Tam Lin Balladry

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The Faerie Oak of Corriewater

Source: Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales by George Douglas, 1901

cites: part of the chapter on Elphin Irving


On a dark night the sound of pipes heralds the coming of the faeries, who emerge shining from the green hills. They have come to dance and celebrate beneath a thousand year old oak that the Queen of Faeries had planted. The Queen is also celebrating her capture of a handsome human named Elph Irving, and intends to seal his service for seven years with a kiss. Before the kiss takes place though, the faeries rush to their steeds as a christian soul interupts. The sister of Elph Irving approaches, and takes hold of her brother, calling on God. He is transformed into a variety of beasts, and she continues to hold him. When he is turned into fire, however, she releases him with a scream and faints. The faeries laugh at her failure, and she is consumed in the blaze.

The Faerie Oak of Corriewater

  1. The small bird's head is under its wing,
    The deep sleeps on the grass;
    The moon comes out, and the stars shine down,
    The dew gleams like the glass:
    There is no sound in the world so wide,
    Save the sound of the smitten brass,
    With the merry cittern and the pipe
    Of the fairies as they pass.
    But oh! the fir maun burn and burn,
    And the hour is gone, and will never return.
  2. The green hill cleaves, and forth, with a bound,
    Comes elf and elfin steed;
    The moon dives down in a golden cloud,
    The stars grow dim with dread;
    But a light is running along the earth,
    So of heaven's they have no need:
    O'er moor and moss with a shout they pass,
    And the word is spur and speed--
    But the fire maun burn, and I maun quake,
    And the hour is gone that will never come back.
  3. And when they came to Craigyburnwood,
    The Queen of the Fairies spoke:
    "Come, bind your steeds to the rushes so green,
    And dance by the haunted oak:
    I found the acorn on Heshbon Hill,
    In the nook of a palmer's poke,
    A thousand years since; here it grows!"
    And they danced till the greenwood shook:
    But oh! the fire, the burning fire,
    The longer it burns, it but blazes the higher.
  4. "I have won me a youth," the Elf Queen said,
    "The fairest that earth may see;
    This night I have won young Elph Irving
    My cupbearer to be.
    His service lasts but for seven sweet years,
    And his wage is a kiss of me."
    And merrily, merrily, laughed the wild elves
    Round Corrie's greenwood tree.
    But oh! the fire it glows in my brain,
    And the hour is gone, and comes not again.
  5. The Queen she has whispered a secret word,
    "Come hither, my Elphin sweet,
    And bring that cup of the charmed wine,
    Thy lips and mine to weet."
    But a brown elf shouted a loud, loud shout,
    "Come, leap on your courses fleet,
    For here comes the smell of some baptised flesh,
    And the sounding of baptised feet."
    But oh! the fire that burns, and maun burn;
    For the time that is gone will never return.
  6. On a steed as white as the new-milked milk,
    The Elf Queen leaped with a bound,
    And young Elphin a steed like December snow
    'Neath him at the word he found.
    But a maiden came, and her christened arms
    She linked her brother around,
    And called on God, and the steed with a snort
    Sank into the gaping ground.
    But the fire maun burn, and I maun quake,
    And the time that is gone will no more come back.
  7. And she held her brother, and lo! he grow
    A wild bull waked in ire;
    And she held her brother, and lo! he changed
    To a river roaring higher;
    And she held her brother, and he became
    A flood of the raging fire;
    She shrieked and sank, and the wild elves laughed
    Till the mountain rang and mire.
    But oh! the fire yet burns in my brain,
    And the hour is gone, and comes not again.
  8. "O maiden, why waxed thy faith so faint,
    Thy spirit so slack and slaw?
    Thy courage kept good till the flame waxed wud,
    Then thy might began to thaw;
    Had ye kissed him frae 'mang us a'.
    New bless the fire, the elfin fire,
    That made thee faint and fa';
    Now bless the fire, the elfin fire,
    The longer it burns it blazes the higher."


  • The faeries live inside the green hills
  • The Queen of Faeries has stolen away a human to serve her
  • The human male is of value to the faeries primarily because of his beauty
  • The human male serves the faeries for time periods of seven years
  • The faeries are opposed to christianity
  • The confrontational scene takes place at night.
  • The human male rides a white stead
  • A female attached to the male attempts to save him
  • The female says nothing to the faeries but knows what to do.
  • The female puts her arms around the male and draws him off of his horse.
  • The faeries do not directly touch the female
  • The male is transformed into different creatures while the female must hold onto him
  • The final transformation is into a burning object, which the female cannot hold onto.
  • The faeries get the last word.


The most obvious differences between the two tales are that Tam Lin centers around a romantic relationship, while Corriewater centers around a blood relationship, and that the sister in Corriewater is unable to save her brother as Janet saved Tam Lin. The sister of Elph Irving, who is not named, releases her brother at the end of the poem, thereby losing him. The Faeries explain mirthfully that her difficulty is primarily a lack of faith, although it may also be seen as a lack of knowledge about all of the rules of action required to save someone from faerie bondage. It is also possible that Janet was only able to save Tam Lin because she was carrying his child. The failure of Elph's sister underscores the risk Janet took to rescue Tam Lin, as the sister evidently is burned to death when she releases the fire.

While there appears to be a certain amount of malicious play aimed at the humans, both of these stories imply that the faeries stole away human males primarily because of physical attractiveness and a desire for a servant (although Tam Lin does not explicitly state this, Tam Lin refers to himself as "fair and full of flesh" and he is furthermore clearly acting as guardian of Carterhaugh and under faeries control). This is a stark contrast to stories in which human females are abducted, which usually focus on use of humans as breeding stock or wet nurses. This may have more to do with the fact that the head of the faeries is usually a female, and there are therefore differant threats to the sexes. To a male, the loss of power or dominance, the loss of self control or self determination, and being placed in what is implied to be a sexually subserviant position is a threat considered equal to the female's threat of forced breeding.

Many of the stories of male adbuction, such as the poem "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" imply that after intercourse (in several senses) with a female faerie, a human male is left wasted and weakened, to pine after his departed lover. Elph Irving would likewise be bound to the faerie queen after a single kiss. Furthermore, the faerie's comment that Elph's sister could have saved him if she had kissed the fire implies that her kiss, as a chaste act of sisterly devotion between christians, is of a different enough nature to break the bond of the Elfan Queen. Both stories also make reference to status within the faerie troop, and imply that humans are held rather highly within that order. In Tam Lin, there are black, brown, and white horses, while Corriewater refers to different colors of the elves themselves.

Version Notes

Original source (for me) was Earendil's faerie lore and literature site, sadly now defunct. (unattributed)

Added to site: previous to September 1997