Fredome is a noble thing


"John Barbour's epic poem is a patriotic life of Robert the Bruce, writes its editor"

Archie Duncan


The Bruce is a narrative poem, 13,000 lines long, with a strong storyline - the undying loyalty of Scotland's leaders, Bruce, Douglas and Moray, to each other and to the freedom of their country. These qualities moved the author, John Barbour, about 1375, to write his 'romance', the name for a poem in . the vernacular about the quality and lifestyle which was above all praise: 'chivalry'. But it is history too, based upon a lost life of Douglas and a chronicle or chronicles which told of King Robert and his times.

Like all historians Barbour has a methodology - what happened had usually been planned. He also has a a weakness - accepting, or guessing at, huge numbers for the size of any army; a social attitude - nobles count, the rabble are unreliable; a gender bias - women weep, men don't; and a tolerant acceptance of what we see as the horrors of war - pain and death are a small price to pay for chivalry. Through his poem we can come to understand the mind-set of another generation and to recognise that some ideals we cherish may be as transitory as Barbour's chivalry. On the other hand, one of his famous lines, 'Fredome mays man to haiff liking', could mean 'Freedom lets a man have choice' and would serve very well on the coat of arms of a certain a iron Lady !

Barbour was a churchman, for 40 years archdeacon of Aberdeen. He must have said mass many times and presumably understood what it was about. Yet the 'church' is wholly absent from the poem, and the churchmen are decidedly unspiritual: one bishop tells Douglas to steal his best horse to ride to Bruce, but at all costs to conceal the bishop's connivance; another is riding along in full armour and weaponry under a cloak when he turns the fleeing Fifers round to repel English invaders.

These are ordinary men who happen to have a job in the church and that is rather how I see Barbour too. His knights do not forgive nor turn the other cheek in Christian humility, for on their courage, loyalty, moderation - secular virtues all - depend the lives of themselves, their wives and children. Many people have known arbitrary tyranny but the Scottish experience of the throwing-off of foreign conquest in two wars, Wallace's and Bruce's, inspired in the Declaration of Arbroath and in Barbour's Bruce a precocious appreciation of 'freedom' as the proper destiny of 'our country', of all who dwell in 'the land'.

Why should we read the poem? To that there's only one possible answer: for enjoyment. But this is a poem written in the language of Scotsmen of Bruce's century, the earliest surviving literary work in our language, and presenting it to a modern reader raises immediate problems of obscure spellings, some obsolete words and constructions, and some pretty relentless rhyming. You have to become easy with the language, and for that the usual crutch, a glossary, still leaves you hobbling through unfamiliar sentence structures. So in this book we have gone the whole hog with a facing-page version in modern English. It's not peotic; it's a way into the poem, not a substitute for it. But it means that you are never left floundering in incomprehension, the worst turn-off in any book, no matter how grand its theme.

Two things you won't find in it. The first, Bruce and the spider, a story which, however true it is to Bruce's spirit, is unknown before the 18th century. And secondly, a suggestion as to Barbour's origins. I am pretty sure that his father was a barber, and, exclusive to Scotland on Sunday, I'd like to suggest that he was barber to William Sinclair, bishop of Dunkeld, called by Bruce, Barbour tells us, 'my own bishop', because he so gallantly turned the Fifers round. Barbour's first known job was at Dunkeld cathedral; anyway, I like to think he was an Atholman like myself.

From 1919 European countries set about publishing documents on the causes of the 1914 war, each seeking to prove that the fault was someone else's. Historians were told to do their patriotic duty, documents were edited suppressed, and the public was told what was thought good for it. In a way Barbour's poem was a like effort, patriotic history written to throw behind the new king, Robert II (who gave Barbour a pension) the weight of his grandfather's (Bruce's) achievements and reputation. And while Barbour disliked a few of the enemy, there is no general condemnation of 'the English' to stir any xenophobia hiding in our Scottish souls.

That it is now totally ignored in syllabuses south of the Tweed may be understandable, but shows what a hollow absurdity Major's 'thousand years of British history' is. But for most of the 20th century it was ignored in school (not university) syllabuses in Scotland - if anyone earlier than Shakespeare got into Higher English, it was Chaucer.

