Lives of
Scottish Poets
edited by

Center for Applied Technologies
in the Humanities

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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



Had it not been for music and poetry,” say the Welch, “even the deeds of Arthur had inevitably perished.” With equal truth, we may say, that had it not been for the voice and harp of Henry the Minstrel, [note] the deeds of Wallace, [note] the Champion of Scottish freedom, though they were probably in no danger of perishing, would never have been so familiar to the Scottish people as they are, nor the remembrance of his example have had such powerful influence in animating the flame of patriotism in their bosoms. The history, by Henry, of “Ye Actis and Deidis of ye Illuster and Vailzeand Championn Shyr William Wallace,” has, for centuries past, shared with the Bruce, [note] a similar metrical history by Barbour, the honour of being the most treasured among the cottage classics of Scotland. Many individuals are to be found even at this day, who can repeat the greater part of them, and it is rare, indeed, to meet with one who, either from having read them or heard them recited, is not acquainted with their more remarkable and interesting passages.


The personal history of Henry is almost lost in obscurity. We are not even in possession of more than half his name; and have no means of telling whether Henry was a Christian or a surname, or, if
the former, what the latter was.*
Dempster says, he was living in 1361; Major, [note] who is supposed to have been born about 1446, that when he was in his infancy, Henry the Minstrel wrote his “Actis and Deidis” of Wallace. Major farther informs us, that he was blind from his birth, and that he gained his food and clothing by the recitation of histories or “gestes” before the nobles of the land. And here ends all that survives of “Blind Harry,” as our Scottish peasants familiarly call him, beyond the work which they so much admire.


“That a man born blind,” says Mr. Ellis, [note] “should excel in any science is sufficiently extraordinary, though by no means without example; but that he should become an excellent poet is almost miraculous, because the soul of poetry is description. Perhaps therefore it may be safely assumed, that Henry was not inferior, in point of genius, either to Barbour or Chaucer, [note] nor, indeed, to any poet in any age or country.”


Any estimate founded on the assumption of what a man might or would have been, in comparison with some other person, if he had had the advantages which that other person possessed, takes of course so

* It has been asked, why not Henry Minstrel, if Thomas Rhymer is to be admitted? See observations in Life of the latter, Part I. The reason is obvious: Minstrel is not known as a family name, though Rhymer is. A. S.
much for granted, as to leave nothing to contend with; but as the fact stands, the praise of Mr. Ellis must be allowed greatly to exceed that which is due to Henry the Minstrel, deservedly popular as his effusions are. As to mere story-telling, he may possibly surpass even the author of the
Canterbury Tales; but in all that constitutes true poetry, (for, with due deference to Mr. Ellis, “the soul of poetry” is not description,) in strength and vivacity of thought, in new perceptions, new combinations, new ideas, new imagery, Henry is inferior to Chaucer, and to many poets of many ages and countries. Contrasted with Barbour, as extant in his “Bruce,” Henry will be found still lighter in the scale. The “ Bruce, [note] ” says a late critic, “is evidently the work of a politician as well as poet. The characters of the king, of his brother, of Douglas, and of the Earl of Moray, are discriminated, and their separate talents always employed with judgment; so that every event is prepared and rendered probable by the means to which it is attributed; whereas, the Life of Wallace is a mere romance, in which the hero hews down whole squadrons with his single arm, and is indebted far every victory to his own muscular strength. Both poems are filled with descriptions of battles; but, in those of Barbour, our attention is successively directed to the cool intrepidity of King Robert, [note] to the brilliant rashness of Edward Bruce, or to the enterprizing stratagems of Douglas; while, in Henry, we find little more than a disgusting picture of revenge, hatred, and blood.”


But here, too, we may see the zeal of argument leading a just suggestion to excess. The effects of
individual prowess are underrated; and the causes of the “revenge, hatred, and blood,” overlooked. If Henry has erred in ascribing too much to physical strength, the same observation will apply, with equal force, to Homer,
[note] the first and perhaps greatest of ancient poets, whose heroes are all giants in this respect; and to no Scotchman could it be necessary to state, why “revenge, hatred, and blood,” were the battle cries of the “Scots wha' had wi' Wallace bled.” Henry is doubtless inferior to Barbour; not because moral are, at all times, superior to physical causes, but because, in the one case, these causes are exhibited for the edification of posterity, while, in the other, they are suppressed as unnecessary to the information of persons who knew and felt, and perhaps more than poetically felt, them all. Henry is inferior to Barbour, inasmuch as the praise of a day is an inferior prize to the praise of succeeding generations; but to say, that any part of Henry's Wallace is “disgusting,” can only shew an ignorance of the work on which the criticism is passed.


The history of Wallace, which Henry has left us, undoubtedly partakes much of the marvellous; it is full of exaggerations, anachronisms, and absurdities. But, as a poem, it is simple, interesting, and exciting; and, as a narrative of facts, it must always be remembered, that we have it not through the medium of the author's own pen, but through oral recitation, to the corruptions of which there are no limits.


It appears from the work itself, that the author had acquired many particulars of it from the immediate descendants of Wallace's contemporaries; but be-
sides this, he informs us, that he followed very strictly a book of great authority, being a complete history of Wallace, written in Latin partly by
John Blair, and partly by Thomas Gray, [note] of which, however, there is now no trace. The fact, that the poet had paid such attention to authorities, should induce us be tender in ascribing to him, rather than to the reciters of his work, the errors in which it abounds.


Henry is perhaps the only one of the early Scottish poets who has a claim to the kindred character of a minstrel: for though, among the Celtic tribes, the order of minstrels was more numerous, more respectable, and of more extensive influence, than in any nation of Gothic origin, Henry is the only one whose name has outlived the wreck of ages; and, when he flourished, the order had sunk from a station of high respectability to one of comparative meanness. In Cockelby's Sow, an anonymous poem of as old a date as the “Actis and Deidis” of Wallace, a bard is introduced in the following contemptible company.

A lunatyk, a sismatyk,
An heretic, a pursyk,
A Lumbard, a Lolard,
An usurer, a bard, &c.

Nor was it contempt alone which the minstrel had now to encounter. In an ancient Scottish law which is attributed to Achaius, [note] it is ordered, that “all vagabondis, fuilis, bardis, skularis, and sic lyke idill peopill, sal be brynt on the cheik and skurged with wandis, bot gyf they fynd sum craft to wen thair leving.” It is extremely probable, however, as Leyden observes, that “this regulation extended only
to wandering minstrels, whose vagrant habits of life had a natural tendency to lead them to be guilty of various irregularities.” “The laws of heraldry,” he adds, “prescribed the manner in which a minstrel was required to wear the arms of his prince or lord;* and as the nobility of a great part of Scotland were of Norman extraction, and frequently held possessions both in Scotland and England, it is impossible to suppose, that they would not imitate the manners of the northern barons in so important a practice, as that of maintaining minstrels attached to their particular families.”


The only MS. known to be extant of Henry's work, and from which all the printed copies have been taken, is now in the Advocates Library at Edinburgh, and bears the date of 1488. The first printed edition was that of Edinburgh, 1570; and the latest and most correct, that of Perth, 1790.

P. R.

* “It is to understand, yat na menstrale sall weir his lord or princis arms as ane herrald dois. But he sall beir it ewin on ye middis of his breist, and wt ane round circle about ye scheild, qlkis is callit ane besigell in armes, and yat is ye difference betuix officiris of armes and menstrallis quhairby yai sall be known.”