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The Scottish Nation

BARBOUR, 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.

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