Horror Writers Association Blog

Halloween Haunts: Tamlane and Alison Gross: Halloween Ballads by Lisa Morton


Although magazines and books like to tell us that Halloween is an ancient festival with pagan roots, the truth is the holiday as we know it is really only a few centuries old, especially in terms of being a night that incorporates dark enchantments and spooky tales. Combining the Celtic Samhain with the Christian All Saints Day and All Souls Day (the latter wasn’t instituted in the Catholic Church until 998 A.D.), references to the holiday are basically nonexistent prior to the 16th century, and those few scarce mentions hardly sound at all like the holiday we love. For example, this mention from the 1511 Festyvall notes, “We rede in olde tyme good people wolde on All halowen daye bake brade and dele it for all crysten soules.” Not exactly a thrill-ride description, is it?.

It probably wasn’t until the 18th century that Halloween’s delightfully macabre side really started to be celebrated. In 1785, the Scottish poet Robert Burns penned the longest and most famous ode to the early celebration of the holiday (in his poem “Hallowe’en”), and prior to that – in 1729 – we find the first recorded version of the Scottish ballad “Tam Lin’ (or “Tamlane”). Ballads were a popular and common form of entertainment throughout the British Isles and America, and Halloween does indeed figure prominently in some of them. Ballads, in fact, provide some of the best early history of Halloween, setting it in place as a night of fairies, witches, and magical spells.

“Alison Gross” is a fine example of an early Scottish Halloween ballad. It’s been recorded many times, with slight variations, and we don’t know exactly when it was first written. The version I’m using here was recorded by Robert Jamieson in 1806, as it was recited to him by “Mrs. Brown”. The title character is “The ugliest witch in the north countrie”; when she attempts to seduce a handsome young lad with rich gifts, he rejects her. She then wreaks a terrible revenge on him:


She’s turned her richt and round about,

And thrice she blew on a grass-green horn;

And she sware by the moon and the stars aboon,

That she’d gar me rue the day I was born.


Then out has she ta’en a silver wand,

And she’s turned her three times round and round;

She’s mutter’d sic words, that my strength it fail’d,

And I fell down senseless on the ground.


The poor nameless young man is turned into a snake, and set to crawl about a tree. However, on Halloween, the “Seely Court” – or fairy troop – rides by, and the Queen of the Fairies spots the transformed narrator:


She took me up jn her milk-white hand,

And she straiked me three times o’er her knee;

She changed me again to my ain proper shape,

And I nae mair maun toddle about the tree.


“Alison Gross” is the one time in English or Scottish folklore when a fairy undid the spell of a witch.

As more folklorists and historians began to record these old ballads in the late 18th– and early-19th centuries, ballads caught on more with both readers and authors. In 1801, Matthew G. Lewis – author of the classic novel The Monk – released the influential Gothic anthology Tales of Wonder, which he opened with a faux ballad that he had written after residing at Bothwell Castle in Scotland. “Bothwell’s Bonny Jane” tells the story of poor doomed Bonny Jane, whose father arranges marriage for her with the wealthy Lord Malcolm; but Bonny Jane is in love with the peasant Edgar and is desperate to escape her impending betrothal. When a sympathetic friar shows up on Hallowe’en and promises to help Jane escape to Edgar, she’s happy to accompany him. However, as they board a boat to cross the River Clyde during a terrible storm, the monk reveals that he himself is in love with Jane and never had any intention of taking her to her beloved. As the storm rages, the boatman tells them the boat is overburdened, and they’ll all die unless the weight in the vessel is lightened. The monk throws Jane overboard, at which point the boatman reveals himself to be a demon who promptly drags the monk off to a watery doom. The mock ballad ends with this final, haunting stanza:


Yet legends say, at Hallow-E’en,

When Silence holds her deepest reign,

That still the ferryman-fiend is seen

To waft the monk and bonny Jane …


Far and away the most famous of Halloween ballads is “Tamlane”. First appearing around 1548, “Tamlane” has been recorded dozens of times, perhaps most famously by Sir Walter Scott in his 1802 three-volume Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (under the title “The Young Tamlane”). Although the ballad varies slightly with each telling, nearly all versions focus on Janet, a Scottish lass whose father is the local lord. When Janet ventures into a haunted wood one day, she encounters Tamlane, a handsome fairy who demands her virginity as payment for trespassing. Several months later, it becomes obvious that Janet is pregnant. She swears to her father that none of his knights is the father, and then returns to see Tamlane, begging him to act as the child’s father. He tells her that he was once human, but the Queen of the Fairies fell in love with him and kidnapped him. Now, he’s afraid that he will be given to the Devil as a Halloween sacrifice, and only Janet can save him:


But the night is Halloween, lady,

The morn is Hallowday,

Then win me, win me, an ye will,

For weel I wat ye may.


Just at the mirk and midnight hour

The fairy folk will ride,

And they that wad their true-love win,

At Miles Cross they maun bide.


Janet follows Tamlane’s instructions: At midnight on Halloween she pulls him from his horse as the fairy company rides by, and then hangs onto him as the Fairy Queen puts him through horrifying transformations, including a snake and a flaming sword. Janet triumphs, however, and wins Tamlane for herself and their child.

“Tamlane” has remained popular for three hundred years now. The ballad has been recorded by contemporary folk groups (like Fairport Convention), and even served as the basis for the 1971 film The Ballad of Tam Lin, in which Ava Gardner (as the Fairy Queen) pursues a young Ian McShane through England in the swinging ‘60s. The film has the additional distinction of being the only movie directed by the actor Roddy McDowall.

