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Brave Celtic Women

Updated on August 28, 2017
James Slaven profile image

James has written for various magazines, including Celtic Guide, Mythology Magazine, and Pagan Forest.

Tam Lin (A Sea-Spell, 1877, Dante Gabriel Rossetti)
Tam Lin (A Sea-Spell, 1877, Dante Gabriel Rossetti) | Source

The Hulder and the Woodsman

In the Scottish Highlands, a lone woodsman left his cottage and wife as usual to chop the wood he would later take into town to sell. It was a job he was content with, and he was happy with his life in general. Whistling a jaunty tune as he walked the familiar paths, he was startled by the presence of someone else. As he had turned a corner in the path, there in front of him was a young and beautiful blond woman. Although he jumped back in surprise, she seemed perfectly at ease. With a smile, she coyly looked at him and asked what he was doing in the woods.

“I am but a woodsman.” He stammered in reply, showing her his axe.

“I am but a lonely flower girl.” She smiled, showing him a basket of flowers and herbs.

The woodsman had heard about a witch in that lived in the woods, but knew this could not be her. This girl was young and pretty and was only collecting plants. She was certainly not a witch!

“I must go and collect my plants.” She told him. “Perhaps I will see you here tomorrow?”

The woodsman nodded mutely and watched her as she walked off. Even with the cow tail swishing from underneath her cloak, he thought she was the most attractive thing he’d ever seen.

Huldra (used with permission)
Huldra (used with permission) | Source

The next day, the woodsman made sure to take the same path at the same time and was delighted to see the young lady again. She had packed some cheese and bread and offered to share her lunch with him. They ate and laughed with each other, and continued to meet over the next few days, with the woodsman becoming more enamored of her each time they were together.

His wife also noticed something odd was occurring. Her husband started coming home later and later in the day, with little or nothing to show for his time away. He became withdrawn, though not angry, and would simply stare out into nothingness and was never aware of her talking to him. He ate less supper with each passing day and she started to detect the scent of flowers on his clothing.

Knowing there was an herbalist in the woods, the wife decided she should seek her out and see if she could help. Many thought of the forest dweller as a witch, but the wife decided, in the pragmatic way of knowing a dealer of herbs was okay to talk to while a witch would be sinful, that the woman was definitely just an herbalist.

Late at night, after the husband had laid down for sleep, she snuck out of the house and went into the woods, hoping to find the witch… excuse me, the herbalist. The task was much easier to accomplish than she thought it would be, for no sooner had she entered the woods when she found the other woman.

“Excuse me.” The wife said, noticing the wicker basket of flower and herbs in the lamplight, and startling the blonde woman at the same time. “Would you be the woman who knows about herbs, that lives here in the woods?”

“I am.” The hulder answered, still pretty enough in the wife’s eyes, but not the enchanting young woman that the woodcutter always saw. “How can I help you?”

Huldra (public domain)
Huldra (public domain)

“I believe my husband has been bespelled by another.” The wife answered. “He is not himself, and I am sure there is something unnatural going on.”

The blond woman smiled. “I’ll happily help you. Take these.” She said, handing the wife a few different herbs. “Seep them in his morning tea and whoever has him bewitched will be nothing to him.”

The wife thanked the woman for the herbs and went back home, wondering what the swishing sound was near the woman’s feet. In the morning, she made breakfast for her husband, including the special tea. As he ate and drank, he slowly became more animated and talkative. By the time he was finished, he as laughing with his wife. For the first time in days, he kissed her before leaving the house.

Walking into the woods, he didn’t notice that he was being followed by the blonde girl, with whom he’d been spending so much time with. She kept trying to get his attention and asked him repeatedly why he was ignoring her, but to no avail.

Coming to the clearing he had been working on, the woodsman wondered how he had managed to fall so far behind in his work. The holder attempted to get his attention by grabbing his arm, just as he swung his axe around. It bit into her neck and shoulder, and the woodsman continued on as if nothing had happened. As she lay there dying, there was a sudden pang of realization and ruefulness as she realized who she had helped the previous night. She had unknowingly given the wife and woodcutter their happiness back, due to the courage of the wife in entering the woods at night to search her out.

