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The Bruce
Being the Metrical History of Robert the Bruce King of Scots
Compiled A.D. 1375 by Master John Barbour Archdeacon of Aberdeen and Translated by George Eyre-Todd


By reason of the archaic language in which it is written, Barbour's famous metrical history of The Bruce has long been a sealed book to all but expert students of ancient literature. It has now been translated for the first time in the hope that it may resume the popularity to which it is entitled by the splendid merits of its heroic tale.

John Barbour has long been looked upon as the father of Scottish poetry, and he occupies almost the same position in the literature of North Britain as the author of the Canterbury Tales does in that of the south. The Bruce is the earliest great poem we possess in the vernacular of the country. Other early Scottish poems, like 'The Taill of Rauf Coilzear,' 'The Awntyrs of Arthure', 'Sir Tristrem', and 'The Pystyl of Swete Susan', were written in the more inflected language and in the alliterative and accented verse-forms of an earlier time. It was Barbour's Bruce which first defined and fixed the language of Scotland in the shape it was to keep as a literary vehicle for two hundred years, and it was Barbour's Bruce which definitely committed the poetry of Scotland to metre and rhyme, instead of the older alliteration and accent, as its distinguishing features. These were exactly the services which Chaucer rendered to the literature of Southern Britain at exactly the same time. And exactly as Chaucer's work remains the classic or standard of the English language before Shakespeare's day, so Barbour's remains the classic or standard of 'Braid Scots' during the same period, to the Union of the Crowns.

Barbour and Chaucer were contemporaries, but the Scottish 'maker' was in no sense inspired or stimulated by the work of the English poet. Barbour, in fact, was considerably the elder, and had finished his work before Chaucer had much more than begun his. Barbour was born about 1316 or 1320, and he died in 1395, while Chaucer was born in 1340, and died in 1400. And Barbour, by his own statement, finished The Bruce in 1375, when Chaucer had written little more than his early translation of 'The Romaunt of the Rose,' the lament for his great patron's wife, 'Blaunche the Duchesse,' and perhaps the first drafts of one or two of his Tales. In 1357 and 1364 Barbour had passports from Edward III of England, allowing him to journey to Oxford with certain scholars and knights for purposes of study, and he had similar permits in 1365 and 1368 allowing him to travel with a suite through England to France for purposes of scholarship. It has been suggested that upon some of these occasions the two poets may have met. But in 1357 Barbour was a man of some forty years, and a great church dignitary, Archdeacon of Aberdeen, while Chaucer was a stripling of seventeen, a page in the household of Elizabeth, wife of Lionel, Duke of Clarence.

As a matter of fact, both poets derived their inspiration from, and took for their first models, the great romances of chivalry, which had been introduced by the trouveres of Normandy, and just then, in the fourteenth century, had reached their greatest vogue and perfection. 'The Romance of Fierabras', which Barbour describes Robert the Bruce as himself reciting to his companions while they were two by two ferried across Loch Lomond, was one of these productions; and again and again the poet illustrates his poem with episodes from others. It was from these romances that the new fashion of metre and rhyme came into the poetry of this country, and it was in their octosyllabic measure and rhyming couplets that Barbour wrote his great work. rho poet's own idea, indeed, was to write a romance, after the fashion of the Arthurian, Charlemagnian, and other romance cycles of his time, with the deeds of the great Scottish king and his companions for its subject. Thus near the beginning he announces,

Lordingis, quha likis for till her,
The Romanys now begynnys her.

In accordance with this poetic purpose his work is written in a strain of noble sentiment which befits well the high-hearted enthusiasm of that heroic time. Many of its passages, too, as pure poetry, can hold their own with anything in our language of their vein. The famous panegyric on Freedom, the portrait of James of Douglas, and the description of Spring at Bruce's setting forth from Arran, with many other passages, remain classics of their kind.

