Thomas the Rhymer (fl. 1220)
Scottish soothsayer (prophet) of the thirteenth century. It is
impossible to name the exact birth date of Thomas the Rhymer,
who is well known for figuring in a ballad included in Sir
Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.
Thomas is commonly supposed to have lived at the beginning
of the thirteenth century, that period being assigned because
the name ‘‘Thomas Rimor de Ercildun’’ is appended as
witness to a deed, whereby one ‘‘Petrus de Haga de Bemersyde’’
agreed to pay half a stone of wax annually to the Abbot of
Melrose, and this ‘‘Petrus’’ has been identified with a person of
that name known to have been living about 1220.
Erceldoune or Ercildun is simply the old way of spelling Earlston,
a village in the extreme west of Berwickshire, near the
line demarking that county from Roxburgh.
It would seem that Thomas held estates in this region, for
he is mentioned as a land owner by several early writers, most
of whom add that he did not hold his lands from the Crown,
but from the Earls of Dunbar. Be that as it may, Thomas probably
spent the greater part of his life in and around Earlston,
and a ruined tower there, singularly rich in ivy, is still pointed
out as having been his home, and bears his name, while in a
wall of the village church there is a lichened stone with the inscription

‘‘Auld Rhymour’s Race
Lies in this Place.’’
According to local tradition, this stone was removed to its
present resting place from one in a much older church, long
since demolished.
Nor are these things the only relics of the soothsayer, a lovely
valley some miles to the west of Earlston being still known as
‘‘Rhymer’s Glen.’’ It is interesting to recall that the artist J. M.
W. Turner painted a watercolor of this place, and no less interesting
to remember that Sir Walter Scott, when buying the
lands that eventually constituted his estate of Abbotsford,
sought eagerly and at last successfully to acquire the glen in
question. Naturally he loved it on account of its associations
with the shadowy past, and his biographer J. C. Lockhart stated
that many of the novelist’s happiest times were spent in this romantic
place. Lockhart related that the novelist Maria Edgeworth
visited it in 1823, and that thenceforth Scott used always
to speak of a certain boulder in the glen as the ‘‘Edgeworth
stone,’’ the writer whom he admired so keenly having rested
there. It seems probable, however, that the glen was named
‘‘Rhymer’s Glen’’ by Scott himself.
It is thought that Thomas died in 1297, and it is clear that
he had achieved a wide fame as a prophet, many references to
his skill being found in writers who lived comparatively soon
after him. A Harleian manuscript in the British Museum known
to have been written before 1320 disclosed the significant
phrase, ‘‘La Comtesse de Donbar demanda a Thomas de Essedoune
quant la guere descoce prendreit fyn,’’ but the lady in
question was not a contemporary of the prophet. In Barbour’s
Thomas Aquinas Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
Bruce, composed early in the fourteenth century, we find the
poet saying
I hop Thomas Prophecy
Off Hersildoune sall weryfyd be.’’
The historian Andrew of Wyntoun in the Originale Cronykil
of Scotland, also mentions Thomas as a redoubtable prophet,
while Walter Bower, the continuator of Fordun’s Scoticronicon,
recounts how once Rhymer was asked by the Earl of Dunbar
what another day would bring forth, whereupon he foretold the
death of the king, Alexander III, and the very next morning
news of his majesty’s decease was heard.
Blind Harry’s poem Wallace, written midway through the fifteenth
century, likewise contains an allusion to Thomas’s
prophesying capacities.
Coming to later times, Sir Thomas Cray, constable of
Norham, in his Norman-French Scalacronica, compiled during
his captivity at Edinburgh Castle in 1555, spoke of the predictions
of Merlin, which like those of ‘‘Banaster ou de Thomas de
Ercildoune . . . furount ditz en figure.’’
A number of predictions attributed to Thomas the Rhymer
are still current, for instance that weird verse Sir Walter Scott
made the motto of his novel The Bride of Lammermuir and also
a saying concerning a family with which, as we have seen, the
soothsayer was at one time associated
‘‘Betide, betide, whate’er betide
There’ll aye be Haigs at Bemersyde.’’
It will be observed that these lines are in poetic meter, yet
there is really no sure proof that the soothsayer was a poet. It
is usually supposed that he acquired the nickname ‘‘Rhymer’’
because he was a popular minstrel in his day, but the fact remains
that ‘‘Rymour’’ had long been a comparatively common
surname in Berwickshire, and, while it may have originated
with Thomas, the assumption has but slight foundation.
Again, the prophet of Earlston has been credited with a
poem on the story of Sir Tristram belonging to the Arthurian
cycle of romance, and the Advocate’s Library contains a manuscript
copy of this probably written as early as 1300. However,
while Sir Walter Scott and other authorities believed in this ascription,
it is quite likely that the poem is only a paraphrase
from some French troubadour.
For generations, however, the Scottish peasantry continued
to be influenced by the sayings attributed to ‘‘True Thomas,’’
as they named him, as evidenced by the continuing publication
of books and chapbook pamphlets containing his prophecies
until well into the nineteenth century. For a detailed study, see
The Romance and Prophecies of Thomas Erceldoune, edited by J. A.
H. Murray for the English Text Society, London, 1875.
A beautiful legend credits Thomas with obtaining his prophetic
powers after visiting fairyland. The ballad of ‘‘Thomas
Ryner and the Queen of Elfland’’ in its various forms is classified
as no. 37 of the collection of English and Scottish Popular
Ballads, edited by Francis James Child, published in five vols.,