Tam Lin
An Ancient Ballad

The Ballad

© Loretta Lynn Layman / House of Lynn
@ comcast . net

This ancient Scottish ballad is set in Selkirkshire, near the country’s border with England. Much of it takes place in Carterhaugh, a once heavily wooded plain at the confluence of the Ettrick and Yarrow Waters, just a few miles southwest of the town of Selkirk.  The first known mention of it is in Robert Wedderburn’s The Complaynt of Scotlande, 1549, and the oldest surviving print version reportedly is dated 1769.  The ballad’s enduring appeal is evidenced by a 1999 reading, accompanied by The Melbourne Scottish Fiddle Club, on an album humorously titled Red Hot Scots, and by the many websites where the ballad appears.

The name of the title character has been written variously as Tam Lin, Tam Linne, Tam-a-Line, Tamlin, Tomlin, and even Tam Lane.  One theory proposes that the name is a corruption of the surname Tomlin or Thomlin.  However, Tam is a Scottish nickname for Thomas; and Lin, Linn, and Linne are common variations of the much older Scottish surname Lyne, Lynn, or Lynne, which has an obscure but notable history beginning in the time of William the Lion.  An 1846 history of Borthwick Parish in Edinburghshire notes that the Lynes were “the most remote possessors of the extensive [Borthwick] estates in this district of whom we have any account” and that they “occupied the domain till the time of Alexander II, when it passed to the Hays”.1  Prior to the Hays’ succession to the Lynes, Borthwick Parish was called Locherworth.  The Lynes were the “lords of the manor of Locherworth in Lothian” and also owned the “small manor” of Lyne in Peeblesshire.2  Peeblesshire shares its southeastern border with Selkirkshire.  And thus, we are returned to the southern shires of Scotland.  There, Tam Lin was carried off by the Queen of Fairies, fell under her enchantment, and was made to guard the woods of Carterhaugh ... till fair Janet arrived.

Janet herself may have been the daughter of a knight.  In January 1598/99, as evidenced by "letters of reversion" held by the National Records of Scotland, "Carterhaugh in [the] lordship of Ettrick Forest, sheriffdom of Selkirk" belonged to Sir Walter Scott, knight of Branxholm (apparent forebear of the 18th-century poet Sir Walter Scott).  Branxholm and Carterhaugh are separated by about 16 miles; and knights, nobles, and aristocracy of the day often owned properties at varying distances from their main residence or manor place.  When Tam Lin questioned Janet's presence in Carterhaugh, she replied that Carterhaugh was rightfully hers, a gift from her father.

Janet returned to her father’s house, showing signs of early pregnancy, and declared that her lover was elven.  Going again to Carterhaugh, she met Tam once more.  He revealed his true identity and entreated her, for the sake of their child, to rescue him from the fairies ...

The Ballad



A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland, Comprising the Several Counties, Islands, Cities, Burgh and Market Towns, Parishes, and Principal Villages, with Historical and Statistical Descriptions, 2nd Ed., Vol. I, Samuel Lewis, London (1846)



Origines Parochiales Scotiae. The Antiquities Ecclesiastical and Territorial of the Parishes of Scotland, Vol. First, Lord Jeffrey, Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisband, Bart., and the Hon. Charles Francis Stuart, Edinburgh and Glasgow (1851)  


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