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Scottish Literature in 1400

J. Derrick McClure, University of Aberdeen

The history of Scotland for most of the fourteenth century had been of foreign warfare and civil disorder ineffectually countered by the efforts of feeble kings; but by 1400 the exhausted and strife-torn kingdom was struggling towards recovery.

The nation’s victory, won under the great Robert Bruce, in its struggle for independence had been almost undone in the minority of his son and successor David II; and even in his maturity he proved a far lesser king than his heroic father. His nephew Robert II succeeded as an ageing man whose vigorous part in the wars of David’s minority was long past; and his son Robert III, though still nominally king in 1400, had been tactfully removed from power "for seknes of his persone" after trying helplessly to wield the sceptre since 1390. Yet the reigns of the first two Stewart kings, though perhaps the most inglorious period in the history of the Scottish monarchy, saw the first literary expressions of a new spirit of Scottish national identity, and the first stages in the deliberate creation of a national self-image to sustain it.

A seminal contribution to this development was made by John of Fordun (his birthplace was probably Fordoun in Kincardineshire) in his Chronica Gentis Scotorum. Fordun was a priest in the Cathedral of Aberdeen, where he died in 1385 after years of careful research for the material of his book, including visits to monasteries in England and Ireland as well as Scotland. His sources include the sixth-century Welsh monk Gildas, from whose writings he quotes Merlin’s prophecy of the ultimate victory to be won by the Celts over the Saxons, and the great chroniclers William of Malmesbury and Geoffrey of Monmouth, renowned for their contribution to the growth of the Arthurian legend. The Introductio brevis to the Chronica places Scotland in its geographical setting. Fordun quotes Julius Caesar, Ptolemy and others in their description of the island of Britain, and Gildas and Bede on its earliest inhabitants. In a rapid summary, he outlines the origins and history of the Britons, Scots, Picts, Saxons and Normans; and takes the story to his own time with a condemnation of Edward Langshanks, determined fraudulenter per fas aut nefas to subjugate Scotland, and a salute to Philip IV as Scotland’s ally.

His Chronica proper begins with an account of the lands in the four directions of the globe, and the distribution of the descendants of Noah. The purpose of this is to give Scotland’s story its place as an integral part of the history of the world. Going on to the tale of Gathelus and Scota (a lieutenant of Moses during the Exodus and his bride, the Pharaoh’s daughter: the legendary founders of the Scottish kingdom), he ends his first book with the Picts and Scots in possession of the land of Albion. In the course of his story, semi-legendary figures from Scotland’s distant past are placed chronologically by relating them to characters and events in Biblical and classical history. As he reaches authentic historical records, Kenneth MacAlpin appears, so does Macbeth; though there is no mention of witches, and indeed more emphasis is placed on the acts of Duncan’s sons in exile than on Macbeth’s reign in Scotland. Fordun devotes six full chapters to the mutual testing of Malcolm and Macduff (the source of the first part of Shakespeare’s Act IV scene iii): a scene which, far more explicitly in Fordun than in Shakespeare, explores the duties and responsibilities of a king, probably with pointed reference to the weak kings of his own time. The admonitory force of his writing becomes even more forceful in his presentation of the genealogy of David I, which he traces through more than a hundred generations to Noah: "that it may be known to you, kings of these days, and to all readers, of how old, how noble, how strong and invincible a stock of kings he came, (whereof ye also are come) – kings who have, until now, through the blessed King Most High, been keeping the kingly dignity unspotted for a longer time, with freer service, and, what is more glorious, with a stronger hold of the Catholic faith than all other kings, save only a few, if any."

Fordun died before bringing his history down to his own time, though in the 1440s Walter Bower incorporated the Chronica into his Scotichronicon, in which he continued the story to the murder of James I. Fordun’s work, however, is of fundamental importance in placing Scotland’s story among those of the nations of the earth, and emphasising the antiquity of the kingdom and the glory of its leaders and people: in other words, giving a literary embodiment to the confident patriotic pride with which the nation had come to regard itself.