But Barbour's purpose, after all, was not so much poetic as historic. He was familiar, not only with the Norman-French metrical romances, and their translations in the vernacular, which were the popular entertainment of his age, but also with the historical rhyming chronicles which were then in fashion. Robert of Gloucester and Robert Manning, otherwise Robert of Brunne, had both written their metrical chronicles of British history in the earlier years of the century, and Barbour himself, we know from Wyntoun, followed the same example, and wrote a metrical history of early Britain, founded, like theirs, on the Brut of Wace, the Norman-French trouvere, or perhaps on Wace's original, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and describing the legendary descent and deeds of the Scottish kings, from Brutus, great-grandson of Æneas, to his own day. Clearly the historic motive was strongest in Barbours mind. His opening lines declare his intention to "say nocht bot suthfast thing." And as a result we have a record, in eloquent and glowing phrase, which on all hands is admitted to be not only a noble masterpiece of poetic literature, but a trustworthy and minute account of the most thrilling and heroic period of Scottish history.

The general truth and accuracy of Barbour's narrative has never been questioned. Here and there the order of events is transposed. The great conspiracy of Lord Soulis, for instance, is made to come after the battle of Byland, instead of before it; Edward Bruce's assumption of kingship in Ireland is antedated by a few weeks; and the Earl of Arundel's expedition against Douglas is said to have been commanded by Sir Thomas of Richmond, who was only a knight in its ranks. These are but slight and trivial matters, detracting little from the general truth of the tale. It is true that Professor Skeat, in his notes to the latest edition of Barbour's poem, is inclined to treat as exaggerations some of the feats of personal prowess attributed to Bruce. And he and a still later critic, Mr. J. T. T. Brown, seem to consider the story of the Brooch of Lorne to be merely repeated in the later slaying of the three traitors in Carrick, and the three robbers at Cumnock. But such conclusions may be too hastily reached. The details of the three episodes mentioned are altogether different, and in no way improbable, and the king's single- handed slaughter of several assailants on these and other occasions becomes feasible enough when we remember that Bruce was not only of uncommon strength, but clad in complete mail, while his assailants were ill-armed peasants, or "naked" men. There is the story, too, of Douglas setting forth with Bruce's heart for the Holy Land. This might have been looked upon as a mere embellishment in the style of the favourite romance literature of the period, and Mr. Brown indeed seeks to insist that it is a story taken by a later scribe from the romantic narrative of Froissart, and embodied in Barbour's poem. But the whole event must have been well enough known to Barbour himself, who was a boy of twelve when it occurred; and if confirmation of the fact were needed for modern readers, it was supplied when the tomb of Bruce at Dunfermline was opened a hundred years ago, and the breastbone of the royal skeleton was found sawn through.

Much more serious is another charge brought against Barbour's bona fides. In both of the extant manuscripts of the poem, the Robert Bruce who conquered at Bannockburn is made out to be the same person as the Robert Bruce who suffered indignity at the hands of Edward I. Several editors have argued that this travesty of truth was deliberately perpetrated by Barbour in order to cover up the fact that his hero had in reality been a knight at Edward's court, and had sworn homage to the English king; as if the indignity suffered by the grandfather justified the broken fealty of the grandson. Such a glaring figment, Sir Herbert Maxwell has said, is enough to render all that follows it, in the eyes of some people, of no historical importance. But Mr. J. T. T. Brown has happily shown that the whole mistake has arisen from a very slight corruption of the MSS. The passage in these MSS. runs,

This lord the Brwyss I spak of ayr
Saw all the kynryk swa forfayr,
And swa trowblyt the folk saw he
That he tharoff had gret pitte.

The same passage, quoted in Wyntonn's Cronykil, from an older and fuller MS. of The Bruce, altogether avoids the mistake:

Quhen all this sawe the Brwss Robert
That bare the crowne swne eftirwart
Gret pytte off the folk he had
Set few wordis tharoff he mad.

