Early Scottish literature includes works in English, Scottish Gaelic, Scots, Brythonic, French, Latin, and Norn. The earliest extant literature from what is now Scotland was a 6th Century Brythonic speech. Under the direction of the Catholic Church early literature was written in Latin, while other pieces were brought to the British isles by Angles. These appear in what we refer to as Old English. “As the state of Alba developed into the kingdom of Scotland from the eighth century, there was a flourishing literary elite who regularly produced texts in both Gaelic and Latin, sharing a common literary culture with Ireland and elsewhere. After the Davidian Revolution of the thirteenth century, a flourishing French language culture predominated, while Norse literature was produced from areas of Scandinavian settlements. The first surviving major text in Early Scots is literature in the fourteen century epic Brus, by John Barbour. This was followed by a series of vernacular versions of medieval romances. These were joined in the fifteenth century by Scots prose works.” (Scottish Literature)
John Barbour was an archdeacon who held office under Robert II of Scotland. Evidence of his promotion and movements before Robert Stewart came to power as king tend to suggest that Barbour acted politically on the future king’s behalf. (A.A.M.Duncan (ed.), The Bruce, Canongate Classics, 1999 edition. “Introduction”, pp.2-3) He served at Kirk of St Machar in Aberdeen. He was favored by the government and received pension. Ironically, his epic was quite secular in both tone and themes.His reputation from Brus (The Bruce) that other works of the period are often attributed to Barbour. Unfortunately, several indicated to be his are now lost. Among those we find The Stewartis Oryginalle (Genealogy of the Stewarts) and The Brut (Brutus).
In “The Battle of Bannockburn” by Barbour describes the battle. The Scots kneel to pray before the eventful battle. The Earl of Murref leads a valiant band, which holds its own against a vastly superior force of Englishmen. The English archers wreak havoc on the Scottish forces; therefore, King Robert commands the cavalry, under Marshal Robert of Keth, to charge. King Robert exhorts his men with reminders of the manifold degradation they have suffered at English hands. The English King flees, and most of his followers drown in the river of Bannockburn.
Although professing to be historical, Brus is really a romance centering about Scotland’s great heroic leader Robert Bruce. The work is a stirring narrative, full of evidence of the author’s patriotism, and full of evidence of his reflective personality. As art, the work is rough and monotonous, but it has many picturesque passages.(History of English Literature: Part I – Early Saxon Through Milton, Hymarx Outline Series, Boston, MA, page 68.)
Little is known of Robert Henryson‘s life. “Robert Henryson (or Henrysoun) is one of the great names in medieval literature in general, and Scottish literature in particular. He lived in the second half of the fifteenth century, dying sometime before 1508. He possibly attended the University of Glasgow, and he is later associated with the town of Dunfermline, where he may have been a schoolmaster, or a notary public, or both.
“His poetry supports the image of him as both a teacher and a lawyer. His versions of Aesop’s Fables (‘The Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian’) reveal a writer with a powerful moral purpose and a detailed grasp of the mechanisms of the law. Both are evident in the Prologue to the Fables, a persuasive apology for literature, written in plain Middle Scots:
“The nuttes schell, thocht it be hard and teuch,
Haldis the kirnill, and is delectabill.
Sa lyis thair ane doctrine wyse aneuch,
And full of fruit, under ane fenyeit Fabill.
And Clerkis sayis it is richt profitabill
Amangis ernist to ming ane merie sport,
To light the spreit, and gar the tyme be schort.
“(Although the nut’s shell is hard and tough, it holds the kernel and is delightful. So there lies a wise and fruitful teaching underneath an imagined fable. And learned men say it is very profitable to mingle merry sport among earnest matters, to lighten the spirit and speed the time.)
“Henryson’s major poems, besides the Fables, include ‘The Testament of Cresseid‘, a sequel to Chaucer’s ‘Troilus and Criseyde’; ‘Robene and Makyne’, a comic dialogue; and ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’, a version of the classical tale which was printed by Chepman and Millar in 1508.
“Robert Henryson is sadly little known amongst the majority of Scots today. However, in 1993 the Robert Henryson Society was established in Dunfermline to promote the appreciation of the poet and his works, particularly in the locality with which he is most closely associated.” (Robert Henryson)
In “Robene and Makyne” we have the tale of Robin, the shepherd, and Makin, the shepherdess. Robin scorns the love of Makin, denies that she knows true love, will have none of her when she offers herself. When Makin is gone, Robin has a change of heart. He pursues her and pleads for her love. Now it is she who blithely scorns his advances.
The thing with Henryson is that he wrote without great passion, yet there is enough feeling in his work to lift it into the realm of poetry. He used old themes for his work, but infused them with originality and his own peculiar good humor. (History of English Literature: Part I – Early Saxon Through Milton, Hymarx Outline Series, Boston, MA, page 68.)
