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Fraser's Scottish Annual
John Barbour, Scottish Poet and Historian

THIS celebrated author of that most interesting poem, containing the History of the Deliverance of Scotland, under the valour and patriotic enterprise of King Robert Bruce, was born at Aberdeen, about 1330. The year is somewhat uncertain, but as he could not be in priests' orders before he was twenty-four, and was made an archdeacon in 1356, it must have been either that year or before it. He had, probably, his early education at the seminary supported by the cathedral, and, were we to judge of the state of knowledge from the good sense and most extensive information displayed in the poems of Barbour, we should form a very high opinion of the state of learning at that time. His infancy and youth were passed in the stormy period of the civil and foreign wars, carried on in the reign of King David Bruce, for the independence of Scotland, in the calamities of which time Aberdeenshire had more than an equal share. Yet his attention was not withdrawn from the cultivation of elegant literature, and the best proof of his attainments and genius is the zeal with which he pursued his studies in future life. John Barbour received holy orders, and in 1356 was appointed archdeacon of the bishopric of Aberdeen. In 1357 he was one of the three commissioners appointed by the Bishop of Aberdeen to attend the Parliament at Edinburgh, to concert measures for the redemption from captivity of King David Bruce, who had been a prisoner in England ever since the unfortunate battle in 1346. At that period we find three descriptions of persons obtaining passports to come to England, or to pass through into other countries. One class was mercantile men, of which were several from Aberdeen. The second was of pilgrims, proceeding for purposes of devotion, to Canterbury, to St. James's, or to Rome. John Barbour has the honour to have his name recorded at the head of a third class, which came to Oxford in pursuit of literary and scientific knowledge. For this purpose he had a passport from Edward III. in 1357, and in 1365 and 1368 we find him travelling to France, with the same enlightened view, attended by an honourable retinue. Such a man would in any age have arrived at distinction, and in the period in which he lived he shone like the day-star of learning.

"The Bruce," the great poem for which every Scottish patriot and lover of antiquity will ever reverence his memory, is written in a style of great elegance, and it is remarkable that it is more intelligible than the works of Chaucer in the same age. His verses are in general far from flowing easily, and perhaps this defect is increased to us by the antique costume of the orthography, and the difference of pronunciation between that period and the present may augment the want of harmony. The rhymes are in general very correct, and it is in every respect a work superior to that of the mere versifier or composer of doggerel rhymes. That Barbour was a man of enlarged mind appears from his rejecting all belief in the doctrines of astrology, and of the influence of the stars, so generally received in that age, and in fact for many ages after. Most interesting anecdotes are detailed respecting the brave King Robert Bruce, and his chosen band of faithful heroes, who accomplished the deliverance of Scotland, and most interesting delineations are given of traits in their private character, which we in vain look for in the ordinary historians. Much satisfactory information is afforded respecting the manners of the Scots of that period, and of their knowledge of the arts and sciences. In whatever light the work is viewed, it must be considered as the production of a great mind, of the poet, the patriot, the philosopher, and historian.

King David Bruce bestowed upon Barbour, as a reward for writing this poem on the life of his father, an annuity of ten pounds, from the king's customs of the port of Aberdeen, which sum contained as much silver as twenty-two pounds four shillings of our present coinage, at twenty shillings to the pound, and was in that age a very handsome recompense, being nearly double what was allowed to BoŽthius, the first principal of Kings, more than a century afterwards.

King David Bruce also made him comptroller of his household.

King Robert Stewart, the first of that family, bestowed upon Barbour one pound in perpetuity from the fee-farms of the borough, which he, with a spirit of liberality and of piety, as it was believed in that age, bestowed on the cathedral church, for celebrating a yearly mass or requiem for his soul. He died about 1396.

From a passage in Winton's Chronicle, it appears that Barbour wrote also a Geneological History of the Kings of Scotland. This work is lost. His poem of "The Bruce," he informs us, was completed in 1375. It was first published in 1616, in 12mo, at Edinburgh. The other editions are 1648, at Edinburgh; 1665, in 8vo, at Glasgow and Edinburgh; and 1670, in 12mo, at Edinburgh. Mr. Pinkerton, in 1791, published an excellent edition, in three volumes of large I2mo, from a manuscript in the Advocates' Library, dated 1489, in which care is taken to preserve the genuine antique orthography.

It was Pinkerton's opinion that, on the whole, "The Bruce" is preferable to the early efforts of the Italian muse, to the melancholy sublimity of Dante, and the amorous quaintness of Petrarca. 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 bight, beside them breeds,
And fieldis strowed are with flow'rs
Well savouring of seir colours;
And all things worthis, blyth, and gay.

Often has the following been quoted as expressing remarkable liberality of public opinion for as early a period as the fourteenth century. But it must not be forgotten that the thirteenth was the century of Wallace, who fought and died for Scottish independence:

A! fredome is a nobil thing!
Fredome mayss a man to haiff liking,
Fredome all solace to man giffs
He levys at ess that frely levys.
A noble hart may haiff nane ess,
No ellys nocht that may him pless,
Gyff fredome failythe; for fre liking
Is yharnyt our all othir thing,
Na he that ay hass levyt fre,
May nocht know weill the propyrte,
The angyr, na the wrechyt dome
That is cowplyt 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 world that is.

Thinking of Burns' Scots wha hae," Bruce's address to his army at Bannockburn, as given by Barbour, is interesting:

And when they assembled were
He gart array them for the fight:
And syne gart cry oure all on height,
That whasoever he were that fand
His heart nocht sicker4 for to stand
To win all or die with honour,
For to maintain that stalwart stour,
That he betime should hold his way;
And none should dwell with them but they
That would stand with him to the end,
And tak the ure5 that God would send.
Then all answered with a cry,
And with a voice said generally
That none for doubt of deid should fail
Quhill discomfort were the great battaile.

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