At the same time as Fordun was compiling his Chronica, a revolutionary development in Scottish literature was effected by his colleague in the Cathedral of Aberdeen. The Brus by John Barbour, Archdeacon of Aberdeen, an epic poem of King Robert I and his leadership of Scotland’s successful fight for independence, was completed in 1375. It is sufficiently well-known to require no more than a brief description here; but one of its most significant aspects is easy to overlook. Barbour relates, with outstanding narrative skill and descriptive realism, the struggles of Bruce and his followers; he provides an account of the period remarkable for its accuracy and careful reliance on authentic detail; he emphasises the justice of the Scottish resistance to English aggression, while recognising courage and chivalry among the English where it is to be found; he evokes Bruce’s care for his common followers and subjects and the part played by them in Scotland’s ultimate victory; and importantly, he does all this in Scots. Fordun’s Latin was the unquestioned medium for historical narrative (even Bower, decades later, continued his work in the same language); and though the genre of quasi-historical narrative poetry in the vernacular was long established in France and England, the subjects of those poems were generally figures from the distant and semi-legendary past rather than men whose lifetimes overlapped the writers’ own. Barbour’s confident use of Scots (though over a century was to pass before it came to be called Scots) can readily be seen as a gesture of pride in his native kingdom and the mother tongue of its people; and assuredly, the Scots tongue could hardly have made a more dramatic entrance to the company of Europe’s literary languages than in this stirring patriotic epic.

Like Fordun, Barbour writes from strongly patriotic motives. He is concerned to uphold the God-given right of the Scottish nation to defend itself against outside aggression. He does not hesitate to incorporate reminders to his own king of his duty to uphold the standards of his great predecessor; and to the nobility and commons of his time to show the same loyalty to their king and nation that Bruce had found in his own subjects. Barbour, that is, writes with the noble aim of recalling the Scottish king and people to the nation’s glorious past and their responsibility to prove themselves worthy of it.

Barbour wrote, as well as the Brus, a poem on Brutus of Troy and a genealogy of the Stewarts; but those do not survive. However, the practice which he established of using the vernacular for narrative verse was soon adopted by others. A notable anonymous collection of saints’ lives, based on Latin originals but rendered in Scots octosyllabic couplets, can be dated to approximately 1400. A more important contribution to the national literature was made by Andrew of Wyntoun, a Prior of St Serf’s in Lochleven who died in 1420, with his Oryginall Cronykil of Scotland. Like Fordun’s Chronica, this is a history of Scotland which places the nation’s story in a universal context, beginning with the Biblical account of the Creation and concluding with the events of the author’s own lifetime. Wyntoun lacks Barbour’s gift for exciting narrative, but is a worthy successor of his as a conscientious and patriotic historian: his work is one of the principal historical sources for the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Many interesting details can be found in his story: as one example, he is the first writer to introduce a supernatural element to the story of Macbeth, making him dream that he hears his future greatness prophesied by the three Fates (the sisters of wyrd or "fate", a word which Shakespeare did not know and on which his wholly individual transmutation of the episode has bestowed a completely inauthentic meaning). Courteously referring his readers to Barbour for the story of Bruce, Wyntoun relates in some detail the achievements of Wallace, whom Barbour never mentions. The principal significance of his entire massive opus, however, is its contribution to the national ethos: the picture of an anciently-established and proudly independent kingdom, defended since time immemorial by an unbroken line of monarchs.

