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The Scottish Castles Association
Preserving the Past for the Future

The Mystery of Rhymer’s Tower

Rhymer’s Tower stands in the village of Earlston in the Scottish Borders. It is a ruinous 16th century tower of vaulted whinstone, sandstone dressings and originally harled. It is the traditional home of Thomas of Erceldoune commonly known as ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ from an ancient ballad (see below).

TOP: Rhymer Castle's vaulted interior with red sandstone dressings and corbels
BOTTOM: A wall plaque celebrates Thomas of Erceldoune

Scottish Borders Council wants to know who owns the tower - a mystery?

Ownership was granted to a group of trustees in the 1960s but it is not known what has happened to them. It has been recommended that a ‘Rhymer’s Tower Trust’ be established to allow funding and to resolve access issues. You can read more about their campaign to come up with an ownership solution HERE .

The Ballad

The tower’s preservation is entirely due to its association with ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ the central character in a ballad dating from the early middle ages. Thomas encounters the Queen of the Fairies below the ‘Eildon Tree’ near Melrose. Smitten by her beauty, he asks permission to kiss her, and in spite of her warning that it would be unwise, he does so. The consequence of this rash act is that Thomas is obliged to spend the next seven years of his life in Fairyland!

There are several versions of the ballad surviving from the 15th century but they all look back to an earlier account dating perhaps to the 13th. While all have the story in common they differ in some respects. In the early 19th century Sir Walter Scott ‘tided up’ the earlier versions and it is his that is known today. Unfortunately, in the process the ballad lost much of its originality. Pre-reformation content is removed as are the actualities of the ‘kiss’.

Compare the opening lines of Scott’s followed by those of the medieval version:

True Thomas lay on Huntlie bank;
A ferlie he spied wi’ his e’e;
And there he saw a ladye bright
Come riding down by the Eildon Tree.
Alle in a longyng, as I lay,
Undurneth a cumly tre,
Saw I where a lady gay
Came riding over a louely le.
rhymer queen
‘Thomas and the Fairy Queen’ - a charming depiction at Smailholm Tower near Melrose

Needless to say the present little tower has nothing at all to do with this event!

Article and photographs by SCA member Brian McGarrigle.

Date posted: 20 Dec 2016Last updated: 20 Dec 2016

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