Tamlane himself has appeared as a character in numerous fantasy novels and stories, with good reason: The ballad – like virtually all ballads – tells a classic story of love gone wrong, of honor and sacrifice, life and death – but “Tamlane” is also a wondrous and eerie fantasy masterpiece. When I was recently asked by editor Jonathan Maberry to contribute a story to an anthology (Out of Tune, published by JournalStone) of fantasy stories based on classic ballads, “Tamlane” was my immediate choice. I was curious to see how the ballad’s setting would translate into something contemporary and urban, while keeping as much of the beauty and mystery (and of course the Halloween time!) in place as possible. My haunted wood became a once-glorious building in downtown Los Angeles, now caught between renovation and demolition (I based it on architect Julia Morgan’s stunning building for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner newspaper, which I once had the opportunity to thoroughly explore while visiting a film crew that was shooting there). Janet is now a young architect whose wealthy father has recently bought the building; in the ballad, Tamlane and Janet knew each other as children, but I decided to make my Tamlane a former child actor who was seized by the vengeful architect who designed the building, and trapped there.

The excerpt below is how I describe Janet’s entrance into the Daily Examiner building (think enchanted wood).At this point in the story, Janet – who has been given the opportunity to renovate the building – has already explored the bottom floors of legendary architect May O’Greene’s masterwork, and is making her way to the top.


A twisting back staircase led her up to a third floor that had plainly seen even fewer visitors in recent years. From her online study of the Examiner, she knew that the third floor had once housed the executive offices; May O’Greene herself had even had a suite up here. Motes glittered in the air, turned opalescent by afternoon sunlight. Later, Janet would come back with a camera and tablet computer and begin planning; today was purely exploratory.

The heat on the third floor was stifling. Janet was wiping sweat from her brow when she poked her head into a room…and gasped:

She looked into a sitting room that could have stepped out of a silent film. Low tables, chairs, writing desk, vintage sofa, and cabinets all squatted, as clean as the items in a showroom. On the desk were a shaded lamp, a blotter, pens, an elaborate Art Deco paperweight. On one gorgeous teak endtable was something that looked for all the world like an original Tiffany lamp. Even Janet, who’d grown up with wealth, wondered what the lamp alone was worth.

She stepped into the space, running her fingers lightly along the fixtures, astonished by the lack of apparent age. Surely they were all reproductions, but…why? Who would install all of this in an unused office on the third floor of a nearly-abandoned building? Some eccentric film exec, maybe? She nearly pulled out her cell phone and called her father’s office to ask if they’d forgotten to tell her that part of the third floor was rented out, but somehow she knew the answer would be “no”, followed by questions she didn’t want to deal with.

Was it possible that this room was just miraculously forgotten and preserved, a happy accident of time and environmental circumstance?

Janet reached the desk and picked up one of the items she found there. It was an antique fountain pen with a silver scaled finish like a metallic lizard. Curious, she pulled the cap off and ran the nib across a sheet of cream-colored paper; it produced a clear, perfect dark line. Janet often made preliminary sketches in pen before rendering them in software; she somehow felt more connection to her work when she used ink instead of pixels. The idea of sketching out her designs for the Examiner’s new artists’ lofts in a pen she’d taken from it appealed to her, and so she replaced the cap and was lowering the pen into her purse when a voice sounded behind her:

“That’s not yours.”


Janet has just encountered Tamlane for the first time. Suffice to say that one of the pleasures of modern fiction is that it’s no longer bound by earlier eras’ restrictions on violence and sex.

All of the original ballads I’ve mentioned above can be found online (see links below), and I encourage you to give them a read this Halloween. You might be surprised by how well they go with a visit to a haunted house or donning a diabolical costume.

“Alison Gross”

“Bothwell’s Bonny Jane”

“The Young Tamlane”

TODAY’S GIVEAWAY: Lisa is offering one signed copy of Zombie Apocalypse: Washington Deceased. In addition, The Diaz Brothers are offering one copy of the first printing of The Shadow Collection, Volume One, graphic novel (which includes a story by Lisa), and one complete set of three unique, original, numbered Tarot cards that accompany it.  Comment below to enter or e-mail membership@horror.org with “HH Entry” in the subject line.


Photo by Ellen Datlow.

LISA MORTON is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, award-winning novelist, and Halloween expert whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening”. She received a 2013 Bram Stoker Award nomination for her novel Malediction, and in 2014 she has released two novels – Netherworld and Zombie Apocalypse: Washington Deceased. Her Halloween books include Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween and The Halloween Encyclopedia, and she has spoken about the holiday on The History Channel, in The Wall Street Journal, and in the supplements for the Blu Ray release of the movie Trick ‘R Treat. She lives in North Hollywood, California, and you can read more about her favorite holiday at http://www.halloween.guru .



5 comments on “Halloween Haunts: Tamlane and Alison Gross: Halloween Ballads by Lisa Morton

  1. That was an awesome post! Lisa I love your work and am totally adding this to my want list. 🙂 I’m going to go haunting…I mean hunting…for these songs. 🙂 I have a collection of creepy music I write to when I’m working on horror and suspense and this sounds perfect.

    Happy Halloween and thanks for sharing this with us!

  2. Wonderful, thanks! Alison Gross in particular has been a favorite from a long time ago, but it’s been years since I’ve seen the words.

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