The development of the Lowland tongue in the hands of Barbour and his successors is as spectacular as could be wished; but the history of the other language of the kingdom in this period is rather more obscure. Gaelic had been established in Scotland from long before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxon language which was to become Scots; but whereas Barbour’s Scots is already visibly distinct from the language of his contemporaries Chaucer in London and even Richard Rolle in York, Gaelic Scotland and Ireland still shared a common culture and a literary language which as yet showed no significant divergence between the two countries. The poetry of this period was produced by highly-trained aristocratic bards, respected and privileged members of the households of chieftains; and their carefully-wrought verses in traditional styles and metrical forms dealt mostly with family history, genealogies, celebration of their chiefs’ achievements in battle, commemoration of births, marriages and deaths in their families, and denigration of their enemies and rivals. It is revealing of the status of the bards that the founder of one of Scotland’s notable bardic families, the MacMhuirichs, fled to Scotland from Ireland in 1213 after killing his chief’s steward who had come to collect his taxes, and later wrote an indignant poem to the chief complaining that he had been driven into exile for killing a mere vassal! Besides poetry, Gaelic in this period was the vehicle for works of high and distinguished scholarship in such fields as theology, philosophy and medicine.

The Scottish bardic poetry which survives is mostly somewhat later than 1400: an important source is the Book of the Dean of Lismore, a sixteenth-century collection particularly rich in poetry from Argyllshire and Perthshire. One remarkable poem, however, preserved not in the Dean’s Book but in a much later manuscript called the Red Book of Clanranald, is by another MacMhuirich called Lachlann Mór, and dates from 1411. This is a brosnachadh (i.e. poem of incitement to battle) calling on the men of Clan Donald to give of their best in the forthcoming fight: the one remembered in the Gaeltacht as Catha Chath Gairbheach and in the Lowlands – though the Scots ballad which commemorates it cannot be traced before the eighteenth century – as the Red Harlaw. This battle, one of the fiercest ever fought on Scottish soil, was occasioned by the claim of Donald, Lord of the Isles, to the earldom of Ross: a claim vigorously contested by the Earl of Mar, whose uncle the Duke of Albany, brother of the late Robert III, was ruling as regent for the imprisoned James I. The poem begins

A Chlanna Chuinn, cuimhnichibh
Cruas an am na h-iorghaile -

"Children of Conn, remember hardihood in time of battle – " (addressing Clan Donald with reference to their putative descent from Conn of the Hundred Battles, a heroic king of Irish tradition); and proceeds to exhort the clansmen to display a long list of qualities befitting warriors in battle. This was a familiar theme for bardic poetry; but what makes this poem such a remarkable tour de force is its format: each line contains two epithets, and the four in each successive pair of lines all begin with the same letter. Alliteration has always been a frequent device in Gaelic poetry, but MacMhuirich takes it much further: he works through the entire alphabet in sequence, thus setting himself the task of finding four semantically apt words for each successive letter and making them fit into his seven-syllable lines. Poems using the alphabet as a structural device were known in mediaeval Latin; and an elaborate example from further afield is Psalm 119, where each section consists of eight short verses each beginning with the same Hebrew letter;1 but this alphabetic poem is virtually unique in Gaelic. The poem as preserved may show some textual corruption (not all the sets of four words for each letter are complete); but the survival of fifteenth-century forms in the eighteenth-century text is evidence that it is well preserved. The language suggests a more vernacular register than the classical literary Gaelic of the period: if so, this may be the first surviving poem written in the Gaelic language as it was developing in Scotland; and the technical virtuosity which it displays, inherited from the ancient bardic tradition, was to continue undimmed in subsquent poetry in Scottish Gaelic. It is of passing interest, too, that the Harlaw Brosnachadh, though not remotely comparable to the first major Scots poem in scale or in historic importance, was like it inspired by an armed struggle!

Scotland’s literary achievement in three languages during the years around 1400, that is, showed a pride and confidence in startling contrast to the nation’s recent undistinguished record. And shortly afterwards, when the assumption of active rule by James I began a new and much more dynamic era, all three (and particularly Scots) were poised to participate in one of the greatest literary periods in Scottish history.


1 The Authorised Version and later English translations do not attempt to reproduce this; but P. Hately Waddell does, though not with unmixed success, in his Scots translation of 1871.


Copyright © J. Derrick McClure, 2000


Last updated 18 August 2010.