'Buncle, Billy, and Blanerne, Three castles strong as airn, Built when Davie was a bairn, They'll a' gang down Wi’ Scotland's crown, And ilka ane will be a cairn.'
This rhyme refers to the three ancient castles of this area: Bunkle, Billy and Blanerne. ‘Davie’ in the rhyme is thought to refer to King David I of Scotland (c.1082-1153), youngest son of Malcolm Canmore.
All three castles, as the rhyme suggests, are now ruins or grassy mounds, destroyed long ago, in the 1500s. Since Scotland is no longer an independent nation either, it is understandable that people see this old rhyme as a prediction that came true.
Gatherer of local stories and folklore, George Henderson (1800-1864), collected this rhyme from ‘a correspondent’ who had learned it from their mother who grew up near Duns. She had been told it was a prophecy of Thomas the Rhymer, legendary poet and soothsayer of the Borders.
So who exactly was this Thomas the Rhymer? Formally known as Sir Thomas de Ercildoun (c.1220-1298) or Thomas Learmont, was a poet from the Borders who was believed to have the gift of predicting the future. Ercildoun, where he lived, is now known as Earlston, near Galashiels on the River Leader.
Thomas could be thought of as Scotland’s national prophet. His prophecies, which usually focused on disasters and doom across the whole country and included foretelling the death of King Alexander III, held great sway in society for many years beyond his lifetime. People placed great trust in his words, or indeed any words attributed to his name.
‘When the saut goes abune the meal, Believe nae mair o’ Tammy’s tale.’
Or in other words, Thomas’s words are worth believing as long as a meal remains more important than the salt flavouring it.
Thomas appears as a character called True Thomas in medieval literature and ballads, such as ‘Child Ballad 37’ which has been kept alive in different forms by 20th century folk musicians, including Ewan McColl (1915-89) and folk-rock band Steeleye Span. There are even classical music interpretations, including one by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).
Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) adapted, retold and popularised tales of Thomas the Rhymer and his prophecies in the 1800s. Other writers to do so include Nigel Tranter (1909-2000) and Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). One common thread in most of these stories is his meeting with the Queen of Elfland.