Lives of
Scottish Poets
edited by

Center for Applied Technologies
in the Humanities

*    *    *    *    *

Literary Chronicle
New Monthly Magazine
Monthly Review
Notes and Queries
Gibson and Laing
Halkett and Laing
Scottish Notes & Queries

Part I. (Volume I.)
James the First
Thomas the Rhymer
John Barbour
Andrew Wyntoun
Gavin Douglas
Allan Ramsay
William Meston
John Home
James Beattie
Robert Burns

Part II. (Volume I.)
James the Fifth
William Dunbar
Sir James Inglis
Henry the Minstrel
Sir David Lyndsay
Alexander Barclay
Alexander Montgomerie
William Alexander
William Drummond
James Thomson
John Oswald

Part III. (Volume II.)
James the Sixth
Sir Richard Maitland
Arthur Johnston
Hamilton of Bangour
Hamilton of Gilbertfield
Samuel Colvil
Alexander Ross
John Armstrong
John Ogilvie
James Macpherson
Charles Salmon

Part IV. (Volume II.)
Alexander Hume
John Bellenden
Mark Alexander Boyd
Ninian Paterson
William Wilkie
Robert Fergusson
William Julius Mickle
Alexander Geddes
James Grahame

Part V. (Volume III.)
Robert Henryson
Alexander Scott
Walter Kennedy
John Ogilby
Alexander Pennecuik
Alexander Cunningham
David Mallet
William Falconer
Francis Garden
Robert Blair
James Moor
James Graeme
Caleb Whitefoord
James Grainger
Hector Macneill
John Wilson

Part VI. (Volume III.)
Robert Kerr
Richard Lord Maitland
Thomas Hamilton
Charles Hamilton
Michael Bruce
Thomas Blacklock
John Logan
Andrew Macdonald
James Mercer

Appendix. (Volume III.)
James I
Allan Ramsay
John Home
Robert Burns
William Drummond
Robert Fergusson
Alexander Scott
John Wilson



Among the common people of Scotland, there is not an older and scarcely a greater favourite than Barbour's [note] metrical history of “The Actes and Life of that most Victorious Conquerour, Robert Bruce, King of Scotland: wherein are contained the Martiall Deeds of those Valiant Princes, Edward Bruce, Syr James Douglas, Ere Thomas Randel, Walter Stewart, and sundrie others.” [note]


The popularity of this poem is creditable to the taste of our countrymen. The poem, though only second in antiquity to the Sir Tristrem [note] of Thomas Rymour, is one of the finest in the old English language. In clearness and simplicity, it must rank far before either Gower [note] or Chaucer; [note] and in elevation of sentiment, Mr. Pinkerton [note] does not hesitate to prefer it to both Dante [note] and Petrarch. [note] Mr. Warton, [note] than whom there have been few better judges of the comparative merits of our early poets, says, that “ Barbour adorned the English language by a strain of versification, expression, and poetical images, far superior to the age.” And to these authorities may be added that of Dr. Irving, [note] who pronounces his opinion in the following encomiastic terms. “Barbour seems to have been acquainted with those finer springs of the human heart which elude vulgar observation; he catches the shades of character with a delicate eye, and sometimes presents us with instances of nice dis-
crimination. His work is not a mere narrative of events; it contains specimens of that minute and skilful delineation which marks the hand of a poet.”


Had the style of the poem been much inferior to what it is, the subject of it is of a nature which could not fail to excite a warm interest in the breasts of the Scottish people. Barbour was the first to sing to them, in their own language, the exploits of some of the most renowned characters in their history; of a Bruce, [note] who rescued Scotland from the hated dominion of England; and of a Douglas, a Randolph, a Stewart, and other gallant chieftains, who assisted in that glorious enterprize. He was among the first, too, who gave a poetical being to the habits, manners, and feelings, of the Scottish people; interweaving them in the most admirable manner with the texture of his story, and impressing, by means of their peculiarity, a delightful character of nationality to what was indeed a great national poem.


The “Bruce” is styled by its author “a romance:”
“The romance now begins here;”
but Dr. Henry,
[note] the historian, is of opinion, that “he did not mean that it consisted of fabulous adventures, for he intended it to be, as for the most part it is, a true history of the great actions of the hero.” The opinion of Mr. Pinkerton [note] is not at variance with this, but it characterizes the work better. “This romance,” he says, “is just such a one as the Iliad; that is, a poem founded on real facts, but embellished in many parts with fiction.” That the fictitious parts “embellished” the work, may however be doubted. The achievements of Bruce did not require such a leaf out of Baron Munchausen's [note] book as the following, which
is only one specimen out of many similar embellishments.

How he discomfit him alane
Twa hundredth, and slue fyften certane, &c.