Barbour had the best of means for ascertaining the events he described. In his youth he must have known many of the personages who had taken part in the great struggle, and again and again he mentions his authority. In one case, the exploit of Edward Bruce in Galloway, he even names his informant:

A knycht that then wes in his rowt...
Schyr Alane off Catkert by name
Tauld me this taile as I sail tell.

The poet further was in close touch with the court and its authentic sources of information, while his clerical office brought him in his earlier years into contact with the common people, their songs, traditions, and impressions of the great struggle which was only a matter of yesterday. As a result Barbour's Bruce remains the chief storehouse of information for the detail, character, and circumstance which lend colour to the great historic drama of the fourteenth century in Scotland. The accuracy of The Bruce was recognized by Barbour's own contemporary, Andro of Wyntoun, in his Grygynale Cronykil of Scotland, and a century and a half later by the historian, Hector Boece, both of whom excused their brevity in dealing with the reign of King Robert by referring their readers to Barbour.

The ascertained facts of Barbour's own life are vouched for by no fewer than fifty-one entries in contemporary documents. These entries the editor of the latest edition of The Bruce has been at the pains to extract and print verbatim in his preface. They show the poet to have been not only a churchman of high rank, but a man of affairs of considerable note at the Scottish court, and persona grata to the king. In the earliest of them, the four permits to pass through England above mentioned, the poet is already named Archdeacon of Aberdeen. He was named also in 1357 as one of the Scottish commissioners to arrange at Edinburgh for the ransom of David II, then a prisoner in England, and it is possible that his journey to England was in reality to interview that king. But it is not till after the accession of the first Stewart monarch that we have a mention of his employment at court. In 1372 he was appointed clerk of audit to the household of Robert II. at Perth. In 1373, 1382, 1383, and 1384 he was one of the auditors of exchequer, and received various payments for his services. In 1376 or 1377 he received from the king a gift of ten pounds, probably in acknowledgment of the first part of The Bruce, down to the battle of Bannockburn, which was completed, according to Barbour's own statement, in 1375. In 1378 he received a perpetual pension of twenty shillings sterling, which may have been a royal recognition of the second part of the great poem. In the entry, indeed, of the payment of the pension in 1428, the words are added, "qui compilavit librum de gestis illustrissimi principis quondam domini regis Roberti Bruys," which seems to connect the pension with the work. In 1386 he received as gifts from the king the sums of £5 and £6 13s. 4d., which may have marked the royal approval of his second great work, The Brut, He had also a crown wardship, and in 1388 King Robert granted him a pension of £10, possibly in recognition of the third great poem which, on Andro of Wyntoun's authority, is attributed to him, The Stewartis Orygenalle. These facts are shown by entries in the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland. Entries in the Register of the Bishopric of Aberdeen show Barbour to have taken an active part in the affairs of the diocese, both temporal and spiritual, and to other entries in the same record we are indebted for knowlede of the fact that he died on the 13th Mardi, 1395. Even one of the Archdeacon's petty lapses is on record, for in a catalogue of the cathedral library the Register contains the note that a missing book of decretals had been lost "per magistrum Johannem Barbour." There is evidence in the Register that the poet took a real interest in the affairs of his own prebend, the parish of Rayne in the Garioch. His piety is shown by a deed dated there, in which he assigned his pension of twenty shillings to the cathedral chapter for the saying of a yearly mass for the souls of himself, his parents, and all the faithful dead. And he appears to have died on the scene of his proper labours, for a marble memorial stone now on the inner wall of Aberdeen Cathedral is said to have marked till a few years ago his grave in the burying-ground outside.