I'm glad I have lived long enough to see the end of Stalinism, apartheid, and the educational establishment cringe at the mention of anything Scots from an ignorant fear that it might not be 'respectable' history or literature. The Bruce was not very available, an excuse which has now vanished. And, to be fair, they do seem to want to give Scotland's history and literature a place in our schools at last. The Bruce should share in that place


Bruce's address to his captains before Bannockburn

And certis me think well that ye
Forout abasing aucht to be 
Worthy and of gret vasselagis
For we haff thre gret avantagis 
The fyrst is that we haf the rycht 
And for the rycht ay God will fycht. 
The tother is that thai cummyn ar 
For lyppynyng off thar gret powar
To sek us in our awne land, 
And has brocht her rycht till our hand 
Ryches into sa gret quantit´e 
That the pourest of you sall be 
Bath rych and mychty tharwithall 
Giff that we wyne, as weill may fall. 
The thrid is that we for our lyvis 
And for our childer and for our wyyis 
And for our fredome and for our land 
Ar strenyeit in bataill for to stand, 
And thai for thar mycht anerly 
And for thai let of us heychtly 
And for thai wad distroy us all 
Mais thaim to fycht, bot yeit may fall 
That thai sall rew thar barganyng. 
And certis I warne you off a thing 
That happyn thaim, as God forbed, 
Till fynd fantis intill our deid 
That thai wyn us opynly 
Thai sall off us haf na mercy, 
And sen we knaw thar felone will 
Me think it suld accord to skill 
To set stoutnes agayne felony 
And mak sa-gat a juperty. 
Quharfor I you requer and pray 
That with all your mycht that ye may 
That ye pres you at the begynnyng 
But cowardys or abaysing 
To mete thaim at sall fyrst assemble 
Sa stoutly that the henmaist trymble 
And menys of your gret manheid 
Your worschip and your douchti deid 
And off the joy that we abid 
Giff that us fall, as well may tid, 
Hap to vencus this gret bataill. 
In your handys without faile 
Ye ber honour price and riches 
Fredome welsh and blythnes 
Giff you contene you manlely, 
And the contrar all halily 
Sall fall giff ye lat cowardys 
And wykytnes your hertis suppris. 
Ye mycht have lyvyt into threldome, 
Bot for ye yarnyt till have fredome 
Ye ar assemblyt her with me, 
Tharfor is nedfull that ye be 
Worthy and wycht but abaysing ...

... Giff ye will wyrk apon this wis 
Ye sall haff victour sekyrly.

I think indeed that you 
Ought to be without timidity, 
Worthy, and of great prowess; 
For in three ways we have the edge: 
The first is, that right is on our side 
And God will always fight for the right. 
The second is, they have come here 
Trusting in their great power 
To seek us in our own land; 
And have brought here, right to our hands 
Riches in such great plenty 
That the poorest of you shall be 
Both rich and powertul as well, 
If we win, as well may happen. 
The third is that for our lives 
And for our children and our wives 
And for our freedom and for our land
We are bound to stand in battle. 
And they for their power only, 
And because they think scornfully of us 
And because they would destroy us all, 
Makes them fight; but it may yet happen 
That they will rue confronting us. 
And indeed, I warn you of one thing 
That if it happens that they (God forbid) 
Find us fainthearted in our acts 
So that they beat us openly 
They will have no mercy on us. 
And since we know their wicked will 
I think it would suit our skill 
To set bravery against cruelty 
And make our fighting stand in that way. 
Therefore I ask and beseech you 
That with all the strength that you can muster 
At the beginning you get ready 
Without cowardice or holding back 
To meet those that reach you first 
So stoutly that the hindmost tremble. 
And think of your great valour
Your courage, and your doughty deeds 
And of the joy that waits for us 
If it befalls, as well may be, 
That we happen to defeat this great host. 
In your hands, without fail, 
You bear honour, reputation and riches 
Freedom, wealth and happiness, 
If you carry yourselves like men; 
And exactly the opposite 
Will befall if you let cowardice 
And wickedness take over your hearts. 
You could have lived in serfdom, 
But, because you yearned to have freedom
You are gathered here with me; 
So it is needful that you be 
Strong and bold and without fear ...

... If you will behave in this way 
You win surely have victory.


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