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. 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 Faeries.


Most variants begin with the elf, Tam Lin, presiding over the forest of Carterhaugh. When a young maiden, usually called Janet or Margaret, goes to Carterhaugh and plucks a double rose, Tam appears and apparently has his way with her. In most variants, Janet then goes home and discovers that she is pregnant. When her father asks about her condition, she declares that her baby's father is an elf whom she will not forsake. When she returns to Carterhaugh, she asks Tam whether he was ever human. He reveals that he was once a mortal man—a knight—, who, after falling from his horse, was rescued and captured by the Queen of Faeries (or Fae), who transported him to the Land of the Sidhe (the faerie folk). Tam functions as a knight of the Faerie Court, and performs various duties that include guarding the Queen's wells, forests and gardens in the Land of the Sidhe. However, every seven years, the faeries (the sidhe) give one of their people as a tithe to Hell and Tam fears he will become the tithe that night, which is Hallowe'en. She agrees to help him escape from the spell of the Faerie Queen. He is to ride as part of a company of knights. Janet will recognize him by the white horse upon which he rides and by other signs. He warns her that the faeries will attempt to make her drop him by turning him into all manner of beasts, but promises 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 Faeries is angry but acknowledges defeat.

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. The ballad dates to at least as early as 1549 with the publication of “The Tale of the Young Tamelene,” among a long list of medieval romances. There have been several interpretations of the Tam Lin story, the earliest and most famous being that of the renowned nineteenth-century folklorist and ballad collector Francis James Child, who collected fourteen variants in his The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (a large part of which also contains his popular collection of Robin Hood ballads). The story of Tam Lin has been adapted into various stories, songs and films.


These “Child Ballads” have been heavily drawn upon by British electric folk groups such as Fairport Convention, Pentangle, and Steeleye Span in their repertoires, and many other recording artists have recorded individual ballads. “Tam Lin” might be best known to contemporary popular music listeners via its 1969 cover version by Fairport Convention, who placed it on their influential Liege and Lief album, the first British folk-rock album to draw primarily from traditional folk material. Indeed, “Tam Lin” is probably the best-known Fairport Convention song in the United States, where the group never became too big, though that track received a good deal of FM radio airplay. Again, “Tam Lin” is, in fact, a traditional folk song that was about 400 years old by the time Fairport Convention made it known to American audiences. The treatment it's given by the band, however, definitely makes it over into a rock song, with a heavy beat that alternates between 3/4 and 4/4 time. As an odd footnote, the soundtrack to a film called Tam Lin included a musical adaptation of “Tam Lin” by another British folk-rock group, the Pentangle, that sounded nothing like the far more famous version that Fairport Convention put on Liege & Lief.



Tam Lin lyrics:


I forbid you maidens all that wear gold in your hair

To travel to Carterhaugh for young Tam Lin is there

None that go by Carterhaugh but they leave him a pledge

Either their mantles of green or else their maidenhead

Janet tied her kirtle green a bit above her knee

And she's gone to Carterhaugh as fast as go can she

She'd not pulled a double rose, a rose but only two

When up there came young Tam Lin, says “Lady, pull no more”

“And why come you to Carterhaugh without command from me?”

“I'll come and go,” young Janet said, “and ask no leave of thee”

Janet tied her kirtle green a bit above her knee

And she's gone to her father as fast as go can she

Well, up then spoke her father dear and he spoke meek and mild

“Oh, and alas, Janet,” he said, “I think you go with child”

“Well, if that be so,” Janet said, “myself shall bear the blame

There's not a knight in all your hall shall get the baby's name

For if my love were an earthly knight as he is an elfin grey

I'd not change my own true love for any knight you have”

Janet tied her kirtle green a bit above her knee

And she's gone to Carterhaugh as fast as go can she

“Oh, tell to me, Tam Lin,” she said, “why came you here to dwell?”

“The Queen of Faeries caught me when from my horse I fell

And at the end of seven years she pays a tithe to Hell

I so fair and full of flesh am feared it be myself

But tonight is Hallowe'en and the faerie folk ride

Those that would their true love win at Miles Cross they must bide

First let past the horses black and then let past the brown

Quickly run to the white steed and pull the rider down

For I ride on the white steed, the nearest to the town

For I was an earthly knight, they give me that renown

Oh, they will turn me in your arms to a newt or a snake

But hold me tight and fear not, I am your baby's father

And they will turn me in your arms into a lion bold

But hold me tight and fear not and you will love your child

And they will turn me in your arms into a naked knight

But cloak me in your mantle and keep me out of sight”

In the middle of the night she heard the bridle ring

She heeded what he did say and young Tam Lin did win

Then up spoke the Faerie Queen, an angry queen was she

“Woe betide her ill-fard face, an ill death may she die

Oh, had I known, Tam Lin,” she said, “what this night I did see

I'd have looked him in the eyes and turned him to a tree”