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Scottish Literature: ‘1600 and All That’

R.D.S. Jack, University of Edinburgh

I shall begin with two oddities. 1600 represents the High Renaissance in Northern Europe. Yet, in Scotland we are so proud of our culture in that Golden Age of humanism that we practically delete it from our literary histories. The Renaissance may mean Shakespeare to England, it means MacDiarmid and the 20th century in Scotland. Secondly, the more Scottish Literature develops as a discipline, the less the chronological Renaissance flourishes. Why does this state of affairs exist? Most basically, comparisons are particularly ‘odorous’ for Scottish writing in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Against either the earlier, domestic measure of the medieval makars, Henryson and Dunbar or the contemporary rivalry of Shakespeare and Jonson, the quality of Alexander Scott, Alexander Montgomerie and William Drummond pales. Additionally, a severely political Scottish paradigm – emphasising differences from English practice – still governs critical thinking and guarantees that this period of linguistic amalgamation within the broad parameters of shared European artifice gains scant attention. But I have spent a good part of my academic time lamenting the sad effects of this situation, where many modernists feel they can use Henryson and Dunbar as keystones for everything prior to Ramsay and some eighteenth century scholars still believe that study of the preceding hundred and fifty years may be omitted with impunity. To-day, my simpler and more upbeat purpose is to show you what literary joys are omitted by those who excise in this way. My central focus will be the Castalian Band of court poets, whose period of popularity spans the 1580s and early 1590s. In this context I am concerned to question Hugh MacDiarmid’s odd claim. In Lucky Poet, that there was no Scottish Renaissance at all:

At that time, Scottish culture was still vigorously but hopelessly without direction and becoming increasingly divorced from the real national situation. Owing to the difficulty of initiating what ought to have been the task before the age in Scotland as it was elsewhere in Europe – namely the evolution of renaissance literature in the vernacular, incorporating the lessons learned from the Humanists....the literature becomes royalist and episcopalian as well as circumscribed in outlook. 1

There are four questions here, each of which I shall answer. Is there a Scottish Renaissance? Does it have a Scottish direction? Is it inexorably opposed to a performance culture? Does it shun all contact with the folk movement? In the second part of the paper, I shall simply use quotations to show that a polymathic approach to the seventeenth century rather than that seeking ‘Scots alone’ may reveal literary excellence and variety of a kind seldom claimed by the Scottish literati.

Who is this, then, opening his rhetorical treatise of 1585?

The cause why (docile reader) I have not dedicat this short treatise to any particular personis (as commounly workis usis to be) is that I esteme all thais quha hes already some beginning of knawledge, with ane earnest desyre to atteyne to farther, alyke meit for the reading of this worke, or any uther, quhilk may help thame to the atteining to thair foirsaid desyre. Bot, as to this work, quhilk is intitulito The Reulis and Cautelis to be observit and eschewit in Scottis Poesie, ye may marvell paraventure, quhairfore I sould have writtin in that mater, sen sa mony learnit men, baith of auld and of late, hes already written thairof in dyvers and sindrie languages. 2

It is, of course, no other than the young king, James VI, adding his own quidelines for modern practice to those of Ascham and Du Bellay, though opting for the introductory approach of Gascoigne’s Certayne Notes of Instruction. So, there was not only a Renaissance but an analytically planned one in which the young King played the roles of Apollo and David but Maecenas too. Yes, but surely it was all courtly and academic and Calvinistic, frowning upon performance and despising links with the folk. While not denying that these forces were present, especially as they affected the theatre, the first reason proposed in the Reulis, challenges this stereotype in its black and white form:

I answer that, nochtwithstanding, I have lykewayis writtin of it, for twa caussis. The ane is, as for them that wrait of auld, lyke as the tyme is changeit sensyne, sa is the ordour of poesie changeit. For then they observit not flowing, nor eschewit not ryming in termes, besydes sindrie uther thingis, quhilk now we observe and eschew and dois weil in sa doing, because that now, quhen the warld is waxit auld, we have all their opinionis in writ, quhilk were learned before our tyme, besydes our awin ingynis, quhair as they then did it onelie be thair awin ingynis but help of any uther. Thairfore, quhat I speik of poesie now, I speik of it as being come to mannis age and perfectioun, quhair as then it was bot in the infancie and chyldheid. 2

