Bards Irish Fiddle Tunebook Supplement/Tam Lin

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Tam (or Tamas) Lin (also called Tamlane, Tamlin, Tomlin, Tam Lien, Tam-a-Line, or Tam Lane) is the hero of a legendary ballad originating from the Scottish Borders. The story revolves around the rescue of Tam Lin by his true love from the Queen of the Fairies. While this ballad is specific to Scotland, the motif of capturing a person by holding him through all forms of transformation is found throughout Europe in folktales.[1]

The story has been adapted into various stories, songs and films.


Carterhaugh, near the confluence of the Yarrow Water and the Ettrick Water

Most variants begin with the warning that Tam Lin collects either a possession or the virginity of any maidens who pass through the forest of Carterhaugh. A young maiden, usually called Janet or Margaret, comes to Carterhaugh and plucks a double rose, whereupon Tam appears and asked why she is in Carterhaugh without his command and has taken what is his. She states that she owns Carterhaugh, because her father has given it to her.

In most variants, she then goes home and discovers that she is pregnant; some variants pick up the story at this point. When an old knight taxes her with it, she announces that she will not declare him her baby's father, that her lover is an elf and that she loves him. She returns to Carterhaugh. In some variants, her brother has told her that a herb growing there will induce an abortion. In all, she picks something, whether the herb or the same roses as when they first met. Tam reappears, enraged, and forbids her to abort.

She asks him whether he was ever human, either after that reappearance, or in some variants, immediately after their first meeting resulted in her seduction. He reveals that he was a mortal man, who, after falling from his horse, was rescued and captured by the Queen of the Fairies. Every seven years, the fairies pay a teind, a tithe to Hell, of one of their people, and Tam fears he will become that tithe on that night (Hallowe'en). He is to ride as part of a company of knights, and Janet will recognise him by the white horse upon which he is riding. He warns her that, when she catches him, the fairies will attempt to make her drop him by turning him into all manner of beasts (see Proteus), but that he will do her no harm, and when he is finally turned into a burning coal she is to throw him into a well, whereupon he will reappear as a naked man and she should hide him. Janet does as she is asked, and wins her knight. The Queen of the Fairies is not best pleased, but acknowledges her claim.

In different variations, Tam Lin is reportedly the grandson of The Laird of Roxburgh, the Laird of Foulis, the Earl of Forbes or the Earl of Murray. His name also varies between versions (Tam Lin being the most common) as Tom Line, Tomlin, Young Tambling, and Tam-a-line.


The first recorded version of the song appears in the 1549 book "The Complaynt of Scotland".

There have been several interpretations of the Tam Lin story:


Child took the threat to take out Tam Lin's eyes as a common folklore precaution against mortals who could see fairies, in the tales of fairy ointment. Joseph Jacobs interpreted it as rather a reversal of the usual practice; the Queen of Faerie would have kept him from seeing the human woman who rescued him.[3]

In some variants, "Hind Etin" has verses identical to this for the first meeting between the hero and heroine.[4]


Illustration by John D. Batten for Tamlane in More English Fairy Tales[3]





The following bands and singers have recorded musical versions, all called "Tam Lin" unless otherwise stated:

  • Frankie Armstrong on I Heard a Woman Singing, and a longer version on the compilation album Ballads (Fellside Records).
  • "Young Tambling" by Anne Briggs on The Time Has Come LP
  • Broadside Electric on Amplificata
  • Current 93 on the limited edition Numbered single Tamlin as release 100 on the Durto Label and SixSixSix: SickSickSick compilation
  • Arcturus by Enter the Haggis on Aerials (2001)
  • Fairport Convention on Liege & Lief, Sense of Occasion and Across the Decades (live)
  • "Tamlin" by harpist and singer/songwriter Gillian Grassie on Serpentine (2007)
  • Bob Hay and & Jolly Beggars on Tam Lin and More Songs by Robert Burns
  • The Tale of Tam Lin by Bill Jones on Panchpuran
  • Mediæval Bæbes on Mirabilis
  • Outgrabe on Love & Death
  • Pyewackett on The Man in the Moon Drinks Claret
  • Steeleye Span on Tonight's the Night, Live!
  • "Tamlin" by the Ukrainian band Tamlin (Тамлин) on Dreams on the Shore (2005 - Сны на Берегу)[5] and rearranged on On The Winter's Threshold (2008 - На Пороге Зимы)
  • Tempest (band) on Serrated Edge cassette (1992)
  • Tricky Pixie on Mythcreants (2009)
  • "Tam Lyn" by The Watersons on the 1993 CD reissue of their album For Pence and Spicy Ale" and also on their 2004 4CD anthology "Mighty River of Song"
  • Coyote Run on "Between Wick and Flame"
  • "Tamlin" by Gillian Grassie on her 2007 CD release of the album Serpentine"