The text of Barbour's great poem has been preserved in two manuscripts—one signed "J. de B." and dated 1487, in the Library of St. John's College, Cambridge, and another signed "Johannes Ramsay," dated 1489, and bound up with a MS. of The Wallace by the same hand, in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh. There is also an edition of The Bruce printed at Edinburgh by Andrew Hart in 1616, which appears to have been taken from a third and ampler MS. than either of the two extant. Of the more recent printed editions the most important are Dr. Jamieson 's of 1820, Cosmo Innes's for the Spalding Club in 1856, Professor Skeat's for the Early English Text Society in 1870, and another by the same editor for the Scottish Text Society in 1894.

Barbour's composition of The Bruce and other poems has recently been made the subject of much minute and interesting criticism. Following the criticisms of Kappel and Buss, Professor Skeat rejects as by another hand some two thousand lines in Lydgate's Siege of Troy in Cambridge University Library, which were formerly believed to be extracted from Barbour's lost poem, The Brut. The reasons for rejection are certain "variations in poetical expression, in small technical usages, and in the rimes". Against this criticism must be noted the fact that the writer of the Lydgate MS. distinctly marks his quoted passages with the inscription, "Her endis Barbour and begynnis the Monk," and "Her endis the Monk ande bygynnis Barbour." The differences, too, between the style of the extracts and of The Bruce are balanced by the likenesses, and are not much greater than are to be found between the first and second parts of The Bruce itself. [A very striking falling off in style takes place in the poem after the description of Bannockburn. The subsequent narrative is marked by a looseness of treatment in recording facts, and an inadequacy in the description of great events, in singular contrast with the vigour, fulness, and general accuracy of the earlier books. Had the battle of Byland been described with the same detail and spirit as the battle of Bannockburn, it might have held almost as great a place in history.]

Mr. J. T. T. Brown, again, in his highly interesting volume, The Wallace and The Bruce Restudied (Bonn, 1900), declares for the fragments in the Lydgate MS. being Barbour's work, but holds against Professor Skeat, on the other hand, that Barbour's Brut and his Stewartis Orygenalle were one single work, referred to by Wyntoun under different names.

The point is indifferent here. Of more importance is the greater issue which forms the burden of Mr. Brown's treatise. His effort is to show that the "Johannes Ramsay" and "J. de B." who transcribed the MSS. of The Bruce were the same person, and that that person was otherwise "Sir John the Ross," or Ross Herald, mentioned in the Treasurer's Accounts as receiving twenty unicorns (£18 sterling) from James IV. in 1490, and in Dunbar's Lament for the Makaris, a few years. later, as one of the notable poets of the time.

The conjecture is highly interesting, but Mr. Brown goes much farther. In order to provide a foundation for the poetic fame of Sir John the Ross he seeks to prove, first, that that personage was the substantial author of The Wallace, Henry the Minstrel merely furnishing the rough material of the poem, and, second, that, in transcribing Barbours Bruce, he extensively improved and embellished it. To prove his theory, Mr. Brown cites numerous instances of striking similarity between passages and expressions in The Bruce and passages and expressions in works produced after Barbour was in his grave.

This is not the place to enter upon the minute details of so ingenious a thesis. It may only be suggested that it is possible, in pursuit of a theory, to set over-much value upon chance likenesses of expression, and that in any case it appears much more probable that later writers borrowed expressions and ideas from a great and famous poem like The Bruce, than that a late transcriber set to work to make a minute and marvellous mosaic out of Barbour's poem and the works of a dozen other authors. This is the view of Dr. Albert Hermann, whom Mr. J. T. T. Brown quotes in a footnote.

Apart, however, from such criticism, there can be no question of the transcendent merits of Barbour's great epic. The work is full of passages that are models of graphic force, natural description, and lofty moral apostrophe. Here and there the pages are lit up with a flash of grim humour, as when the Scots in Ireland on the verge of starvation find their camp suddenly flooded, and the poet declares that though O'Dymsy gave them nothing to eat, he sent them plenty to drink. And, for true tenderness and pathos, the story of Bruce and the poor laundress, and the account of the great king's death, must for ever remain among the immortal things of our literature.

