1902 Encyclopedia > Literature of Scotland

Literature of Scotland




SCOTLAND, LITERATURE OF. Literature in Scotland, as distinct from England, dates from the time of COLUMBA (q.v.). Adamnan, abbot of Iona, who in 690 wrote in Latin the life of his predecessor, may be regarded as the first author that Scotland produced. In addition to his biography of St Columba, a long extract from a work of his on the " Holy Places " is incorporated by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History. The greater part of .Scotland was at that time inhabited by a Celtic population and the period from the 7th to the 13th century has left but few literary remains (see CELTIC LITERATURE, V01. v. p. 313). In the latter part of the-13th century what may be called the ancient literary language of Scotland was used in the district between the Humber and the Forth and coastwise as far north as Aberdeen. Its earliest writer is Thomas of Ercildoune, or Thomas the Rhymer, who reached the height of his fame in 1280. The fairy tale or romance that bears his name may be regarded as the earliest example of romance poetry in Britain. Nearly contemporary with the Rhymer were two other distinguished Scots, Michael SCOT (q.v.) and John of Duns, or DUNS SCOTUS (q.v.), both of whom, however, wrote in Latin. Three Arthurian .21 romances taken from Anglo-Norman sources relating to is Sir Gawain, one of the most celebrated knights of the" Round Table, seem to have been composed about the end of the 13th century. These were - Syr Gawayn and the Grene Knycht, the Knightly Tale of Golagros and Gawayne, and the Awntyrs of Arthur at the Ternewaticelyne. Sir Gamin's exploits were so popular in the south of Scotland that he was claimed by the people as one of their own chieftains and called the lord of Galloway. The Awntyrs of Arthur, or the adventures of King Arthur at the Ternwadling, a small lake near Carlisle, and the Pystil of Swete Susan, a version of the apocryphal story of Susanna, are supposed to have been the productions of Sir Hew of Eglintoun about that period. The Tail of Raul Coilzear, in which the adventures of the emperor Charlemagne in the house of a charcoal-burner named Ralph in the neighbourhood of Paris are related with much poetic humour, and the fairy tale of Orfeo and Heurodis were written in the early part of the 14th century and were very popular in Scotland in former times.

The War of Independence gave a new impetus to Scottish nationality and produced a corresponding effect on the literature of the country. The Brus, or metrical account of the deeds of Robert Bruce, was written by John BAR- I noun (q.v.), archdeacon of Aberdeen, in the latter part of the 14th century. To him we owe a translation of a mediaval romance on the Trojan War, nearly 3000 lines in length, and a large collection of metrical lives of saints, which, after being long preserved in manuscript, have recently been printed by Dr Horstmann. About this time was compiled the first formal history of Scotland by John of FonnuN (q.v.), which was written in Latin and brought down to the death of David I. He, however, left materials for the completion of the work, the last date of which is 1385. In 1441 a continuation of it was made by Walter Bower or Bowmaker. The whole work was then styled : the Scotichronicon, and brings the history of Scotland clown to 1437. A metrical history was written between 1420 and 1424 by Andrew of Wyntoun, a canon regular of St' Andrews and prior of St Serf's Inch in Loch Leven. This I work, known as the Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland, is prefaced by an account of the human race from the creation, and, although for the most part its verse is homely and dull, its author occasionally describes stirring incidents with considerable power. The beautiful poem of James T. , called The Kingis Quitair, written about this period, was far in advance of the contemporary metrical chronicles. It possesses a melody of verse unknown before and gives the king a conspicuous place in early Scottish literature. He is supposed to have also written A Ballad of Good Counsel and a song On Absence ; but two poems, Christ is Kirk of the Grene and Peblis to the Play, believed to have been his composition, have been recently shown by the Rev. W. W. Skeat to be by some other early poet. An allegorical poem called the Buke of the Ilowlat was written about 1450 by Sir Richard Holland, an adherent of the noble family of Douglas. It is a warning against pride, exemplified by the owl, decked out in the splendour of borrowed feathers, compelled on account of his insolence to resume his original form. The poem displays some inventive and descriptive power, though marred by its alliteration. The exploits of Sir William Wallace found about 1460 a worthy chronicler in Henry the _Minstrel, or Blind Harry, who, born with such a serious defect, must be regarded as one of the most extraordinary individuals recorded in the annals of literature. His well-known poem, which bears the name of his hero, is in versification, ex-pression, and poetic imagery a remarkable production for that period. The grave and thoughtful poetry of Robert HENRYSON (q.v.), notary public and preceptor in the Bene-dictine