Hulder
Hulder

Yes, I do know that the Hulder (aka huldra) is also a Norse being, but considering how many times the Vikingrs raided and settled Scotland, is there any surprise that there would be similar beings between the two cultures? After all, maybe she came with the Vikingrs or maybe just likes the northern climes so much that the race was in both regions. The cow tail is standard in many of the stories, although in some areas they are said to have the tail of a fox. Many times, too, she would be beautiful from the front, while having the look of a hollowed out tree from the back. (I have yet to figure out where the tail attaches if the backside is hollow, but I suppose I’m lucky that I haven’t been entranced by a holder.) IN some tales, the hulder is helpful, though many times she just wants a human male, as in this version. The Neil Gaiman short story “Monarch of the Glen” uses the holder as a main character, along with Shadow Moon from the “American Gods” novel, which also takes place in Scotland and is a fine piece of writing, in my opinion.

Huldras Nymphs (Bernard Evans Ward 1909)
Huldras Nymphs (Bernard Evans Ward 1909)

Tam Lin of Carterhaugh

“O I forbid you, maidens a’,

That wear gowd on your hair,

To come or gae by Carterhaugh,

For young Tam Lin is there.”

"The English and Scottish Popular Ballads” Francis James Child

Tam Lin (Lamia and the Soldier) (John William Waterhouse 1905)
Tam Lin (Lamia and the Soldier) (John William Waterhouse 1905)

Janet had heard the stories of the well deep in the forests of Carterhaugh, in the Scottish borders. Any young woman who would pick the roses next to the well would be instantly visited by Tam Lin, an elf who would appear from the well and demand recompense, typically of the physical kind. Janet felt trapped by her parents on their family farm, and wanted to explore her feminine nature, and so went off in search of the well.

Deep in the middle of the forest, as the light of the sun was dimming, she finally found the stone structure and set about her task. As the third rose was clipped, bells were heard in the air. Looking up, she saw a beautiful man, tall and thin with blonde hair and green eyes. He stepped down from the well and took her in his arms.

“You have picked my roses.” He remarked. “Now you must pay the due.”

Early the next morning, Janet walked back to her house, now feeling as though she were truly a woman and no longer a girl. Within a few months, however, Janet discovered how true this was, as she is pregnant and is finding it hard to cover the fact. When her parents confront her, she haughtily tells them that the father is an elf lord. Refusing their demands that she take an herbal abortifacient, she returns to the well and again clips three roses, causing Tam Lin to reappear with the same twinkling of bells.

“Why have you called for me again?” He asks her. “You have already received the gift of my love.”

“Your gift was twofold.” Janet tells him, revealing her swollen belly. “Will you not aid in your child’s birth and upbringing? Will not the elves take care of their own?”

“I am no elf. I am just a man.” Tam reveals. “The Queen of the Elves took me one night, and I have been stuck in her land for years. Only this well allows me to escape for a short time, as it is here that she took me, after I had fallen from my horse. When my relationships here are finished, I am always compelled to return.”

“Is there nothing that you can do to escape?” Janet asks. “Is there anything I may do to aid you?”

“Every seven years, the Queen gives a tithe to the Devil himself in Hell. I am afraid I shall be that tithe this year. Come to this place on Halloween night and wait for the Elven Host to appear. I will be on a white horse with a crown of ivy. Pull me down and hold on to me, and do not let anything persuade you to let go.”

Janet at the Well (wood cut -- public domain)
Janet at the Well (wood cut -- public domain)

Janet nods and returns home, there awaiting Halloween night. After weeks pass, in the gloaming of the Halloween afternoon, she comes to the well and waits. As the sun sets and the moon rises, the twinkling of bells and the sound of hooves can be heard. Out of the gloom she spies a host of the fairies riding horses, with one tall figure on a white horse in the middle. She leaps out and pulls the figure down, covering them both with her cloak.