It takes an English critic, C S Lewis, to sees the musical side of the performance equation. Referring to the master poet of the Castalian band, he notes – ‘In Montgomerie we seem to hear the scrape of the fiddle and the beat of dancing on the turf.’ 3

True, the Musical revival was concentrated in the court. True, ‘musick fyne’ dominated. True, Calvinism was chary about theatrical presentations. But this was also a period of aurality and therefore oratory. Not only the court but the richer merchants had musicians. Entertainments and Courtly Processions often took place in the streets while James VI energetically reformed and encouraged the sang sculis 4. And sometimes the beat of popular music can infiltrate song – religious as well as secular. [The folk-style setting of Montgomerie’s ‘Come my children dere, drau neir me – Dorian Recordings 90139 was played at this point.] Yes, but this was also the period of linguistic treachery was it not? Are we not, concerned with that arch-angliciser James VI? Well, if the Reulis are to be believed, not in the early Castalian period anyway:

The uther cause is that, as for thame that hes written of late, there hes never ane of thame written in our language. For albeit sindrie hes written of it in English, quhilk is lykest to our language, yit we differ from thame in sindrie Reulis of poesie, as ye will find be experience. 2

In fact, the first Scottish writer to turn MacDiarmid’s own modern, defensive, nationalist view was first anticipated as a full policy statement by James VI. To illustrate the broad lines along which the distinctive Scottishness of the Castalian programme was conducted, here is Montgomerie again – this time in sonnet form.

So swete a kis yistrene fra thee I reft
In bouing doun thy body on the bed,
That evin my lyfe within thy lippis I left.
Sensyne from thee my spreits wald never shed;
To folow thee it from my body fled
And left my corps als cold as ony kie.
Bot when the danger of my death I dred,
To seik my spreit I sent my harte to thee;
Bot it wes so inamored with thyn ee,
With thee it myndit lykwyse to remane;
So thou hes keepit captive all the thrie,
More glaid to byde then to returne agane.
Except thy breath thare places had suppleit,
Even in thyn armes thair, doutles, had I deit. 5

How does this sonnet align with the Scottishness of the programme?

  • Formally it has the interlacing scheme which marked out the Scottish sonnet per se. ABABBCBCCDCDEE the so-called Spenserean scheme before Spenser.
  • It is a translation part indeed of a conscious translation policy within the court. This saw Castalians translating a wide range of European authors on the principle that foreign words and ideas as well as lands could be colonised.
  • It is a French translation, the influence of the Pleiade was highlighted in contrast to English Petrarchism.
  • Montgomerie was at least aware of Ronsard’s argument for setting sonnets to music. But was this not the King who practically ordered his poets to anglicise after 1603?

Again true, but there are two relevant definitions of the function and nature of Scots at this time. One – the nationalist one, Scots alone, arrived late on the scene and was first voiced, in Douglas’s Eneados – that is in the most nationalistically focussed mode of all – translation. But the Reulis is a rhetorical treatise which is very strong on decorum. And the older view of Scots, as advocated by Dunbar, is that we are lucky to have a polymathic inheritance. Within the rhetorical/historical view the Scots dialect has no claim to be the original national tongue. That claim more properly pertains to Gaelic, ‘which, was driven back to (virtually) the present highland line’ as part of a conscious attempt at political appeasement by Malcolm Canmore and David I in the thirteenth century. 6

This polymathic heritage was welcomed on decorous grounds by the medieval Scottish makars, because it gave them a varied range of linguistic registers. James’s Reulis pleads the Horatian case for decorum very thoroughly indeed, stressing that propriety of this kind should extend to the manner in which arguments are presented as well – that is, to dialectic as well as rhetoric. Those literary critics who condescend to the anglicising period after James VI’s Renaissance in the 1580s, would do well to remember this rather than anachronistically employing the modern equation between use of Scots and national self-consciousness as their criterion for literary judgement. But, as I promised, my own aim to-day is celebratory rather than defensively analytic. I therefore end with those joys you will miss if you ignore the wealth of Latin and Anglo-Scots in the seventeenth century concentrating only on the Scottish line. This does not mean that Scots ceased. Aurally, the seventeenth century was a highpoint fot the ballad form. Spoiled for choice, I take my first brief ‘tasting in variety’ from ‘Lord Maxwell’s Last Farewell,’ the versified account of an early seventeenth feud between that family and the Johnstones. The extract chosen records Maxwell’s farewell to family and supporters before leaving the country:

