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Byways of Scottish Story
The Epic of Freedom: Barbour's "Bruce"


WRITER of the great national epic, sole recorder of the most heroic period of the national history, and architect of the most abiding monument of the national tongue, John Barbour justly remains the most famous of the early poet-chroniclers of Scotland. But for his pen the passion of patriotism which gave Scotland a soul for four hundred years might have died with Douglas and Bruce; and but for him the living heroes of the Scottish wars of succession and independence must have come down to us little more than empty names. His work was the first strong shoot of that literature in the sweet Scots tongue which, towards the close of the fifteenth and in the first half of the sixteenth centuries, was to break into rich poetic flower in the works of Dunbar, Douglas, and Sir David Lyndsay; and as Chaucer has been called the father of English poetry, so Barbour must be recognised as the pioneer of the more northern singers.

Considering the service which he rendered, and the value which was put upon his work even in his own day, it seems strange that so little is known of the actual life of the author of "The Bruce." The absence of this information is only to be accounted for by the fact that curiosity regarding the details of writers' lives was then a thing unknown. The preservation of the little knowledge of Barbour's life which we possess is owed almost entirely to the circumstance of his share as a churchman in public life, and probably he himself would have been the last to suppose that the details of his existence as a writer would in any way interest the world.

Born in Aberdeenshire, it is understood, about the year 1316, two years after the battle of Bannockburn, he was literally a child of the age of which he wrote. Whether or not he took any part personally in the stirring deeds of that time cannot now be ascertained, but in his early years there must have been many about him who had been companions-in-arms with the heroes of the great struggle. It is not, however, until the year 1357 that Barbour, comes into public notice. In that year was signed the Treaty of Berwick, by which, after his long captivity, David IL, the son of Bruce, returned to Scotland, and by which a truce of ten years was declared between the two countries. Part of the new policy of conciliation then inaugurated by Edward III. was to admit the youth of Scotland to attend the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. In each case the students were admitted to English territory by special permit, and one of the permits still extant bears that John Barbour, archdeacon of Aberdeen, was allowed to pass to Oxford with three scholars under his charge for purposes of study. Seven years later, in 1364, his name appears on a similar permit, and in 1368 he received further letters of, protection, enabling him to pass with certain companions through England on his way to the University of Paris. Such journeys to foreign universities were common among Scottish scholars even after the foundation of St. Andrews University in 1450, and, indeed, a romantic chapter might be written on the adventures of these wandering scholars, from Michael Scot and Duns Scotus to George Buchanan and the Admirable Crichton, who throughout the Middle Ages were to be found upholding the light of learning in every university of Europe.

At the date of Barbour's last passage through London, Chaucer would be a young man of twenty-six, and it would have been most interesting to know whether any meeting occurred between the two. 'No details of the scholar's travels, however, are extant.

In 1373 the poet became a clerk of audit to the household of Robert II., and it appears to have been after that date that he composed his great work. Whether or not the first of the Stuart kings was sagacious enough, like the Roman Augustus, to perceive the advantages and to suggest the composition of a national epic is not now discoverable ; but it was, at any rate, within the sphere of Court influence that Barbour performed the part of a northern Virgil. A record of ten pounds given him by the king in 1377 has been taken to mark the date of completion of "The Bruce," and the royal recognition of the work. He also received successively from the king a grant of certain tithes in the parish of Rayne in Garioch, a Crown wardship, at that time probably a somewhat lucrative appointment, a perpetual annuity of 20s.; and finally, in 1388, a pension of ten pounds. The last payment of this pension occurred in 1395, and that or the following year was probably, therefore, the date of the poet's death. The annuity of 20s. he bequeathed to the Dean and Chapter of Aberdeen for the saying of an annual mass for his soul, and as that mass, down to the time of the Reformation, was said regularly for him in Aberdeen Cathedral on the 9th of March, this was probably the exact day of his demise. So considerably, it will appear, may the record of a poet's life depend upon dry entries of Exchequer. An antique tablet formerly in the graveyard, but now on the inner wall of St. Machar's Cathedral, Aberdeen, is believed to have marked the poet's last resting-place. It still bears the name of John Barbour, archdeacon.

