The Eildon Hills are the natural landmark of the Scottish Borders. The hills – or hill, since they’re sometimes classified as a single hill with a triple peak – rise just south of the town of Melrose, which is famous for its ruined abbey. They are also associated with multiple legends and pieces of folklore, a few of which are mentioned on this page of Julian Cope’s Modern Antiquarian website: http://www.themodernantiquarian.com/site/6971.
One legend has it that the three hills were the handiwork of the supposed 13th-century wizard Michael Scot. Originally they were one massive peak but then Scot, seemingly in an effort to stave off boredom, used his magic powers to cleave them in three. Actually, the Michael Scot of historical reality was the most important academic figure to ever emerge from the Borders and it’s unfair that he’s mostly remembered as a medieval wizard. (He did practise alchemy and astrology, regarded as occult subjects now, but in his day these were treated as serious academic topics.)
Scott, who may have been born near Melrose, was educated at the Universities of Oxford and Paris. Later, he learned enough Arabic to be able to translate the works of Aristotle from Arabic – the only language in which they’d been preserved at the time – into Latin, thus making them accessible to the great minds of medieval Europe. His travels took him from a post at the University of Toledo in southern Spain to Sicily, where he worked for Popes Honorious III and Gregory IX, and then to Balermo and the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, whom he supposedly cured of several illnesses.
For Scot’s modern reputation as a medieval Scottish Gandalf, we can blame Dante, who in his Divine Comedy depicted him as a wicked magician suffering in the eighth circle of hell, and James Hogg, who portrayed him as a black magician in his novel The Three Perils of Man, and Sir Walter Scott, who wrote about his magical feats in the Lay of the Last Minstrel. He has also turned up in recent fantasy novels by Michael Scott Rohan, Jane Yolen and Katherine Kurtz, and television viewers may even know him as the tetchy magician played by Peter Mullan in the children’s series Shoebox Zoo.
But returning to the Eildon Hills… Other legends allege that the hills are hollow and inside them you’ll find either a chamber containing the slumbering King Arthur and his knights, or the realm of Elfland – Fairyland. The latter legend ties in with the stories surrounding another 13th-century Borders man with mystical attributes, Thomas the Rhymer.
Thomas the Rhymer has been described as ‘Scotland’s answer to Nostradamus’ because of his powers of prophecy. Also known as Thomas Learmont of Erceldoune, the medieval name for the Borders town of Earlston, he is said to have acquired these powers whilst walking one day in the Eildon Hills. Here, beside a particular tree – ‘the Eildon Tree’ – he came across the beautiful Queen of Elfland. Their encounter formed the basis for the folk ballad ‘Thomas the Rhymer’, which in modern times has been performed by such folk luminaries as Steeleye Span and Ewan MacColl.
The ballad opens with these verses (which I’ve quoted from the website http://www.angelfire.com/sc2/scotsforindependence/history/thomas.html):
True Thomas lay on Huntly bank;
A ferly he spied wi’ his ee;
And there he saw a lady bright
Come riding down by the Eildon Tree.
Her shirt was o’ the grass-green silk,
Her mantle o’ the velvet fine;
At ilka tett of her horse’s mane
Hung fifty sil’er bells and nine.
True Thomas he pulled off his cap
And louted low down to his knee:
All hail, thou mighty Queen of Heaven!
For thy peer on earth I never did see.
O no, O no, Thomas, she said,
That name does not belang to me;
I am but the Queen of fair Elfland,
That am hither come to visit thee.
Taking a fancy to Thomas, the Queen transported him back to her magical domain within the hills for a romantic tryst. When Thomas returned to the mortal world after what had seemed like a brief fling with the Queen, he discovered in Rip Van Winkle fashion that seven years had passed in human time. In addition, the Queen of Elfland had given him the ability to prophesise as a parting gift.
This gift brought him fame and fortune afterwards. Thomas is reputed to have foretold the death of the Scottish king Alexander III in 1296, the rise to power of Robert the Bruce in the early 14th century and the Battle of Flodden in 1513. Such was his reputation as a prophet that even in the 18th century the Jacobites used his predictions to justify their cause in the rebellions of 1715 and 1745.
What did the future hold for Thomas himself? Legend has it that he disappeared whilst taking another walk, with the implication that he was spirited back to Elfland – presumably by the Queen who’d so appreciated his amour the first time round. (As his Wikipedia entry records him living from 1220 to 1298, let’s hope that he was still a spritely lover in his seventies.)
Like Michael Scot, the real Thomas the Rhymer was probably a notable man whose accomplishments have been obscured by fanciful legends. In his book The Borders the historian Alastair Moffat identifies Thomas as a bard attached to the Earls of Dunbar, who owned land and a castle in Earlston. Moffat suggests that Thomas was actually a late example of the bards-cum-mystics who populated Welsh tradition, because he lived while the cultural influence of the Britons, from whom the Welsh are descended, was still felt in the Borders. (The Cumbric language, which like the Welsh language was an offshoot of the ancient Brittonic tongue, had only recently died out in southern Scotland.) On the other hand, Moffat makes a case for him being ‘the earliest Scottish poet writing in English’. Thus, he was a figure of tremendous importance in Scottish literary history.
Thomas the Rhymer inevitably became a literary figure himself, for example, in Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 poem The Last Rhyme of True Thomas and Nigel Tranter’s 1981 novel True Thomas. Meanwhile, his seduction by the Elfland Queen has been a popular topic for artists as well as folk singers. If you type ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ into Google Images you’ll find an array of Nouveau-Celtic pictures of the two lovers, with the Queen depicted as a Disney-esque princess on a white steed.
I should say that beautiful, elegant fairies (and for that matter, cute little ones with gossamer wings) were largely a creation of literary minds that came after Thomas’s time – see William Shakespeare and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In 13th-century Scotland, fairies were seriously feared by people, who regarded them as vindictive and untrustworthy. If their appearance wasn’t monstrous, they were believed to look sinisterly not-of-this-world. So I suspect that if the encounter ever did take place, the Queen of Elfland would have resembled Snow White’s evil stepmother, and Thomas’ reaction to her would have been less one of romantic enthusiasm and more one of terror.
A stone, erected originally by the Melrose Literary Society in 1923 and re-erected in 1970, commemorates Thomas the Rhymer on the lower slopes of the Eildon Hills. It supposedly marks the site of the Eildon Tree where, according to the legend and ballad, Thomas and the Queen first met. You can find it beside the old road, now closed to traffic but traversable on foot or bicycle, that links the A6091 above Melrose with the B6389 at Newtown St Boswells.