convent at Dunfermline, who flourished about 1470, contrasts favourably with that of his English contempo-raries. His Testament of Cresseid was often incorporated in the old editions of the works of Chaucer, to whose poetry it is not inferior. His Robene and Makyne is the earliest specimen of pastoral poetry in the Scottish lan-guage. These, with his Fables and other works, entitle him to a high place amongst the early Scottish poets. Nearly coeval with Henryson was Sir Gilbert Hay, chamberlain to Charles VI. of France, who made several translations from the works of French authors. One of these, taken from a popular French romance of Alex-ander the Great, extends to upwards of 20,000 lines. A long anonymous poem: called Clariodus belongs to this period. It is a romance founded on a French original, the more material incidents of which are supposed to have happened at the English court. It abounds with illustra-tions of the manners and customs peculiar to the arm of chivalry. Being nearly 3000 lines in length, it is, like the last-mentioned, an extensive specimen of the language and versification of the time. The Thrie Tales of the Thrie Preistis of Peblis (1490), the authorship of which is un-known, are moral tales possessing considerable freshness. As a fragment of an old version of them occurs in the Asloan MS., written in 1490, they must have existed long before the edition printed by- Henry Charteris in 1603, in which form only they are now accessible. Tlie Ledger of Andrew Halyburtoil :conservator of the privileges of the Scottish nation in t'he Netherlands, 1492-1503, is a valu-able source of information regarding the early trade of Scotland.





The close of the 15th century exhibited a consider-able growth of literary ability in the writings of William DUNBAR (q.v.) and his contemporaries. His works were so highly esteemed at the time he wrote that he was raised to the dignity of " the maker " or poet-laureate of Scot-land. Such of Dunbar's writings as have come down to the present time are of a miscellaneous character, in which there is much power of description and command of verse. The Thistle and the Rose and the Golden Targe are excel-lent specimens of his poetic power. His satirical poems, such as the Twa Mariit Wemen and the Wedo and the Flyt-ing with, Kennedie, contain much coarse humour. Seven of his poems were the first specimens of Scottish typo-graphy, having been printed by Chepman and Myllar at Edinburgh in 1508, followed in 1509 by the well-knovvn Breviary for the church of Aberdeen. A humorous poem called the Freiris of Pernik has been attributed to Dunbar and is usually printed with his works. Contemporary witli Dunbar were a number of minor Scottish poets of whose works only a few specimens have come down to t'he present time. These were Walter Kennedie, with whom he had his " flyting" or poetical contest, Sir John Rowll, Quintyne Shaw, Patrick Johnestoun, Merseir, James Affiek, and others.1 The most classical of the Scottish poets was Gawyn or Gavin DOUGLAS (q.v.), bishop of Dunkeld, whose great literary work was the translation of the Xneid of Virgil into Scottish verse. To each book he prefixed a prologue; the one before the twelfth is an admirable descriptive poem of the beauties of May. His Palice of Honour and Kyng Hart, two allegorical poems, are able productions, the latter of which is full of dramatic vigour. Contemporary with Douglas was Sir David LYNDSAY (q.v.), Lyon king-of-arms in the reign of James V., who may be regarded as the most popular of the early Scottish poets. His Monarchic, or] ane Dialog betuix Experience and ane Courteour of the Miserabyl Estait of the Warld gives a short survey of sacred and classical history which rendered it very popular in its time. His Satire of the Thrie Estaitis is a skilfully written attempt to reform the abuses of the period, especi-ally those of the church. While some of its characters recite long and erudite political speeches, he introduces interludes of a farcical kind suited to the tastes of the times. This work may be considered the first dramatic effort of any British author. In his Testament of Squire Meldrum be relates the adventures of his hero with much poetic fire. Lyndsay's other poems consist of appeals to the king for advancement and some jeux d'esprit of no great length. One of the best scholars and teachers of this period was John Major or Mair, a native of Haddington, who was principal of St Salvator's College, St Andrews. Besides being the author of learned commentaries on Aristotle, he wrote a well-known work, De historia gentis Scotorum libri sex, printed in 1521. Another Scottish author that wrote in Latin with considerable elegance was Hector BOECE (q.v.), principal of King's College, Aberdeen. His great work, Historia gentis Scotorum, a prima gentis, origine, was published in Paris in 1526. It was translated into Scottish by John Bellenden, archdeacon of Moray, under the title of the IlYstory and Croniklis of Scotland, printed at Edinburgh in 1536. Bellenden also translated the first five books of Livy into Scottish. The Chronicle of Boece was versified in Scottish in 1531-35 by William Stewart, a descendant of the first earl of Buchan. It was written by command