From several references by the later chronicler Wyntoun, as well as by Barbour himself, the Archdeacon was author also of a second poem named "The Brut." This composition appears to have recorded the descent of the Scottish kings from Brutus, a grandson of AEneas. 'Nothing remains of it, however, save some two thousand lines uncertainly attributed to it in Lydgate's MS. Troy-books in the Cambridge Library. He is also believed to have been the author of another work,' "The Book of Legends of the Saints," discovered in the Cambridge Library not many years ago, and printed in 1889. Possibly it was in recognition of these works that the poet's later bounties were granted by the king, but no indication of the fact remains.

Of the language in which it is written, the beautiful Lowland Scots, Barbour's "Bruce" is the classic monument and example; and writers of the mongrel and misspelled English and corrupted local vulgarisms which too often pass for " Scots Doric" in the literature of to-day would do well to make themselves acquainted with the genius and dignity of the actual language at its fountain-head. It would be impossible to render into modern English of equal simplicity and strength many of Barbour's most ordinary passages : and for this reason, amongst others, regret might be expressed that in Scottish universities and schools the study of poems like "The Bruce " has been abandoned so completely in favour of English models. There is a bloom about passages like the following-the introduction to the episode of the king's crossing from Arran to Carrick - which is not surpassed by any natural description in Chaucer :

This wes in ver, quhen wynter-tyd;
With his blastis hiduyss to byd,
Was our drywyn; and byrdis smale,
As turturis and the nychtyngale,
Begouth richt sariely to syng,
And for to mak in thair syngyng
Swete notis and sownys ser
And melodys plesand to her,
And the treis begouth to ma
Burgeans and brycht blomys alsua,
To wyn the helyng off thair hewid;
And all gressys begouth to spryng.
In-to that tyme the nobill king,
With his flote and a few mengye,
Thre hundyr I trow their mycht be,
Is to the se, owte off Arane,
A litill forouth ewyn, gane.

Hitherto, somewhat unjustly, Barbour's best-known poem has been chiefly valued as a historical document. Its worth in this respect stands beyond doubt. For a great part of the history of the time of which it treats, and especially for the personal episodes of its hero's career, "The Bruce" remains the only authority. It is true that other contemporary records of the English and Scottish wars of the period exist, but on the Scottish side these are confined to the dry bones of charters, Parliament rolls, and the like, while the English chronicles touch only externally upon points in which the interests of England are involved. Thus for the living, internal history of his country, and for a representation of the spirit which made and animated the Scotland of that time, Barbour remains all but the sole source of information.

Another contemporary rhyming chronicle upon the same subject is said to have existed. This was by one Peter Fenton, a monk in the Abbey of Melrose in 1369, and it told the story of its hero "from the Battle of Bannockburn forth." It is referred to in a "History of Robert the Bruce" by one Patrick Gordon, gentleman, published at Dort in the year 1015; but the manuscript was badly tattered when Gordon saw it, and nothing is known of it now.

No weight of doubt has ever been cast upon the historical truth of the general tenor of Barbour's story. In all essential points of contact, except one, it agrees with contemporary English records; and even such episodes of the hero's personal prowess as might reasonably have been deemed somewhat exaggerated continue to receive confirmation as a better knowledge of the manners and circumstances of that time becomes available. Thus the apparent extravagance of an episode like that of the slaughter of the five men of Lorne by the single arm of Bruce, disappears when it is known that the five were probably half-naked and ill-armed mountaineers, and that they had to cope with a knight in complete mail, as well as of uncommon personal strength. Another apparently romantic story, too, that of the carrying of Bruce's heart to Spain, received striking corroboration from the fact that, upon the opening of the king's tomb at Dunfermline, some eighty years ago, the breast bone of the skeleton was found sawn through.

The historical value of Barbour's poem is immensely increased by its contemporaneous character. Though the poet was not himself actually engaged in the actions which he records, many of his friends, as has been already remarked, must have been eye-witnesses of them. For one of the episodes, indeed, that of Edward Bruce's campaign in Galloway, Barbour expressly quotes his informant:

A knycht that then wes in his rowt,
Worthi and wycht, stalwart and stout,
Curtaiss and fayr and off gud fame,
Schyr Alane of Catkert by name,
Tauld me this taile as I sall tell.

