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Faerie Lore : Fairy Music : "Thomas the Rhymer & The Two Fiddlers"

Posted from the bookWonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend" by Donald Alexander Mackenzie - Illustrations by John Duncan - Frederick A Stokes Co., New York - [1917] - (Obtain this full work and many more backups by clicking here!)

Thomas Learmonth (c. 1220 – c. 1298; also spelled Learmount, Learmont, or Learmounth), better known as Thomas the Rhymer or True Thomas, was a 13th century Scottish laird and reputed prophet from Earlston (then called "Erceldoune"). He is also the protagonist of the ballad "Thomas the Rhymer" (Child Ballad number 37). He is also the probable source of the legend of Tam Lin.

"Thomas the Rhymer & The Two Fiddlers"

Another story about Thomas is told at Inverness. Two fiddlers, named Farquhar Grant and Thomas Cumming, natives of Strathspey, who lived over three hundred years ago, once visited Inverness during the Christmas season. They hoped to earn money by their music, and as soon as they arrived in the town began to show their skill in the streets. Although they had great fame as fiddlers in Strathspey, they found that the townspeople took little notice of them. When night fell, they had not collected enough money to buy food for supper and to pay for a night's lodging. They stopped playing and went, with their fiddles under their right arms, towards the wooden bridge that then crossed the River Ness.

Just as they were about to walk over the bridge they saw a little old man coming towards them in the dusk. His beard was very long and very white, but although his back was bent his step was easy and light. He stopped in front of the fiddlers, and, much to their surprise, hailed them by their names saying: "How fares it with you, my merry fiddlers?"

"Badly, badly!" answered Grant.

"Very badly indeed!" Cumming said.

"Come with me," said the old man. "I have need of fiddlers to-night, and will reward you well. A great ball is to be held in my castle, and there are no musicians."

Grant and Cumming were glad to get the chance of earning money by playing their fiddles and said they would go. "Then follow me and make haste," said the old man. The fiddlers followed him across the wooden bridge and across the darkening moor beyond. He walked with rapid strides, and sometimes the fiddlers had to break into a run to keep up with him. Now and again that strange, nimble old man would turn round and cry: "Are you coming, my merry fiddlers?"

"We are doing our best," Grant would answer, while Cumming muttered: "By my faith, old man, but you walk quickly!"

"Make haste, Grant; make haste, Cumming, the old man would then exclaim; "my guests will be growing impatient."

In time they reached the big boat-shaped mound called Tom-na-hurich, and the old man began to climb it. The fiddlers followed at a short distance. Then he stopped suddenly and stamped the ground three times with his right foot. A door opened and a bright light streamed forth.

"Here is my castle, Cumming; here is my castle, Grant," exclaimed the old man, who was no other than Thomas the Rhymer. "Come within and make merry."

The fiddlers paused for a moment at the open door, but Thomas the Rhymer drew from his belt a purse of gold and made it jingle. "This purse holds your wages," he told them. "First you will get your share of the feast, then you will give us fine music."

As the fiddlers were as hungry as they were poor, they could not resist the offer made to them, and entered the fairy castle. As soon as they entered, the door was shut behind them.

They found themselves in a great hall, which was filled with brilliant light. Tables were spread with all kinds of food, and guests sat round them eating and chatting and laughing merrily.

Thomas led the fiddlers to a side table, and two graceful maidens clad in green came forward with dishes of food and bottles of wine, and said: "Eat and drink to your hearts' content, Farquhar Grant and Thomas Cumming--Farquhar o'Feshie and Thomas o' Tom-an-Torran. You are welcome here to-night."

The fiddlers wondered greatly that the maidens knew not only their personal names but even the names of their homes. They began to eat, and, no matter how much they ate, the food on the table did not seem to grow less. They poured out wine, but they could not empty the bottles.

Said Cumming: "This is a feast indeed."

Said Grant: "There was never such a feast in Strathspey."

