February 7, 2013

A Brief History of Tam Lin

Any person with a slight interest in fairy- and folktales probably knows that the origins of such old stories are difficult to pinpoint. Many stories have roots in oral history and posess common enough ideas to have similar variants across the world. The ballad of "Tam Lin" avoids the second problem, as it is a well-known Scottish tale. In fairy tales, folklore, and even ballads like "Tam Lin," usually there is one telling that gains predominance over others; it’s not necessarily the “original” tale, but the tale most recognized and the one that becomes the source of inspiration for future retellings. For “Tam Lin,” the ballad that has become known as Francis James Child’s Version 39A has that honor.

Child taught at Harvard University as a professor of rhetoric and oratory, later becoming Harvard’s first English professor. What he is most well-known for, however, is the collection of English-language folk music he created called The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (more popularly known as the Child Ballads). The Child Ballads were compiled into five volumes, published between 1882 and 1898, and comprise 305 ballads, with “Tam Lin” as number 39. Child actually listed many variants of tale, and he chose to number those alphabetically.

Child’s version 39A is certainly influential. It’s the one that I referred to in my brief synopsis of the tale, and, more than any other variant recorded by Child or anyone else, it is the one most frequently referred to in “Tam Lin” retellings. But Child was simply a collector of tales, not a creator, and his collection was put together in the late nineteenth-century, while the roots of “Tam Lin” are much older.

The first attributed written version of the text is from The Complaynt of Scotland, a book that emphasized the differences between England and Scotland as a response to England’s desire to unite the countries, and was published in 1549. It is safe to assume, however, that the original ballad dates back even further, and that variants of the tale have been lost over the years. After all, many oral tales were lost long before anyone thought to write them down.

Child was not the only folklorist to add “Tam Lin”
versions to folklore collections. Joseph Jacobs included “Tam Lin” in his More English Fairy Tales, published in 1894, and Andrew Lang, perhaps best known for his colored Fairy Book collections, included “Tam Lin” in A Collection of Ballads, published in the early 1900s. Sir Walter Scott and James Johnson also included versions in anthologies they compiled.

Even with the many changes in form over the centuries, a few aspects of “Tam Lin” have remained pretty constant. “Tam Lin” is a Scottish tale and has never truly lost those roots. In part, that is probably due to the importance that the border regions of Scotland setting plays within the tale. Carterhaugh was an actual location near Selkirk, Scotland. “Tam Lin” variants typically mention Miles Cross, another specific
location in Scotland, as the place where Janet must go to save Tam Lin. Janet and Tam Lin are usually tied to legitimate families of Scotland as well. While so many fairy tales and fables have lost their roots over the years, I think it is safe to assume that this loss of origins will never happen to the "Tam Lin" story.

“Tam Lin” is considered to be one of the quintessential fairy ballads of Scotland and the British Isles as a whole. Perhaps it was luck that allowed “Tam Lin” to remain in public consciousness, while we can assume that so many other ballads have been lost over time. Perhaps “Tam Lin” was better than many other ballads of the time at speaking to personal truths of the time, such as bravery, honor, and a fear of the supernatural, that allowed it to endure. Whatever the reason, “Tam Lin” is a ballad that continues to inspire new creations and interpretations.

An Annotated Bibliography of Tam Lin by Tyra Twomey
Tam Lin Balladry
Terri Windling’s “Introduction” in Tam Lin by Pamela Dean
Wikipedia’s articles on Tam Lin, Francis James Child, Joseph Jacobs, and Andrew Lang
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. This is really interesting. To be honest, I always hear people say, "Oh that's another Tam Lin retelling," but even though I've evidently read some of the retellings, I never knew the story as a child and only vaguely knew anything about it as an adult. I love that you did the research online and then made an informative blog post. I'd love to read more of these about all sorts of bookish topics.

    1. Thank you, Flannery! I wish I could have done even more research, but I figured that this was at least a start. I love learning about the history of all sorts of well-known stories.


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