For this reason it may be believed, not only that the narrative of action is authentic, but that in many interesting cases, such as the speech to his chiefs before Bannockburn, and the affecting farewell of the dying king at Cardross, the actual words of Bruce himself have been preserved.

The single departure from historic fact of which Barbour is known to be guilty possesses a reason of its own. Something of the ancient instinct of the bard was associated with that of the historian in his mind ; he was writing an epic poem rather than a cut-and-dry history, and so in the beginning of his work lie perpetrated a considerable anachronism. In the interest of the unities it suited the poet to make his hero, Bruce, Earl of Carrick, the same person as Bruce, Lord of Annandale, who had been Baliol's competitor for the Scottish crown. A point of poetic justice was achieved by depicting the noble who formerly suffered as the same with him who finally found redress at the hands of fortune, whereas, in sober fact, it was the grandfather who suffered in Baliol's time, and the grandson who triumphed at Bannockburn. Similarly, poetic necessity demanded that throughout the narrative light should be cast chiefly upon the virtues of Bruce and upon the faults of Edward. This, however, there is good reason to believe, has in no case been done by suggestio falsi, but everywhere, in the few instances in which it occurs, only by suppressio veri. The hero of the poem, as Mr. Cosmo Innes has pointed out, "was not to be degraded by the announcement that he had ever sworn fealty to Edward and once done homage to Baliol, or ever joined any party other than that of his country or of freedom." Nowhere, however, does Barbour do injustice to the nobility of his hero's adversaries, and it follows that throughout, alike in colour and in statement of fact, his poem possesses all the value of authentic history.

But it is as poetry that "The Bruce " ought to be chiefly considered. There can be little doubt that the first object of its author was the poetic one. lie recounted, it is true, the details of the most momentous period of Scottish national history: but these were merely the materials of an epic of universal human interest whose theme was freedom. Regarding this fact he does not leave the reader long unaware, and the famous panegyric near the beginning of his work remains probably the noblest outburst on the subject:

A! fredome is a noble thing,!
Fredome mayss man to haiff liking;
Fredome all solace to man gyffis,
He levys at ese that frely levys.
A noble hart may haiff nane ess,
Na ellys nocht that may him pless,
Gyff fredome failihe; for fre liking
Is yharnit our all other thing;
Na he, that ay hes levyt fre,
May nocht knaw weill the propyrte,
The angyr, na the wrechyt dome,
That is couplyt to foule thyrldome,
Bot gyff he had assayit it,
Than all perquer he suld it wyt,
And suld think fredome mar to pryss
Than all the gold in warld that is.

In lines like these, and indeed throughout the entire poem, as Pinkerton, one of its editors, has said, "the hero seems to have inspired the author."

All the qualities of a great epic are to be found in "The Bruce." The subject is national and heroic, the characters are bold and noble, and the action is majestic. The style may here and there lack superficial polish, and the movement of the verse may at times appear somewhat rugged ; but for representation of real manners, for rapid narration of incident, for life, vividness, and strong good sense, the poem must be ranked among the greatest. Inspired at first hand by actual circumstances and by the national enthusiasm of the time, "The Bruce," as a faithful portrayal of events and manners, was not only accepted at Court, but immediately became popular with the nation. Containing nothing supernatural or unbelievable in its machinery, it can in no respect be considered an imitation either of classic or exotic compositions, but stands boldly out as an indigenous and characteristic growth of the northern soil, and remains to the present day a living and vigorous fountain of refreshment for those who would drink at the wells of national strength.

The time of the composition of "The Bruce" was one for the production of great work. It is amid the volcanic convulsions of earth that the gems are formed which sparkle afterwards as its brightest possessions, and similarly it is amid the upheavals of nations that genius breaks into new creation. Barbour had at hand the noblest of all materials in the struggle and birth of a nation. In his treatment of these he may have fallen short of the excellence of transcendent masters like Homer and Virgil; but it has to be remembered that his was almost the first work of literature in the language which he used, and none can deny that, with native characteristics of simplicity, strength, and enthusiasm, he has painted the greatest national picture, and has bequeathed to the modern reader the true national epic of Scotland in the Scottish tongue.


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