When the feast was ended the fiddlers were led to the ballroom, and there they began to play merry music for the gayest and brightest and happiest dancers they ever saw before. They played reels and jigs and strathspeys, and yet never grew weary. The dancers praised their music, and fair girls brought them fruit and wine at the end of each dance. If the guests were happy, the musicians were happier still, and they were sorry to find at length that the ball was coming to an end. How long it had lasted they could not tell. When the dancers began to go away they were still unwearied and willing to go on playing.

Thomas the Rhymer entered the ballroom, and spoke to the fiddlers, saying: "You have done well, my merry men. I will lead you to the door, and pay you for your fine music."

The fiddlers were sorry to go away. At the door Thomas the Rhymer divided the purse of gold between them, and asked: "Are you satisfied?"

"Satisfied!" Cumming repeated. "Oh, yes, for you and your guests have been very kind!"

"We should gladly come back again," Grant said.

When they had left the castle the fiddlers found that it was bright day. The sun shone from an unclouded sky, and the air was warm. As they walked on they were surprised to see fields of ripe corn, which was a strange sight at the Christmas season. Then they came to the riverside, and found instead of a wooden bridge a new stone bridge with seven arches.

"This stone bridge was not here last night," Cumming said.

"Not that I saw," said Grant.

When they crossed the bridge they found that the town of Inverness had changed greatly. Many new houses had been built; there were even new streets. The people they saw moving about wore strange clothing. One spoke to the fiddlers, and asked: "Who are you, and whence come you?"

They told him their names, and said that on the previous night they had played their fiddles at a great ball in a castle near the town.

The man smiled. Then Farquhar said: "The bridge we crossed over last evening was made of wood. Now you have a bridge of stone. Have the fairies built it for you?"

The man laughed, and exclaimed, as he turned away: "You are mad. The stone bridge was built before I was born."

Boys began to collect round the fiddlers. They jeered at their clothing, and cried: "Go back to the madhouse you have escaped from."

The fiddlers hastened out of the town, and took the road which leads to Strathspey. Men who passed them stopped and looked back, but they spoke to no one, and scarcely spoke, indeed, to one another.

Darkness came on, and they crept into an empty, half-ruined house by the wayside and slept there. How long they slept they knew not, but when they came out again they saw that the harvesting had begun. Fields were partly cut, but no workers could be seen in them, although the sun was already high in the heavens. They drank water from a well, and went on their way, until at length they reached their native village. They entered it joyfully, but were unable to find their homes. There, too, new houses had been built, and strange faces were seen. They heard a bell ringing, and then knew it was Sabbath day, and they walked towards the church. A man spoke to them near the gate of the churchyard and said: "You are strangers here."

"No, indeed, we are not strangers," Grant assured him. "This is our native village."

"You must have left it long ago," said the man, "for I have lived here all my life, and I do not know you."

Then Grant told his name and that of his companion, and the names of their fathers and mothers. "We are fine fiddlers," he added; "our equal is not to be found north of the Grampians."

Said the man: "Ah! you are the two men my grandfather used to speak of. He never saw you, but he heard his father tell that you had been decoyed by Thomas the Rhymer, who took you to Tom-na-hurich. Your friends mourned for you greatly, but now you are quite forgotten, for it is fully a hundred years since you went away from here."

The fiddlers thought that the man was mocking them, and turned their backs upon him. They went into the churchyard, and began to read the names on the gravestones. They saw stones erected to their wives and children, and to their children's children, and gazed on them with amazement, taking no notice of the people who passed by to the church door.

At length they entered the church hand in hand, with their fiddles under their arms. They stood for a brief space at the doorway, gazing at the congregation, but were unable to recognize a single face among the people who looked round at them.

The minister was in the pulpit. He had been told who the strangers were, and, after gazing for a moment in silence, he began to pray. No sooner did he do so than the two fiddlers crumbled into dust.

Such is the story of the two fiddlers who spent a hundred years in a fairy dwelling, thinking they had played music there for but a single night.

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