The first published version of the Tam Lin ballad was printed in 1549. There are a number of variants but most interpretations of the ballad suggest it originates in the Scottish Borders, probably in the Selkirk area. There are elements from several European fairy tale traditions but there is also a flavour of the Otherworld and possibly our own reality.
Typically, the story begins with an elf called Tam Lin decreeing that he will take the virginity of any maiden who enters the forest of Carterhaugh, near Selkirk. A young woman whose father owns Carterhaugh, Janet or Margaret, rebels and picks a rose in the forest, causing Tam to appear. Janet returns home and discovers that she is pregnant. When questioned, she declares that Tam is her baby’s father and she won’t forsake him. She returns to Carterhaugh and picks either a rose or an herb (the latter to bring on an abortion), which makes Tam reappear and challenge her action.
Tam reveals that he was a mortal man, who fell from his horse and was captured by the Queen of Fairies. Every seven years, the fairies give one of their people as a tithe to Hell on Halloween and Tam fears he will become the tithe that night when he rides out as part of a company of elfin knights. He tells Janet that she will recognise him by his white horse and he instructs her to pull him down from the horse and hold him tightly. He warns her that the fairies turn him into various shapes to make her drop him, but he will do her no harm. When he is turned into a burning coal, the fairies’ last ploy, she is to throw him into a well. This will change him back into his naked form, which she must hide. Janet does as she is asked and wins her knight. The Queen of Fairies is angry but acknowledges defeat.
The name of the hero has also been given as Tam Lane, Tam Lien, Tam Lyn, Tam-a-Line, Tamas Lin, Tambling, Tamlane, Tamlin, Tom Line, or Tomlin. It is typical to consider the name a Borders spelling of Tom Lynn, with the Lynn suggesting a connection with lakes or water, one often assumed by fairies, but Lynn is also a genuine Scottish name. A second possibility is that Tamling (that is, Little Tom) is the original version.
Hints of the Otherworld lie in the idea of fairy land being a place reachable from the forest. However Tam Lin found himself in the Otherworld, he appeared to enjoy his circumstances until there was a threat to his life, or until finding himself a potential wife. This suggests an original story about a mortal having been adopted or taken in by an Otherworld community who later wished to leave. Some commentators have even gone so far as to suggest that Tam is actually the son of the fairy queen by a mortal, and thus a human-Otherworld hybrid.
Unfortunately, the identity of the Otherworld community in question has been lost, if any elements of this story were ever true. Although the surviving Carterhaugh wood and the passing Ettrick Water retain a strong Otherworld connection, with king otters sightings in our reality throughout the historic records.
Some ballad variations make Tam the grandson of the Laird of Roxburgh, the Laird of Foulis, the Earl of Forbes, or the Earl of Moray and these provide the echoes of our reality. The Earls of Moray under the Randolph family of Roxburgh (1312-1346) suffered a lost generation when the sons of the first Earl all died childless. But these are the sort of local connections that turn a simple story into a ballad rather than reveal origins.