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The Complaynt of Scotland

The Complaynt of Scotland was written around 1550 in Middle Scots - considered by some to be "the classical language of Scotland" - at around the same time as Sir David Lindsay wrote his weel-kent: "Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis". Although authorship of The Complaynt is often given as 'anonymous', it's widely believed that it was written by Robert Wedderburn, the then Vicar of Dundee.

Wedderburn was born around 1510, one of three sons of James Wedderburn, a merchant of that city. He matriculated in the University of St. Andrews in 1526 and studied under Gavin Logie at the College of St. Leonard's. After graduating, he resigned the chaplaincy he had taken up in 1528 at St. Katherine's, Dundee.

Although he couldn't legally marry, he and his 'wife', Isobel Lovell, had two sons, David (c.1550 - 83/85) and Robert (c.1550 - c.1620), for whom who he received 'precepts of legitimation' in Linlithgow, on Jan.13th, 1552.

It is believed that he also spent some time in France after graduating. The Complaynt itself is based on the framework of an earlier book in French by Alain Chartier (Quadrilogue Invectif.1422), and is, amongst other things, a "defence and illustration of the (Scots) vernacular', which the author achieves brilliantly, incorporating classical tales and discourses on subjects as diverse as astromomy, botany, folklore and music, quoting and referring to the works of Cicero, Carion, Pliny, et al, all written in Scots (with a wee bit Latin thrown in).

In it, Dame Scotia  (the personification of Scotland), appears as a 'vision', who powerfully and eloquently rebukes and reproves her 'thrie sonnis', who are the 'three Estates' of the pre-1707 Scottish Parliament, giving prophetic warnings and poignant advice on how catastrophy and 'final extermination' can be avoided.

The Complaynt is a reply to the aggressive ideological war waged against Scotland during the period euphemistically termed the "Rough Wooing", in which England pursued a union of crowns through a mixture of threats and bribes. It is a nationalist document of resistence, exhorting unity against insidious and divisive propaganda which attempted to pit Scot against Scot in the futherence of English ambitions to rule over them.

The Complayner frequently cites examples from history in which individuals and nations faced and overcame similar threats, and the moral lessons that can be learnt and applied from them. He urges Scots to reject their fatalistic apathy and a misguided belief in 'fortune', and, instead, accept their responsibility and assert their free will.

As might be expected from such an author, and of the times it was written in, The Complaynt is also, in part, a 'sermon', elaborated throughout with quotes from Scripture. The aggression and oppression of the English is seen as a 'scourge' - a divine 'rod of correction'. Only when the lessons of these events are learnt, and a course of 'right action' taken, will Scots be able to remedy their afflicted situation.

At first glance, The Complaynt mightn't seem easy to read, but any initial difficulties are mainly due to differences in spelling, and these are fairly regular. For example, 'z' is used, in this edition, in place of 'yogh'; an archaic defunct character that looks like a '3' representing the letter 'y'.As with Latin, 'v' is often used for 'u' (and vice versa); 'u' for 'w', 'i' for 'j', as well as others archaic element, such as 'quh' for 'wh' (eg. 'quhilk' = whilk = which).

It will also be noticed that the Scots clerks and writers or old had different ideas about punctuation than we do today. I have, however, remained true to the original, which is easily read and understood. Chapters XII & XVIII are not designated in the surviving texts but are given by their folio numbers in the 'tabvla' . The folio numbers appear in the text as <f124r> etc.

In many ways, much of the Complaynt of Scotland remains relevant today, even in post-devolution Scotland, where, slowly but surely, the old apathy and fatalism is giving way to responsibility and the exercise of personal freedom for the 'common weil'. Old habits (on both sides of the border) die hard though.

David Wilson

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