The translator cannot hope to have accomplished his task to the complete satisfaction of every admirer of the original work. In Barbour's case the ordinary difficulties of translation are increased by the fact that the language of Scotland in the fourteenth century contained infinitely fewer forms of expression than the language now in use, and the same epithet had perforce to do duty in a variety of ways and with a variety of meanings. But if the translation helps to render better known at the present day Barbour's matchless account of the adventures of the great Scottish king and his band of fighting heroes, with something of the atmosphere and temper of their time, the work will not have been undertaken in vain.

Professor Skeat's edition of The Bruce, published by the Scottish Text Society, has been almost exclusively followed in making the present translation. Apart from the admirably clear and carefully edited text, the translator desires to make the fullest acknowledgment to Professor Skeat's notes and glossaries for the elucidation of many obscure and difficult passages.

You can also read the original text here!
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The Real Bannockburn

The Battle of Bannockburn.
A Study in Mediaeval Warfare. By W. M. Mackenzie, M. A. 1913. (pdf)

The long-standing controversy as to what actually happened at Bannockburn seems likely now to be laid to rest. Mr. Mackenzie’s interesting little book settles for ever the plan of operations that brought about that memorable victory. Indeed, so clear and unmistakable is the narrative of events here detailed that one wonders why any dubiety should ever have arisen. Yet Hume Brown, Andrew Lang, Scott, Sir Herbert Maxwell, and General Sir Evelyn Wood are all at variance. These experts having landed themselves in confusion, no wonder if humbler compilers have copied each other with variations, until the whole affair became an insoluble tangle. Mr. Mackenzie has gone straight to Barbour’s “ Brus,” and, checking him by other authorities, finds the narrative perfectly explicit and thoroughly intelligible.

The key to the proper explanation lies in the fact that there were two days’ actual fighting, Sunday (23 June), with the Clifford and de Bohun incidents, and Monday (24th) when the Scots charged the English. The Sunday engagement took place in the New Park and was intended to clear the approach to the Castle of Stirling in two directions, through the New Park and on the level ground below St. Ninian’s. Repulsed at the two roads, the English moved on, crossed the Bannock, and bivouacked in the Carse. When Monday morning came, the situation had materially changed. The English were congested and trapped in very unsuitable ground between the Forth and the Bannock mouth. Bruce’s generalship saw its opportunity and at once took advantage of it.

The modern versions are vitiated by a very natural error, which is common to them all. They make out that Edward forced his men against the Scots. The fact is, that the Scots, to the utter amazement of the English, who expected a walk over, began the attack on Monday morning. This proves that they were independent of the hypothetical bogs and pits which figure in the modern plans of the battle, for by their advance they lost all the tactical advantage that lay with such forms of defence. They took the initiative and forced the battle. Hence an explanation is found for Edward, in the breakup, .fleeing to Stirling Castle. If the English were in the Carse, the Castle was quite close to their right wing. In the same way we find it easy to understand why so many English were drowned in the Forth and in the Bannock which at that part is tidal. Every incident in Barbour fits in harmoniously with this readjustment. The wonder is that the historians missed it, which they could not have done, if they had been students of Barbour’s “Brus”. Probably they neglected his story, imagining that it was romance and not authentic history.

All this tends to increase our respect for John Barbour, Archdeacon of Aberdeen. His romance of “The Bruce” has been oft-times discredited as no true historical document, but it is gratifying to find his narrative so fully vindicated in detail by Mr. Mackenzie. The sex-centenary of Bannockburn in 1914 is sure to revive an interest in Barbour and his patriotic poem, which prompts us to raise the question, “why has Aberdeen no memorial of this our first national poet ? ” Burns has his monument; Beattie lives for us in Sir Joshua’s picture at Marischal College; Byron is destined to be honoured soon by a statue in bronze, but the father of Scottish literature, whose connexion with Aberdeen was both close and lasting, remains uncommemorated.

A. Mackie.


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