Fantasy Romance fairy tale Scotland traditional retelling


By Elizabeth Hopkinson
Mar 10, 2020 · 1,543 words · 6 minutes

We went to Germany for one day to explore some famous instagram photo spots. The first stop was Burg Eltz during sunrise. With no tourists there yet and this amazing fog covering the castle it was like a fairytale.

Photo by Cederic Vandenberghe via Unsplash.

From the author: My retelling of the Scottish ballad about a brave girl who risks all to rescue the knight she loves from entrhallment to the Fairy Queen.

Many years ago, when the fairy world was closer to our own than it is now, there was in the Scottish Borders a certain place named Carterhaugh.  It was a place forbidden to maidens both young and old, by order of the laird, for rumour had it that this was the haunt of Tam-lin, a knight of the fair folk and a lover no woman was able to resist.  There was not a maid went to Carterhaugh but she was not a maid when she returned, so the saying went.

Janet, the laird’s beautiful daughter, had also heard the tales of Tam-lin.  It was said that he was six feet tall with sparkling sea-grey eyes and a voice so sweet as to silence even the holy angels.  Many a winter’s night she dreamt of him until at last she determined to see him for herself, in spite of her father's orders.  She waited until the castle was empty and then she tied back her hair, hitched her bonny green kirtle up to the knee, and rode away on her father’s mare as fast as she could to Carterhaugh.

When she arrived, there was no sign of Tam-lin but, by a well, stood a milk-white steed and, by that, a red rose bush.  Janet soon grew weary of standing and so, to while away the time, she began to pluck roses for herself from the bush.  She had plucked no more than two when she heard a voice behind her, saying:

“No more!  Why do you break my roses and why do you come to Carterhaugh without my permission?”

Janet turned round, and there before her stood the fairest youth she had ever laid eyes on.  Without a doubt it was Tam-lin.

“Carterhaugh is my own,” she said to him, haughtily.  “My father owns this land and has bequeathed it all to me.  It is you who should ask my permission.”

Tam-lin laughed, softly.  She was strong willed for all she was slender and pretty.  But anyone could see she had already fallen under the enchantment of his sea-grey eyes.  Before long, they were embracing and, by the time Janet rode back to her father’s castle, the petals of the red roses were crushed and bruised on the ground.

Some months later, the castle was in turmoil, for it could not be disguised that Janet was great with child.  Many of the loyal retainers and knights that went about the hall feared the wrath of their lord would fall on them, but Janet herself was defiant and seemed to favour no one.  At last, her father knew he must speak with her.

“Sweet Janet,” he said, with tears in his eyes.  “I see that – alas! – you go with child.  Which of the knights in my hall is it that has done this to you?”

“If I go with child, father,” Janet replied, “it is I alone who must bear the blame.  No knight in this hall is the father of my bairn, so do not expect me to wed any of them.  Indeed, my lover is no earthly knight at all, but a grey-eyed elf, whose steed is lighter than the wind, shod before with silver and behind with burning gold.”

Then the laird put his head in his hands and sighed, for he knew now that his daughter had been to Carterhaugh, and that to make an honest woman of her with a fairy bridegroom was like trying to catch the wind.

But Janet again tied back her yellow hair, hitched her bonny green kirtle up to the knee and rode away on her father’s mare as fast as she could to Carterhaugh.  When she arrived, as before, the milk-white steed and the red rose bush stood by the well, but Tam-lin was nowhere to be seen.  Again, Janet began to pluck the red roses.  She had plucked no more than two when she heard the same clear voice as before, saying:

“No more!  Why do you break my roses, Janet, and why do you break my heart by thinking to do away with the bonny babe we got between us.”

“I would do nothing of the sort,” cried Janet, “if only I could be brought to church with the father of my child.  But tell me, tell me Tam-lin, were you ever in church or chapel or know you anything of the faith of my people?”

“Sit down, Janet,” said Tam-lin,” and I will tell you a secret.  No fairy child am I, but the grandson of the mighty Roxburgh, brought up in his own house. One cold and bitter day seven years ago, we were riding back from hunting together when I fell from my horse.  I thought for certain I would take harm but, before I hit the ground, I felt a pair of gentle arms catch me and, looking up, I saw a woman clad in green and fair beyond mortal telling holding me.  It was the Queen of Fairies, who took me with her to dwell in the fairy land in yonder green hill, and I have been her knight ever since.  But I am afraid, Janet.  The fairy land is beautiful beyond compare.  There the leaves never fall and the scented flowers bloom all year long.  But to pay the price for such beauty, every seven years the fairies are forced to send a tithe to hell of one life.  As the only mortal in their company, I am afraid it may be my life that is sacrificed and that my time is almost up.

“But, Janet, now we might both be saved.  For tonight is All Hallows Eve and, just at the midnight hour, the fair folk will ride out.  If you would win me, your own true love, you must wait at Milescross and claim me.  Then I will be free to leave the fairy folk forever and wed you, my own dear Janet.”

“But how will I know you in the dark and among so many strange and fair knights?” Janet said.

“Because I was once an earthly knight,” Tam-lin replied, “the fairies let me ride nearest to the town as they pass by.  If you stand at Milescross, you will see me.  And I will give you these tokens: my right hand will be gloved and my left hand bare; my bonnet will be cocked up and my hair combed down.  Let both the black and brown horses pass, Janet, but quickly run to the milk-white horse and pull its rider down.  And hold on tight to me, whatever happens.  They will turn me to a serpent in your arms, but hold me fast and fear me not.  They will turn me into a bear, and then into a lion, but hold me fast.  They will turn me into a red-hot girder, but hold me fast and fear me not.  Lastly, they will turn me into a lump of burning lead. When this happens, throw me down the well and I will turn again into a naked knight.  Then cover me with your mantle and I shall be saved.”

Then Tam-lin kissed Janet and disappeared back into the fairy hill.

It was a gloomy night when Janet set out for Milescross and the way was eerie and overshadowed as she crept along.  She arrived at the town just at the stroke of midnight and, at that very moment, heard the ringing of the fairy bridles.  There, riding in procession, she saw the knights of the fair folk with the Fairy Queen at their head.  As Tam-lin had instructed her, she let both the black and brown horses pass but, as soon as she saw the milk-white steed riding close to the town, she recognised her lover and ran to catch hold of the horse’s bridle.  She pulled Tam-lin down from his horse and held him fast in her arms.

Suddenly, she looked and there in her arms was a loathsome serpent, but she remembered Tam-lin’s words and held on fast.  The serpent changed to a bear, but still she held on fast.  The bear changed to a lion and the lion to a red-hot girder, but still Janet held on fast.  Lastly, the girder changed to a lump of burning lead.  Straight away, Janet threw the lump of lead down the well and it landed with a splash.  She reached into the water, and the naked hand of a man reached for hers.  She pulled Tam-lin out and covered him with her green mantle.

As Janet and Tam-lin lay exhausted by the well, they heard a cold, clear voice crying out of the gloom:

“Sham betide your ill-fared face, mortal maid, thus to steal unkindly from me the fairest knight in all my company!  And you, Tam-lin, curse your beautiful sea-grey eyes that you should betray me so, who ever loved and cared for you!”

But Tam-lin and Janet paid no attention to the curses of the Fairy Queen.  Together they mounted the laird’s good mare and rode away into the night.  For they were young and their future was before them and little did they care for the swift-falling fairy tears in the darkness behind them.


This story originally appeared in Fables.

Elizabeth Hopkinson

Elizabeth Hopkinson, winner of the James White Award, writes fairy tales, fantasy and historical fiction. She reprints her short stories here.