The Rhymer's Stone
On a recent visit to the Scottish Borders I took with me an anthology of Scottish verse and Walter Scott's Border Minstrelsy. There is much to see along the valleys of the Esk, the Teviot and the Tweed including memorials to writers such as Walter Scott and Hugh Mac Diarmaid. I also followed the trail from the medieval abbey at Melrose up onto the Eildon Hills and past the 'Rhymer's Stone', a memorial to the 13th century writer Thomas of Ercildoune, where he was said to have been sitting under a thorn tree and carried off by the Queen of Elfland. This event is related in the Scots 'Ballad of True Thomas' and was a source of John Keats' poem 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci'. I have known the ballad for some time but had not always known that Thomas was an historical figure with a body of prophetic and vaticinatory verse associated with him. The story of him being carried off to Elfland to be granted the gift of 'true speech' no doubt validated his role as a prophet. But the story of his abduction has too many parallels elsewhere to be confined to him alone and it is no doubt far older than the 13th century.
So part of my reading while in Scotland included the ballads collected by Scott and, in particular, his account of Thomas's history. It is fascinating to see how Scott himself contributed to, and to some extent appropriated, the legend of Thomas. He apparently obtained the ballad from the Scottish redactor of traditional ballads Anna Gordon Brown, but he then supplied a second section based on material from the Prophetic writings (which also contain a version of the ballad narrative) and went further by adding his own epilogue. Scott's estate at Abbotsford was laid out to include 'the Rhymer's Glen' in his woodlands, though the Eildon Tree and Thomas's home at Ercildoune (Earlston) is some miles further along the valley of the Tweed. The walk through the Eildon Hills is well signposted, provides panoramic views of the area, and is worth anyone's trouble to follow. The added dimension of the pursuit of a legend also provided the sense of a quest, which made the trail that much more inviting.
My evening reading of the ballads and the legendary history of Thomas was supplemented by a more wide-ranging survey of Scottish verse in the anthology I also took with me. Verse in Scots always seems to me to have a visceral quality that makes taking the trouble to absorb the dialect so worthwhile. One poem I found myself returning to in my browsing was this from William Soutar (1898-1943). I have no idea whether the event was real or imagined. But Soutar had clearly, himself, been visited with the gift of true speech.
O luely, luely, cam she in,
and luely she lay doun:
I kent her by her caller lips
and her breists sae smaa and round.
Aa throu the nicht we spak nae word
nor sindered bane frae bane:
aa throu the nicht I heard her hert
gang soundin wi my ain.
It was about the waukrif hour
whan cocks begin to craw
that she smooled saftly throu the mirk
afore the day wad daw.
Sae luely, luely cam she in,
sae luely was she gane;
and wi her aa my simmer days
like they had never been.