Adiew, Lochmaben’s gate so fair,
The Langholm-shank, where birks they be!
Adiew, my ladye and only joy!
And, trust me, I maunna stay with thee.

Adiew, fair Eskdale,o up and down,
Where my poor friends do dwell!
The bangisters will ding them down,
And will them sore compel.

As his return will be marked by treachery and murder, this is not the cheeriest of poems. Written Scots provides a wittier, if nonetheless poignant attitude to death – canine however!

On former days, when I reflect!
I was a dog much in respect
For doughty deed:
But now I must hing by the neck
Without remeed.

O fy, sirs, for black burning shame,
Ye’ll bring a blunder on your name!
Pray tell me, wherein I’m to blame?
Is’t in effect
Because I’m cripple, auld and lame?’
Quo’ bony Heck.

Most of you will, I am sure, have recognised the pen of Hamilton of Gilbertfield and ‘The Last Dying Words of Bonny Heck, A Famous Grey-Hound in the Shire of Fife.’

Having checked to find that Scots is not dead, let us extend our linguistic focus to Latin. The Scottish Renaissance not only produced in George Buchanan, the foremost Latin writer in Europe, the continued energy of the Scottish Neo-Latinists is well documented in two bulky volumes published in Holland in 1637 under the title Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum Huius Aevi Illustrium. My choice here is influenced by the misleading general belief that all Latin verse is hyper-serious. Not so! Here is the editor of the collection, Arthur Johnston, satirising the possessor of one with ‘the largest of all noses’ in ‘De naso Nasonis cuiusdam nasutissimi.’

Conditur hoc tumulo nasorum maximus, orbem
Flere decet; nil non hoc pereunte perit.
Hic poterat vel more tubae fera bella ciere,
Scindere vel patriam vomeris instar humum.
Non alium fornax optasset Lemnia follem;
Nec magis incudi malleus aptus erat.

[In this grave the largest of noses is laid to rest; the world should
weep. Everything perishes if it perishes. Like a trumpet it could call up
savage wars or cut through its native land like a ploughshare. Vulcan
could not have wished for a better pair of bellows for his furnace, nor
was any great mallet forged more fittingly.]

The Gaelic voice was also strong. Here too, classical and popular strains vied for attention. I have chosen a representative of the latter class here. And although the fact that she is a woman redounds to the credit of the Gaels, Mary Macleod’s exile to Scarba, as retold in her own ‘Luinneag Mhic Leoid’ 7 makes one wonder whether the hierarchy of the day had much enthusiasm for such novelties. The extract is frome the opening of the lilt:

Is mi am shuidhe air an tulaich fo mhulad ‘s fo imcheist,
Is mi ag coimhead air Ile, is ann de m’ iongnadh ‘s an am so;
Bha mi uair nach do shaoil mi, gus an do chaochail air m’aimsir,
Gun tiginn an taobh so dh’amharc Dhiuraidh a Sgarbaidh.

Sitting here on the knoll, forlorn and unquiet, I gaze upon Islay and marvel the while; there was a time I never thought – till my circumstances changed – that I should come hither to view Jura from Scarba.

Gun tiginn an taobh so dh’amharc Dhiuraidh a Sgarbaidh!
Beir mo shoraidh do’n duthaichtha fo dhubhar nan garbhbheann,
Gu Sir Tormod ur allail fhuair ceannas air armailt,
Is gun cainte anns gach fearann gum b’airidh fear t’ainm air.

To come hither and view Jura from Scarba! Carry my greetings to the land which lies shadowed by the rugged peaks, to the young, renowned Sir Norman, who has won headship over an armed host – for it is said in every land, that one of his name would be worthy thereof.

