparent only with the king’s death the next day.
  • “As long as the Thorn Tree stands
Ercildourne shall keep its lands.”
Of this prophecy, Barbara Ker Wilson writes: In the year the Thorn Tree did fall, all the merchants of Ercildourne became bankrupt, and shortly afterwards the last fragment of its common land was alienated.
  • “When the Cows of o’ Gowrie come to land
The Judgement Day is near at hand”
The Cows of Gowrie, two boulders near Invergowrie protruding from the Firth of Tay, are said to approach the land at the rate of an inch a year.
  • “York was, London is, and Edinburgh shall be
The biggest and bonniest o’ the three”
  • “At Eildon Tree, if yon shall be, a brig ower Tweed yon there may see.”
  • “Fyvie, Fyvie thou’ll never thrive,
As long as there’s in thee stones three;
There’s one in the oldest tower,
There’s one in the lady’s bower,
There’s one in the water-gate,
And these three stones you’ll never get.”
To this day, only one of the stones has been found. Since 1885 no eldest son has lived to succeed his father

About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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