“William Dunbar was a Scottish makar poet active in the late fifteenth century and the early sixteenth century. He was closely associated with the court of King James IV and produced a large body of work in Scots distinguished by its great variation in themes and literary styles. He was likely a native of East Lothian, as assumed from a satirical reference in the Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie.” (William Dunbar) Likely of noble lineage, Dunbar is known to have been at the University of St Andrews in 1474.
“Details from his later life suggest that he was ordained as a priest at some point, but the date is unknown. In 1491 and 1492 Dunbar accompanied an embassy to Denmark and France in an unknown capacity. In 1501 and 1502 he participated in an embassy to England in the staff of Andrew Forman, Bishop of Moray. From 1500 the poet was employed at the court of King James in a role for which he received an annual pension. His duties are not recorded; he is referred to only as a servitour or servant; but it is to this period that the bulk of his poetry can be dated. Several of Dunbar’s poems were included in the Chepman and Myllar prints of 1508, the first books to be printed in Scotland.” (William Dunbar)
From Poetry Foundation, we learn, “The poet is regularly described as “Maister William Dunbar” in the Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland and in titles and colophons of several poems. To fill in important details about Dunbar’s life upon leaving the university, clues must be sought in the poetry. Some critics, it must be noted, reject this method, either arguing that authorial self-reference in medieval poetry is always conventional, or defining first-person discourse as part of the fictional world of “the text.” Nevertheless, scholars like J. W. Baxter and Matthew P. McDiarmid have found clues in the poetry that can be corroborated by historical facts, and from their work it is possible to formulate a reasonable biography of Dunbar.
“An object of such research is The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy (circa 1492-1493), Dunbar’s entry in an energetic poetic duel of verbal abuse with his poetic rival, Walter Kennedy. Kennedy’s many attacks on Dunbar’s family and activities must have had some basis in fact—a barb not strengthened by fact carries no bite. Yet James Kinsley, Dunbar’s most recent editor, advises against giving much heed to the attacks.”
A quick look at some of Dunbar works includes:
“Lament for the Makers (Poets)” – In this piece, the poet is fearful. Specifically, the fear of death troubles him. The refrain of the poem is “Timor Mortis conturbat me.” Death takes all. He has taken the likes of Chaucer, Lydgate, and Gower. So, “the fear of death troubles me.”
In “Ballad of Kind Kittock,” Kind Kittock goes to Heaven after death. On her way, she stops at an ale house to refresh herself and she drinks beyond her limits. She steals past St. Peter into heaven. But while there, she steals out for another drink; the ale of heaven was sour.
“The Dregy of Dunbar” is a verse prayer of deep tenderness and feeling written by Dunbar in Edinburgh for King James V when he was penned in Stirling Castle.
“How Dunbar was Destined to be a Friar” is a high-spirited refusal to become a friar when he is tempted by Saint Francis in a dream. And when he was refused, Dunbar discovers that it was a fiend who assumed the shape of the Saint.
“Dunbar is last mentioned in the Accounts for 14 May 1513, the entry showing that he received a partial payment “in his pensioun,” though the records of the Accounts between August 1513 and June 1515 are not extant, a result of the disruption caused by the war with England. In September 1513 James, along with the flower of his nobility, was killed at the Battle of Flodden, a battle which, in his better judgment, he had wished to avoid and fought only to honor a pledge made to his ally France, which recently had been invaded by the armies of Henry VIII. For years James had collected artillery for just such an occasion, artillery sometimes alluded to in Dunbar’s poetry. But when war came James did not use it, and English muskets took their terrible toll.
“It has been suggested that Dunbar lost his life alongside his king. Yet, considering the poet’s age at the time, it seems unlikely. In addition, some poems written after Flodden have been attributed to Dunbar, and at least two are plausible. A poem on the duke of Albany, “Quhen the Governour Past in France,” not at all flattering to the new governor who tried to rule for only three years before leaving for France in June 1517, is assigned to Dunbar in the Maitland collection made a generation later. It has been rejected from the canon of his work on the grounds that it is technically inferior. Yet the poem’s stanzaic pattern and refrain are characteristic of Dunbar’s work, and its plainer style and serious tone seem natural in an older poet, especially one who had recently experienced a traumatic event like Flodden. Another poem, apparently written for the young widowed queen, is untitled and anonymous in the Bannatyne Manuscript but was attributed to Dunbar by the nineteenth-century editor David Laing, and the many correspondences between this poem and others that are indisputably Dunbar’s have persuaded Kinsley to accept the attribution. If Dunbar wrote the poem for the dowager queen, he definitely lived after Flodden; if he wrote the Albany poem, then he was still alive in 1517. But he most certainly is dead by 1530 when Sir David Lindsay speaks of Dunbar as dead in the Testament of the Papyngo.” (Poetry Foundation)
One finds that Dunbar’s poems are short and possess lyrical variety. They were composed with realism and skill. His themes are novel, original, and humorous. He used natural and colloquial language with the technique of a master. Much of his poetry is satiric. He attacked the clergy and court parasites. These satires have a personal quality and often betray the writer’s own resentment and bitterness.