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Rhymer's Tower, Earlston
Rhymer's Tower, Earlston

Thomas the Rhymer, lived from 1220 to 1298. He was a Scottish laird with a reputation for prophesy and supernatural powers. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

Rhymer's Stone,  Near Melrose
Rhymer's Stone, Near Melrose

Thomas the Rhymer was born Thomas Learmont (or Learmounth) of Ercildoune, in the village now called Earlston in the Scottish Borders. He is also sometimes called "True Thomas". On the southern edge of the village there are the remains of an old keep dating back to the 1400s, called "Rhymer's Tower" because they are believed to stand on the site of the castle originally built by Thomas the Rhymer.

Thomas the Rhymer's reputation for making many accurate prophesies includes, it is said, a prediction of the death of Alexander III in a fall from a horse in 1286. This prediction was apparently made to the Earl of March in Dunbar Castle the day before the accident happened. According to some sources Thomas is also said to have had other supernatural powers that even rivalled those of Merlin. It is said that on visiting Fyvie Castle in Aberdeenshire, a freak gust of wind shut the gates in his face, and in response he placed the "curse of the weeping stones" on the castle, a curse which has led to problems of succession down through the centuries as an unusually large number of different families have occupied the castle.

The origin of Thomas the Rhymer's powers was, it is said, his meeting and kissing the Queen of Elfland while hunting on the estate of Melrose Abbey. The meeting took place after Thomas fell asleep under the Eildon Tree, a spot now marked by the Rhymer's Stone near Melrose. He then spent seven years with her in the Land of the Elves before returning to Earlston for seven years, then disappearing for good: presumably back to the Land of the Elves.

At about this point the historical reality of Thomas Learmont becomes completely submerged in the tidal wave of myth and legend that has grown over the centuries since. The Elfland version of the story comes from The Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer, which it is believed can be traced back to the late 1200s, i.e. while Thomas Learmont was still alive. The Rhymer story has also become intertwined with others over time. The legend of Sir Tristan is said to owe much to Thomas the Rhymer, while the Scottish Borders legend of Tam Lin has enough similarities to lead to the suspicion it is simply a retelling of the story in a different form.

In more recent times, Thomas the Rhymer has cropped up in a poem by Rudyard Kipling; in Nigel Tranter's 1981 novel True Thomas; and in a large number of other books, comics, and paintings. Meanwhile, The Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer was recorded by the group Steeleye Span in 1974, by the singer Ewan MacColl in 2002, and in German by Heinrich Schlusnus in 1938.

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