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Old World Scotland
Chapter IX. Vagabonds and Minstrels


THE sorners and masterful beggars against whom special proceedings were instituted by King James I. of Scotland in the first half of the fifteenth century, have their analogues to-day in the colonial settlements of Australia and New Zealand; and the presumption is that they were the product of similar social and economic conditions. Like the most of their modern cousins, the Scots "sorners" were ostensibly sportsmen; and, according to the Acts for their suppression, they were lords of "horses and hounds." The chances are they most abounded in districts where game abounded also; but it is not unlikely that a favourite diversion was a border foray, and that, having thus acquired a distaste for the monotonies of husbandry, they had little other means of support, when forays failed them and the pungent delights of cattle- lifting were impossible, than that of "sorning" on the less romantic but more exemplary section of the community. Their practice was simply a prostitution of the traveller's privilege according to the immemorial rites of hospitality. It may have been coeval in origin with those rites, for abuse is nearly always coincident with use but the growing scarcity of the necessities of life, while it made the visits of these ambiguous guests more and more unwelcome, tended also in a nearly equal ratio to multiply them. The Acts for the suppression of vagabonds and sorners must therefore be taken as indicating that by the middle of the fifteenth century increase of population had effected such a change in economic conditions that the ancient custom of free hospitality was beginning to be a serious burden. By the Act of 1449 the horses, hounds, and other chattels of such as were convicted of being "sorners and masterful beggars " were escheated to the king, and the masterful ones themselves were to be held in ward until the king declared his will. In the same Act mention is made of persons "who made themselves boles, who were not bards, or such-like runners about "

which feigned fools were evidently an inferior order to the "sorners," for they were dealt with much more summarily. If "any were found " they were to be "imprisoned or put in irons and detained as long as they hid anything of their own to live upon, and after this was consumed," pursues the Act (with more of cruelty than grammar), "then their ears were to be nailed to the trone and cut off, and banished out of the country," and afterwards if they be found in the kingdom they shall be hanged." In an Act of 1457, however, all ''sorners, bards, masterful beggars, and feigned fools" are lumped together as alike noxious and equally meriting the common meed of punishment.

These references to a class of mendicant bards are worth considering. The bard's position in the household of the Highland chieftain was recognised and honourable. Buchanan mentions that even in his day they were held in so great honour that in some districts their persons were accounted sacred and their houses sanctuaries; and that even when clans were at open war with each other the bards and their retinue were allowed to pass and repass at their pleasure. In Lowland Scotland the place and prerogative of the bard's vocation are more obscure. George Martine in his "Reliquiae Divi Andreae"(1683) makes mention of a class of beggar-bards called "Jockies," who in his time wandered the country through reciting "sloggorne or war cries." When he wrote there were said to be not more than twelve of them "in the whole isle," but at one time they had been much more numerous. It has beeti conjectured that the sloqgorne they recited were "fragments of Ossian"; but even learned St. Andrew's, where live were in the habit of convening in Martine's time, had scarce the training and accomplishment necessary for the appreciation of the wild cadenzas of a Celtic chant of battle; while as for the benighted Lowlands in general it is to be feared that if Celtic tarmagants with tag and tatter had there essayed to "roup and rook" in Ersch their Ossianic sloggorne, their only largesse would probably not have differed greatly from that with which Mahoun requited the "clatter' 'of the Highland contingent in the nether regions :-

"The Devil sae deaved was with their yell
That in the deepest pit of hell
He smorit them with smook."

Is it an altogether unreasonable supposition that this periodical bardic confabulation at St. Andrew's bore some remote and traditional reference to the city as an ancient and renowned seat of learning and the arts? May not the custom have originated in a sentiment of regard on the part at least of some of the earlier among these minstrels for their alma mater

Possibly none of Martine's twelve—when the mystery was decayed and moribund— had any real tincture of college training but that some disciples of learning did not disdain this method of getting their bread may be concluded 1roiii the mention, in the Act of 1578 for repressing vagrants and minstrels, of "vagabond scholars of the Universities of St. Andrew's, Glasgow, and Aberdeen, who were not licensed to ask alms by the Rector and Dean of Faculty."

Much of the earlier poetry of Scotland was undoubtedly the work of beggar-bards. Such an one was Blind Harry himself, who, according to John Major, by reciting "in the presence of men of the highest rank the verses winch composed his "Book of William Wallace" "procured, as he indeed deserved, food and raiment." The earlier Scottish Icings, too, retained their peculiar poets; and Barbour records that in his day the border minstrel was a personage; so that it seems by no means improbable that to wandering minstrels—Miltons not mute but only inglorious—we are indebted for most of the matchless ballads tradition has preserved. True the bard is ostensibly treated with scant respect in the Act of 1457, being classed with sorners and feigned fools; but the key to the interpretation of this Act is to be found in another (1449), in which he is by implication excepted from punishment, only fools " who were not bards " being described as amenable. But after all some of the heroes of the ancient border ballads—as Cockburn of Henderland, whose fate is bewailed in the ' Lament of the Border Widow," and Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie— were little better in the eye of the law than "sorners and masterful beggars' ; and it seems beyond doubt that the border rievers, even if they did not keep their own special bards to beguile the tedium of their idle hours, yet bestowed on them substantial patronage and protection. There is, however, clear evidence that even at a later period the vocation of bard or minstrel was not only deemed lawful, but held in high esteem. An Act passed in 1471 granted them, with knights and heralds, permission to be habited in silks and more than a century after this (in 1574), while Highland or Irish bards or beggars were prohibited from being received in the Lowlands, minstrels, songsters, or tale-bearers, in the service of a lord of parliament, a great baron, or a burgh, were specially excepted from the penalties decreed against vagabonds. Yet this Act probably indicates the beginning of the end. General protection was practically withdrawn from them, and above all the age of chivalry was now no more. Individual lords or barons might for a time retain their own special minstrels, but time artless art of the ancient balladist was lost beyond revival.


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