of Margaret, sister of Henry VIII. of England, for the instruction of her son„the youthful James V. A Latin poem of much merit, entitled De animi tran-quillitate, was published in 1543 by Florence Wilson, master of Carpentras School. It is in the form of a dialogue and displays much variety of knowledge, while its Latinity has long been celebrated. In an anonymous work, written in 1548 or 1549, and called the Complaynt of Scotland, the author deplores the calamities to which Scotland was then subject. These are stated to be the wrongs done to the Scottish labourers at the hands of the landholders a,nd the clergy, the difficulties with England, and the treachery of the Scottish nobility. The work is valuable as affording a glimpse of the literature then popular in Scotland, some pieces of which are no longer to be found, - such as The Tayle of the Reyde Eyttyn [red giant] vith the Thre Heydes, The Tayl of the Volfe of the Varldis End, The Tayl of the Giantis that eit Quyk Men, The- Tayl of the thrie Plait Dog of llrorroway, and Robyn Hyde and Litil Jhone.

In 1552 there was printed at St Andrews a Catechism, that is to say ane Commone and Catholike Instructioun of the Christian People in Materis of our Catholihe Faith and Religioun,, written by John Hamilton, archbishop of St Andrews, the last primate of the Roman Catholic faith in Scotland. The poems of Sir Richard Maitland, which are of a somewhat satirical kind, are valuable, as they, like ] those of Lyndsay, contain much information about the abuses of the time (1560), such as the oppressive conduct of the landholders, vexatious lawsuits, and the depredations of the Border thieves. Sir Richard deserves the thanks of posterity for the large manuscript collection of poems by Scottish authors which he and his daughter formed, and which is now preserved in the Pepysian Library, at Magdalene College, Cambridge. The name of George Bannatyne is inseparably connected with the history of Scottish poetry, as in 1568 he too formed an extensive collection of Scottish poetry which is certainly the most valuable now extant. It was written by hint at Edinburgh in the time of the plague, when the dread of infection confined him closely at home. The Bannatyne MS. now preserved in the Advocates' Library extends to 800 pages folio, and includes several of Bannatyne's own poems, of which the two most considerable are of an amatory character. The works of Alexander Scott, consisting principally of love poems, embrace also a spirited account of a Jousting betwix Adamson, and Sym at the Drum, a place a little to the south of Edinburgh. The author, who was one of the most elegant poets of this period, has sometimes been called the "Scottish Anacreon." Two poems of some merit - the Praises of Wemen and the Miseries of a Puir Scolar - were written by Alexander Arbuthnot, principal of King's College, Aberdeen, about 1570. A poem of considerable length, called the Sege of the Castell of Edinburgh, published in 1573, was by Robert Semple, who also wrote an attack on Archbishop Adamson, called the Legend of the Bishop of Sanct Androis Lyfe. To this period belong two poems of considerable length - the Court of Venus (1575), an imitation of the Police of Honour of Gawyn Douglas, and the romance of the Seaven Seages (1578), a Scottish version of one of the most remarkable mediaeval collections of stories belonging to the same class as the Arabian. Nights, in which one single story is employed as a means of stringing together a multitude of subsidiary tales. These poems were written by John Rolland, notary in Dalkeith. One of the best Latin scholars that modern Europe has produced was George BUCHANAN (q.v.), who flourished in the middle of the 16th century. He wrote several Latin tragedies and an unrivalled translation of the Psalms. His De jure regni aped Scotos was composed to instruct James -VI., to whom he had been tutor, in the duties belonging to his kingly office. His last and most important labour was his History of Scotland, originally printed in 1582, of which seventeen editions have appeared. An excellent specimen of the ancient vernacular language is the Chronicle of Scotland by Robert Lyndsay of Pitscottie. It includes the period from 1436 to the marriage of Mary to Darnley in 1565. Although its author was a simple-minded and credulous man, he describes events of which he was an eye-witness with circumstantiality and great prolixity of detail. Another historical work of greater importance was the De origine, moribus, et rebus gestis Scotorum (1578) by John Lesley, bishop of Ross. A translation of thiS work made by Father James Dalrymple, a religious in the Scottish cloister of Ratisbon, 1596, is in course of publication by the Rev. Father E. B. Cody for the Scottish Text Society. Lesley also wrote in Scottish a History of Scotland from the death of James I. in 1436 to the year 1561. This work, intended for the perusal of Mary while in captivity in England, is written in an elegant style. The bishop was the champion of that unfortunate queen, and in 1569 wrote a Defence of the Honour of Marie Quene of Scotland and Dowager of France, with a declaration of her right, title, and interest to the succession of the crown of England.





