a surname which there can be no doubt originated
from the profession of a barber, and seems to have
been at one period common in Scotland. In 1309 King
Robert the Bruce granted to Robert Barbour a charter
of the lands of Craigie in Forfarshire. To this
Robert Barbour Dr. Jamie— son suggests the
probability that the poet Barbour was related. In
the borough rolls of exchequer in the year 1328
occurs an order issued by King Robert the Bruce to
Sir Alexander Seaton, governor of Berwick, for the
payment of a certain sum of money to a John Barbour
or Barber. A person of the name of Andrew Barbour
possessed a tenement in the Castle street of
Aberdeen, from which, in 1350, a burgess of that
city called Mathew Pinchach had granted an endowment
to the Carmelite Friars, as appears from a charter
given by David the Second to that body, of the date
of 1560. In this charter the name Barbour is
curiously translated Barbitonsor. (Jamieson's
Barbour, page 3.)
BARBOUR, BARBER, or BARBAR, JOHN, an eminent
historical poet, was born, according to a
supposition of Lord Hailes, about 1316; other
authorities say, 1330. Aberdeen is stated by Home of
Godscroft, Dr. M’Kenzie and others, to have been his
birthplace, but the statement, though extremely
probable, is not fully authenticated. From the
sameness of the name, he is conjectured by Dr.
Irving to have been the son of the above-named John
Barbour, (Irving’s Lives of the Scotish Poets, vol.
i. p. 254,) while Dr. Jamieson suggests that the
Andrew Barbour, also above mentioned, was his
father. (Jamieson’s Barbour, V. i. p. 3.) The latter
is certainly the more probable supposition. Where
all is conjecture, however, without any evidence to
support it, Mr. Pinkerton, on the other hand,
prudently abstains from hazarding a guess as to
either the birthplace or the parentage of the poet.
(Pinkerton’s Barbour, vol. i. p. 18.) Tytler says,
"there is a presumption that he was educated at
Arbroath," (Lives of Scottish Worthies, vol. ii. p.
159,) but he states no grounds and gives no
authority for it. That Barbour received a learned
education is certain, being intended for the church.
In 1356 he was promoted by David the Second to the
archdeaconry of Aberdeen. In August 1357, Edward the
Third, on the application of his own sovereign,
granted him permission to visit Oxford with three
scholars in his company. The letter of safe-conduct
is preserved in Rymer’s Foedera (vol. vi., p.. 31.)
Although Warton supposes, (History of English
Poetry, vol. i. p. 818,) and Tytler "pronounces with
certainty" that he "studied in middle life at
Oxford," (Lives of’ Scottish Worthies, p. 159,)
there is no evidence that he ever pursued any
regular studies there. In September 1357 he was
appointed by the bishop of his diocese one of the
commissioners to deliberate at Edinburgh, concerning
the ransom of David the Second, then a captive in
England. (Foedera, vol. vi. p. 39.) In November
1364, he received another permission to pass through
England, accompanied by four horsemen, for the
purpose of studying at Oxford, or elsewhere. It has
been conjectured that his repeated visits to that
university were for the purpose of consulting books,
and conferring with learned men, or perhaps he had
the charge of young students whom he conducted to
Oxford, to place them under academical discipline.
From the terms of the first recited passport, in
which three scholars in his company are distinctly
mentioned, this is most likely to have been the
case. In October 1365 he appears to have visited St.
Deals, near Paris, in company with six knights his
attendants. The object of their expedition has been
conjectured by Dr. Irving to have been of a
religions kind, for the king of England granted them
permission to pass through his dominions on their
way to St. Denis and other sacred places. (Foedera,
vol. vi. p. 478.) Another safe-conduct, dated
November 1368, granted by Edward to Barbour,
permitted him to pass through England, with two
servants and their horses, on his way to France, for
the purpose of studying there. In February 1373-4
his name appears in the list of auditors of the
Scottish exchequer. Such are all the scanty
materials that are known of the life of Barbour.
