Tam Lin

Tam Lin

Tam (or Tamas) Lin (also called Tamlane, Tamlin, Tomlin, Tam Lien, Tam-a-Line, Tam Lyn, or Tam Lane) is a character in a legendary ballad originating from the Scottish Borders, (Child 39, Roud 35). It is also associated with a reel of the same name, also known as Glasgow Reel. 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]:336-7 The story has been adapted into various stories, songs and films.


  • Synopsis 1
  • Variants 2
  • Motifs 3
  • Adaptations 4
    • Prose 4.1
    • Theatre 4.2
    • Music 4.3
    • Songs 4.4
    • Other musical uses 4.5
    • Film 4.6
    • Other 4.7
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


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 maiden who passes through the forest of Carterhaugh. When a young woman, usually called Janet or Margaret, goes to Carterhaugh and plucks a double rose, Tam appears and asks why she has come without his leave and taken what is his. She states that she owns Carterhaugh, because her father has given it to her.

In most variants, Janet then goes home and discovers that she is pregnant; some variants pick up the story at this point. When asked about her condition, she declares that her baby's father is an elf whom she will not forsake. In some versions, she is informed of a herb that will induce abortion; in all the variants, when she returns to Carterhaugh and picks a plant, either the same roses as on her earlier visit or the herb, Tam reappears and challenges her action.

She asks him whether he was ever human, either after that reappearance or, in some versions, immediately after their first meeting resulted in her pregnancy. He reveals that he was a mortal man, who, falling from his horse, was caught and captured by the Queen of Fairies. Every seven years, the fairies give one of their people as a teind (tithe) to Hell and Tam fears he will become the tithe that night, which is Hallowe'en. He is to ride as part of a company of elfin knights. Janet will recognise him by the white horse upon which he rides and by other signs. He instructs her to rescue him by pulling him down from the white horse - so Janet "catches" him this time - and holding him tightly. He warns her that 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. 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 must hide him. Janet does as she is asked and wins her knight. The Queen of Fairies is angry but acknowledges defeat.

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 ballad dates to at least as early as 1549 (the publication date of The Complaynt of Scotland that mentions "The Tayl of the Ȝong Tamlene" ('The Tale of the Young Tamelene') among a long list of medieval romances).[1]:336[2]

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.[1]:340


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:

  • "Tam Lin" by Fairport Convention on Liege & Lief (1969), Sense of Occasion and Across the Decades (live)
  • Pentangle recorded a version of Tam Lin for the 1970 film of the same name, a version which remained unreleased until inclusion on The Time Has Come boxset in 2007
  • "Young Tambling" by Anne Briggs on Anne Briggs LP (1971)
  • Frankie Armstrong on I Heard a Woman Singing (1985), a longer version on the album Tam Lin, created with Brian Pearson, Blowzabella and John Gillaspie.
  • Broadside Electric on Amplificata
  • Current 93 on the limited edition numbered single Tamlin as release 100 on the Durto Label and SixSixSix: SickSickSick compilation
  • "Tam Lynn" by Cast Iron Filter on Paradise in Palestine (1999)
  • "Tamlin" by harpist and singer/songwriter Gillian Grassie on Serpentine (2007)
  • Bob Hay & the 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 (2005)
  • 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) and rearranged on On The Winter's Threshold (2008 – На Пороге Зимы)
  • Tempest on Serrated Edge cassette (1992)
  • Tricky Pixie on Mythcreants (2009)
  • "Tam Lin of the Elves" by Drake Oranwood (featuring Heather Dale) on Hidden Gold (2015) is an original retelling of the ballad from Tam Lin's point of view.
  • Mike Waterson on his solo album, called Mike Waterson in 1977 under the name Tamlyn. This track is track eight on the first CD of the Topic Records 70 year anniversary boxed set Three Score and Ten.
  • Tamlyn by Mike Waterson was added to The Watersons 1993 CD reissue of their album For Pence and Spicy Ale and also on their 2004 four CD 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"
  • The song "Faerie Queen" by Heather Alexander seems to draw upon this legend.
  • James Findlay on his 2011 album Sport and Play
  • "Tam Lin" by Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer on Child Ballads, released in 2013.
  • The Hazards of Love by The Decemberists, released in 2009.

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. Six months later she finds him to say she is pregnant and finds out he is 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.

The song was recorded by the Celtic rock group Coyote Run, in their own unique style on their album Between Wick and Flame. This version includes a narrative in the words of Tam Lin himself. Tam Lin is referred to in the Kate Bush song "The Empty Bullring", "B" side to her hit "Breathing". The song is also featured on the "This Woman's Work" box set.

Other musical uses

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 defence 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 Sandman by Neil Gaiman, the notion that Faerie pays a sacrificial tithe to Hell is mentioned in the storyline "Season of Mists".
  • 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.[4]
  • 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 20th century.
  • The story was also inserted in Cecilia Dart-Thornton's last book of the Bitterbynd trilogy, The Battle of Evernight.
  • 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.
  • Tamlin appears in the fantasy novel Rumors of Spring by Richard Grant.
  • The Rose,[5] The Knight,[6] and The Faery Host[7] 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 the reader/player's character is rescued from the fairies by a girl whom the character has befriended, who has to hold onto the character through three transformations.
  • In Jim Butcher's novel Cold Days Tam Lin is referenced as a former Knight of the Winter Court
  • In Kevin Macdonald's 2013 film "The Way I Live Now" (an adaptation of Meg Rosoff's teen novel), Fairport Convention's version of Tam Lin is played.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Child, Francis James (1884), "39. Tam Lin", The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Houghton Mifflin) II: 335–  (Reprint: Dover Publications, New York 1965). Also Tam Lin @ Sacred Texts site.
  2. ^ The Complaynt of Scotland, c. vi., ed. J. A. H. Murray, E.E.T.S., p.68 (excerpted in:  )
  3. ^ a b c  
  4. ^  
  5. ^ "The Rose". Shadowscapes.com. Retrieved 2014-05-11. 
  6. ^ "Stephanie Pui-Mun Law". Shadowscapes. Retrieved 2014-05-11. 
  7. ^ "The Faery Host". Shadowscapes.com. Retrieved 2014-05-11. 

External links

  • A website devoted to Tam Lin
  • Variant by Burns circa 1792