There are also versions which change the original story. "Tam Lyn retold" by Benjamin Zephaniah & Eliza Carthy (on the 2007 album The Imagined Village) retells the story with the girl meeting a man in a club and having a one night stand. 6 months later she finds him to say she's pregnant and finds out he's an immigrant without a valid visa and has a court case the following day. She attends the court and sees him go though various transformations before becoming himself: a kind peaceful person. The judge sees this and lets him become a legal citizen, free to bring up his child with his wife. "Discovery" by Three Weird Sisters hints at a darker Tam Lin with ulterior motives for his seduction of the girl.

Other musical uses[edit]

As well as these versions, the name has also been used as the stage name of a New York City-based singer-songwriter, an LP by Frankie Armstrong, Brian Pearson, Blowzabella and Jon Gillaspie, and for the title of an Irish reel.



  • Tam-Lin, a Closet drama written by Elaine Lee and illustrated by Charles Vess, in The Book of Ballads and Sagas, Vess's collection of adaptations of traditional songs, mostly into comics form.
  • In Carolyn Parkhurst's novel The Dogs of Babel, (also known as Lorelei's Secret in the UK), a section of Tam Lin plays a pivotal role in the story. In it the narrator, Paul Iverson, discovers that his recently deceased wife left an encrypted message to him in their bookshelf, quoting Tam Lin.
  • In the Vertigo comic book, Fables, Tam Lin died in the defense of the last stronghold of the Fables against the forces of the Adversary. He is claimed to be the knight loved by the queen of the faeries, who had a reputation of a scoundrel, but gave up his chance of freedom to his page.
  • In the Vertigo comic book series The Books of Magic, The Names of Magic and The Books of Faerie, Tamlin is the father of the protagonist Timothy Hunter, potentially the greatest sorcerer in the world. In The Books of Faerie: The Widow's Tale, the story of Tamlin's romance with Queen Titania of Faerie is revealed.[6]
  • In The House of the Scorpion, a novel by Nancy Farmer, Tam Lin is the bodyguard of the protagonist, the clone of Matteo Alacrán.
  • The multi-faceted novel Red Shift by Alan Garner can be read as a subtle reworking of the ballad .
  • In the fantasy novel The Battle of Evernight by Cecilia Dart-Thornton, the story of Tam Lin is told as the story of Tamlain Conmor.
  • The novel Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, is a version of Tam Lin in which Tam Lin's captivity lasts into the 21st century.
  • the story was also inserted in C Dart-Thornton's last book of the Bitterbynd trilogy
  • In the Shin Megami Tensei series of video games, Tam Lin is a recurring demon that can often be recruited relatively early and is one of the very few demons whose design share an exact model with another demon - its brother model being another northern European mythological hero; Cu Chulainn.
  • This ballad was one of 25 traditional works included in Ballads Weird and Wonderful (1912) and illustrated by Vernon Hill (sculptor).
  • Tamlin appears in the fantasy novel Rumors of Spring by Richard Grant.
  • The Rose, The Knight, and The Faery Host are paintings by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law depicting various parts of the Tam Lin legend.
  • The Choose Your Own Adventure book Enchanted Kingdom has an ending in which you are rescued from the fairies by a girl you've befriended, who has to hold onto you through three transformations.

See also[edit]


  1. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 336-7, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  2. Francis James Child, English and Scottish Popular Ballads, "Tam Lin"
  3. a b c Jacobs, Joseph; Batten, John D. (1894). "Tamlane". More English Fairy Tales (2nd ed.). London: David Nutt. pp. 159–62 & notes: 238. ISBN 037001023X. 
  4. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 340, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  5. a b [1]
  6. Irvine, Alex (2008). "The Books of Faerie". in Dougall, Alastair. The Vertigo Encyclopedia. New York: Dorling Kindersley. pp. 36–37. ISBN 0-7566-4122-5. OCLC 213309015 

External links[edit]