His great poem of ‘The Bruce, or the History
of Robert the First, King of Scotland,’ was written
at the desire, it is said, of King David the Second.
It was not commenced till after the middle period of
his life, and as he himself informs us, was finished
in 1375. Hume of Godscroft asserts that as a reward
for the compilation of ‘ The Bruce,’ he had a yearly
pension out of the exchequer during his life, which
he gave to the hospital at Aberdeen, and that it
continued to be paid in the seventeenth century
(History of the House of Douglas, p. 30); but
for this there does not seem to be any authority. On
this subject there appears to be considerable
confusion in the statements of different writers.
Dr. Nicolson, without producing any voucher, affirms
that he received this pension from King David
(Scottish Historical Library, p. 145), but King
David died in 1370, five years before the poem was
finished. Dr. Mackenzie first states that it was
David the Second, and afterwards that it was Robert
the Second who conferred this pension on Barbour.
(Lives of Scots Writers, vol. i. pp. 264, 297.)
Dr. Irving says the original source of information
on the point is evidently the passage in Godscroft.
(Lives of the Scottish Poets, vol. i. p.
256.) It is known that he had two pensions, one of
ten pounds Scots from the customs of Aberdeen,
limited to his life, and another of twenty shillings
from the rents of that city, the latter of which, at
his death, he bequeathed to the chapter of the
cathedral church of his native city, for a mass to
be sung for his soul’s repose.
Annexed is a woodcut of the cathedral of Aberdeen:
Barbour died at the end of 1395, at an
advanced age. His celebrated poem has long been
considered valuable as an historical record. It
contains copious details of the glorious exploits of
Robert the Bruce, and his heroic companions in arms.
The first known edition of ‘The Bruce’ was published
at Edinburgh in 1616, in l2mo, but an ear-lier
edition is believed to have existed. There have been
about twenty editions in all; the work having been
several times reprinted both at Edinburgh and
Glasgow. The best editions are Pinkerton’s, with
notes and a glossary, printed from a MS. in the
Advocates’ Library, dated 1489, three volumes 8vo,
London, 1790; and Dr. Jamieson’s 4to, Edinburgh,
1820. Taking the total merits of this work together,
Pinkerton says that "he prefers it to the early
exertions of even the Italian muse, to the
melancholy sublimity of Dante, and the amorous
quaintness of Petrarca." Barbour, who was
contemporary with Gower and Chaucer, wrote better
English than either of these poets; his language
being more intelligible to a modern reader than is
that of any one poet of the fourteenth century. The
following affords a very favourable specimen of his
style, and of his talent at rural description :—
This was in midst of month of May,
When birdis sing on ilka spray,
Melland their notes, with seemly soun,
For softness of the sweet seasoun;
And leavis of the branchis spreeds,
And blossomis bright, beside them breeds,
And fieldis strawed are with flow’rs
Well savouring of seir colours;
And all things worthis, blyth, and gay.
Barbour was celebrated in his own times for
his learning and genius; but the humanity of his
sentiments, and the liberality of his views, were
much in advance of his age. His description of Free
dom is highly dignified and poetical:—
A! fredome is a nobil thing!
Fredome mayss a man to haiff lyking,
Fredorne all solace to men giffis
He levys at ess that freely levys.
A noble hart may haiff nane ess,
No ellys nocht that may him pless,
Gyff fredome failythe; for fre liking
Is yearnyt our all othir thing.
Na he that ay hass levyt fre,
May nocht knaw weill the propyrte,
The angyr, na the wrechyt dome
That is cowplyt to foul thyrldome.
Bot gyff he had assayit it.
Than all perquer he suld it wyt,
And suld think fredome mar to pryssThan all the gold
in warld that is.
From some passages in Wyntoun’s Chronicle,
it has been conjectured that Barbour also
composed a Genealogical History of the kings of
Scotland, but no part of this is known to be extant.
According to Tytler this formed two works, one on
the Original of the Stewarts, and the other on the
Genealogy of King Brut.