The Reformation exerted a considerable influence on Scottish literature. Amongst the earliest Protestant writers of the country may be mentioned Alexander Ales or Alesius, a native of Edinburgh, who published several controversial works and commentaries on various parts of the Bible. But the most eminent promoter of the reform was John KNOX (q.v.), who wrote several controversial pamphlets and some religious treatises ; his great work was the History of the Reformation, of Religion in Scotland, first printed in 1586. One of the principal opponents of Knox was Ninian Winzet, a priest of considerable ability and one familiar with the scholastic learning of the age. He began life as master of Linlithgow school and subsequently became abbot of St James's at Ratisbon. He wrote several tracts in which he strenuously recommended the observance of certain popish festivals. In 1562 he published his Buke of Four Scoir Thrie Questions tucking Doctrine, Ordour, and Maneris proponit to the Prechouris of the Protestantis in Scotland and deliverit to Jhone Knox the 20th day of February 1562. The writings of James VI., who was a man of scholarly attainments, embrace several works both' in poetry and prose. His earliest production, published in 1584, when he was only eighteen, was the Essayes of a Prentice in the Divine Art of Poesie. This was followed by his poetical Exercises at Vacant Jloures (1591). He also wrote a great many sonnets and a translation of the Psalms. His prose works are Dwmonologie (1597), BacracKi, AZ.; pov (1599), Counterblast to Tobacco, Paraphrase on Revelation, Law of Free Monarchies, &c. Among the Scottish poets who frequented his court were William Fowler, the elegant translator of the Triumphs of Petrarch, and Stewart of Baldinnies (Perth), a translator of Ariosto. Both these poets wrote other works which exist in MS., but are still unpublished. The zeal of Sir David Lyndsay and others for the reformation of the church initiated a religious revival, and in 1597 was published the collection known as Ane Compendious Booke of Godly and Spiritual Sangs for avoiding of Sinne and Harlotrie. This very curious work is attributed to John and Robert Wedderburn, the latter of whom was vicar of Dundee. A number of religious poems were written about the end of the 16th century by James Melville, minister of Anstruther, afterwards of Kilrenny, both in Fife. His Morning Vision, printed in 1598, consists of paraphrases of the Lord's Prayer, the Shorter Catechism, and the Ten Commandments. He also wrote the Black Bastel, a lamentation over the Church of Scotland, which is dated 1611. Another religious poet was James Cockburn, a native of Lanarkshire, who wrote Gabriel's Salutation to Marie (1605), and some other poems not destitute of merit. An eminent theological writer of this era, Robert Rollock, first principal of the university of Edinburgh, wrote many commentaries on the Scriptures which show extensive learning. Most are in Latin ; but one or two are in the Scottish language. A very popular poem, the Cherrie and the Slae, first printed by Waldegrave at Edinburgh in 1597, afterwards went through many editions. Its author was Alexander Montgomerie, who also wrote some translations of the Psalms and the Flyting betwixt Montgomerie and Polwarth, in imitation of Dunbar's Flyting with Kennedie. In 1599 was published an interesting volume of poems written by Alexander Hume, entitled Ilymnes or Sacred Songs, wherein. the Right Use of Poesie may be espied. One is on the defeat of the Spanish Armada. To the beginning of the 17th century belongs a comedy in rhyming stanza, the authorship of which is unknown, - Ane eerie Excellent and Delectabill Treatise intitulit Philotus, quhairin we may perceive the Greit Inconveniences that fallis out in the Marriage betuix Aige and Youth (1603). Its versification is easy and pleasant, and its plan a nearer approximation to the modern drama than the satire of Lyndsay. In the same year appeared the poems of Sir William ALEXANDER (q.v.), earl of Stirling. One, called Doomsday, or