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In Summary: The Ballad of Tam Lin

Updated: Jan 1, 2024

Originating in Scotland with many different variations of the tale, the ballad of Tam Lin tells the story of a young woman named Janet who must steal the love of her life and father of her child from the cunning fairy queen.


“Janet has kilted her green kirtle A little aboon her knee, And she has broded her yellow hair A little aboon her bree, And she's awa to Carterhaugh As fast as she can hie.”

The Ballad of Tam Lin


In the Ballad of Tam Lin, young women are told to avoid the beautiful woods of Carterhaugh. It is said that these woods are guarded by a fairy knight who extracts a toll from any maiden foolish enough to wander there. This may be a ring, an item of clothing, or even the woman’s virginity.

Despite these warnings the young Janet decides to visit the woods. While travelling through them, she plucks a rose and Tam Lin appears. The fairy asks Janet why she has come to his woods. Janet responds that Carterhaugh had been gifted to her by her father, and that she would come and go as she pleased. The two spoke for a time and presumably had sex. Though Janet is often described as having been seduced by Tam Lin, it is just as often implied that she knew exactly what she was doing. She was presumably aware of the warnings about Carterhaugh and chose to travel there anyway – significantly, Janet is also described as wearing a green dress – a colour said to be the favourite of the fair folk.

After her liaison with Tam Lin, Janet returns home, and shortly begins showing signs of pregnancy. When her father confronts her about this, Janet refuses to name the father, saying only that it was a fairy knight. She then returns to Carterhaugh and meets again with Tam Lin – in some versions she goes to Carterhaugh to gather herbs or flowers, which is sometimes believed to indicate that Janet intended to abort the child. When Tam Lin appears, the two speak again. Tam Lin reveals that he is not actually a member of the fair folk, but instead a human stolen by the fairy queen. He had one day been riding his horse with his grandfather when he fell, the fairy queen caught him and carried him away.

Tam Lin also reveals that he is in fear for his life. Every seven years, the fairy folk must pay a tithe to hell – one of their own people. Tam Lin believes that this year, he himself who will be chosen and begs Janet to help him. He tells her that the tithe will be paid on Halloween, and a cohort of fairies will ride through on their way to pay it. Jane will recognise Tam Lin from his white horse, and pull him from the saddle. Tam Lin tells her it will be difficult, as the queen will transform him into all manner of shapes to force Janet to let go, but that she must not. If Janet is able to successfully hold on to Tam Lin, he will be freed.

When Halloween comes Janet is prepared. She waits where Tam Lin told her and, when she sees his white horse appear, she leaps from her hiding spot and seizes him from the saddle. As Tam Lin warned, the fairy queen transforms him into a number of shapes, a cat with sharp claws, a snake with sharp teeth, and a fox which wriggles and writhes. Through the scratches and the bites, Janet keeps tight hold of Tam Lin until eventually the fairy queen transforms him into a burning hot coal. Janet takes the coal and throws it into the cold well – Tam Lin reappears as a naked man. Janet covers him with her mantle.

The fairy queen is furious with Janet, angry at the younger woman for stealing her most beautiful knight but despite her anger there is nothing that the fairy queen can do. Janet has won Tam Lin’s freedom, and the pair are free to raise their child together.


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