The Oldest Story in the English Language

Tam LinnIn Melbourne recently, I was asked to tell the story of Tam Linn. I was happy to oblige. In truth, I am happy whenever anyone asks me to tell a story.

But Tam Linn is almost certainly my favourite story. In background it is known as the oldest story we have in English, translated from Irish. The story is set in Scotland at a time when the prevailing language right across what is now south Scotland (from Glasgow to and including Edinburgh) and down past Kelso, was Welsh. If you are not sure where Kelso is, look it up on Google. What academics now call Gaelic, was called Irish and, it was called Irish until well into the 17th Century.

The oldest written version we have of Tam Linn is well preserved in manuscript from 1248 AD. A note on the manuscript says of Tam Linn that it was then considered the oldest story. This would mean that the story is almost certainly set in the 10th Century.

However there have been changes. The story was not called Tam Linn. Tam Linn was a hostage knight of the Failim people. Disney and his ilk usually referred to the Failim people as Fairies. But Tam Linn was male and courted by the daughter of the Earl of March. The protagonist of the story was Janet, a female. Scotland at that time was matrilineal. All property passed through the female line. Women also had the right of a one-year trial-marriage. This meant that if the girl still liked the young man, she invited him to stay.

The other factor of the story was the existence of two religions at the same time. There was the young Christianity and the Old Religion. Each side was antagonistic to the other and each had their own magical powers, which always worked. But gradually Christianity won the war of faith – mainly because Christianity suited men. By the 13th Century, Wise women lost status to become dangerous hags. Women could no longer perform as priests and women protectors of younger women were called Witches. Women were denied rights to property and were paid less money than men. The slang word for female genitalia became the most abusive swear-word in the English language. It followed on that any woman with political ambitions was viciously treated with ribald jokes and scorn. Some beliefs are slow to change.

Anyway, the story of Tam Linn was a great success and I have received calls to tell such stories over and over again.

So from the 10th Century to now, Storytelling, in the oral tradition, is alive and well.

Brian Hungerford