The reflections with which the poet has enriched his narrative are a thousand times better than any of his inventions. They are invariably the breathings of a noble and generous spirit, disdaining all ordinary prejudices, and animated with an almost holy reverence for the rights of man as a being of mind, and destined for immortality. His eulogy on Liberty, the very first to be found in the English language, has been often quoted, but not more often than it deserves. The following are the lines:

O hou Fredom is nobil thyng!
For it maks men to haif lyking.
Fredom all solace to men givis:
He livis at eis that frelie livis.
A nobil heart may haf na eis,
Nor nocht als that may it pleis
If Fredom fale. For fre lyving
Is yarnit* abone uther thyng.
O he quha hes ay livit free
May nocht know weil the propertè,
The aungir nor the wretchit dome
That is couplit to thirldom!
But gif he had assayit it,
Than all perquier† he micht it wit;
And suld think Fredom mair to pryse,
Than all the gold men could devyse.

* Desired. † By book.

The date of this great poet's birth is not precisely known. He died, aged, in 1396, and is therefore supposed to have been born about 1316 or 1326. He was brought up to the church; and in 1357 we find him styled Archdeacon of Aberdeen. Of this last date, there is in Rymer's [note] Fœdera the copy of a passport from the King of England in favor of “John Barbour, Archdeacon of Aberdeen, coming, with three scholars in his company, into England, for the purpose of studying in the University of Oxford; et ibidem actus scolasticos exercendo,” &c. Dr. Henry [note] makes rather a strange use of this document. He imagines that the archdeacon himself was going to study at Oxford; and proceeding on this assumption, he presents us with a pleasant enough specimen of the art of filling up a scanty biography. “His love of learning,” says Henry, “was so strong, that he continued to prosecute his studies after his promotion. With this view, he prevailed upon his own sovereign, David Bruce, with whom he was in great favor, to apply to Edward III. [note] for permission to study at Oxford, which was granted,” &c. Now the meaning of the document plainly is, that it was “the three scholars in his company”—probably, youths of family committed to his charge—who were going to England to study at Oxford, and not the archdeacon himself. And the whole business of prevailing on the Scottish king, to apply to the English king for permission, &c., dwindles, in reality, into nothing more than the ordinary affair of procuring a passport to a foreign country. “That an archdeacon,” as Mr. Pinkerton [note] justly observes, “should have performed actus scolasticos would have been a phenomenon, indeed, when he
could not have been in that rank without having gone through them a dozen years before.”*


Rymer [note] furnishes us with another document, (vi. 39) from which it appears, that Barbour was appointed in 1357, by the Bishop of Aberdeen, one of his commissioners, to treat at Edinburgh concerning the ransom of the captive King of Scotland, David I. [note] This appointment is dated in September, 1357; the passport to go to Oxford was granted in August of that

* The writer of this Memoir is smart on Dr. Henry; seduced probably by the example of Mr. Pinkerton, [note] an ingenious but very hazardous annotator; but, after all, it is not so clear that Henry is in the wrong. If Barbour must have gone through his actus scolasticos “a dozen years before,” where was it that he went through them? St. Andrew's, the oldest university in Scotland, was only founded in 1413, nearly twenty years after Barbour's death. The fact is, that clerical degrees were, in early times, matters of such loose dispensation, that there is no telling what was previously necessary. Neither can the circumstance of Barbour's being an archdeacon, and therefore probably advanced in life, be regarded as decisive of the improbability of Dr. Henry's version. At a much later period, Sir George Mackenzie, after being many years Lord Advocate of Scotland, and publishing many erudite works, retired to England, with the view of spending the remainder of his days in lettered ease at Oxford; and, in his fifty-fourth year, was admitted a student there, by a grace passed in the congregation, June 2, 1690. A. S.
year; of that the business of the ransom was probably transacted by Barbour when passing through Edinburgh, on his way from Aberdeen to Oxford.*


In 1365, there appears to have been a second passport granted to Barbour, to go through England, with six knights in company, to St. Denis in France. The object of this journey is not stated, nor is there any thing else respecting it on record.


Such are all the memorials which the destructive hand of time has left us, of one of the first and best of our poets. The editions of his “Bruce,” [note] the only work which we know him to have written, are numerous; but the only one which can be relied on, far the purity of the text, is that edited by Mr. Pinkerton, [note] which was copied from a MS. in the Advocate's library, written in 1489, and in fine order. It is much to be wished, for the sake of the less wealthy orders of our countrymen with whom Barbour is still a great favorite, that they had the advantage of a cheap edition, printed from the same text.

H. S.

* A reasonable inference, which does away with that of Mr. Pinkerton's, that, because Barbour had this business to transact, he could not have remained to study at Oxford. A. S.