Student reaction, certainly in my Scottish Literature classes is, however reserved for what is seen as effete anclicisation. The pastoral in particular is seen as woolly, literally and metaphorically despite its high standing in Renaissance theory and obvious use of fantasy for serious idealogical comment. That it may easily be adapted to patriotic and political purposes within ceremonials open to the public, is easily illustrated. Here is Drummond of Hawthornden combining eulogy with criticism in welcoming James VI’s trady return to his native shores as James I:

Ah, why should Isis
only see thee shine?
Is not thy Forth, as well as Isis, thine?
Though Isis vaunt shee hath more wealth in store,
Let it suffice thy Forth doth love Thee more.
Though shee, for beautie, may compare with Seine,
For swannes and sea-nymphes with imperiall Rhene,
Yet, in the title may bee claim’d in thee,
Nor shee, nor all the world can match with mee.

Taking the voice of the Scottish rivers against their English equivalents may distance him somewhat. But the point is clearly made! I end with prose. Late in fictive development and anglicised practically from the outset, it is exuberantly employed in the mid seventeenth century by the idiosyncratic Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty – that ingenious Royalist who sought to escape Cromwellian captivity by giving the Protector a copy of his Universal Language and who is said to have died of a fit of laughter on hearing of the reinstatement of Charles II. There is no better celebratory ending surely than this passage of parodic Euphues from his patriotic Romance, The Jewel. Here, that ‘type’ of Scottish heroism, the Admirable Crichton, proves that his many skills extend to the bedroom. What follows could be briefly glossed as: ‘And so they made love.’ But Urquhart’s logofascination does not allow him to use five words when 220 may be lavished!

Thus for a while their eloquence was mute and all they spoke was but with the eye and hand, yet so persuasively, by vertue of the intermutual unlimitedness of their visotactilo sensation, that each part and portion of the persons of either was obvious to the sight and touch of the persons of both. The visuriencyo of either, by ushering the tacturiencyo of both, made the attrectationo of both consequent to the inspection of either. Here was it that passion was active and action passive, they both being overcome by other and each the conquerour. To speak of her hirquitalliencyo at the elevation of the pole of his microcosme or of his luxuriousnesso to erect a gnomon on her horizontal dyal, will perhaps be held by some to be expressions full of obscoeness and offensive to the purity of chaste ears; yet seeing she was to be his wife and that she could not be such without consummation of marriage – which signifieth the same thing in effect – it may be thought, as definitiones logicae verificantur in rebus, if the exerced acto be lawful, that the diction which supponeso it can be of no great transgression, unless you would call it a solaecisme, or that vice in grammar which imports the copulating of the masculine with the feminine gender.

If this talk encourages you to believe my modest proposal that there was a first Scottish Renaissance and that the death of the polymathic seventeenth century has been ‘greatly exaggerated,’ then I am well content.

1 Hugh MacDiarmid, Lucky Poet (London, 1936) p.206.
2 For convenience of reference, all texts are taken from The Mercat Anthology of Early Scottish Literature, ed. R.D.S. Jack and P.A.T. Rozendaal (Edinburgh, 1997).
3 C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (Oxford, 1936) p. 259
4 See Michael Lynch, ‘Court Ceremony and Ritual during the personal reign of James VI’, pp. 71-92, in The Reign of James VI, ed. Julian Goodare and Michael Lynch (East Linton, 2000); Theo van Heijnsbergen, ‘The Scottish Chapel Royal as Cultural Intermediary,’ in Centres of Learning: ed. Jan Willem Drijvers and A.A.MacDonald (Leiden, 1995) pp. 299-313.
5 One of Montgomerie’s free Ronsardian translations. The source is ‘Hier soir Marie, en prenant maugre toy.’
6 Janet M. Templeton, ‘Scots: An Outline History,’ in Occasional Papers (Association for Scottish Literary Studies) ed. A J Aitken (Glasgow, 1973), pp.4 -11.
7 ‘Luinneag’ means a ‘lilt;’ that is – an informal and ‘feminine’ tune. When defending herself for entering the male realms of the bard, Mary noted that she only composed lilts of this sort.


Copyright © R.D.S. Jack 2000


Last updated 23 August 2010.