The Elven host taunted Janet and Tam Lin, telling them they would be taken underground forever or would hand them over to the Prince of Hell. The couple were poked and prodded with the butts of spears and the tips of swords, and through it all, Janet held tight to Tam Lin. Eventually, the din calmed down and the couple could hear soft footsteps approaching them.

“Little girl.” Came a silky feminine voice. “Let go of Tam and I will allow you to leave unharmed.”

Janet felt Tam tense and knew it must be the Queen of the Elves. She could feel the Queen’s power emanating even through her cloak. She held on to Tam even harder, to keep him safe, even when she felt him squirm and change. She looked down and saw he was covered in boils, but refused to let him out of her grasp. His visage became a death mask rictus and still she held tight. In her arms, he started to glow and turned into a burning coal, blistering her arms and hands, but she kept him close.

From outside the cloak, the clamping of hooves grew silent and all but one set of bells were silenced.

“Very well, little girl.” The Elven Queen spoke. “You may have him. I will find another for my tithe. Just pray you never fall find yourself injured near my realm, or you’ll be forever in my clutches.”

All sounds from outside the cloak vanished. Janet looked down to find Tam Lin whole and healthy. Finding themselves alone, they stood and walked back to her home hand in hand. Tam revealed that he was a Lord with much land, although they soon discovered it had fallen to disrepair, due to his decades long absence. Shocked at the length of time, it had felt like only weeks to him. Nonetheless, they rebuilt his home and lands and he was happy and satisfied, becoming his savior’s husband. Janet, too, was happy as his bride. They grew old together, raising a large family together.

Tamlane (Harriet Sabra Wright 1921)
Tamlane (Harriet Sabra Wright 1921)

This version is based on a conglomerate of the several versions I’ve read, with the basic concept of Janet saving Tam Lin being the one overriding concept. In some versions, Tam had only been gone a short time and was a knight, but that doesn’t fit well with the time differential of our world from the fairy world. Typically the Queen is said to be an Elf, but some say Fairy, and in general these are the same in modern Scotland, and so I used the terms interchangeably – something I may not have done if writing about older myths. The flowers Janet picks also vary, but typically are roses, although in some versions the second trip is her trying to find the abortifacient at which point she is stopped by Tam. In some stories, Tam turns into a lion. In some, his hot coal form needs thrown into the well, but I liked the idea of Janet keeping him safe in her arms, and thus kept that version. In any case, I hope you enjoyed the story!

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    • James Slaven profile image
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      James Slaven 2 months ago from Indiana, USA

      Thank you for the kind words! I love the older original tales the best, typically, but I do enjoy new versions. It's worth it to me, if it sends children to books.

      I also love how so many stories are similar, even with names.

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      S Maree 2 months ago

      Would this be the same as "Tammerlain" or "Tamberlin"? As a child I dimly recall seeing stories by those names. They were not the kind of stories read to me due to my religion frowning on them. Now, I realize they are a part of my heritage, and see they were not just entertainment, but tools for instructing culture and mores.

      Oral instructions were the norm in the days when only the very rich could read, write and own books. From such did Hans Christian Andersen and the Grimm brothers pull ideas for their tales. There were so many variations of these oral stories that these authors (and others, too) could pull the best parts and cull the dross.

      Even today, the Disney people are still picking and choosing from these tales for their audiences. "Snow White", "Sleeping Beauty" and "Frozen" are dim shadows of the originals. Even the "Song of the South" took from J. C. Harris, who remolded African-American oral lessons. And on it goes!

      If a story is good, why not re-tell it? And if it needs manipulation to whet the 21st Century appetite, well, that's historical records are for; to save the originals for research!

      Thankfully, we have wonderful libraries full of earlier versions of these tales. So if you think the evil sisters & stepmothers got off too easy, do a little digging, you might not be disappointed!

      Please continue, Mr. Slaven! Keep these stories refreshed and renewed for future readers!