Thomas of Ercildoune
In a previous entry I discussed The Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer
which tells how he was taken to Faëry for seven years. After his return to Ercildoune, where he lived in a castle, Thomas made many songs and ballads and pronounced in rhyme many prophecies. It is said that when Thomas was an old man the Fairy Queen returned for him. One day, as he stood chatting with knights and ladies, she rode from the river-side and called: "True Thomas, your time has come."
Thomas cried to his friends: "Farewell, all of you, I shall return no more." Then he mounted the milk-white steed behind the Fairy Queen, and galloped across the ford. It is said that Thomas still dwells in Fairyland, but that sometimes he goes about invisible.
Thomas has been seen, folks have told, riding out of a fairy dwelling below Eildon Hills, from another fairy dwelling below Dumbuck Hill, near Dumbarton, and from a third fairy dwelling below the boat-shaped mound of Tom-na-hurich at Inverness.
Another story about Thomas is told at Inverness. Two fiddlers, named Farquhar Grant and Thomas Cumming, natives of Strathspey, who lived over three hundred years ago, once visited Inverness during the Christmas season. They hoped to earn money by their music, and as soon as they arrived in the town began to show their skill in the streets. Although they had great fame as fiddlers in Strathspey, they found that the townspeople took little notice of them. When night fell, they had not collected enough money to buy food for supper and to pay for a night's lodging. They stopped playing and went, with their fiddles under their right arms, towards the wooden bridge that then crossed the River Ness.
Just as they were about to walk over the bridge they saw a little old man coming towards them in the dusk. His beard was very long and very white, but although his back was bent his step was easy and light. He stopped in front of the fiddlers, and, much to their surprise, hailed them by their names saying: "How fares it with you, my merry fiddlers?"
"Badly, badly!" answered Grant.
"Very badly indeed!" Cumming said.
"Come with me," said the old man. "I have need of fiddlers to-night, and will reward you well. A great ball is to be held in my castle, and there are no musicians."
Grant and Cumming were glad to get the chance of earning money by playing their fiddles and said they would go. "Then follow me and make haste," said the old man. The fiddlers followed him across the wooden bridge and across the darkening moor beyond. He walked with rapid strides, and sometimes the fiddlers had to break into a run to keep up with him. Now and again that strange, nimble old man would turn round and cry: "Are you coming, my merry fiddlers?"
In time they reached the big boat-shaped mound called Tom-na-hurich, and the old man began to climb it. The fiddlers followed at a short distance. Then he stopped suddenly and stamped the ground three times with his right foot. A door opened and a bright light streamed forth.
"Here is my castle, Cumming; here is my castle, Grant," exclaimed the old man, who was no other than Thomas the Rhymer. "Come within and make merry."
The fiddlers paused for a moment at the open door, but Thomas the Rhymer drew from his belt a purse of gold and made it jingle. "This purse holds your wages," he told them. "First you will get your share of the feast, then you will give us fine music."
As the fiddlers were as hungry as they were poor, they could not resist the offer made to them, and entered the fairy castle. As soon as they entered, the door was shut behind them. They found themselves in a great hall, which was filled with brilliant light. Tables were spread with all kinds of food, and guests sat round them eating and chatting and laughing merrily.
Thomas led the fiddlers to a side table, and two graceful maidens clad in green came forward with dishes of food and bottles of wine, and said: "Eat and drink to your hearts' content, Farquhar Grant and Thomas Cumming--Farquhar o'Feshie and Thomas o' Tom-an-Torran. You are welcome here to-night."
The fiddlers wondered greatly that the maidens knew not only their personal names but even the names of their homes. They began to eat, and, no matter how much they ate, the food on the table did not seem to grow less. They poured out wine, but they could not empty the bottles.
Said Cumming: "This is a feast indeed."
Said Grant: "There was never such a feast in Strathspey."
When the feast was ended the fiddlers were led to the ballroom, and there they began to play merry music for the gayest and brightest and happiest dancers they ever saw before. They played reels and jigs and strathspeys, and yet never grew weary. The dancers praised their music, and fair girls brought them fruit and wine at the end of each dance. If the guests were happy, the musicians were happier still, and they were sorry to find at length that the ball was coming to an end. How long it had lasted they could not tell. When the dancers began to go away they were still unwearied and willing to go on playing.
Thomas the Rhymer entered the ballroom, and spoke to the fiddlers, saying: "You have done well, my merry men. I will lead you to the door, and pay you for your fine music." The fiddlers were sorry to go away. At the door Thomas the Rhymer divided the purse of gold between them, and asked: "Are you satisfied?"
"Satisfied!" Cumming repeated. "Oh, yes, for you and your guests have been very kind!"
"We should gladly come back again," Grant said.
When they had left the castle the fiddlers found that it was bright day. The sun shone from an unclouded sky, and the air was warm. As they walked on they were surprised to see fields of ripe corn, which was a strange sight at the Christmas season. Then they came to the riverside, and found instead of a wooden bridge a new stone bridge with seven arches.
"This stone bridge was not here last night," Cumming said.
"Not that I saw," said Grant.
They crossed the bridge but no sooner than they did so than the two fiddlers crumbled into dust.
Such is the story of the two fiddlers who spent a hundred years in a fairy dwelling, thinking they had played music there for but a single night.