the Great Day of the Lord's Judgment, consists of 11,000 verses. His Monarchicke Tragedies, four in number, were not intended for representation on' the stage. His exhortation or Paralysis to Prince Henry (1604) is his best poem. He also wrote Recreations with the Muses (1637), which is of a somewhat philosophical character. One of the most distinguished writers of this era was William DRUMMOND (q.v.) of Hawthornden, who published Poems, amorous, funerall, divine, pastorali (1616), r and Flowers of Zion, or Spiritual Poems (1623). He also wrote a History of Scotland during the Reigns of the Five Jameses (1655), some political tracts, and the Cypress Grove, a moral treatise in prose. As a writer of sonnets he has always been highly esteemed. Nearly contemporary . with Drummond was Patrick Hannay, a native of Gallo-way, who seems to have followed James to England. He published his poems in 1622, the principal of which are Philomela the Nightingale and Sheretrine and Mariana. Ile occupies a favourable position amongst the minor Scottish poets. After the removal of the Scottish court to London and the union of the crowns in 1603, the old language began to be considered as a provincial dialect ; and the writers subsequent to Drummond, who was the first Scottish poet that wrote well in English, take their places ainongst British authors.

To the short sketch above given may be added a notice of the early Scottish writers on mathematics, philosophy, jurisprudence, and medicine. In tnathematical science the name of Joannes Sacro Bosco (John Holywood or Holybush) may be mentioned, as he is believed to have been a native of Nithsdale and a canon of the monastery of Holywood, from which he took his name. He flourished about the beginning of the 13th century, and his treatise De Sphera Mandl was very generally taught in colleges and schools. The system of astronomy and the other mathematical treatises of James Bassantie, who taught at Paris about 1560 with much success, were celebrated in their time. The greatest of the Scottish mathe-maticians, however, was John NAPIER (q.v.) of Merchiston, who wrote on various kindred subjects, and in 1614 astonished the world by his discovery of logarithms. In philosophy, besides the voluminous works of Duns Scotus and John Major already men-tioned, various learned commentaries on Aristotle, of which Scottish philosophy then almost entirely consisted, were published by Robert Balfour, principal of the college of Guienne ; by John Ruther-ford, professor of philosophy at St Andrews (under whom Admirable Crichton was a pupil); and byJames Cheyne, professor of philosophy at Douai. In jurisprudence a celebrated treatise on the Feudal o Law was written by Sir Thomas Craig about 1603. It was not, however, published till about half a century after his death, as the printing of any treatise on the law of Scotland while he lived seems to have been considered as out of the question. Commentaries on some of the titles of the Pan,clects of Justinian, and a treatise De Potestate Papm (1609), in opposition to the usurpation of temporal power by the pope, were written by William Barclay, professor of law in the university of Angers. Another early legal work was a treatise On th,e Connexion between government and Religion, by Adam Blackwood, judge of the parlement of Poitiers, who was the antagonist of Buchanan and a strenuous defender of Mary queen of Scots. In medicine the principal early Scottish works were written by Duncan Liddell, a native of Aberdeen, who in 1605 published at Helmstadt his Disputationes medicinales, containing the theses or disputations maintained by himself and his pupils from 1592 to 1606. He also published other works, which contain an able digest of the medical learning of his age. Henry Blackwood, dean of faculty to the college of physicians at Paris, wrote various treatises on medicine, of which a list will be found in Mackenzie's Lives Of the Scottish. Writers, but which are now only historically interesting. (J. SM.)



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