The Halloween tale of Tam Lin and Janet has been a favourite in Scotland for centuries. While a number of versions have developed over time, the earliest known version dates back several hundred years and tells the following story:
Tam Lin was a knight who had been captured by the Queen of the Faeries, (or Elves) when one day he fell from his horse during a hunt. As a captive of the Faery folk, his task was to guard the land of Carterhaugh, and any maid who came to the well and picked the sacred roses without his permission was obliged to pay a price – either a gold brooch, a green cape or her virginity.
The daughter of the laird who owns Carterhaugh, a strong-willed girl named Janet, ignores (purposely, it seems) the warnings not to venture into this area “for Tam Lin is there”. Off she goes “as fast as she can” to the forbidden well, wearing her green cape and a golden brooch. Here she plucks a rose, and instantly Tam Lin appears and demands she pay the price.
She returns home still wearing her green cape fastened with a gold brooch.
Back home in her father’s castle she discovers that her meeting with Tam Lin has left her “wi’ child”. She vehemently refuses to name one of her father’s knights as the baby’s father, but returns instead to the well, where she plucks another rose. Again her Elven lover appears, and from his question it seems that the ‘rose’ may be some herb chosen to induce abortion – “Why pulls thou the rose… to kill the bonny babe?” Tam Lin then confides in Janet, revealing that he is a mortal and a captive of the Faeries, and saying that he is afraid he may soon be sacrificed as a tithe that the Faeries pay to Hell every seven years. Janet wholeheartedly agrees to win him back from the Queen of the Faeries. That night is Halloween, when the veil between the mortal and immortal worlds is thin enough as to allow the Faerie folk to cross over. At midnight Janet must go to “Miles Cross” as the Faerie procession passes and pull down the rider of the white horse, holding him fast without fearing, though he will turn into all kinds of dreadful things. This she does, and wins him back, defying the wrath of the Faery Queen and demonstrating that even the magic of the Faeries is not as powerful as love.
This lovely ballad is typical of the idea of the Faeries that was introduced with the spreading of Christianity among Celtic cultures. According to common belief in the Christian era, in fact, the Faeries were said to be angels who had been ‘demoted’, meaning, therefore, that they were somehow under the control of the Devil, which explains why they had to pay a “tithe to hell”.
Before the demonisation of the Faerie world, however, these supernatural beings were believed to be the descendents of the tribe of deities known as the Tuatha Dé Danann (the ‘Peoples of the Goddess Danu’, or Mother Goddess).
The rose, in ancient Celtic tradition, is a symbol of eternal love and also the Feminine, the Goddess, the Great Mother, which is also symbolised in the theme of the Sacred Well.
Here is the original ballad written in the Scottish dialect, and for those curious about the gold brooch, have a look at a similar and magnificent example of a brooch of the period, the highly detailed Hunterston Brooch, which was found in Scotland in the early 19th Century and is today displayed in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.