THE BARBOUR MEMORIAL: Commemorated by a fine memorial carved by Roland Fraser, of Dalkeith, which hangs in St Machar’s Cathedral, Aberdeen.
by J. Derrick McClure
We have no record of John Barbour’s exact date of birth, nor of the place. He may not have been a native-born Aberdonian: certainly his family name (which is simply ‘barber’, probably the occupation of the poet’s father or grandfather) was, and still is, commoner in the South-West than in this area. However, his long period in the service of the Diocese of Aberdeen as its Archdeacon, lasting from 1357 till his death in 1395, has led to his being inseparably associated with this city.
Prior to this, he had served as precentor in the Cathedral of Dunkeld, an appointment which suggests some musical expertise. To make the transition in a single leap from the minor post of precentor to the highly responsible office of archdeacon, as Barbour succeeded in doing, is unusual; and in an age when Church posts were often bestowed as gifts or rewards, with scant regard for the suitability of the beneficiary for his office, such advancement might have been due to family connections or political factors. In Barbour’s case, however, his record in office appears to have been exemplary, and we may assume that his promotion was genuinely given on merit.
In both secular and church affairs, the records of Barbour’s life show him as an active, conscientious and widely-respected man. As Archdeacon, he was responsible for overseeing the distribution of charities, presiding over meetings of the church court, and supervising appointments to the priesthood and minor orders.
His work and his reputation extended well beyond the bounds of his diocese: on several occasions he travelled to England and France, under safe-conducts granted by the English king Edward III. Some of those journeys were for study and pilgrimage: he certainly visited the Universities of Oxford and Paris, and the shrine of St Denis, the patron saint of France, in the abbey church of the town named for the saint. Another purpose mentioned in one of his safe-conducts was the purchase of books, probably for the library of St Machar’s Cathedral: a good reason for travelling to Paris, the chief European centre for book production.
With Robert II’s accession to the throne in 1371, Barbour was appointed clerk of audit and auditor of the royal exchequer; and he served on occasions as a member of the royal Privy Council. Combining those duties with the administration of his diocese must have been taxing, and his health seems to have suffered: in 1387 the Pope, in response to a petition from Robert II, granted Barbour the privilege of appointing a deputy to attend to his work as Archdeacon while he was engaged in the King’s business, or if he was prevented by illness from attending to it himself. This unusual distinction is testimony to the high respect which Barbour had earned both at home and abroad.
Barbour’s legacy to posterity, however, is his one surviving poem: The Bruce, an epic account of Scotland’s hero-king and his part in the War of Independence. He swiftly summarises the disasters that befell Scotland after the death of Alexander III: the contest for the crown, the disastrous invitation to adjudicate offered to Edward I of England, the appointment of John Balliol as a vassal king, and Edward’s subsequent deposition of his puppet appointee and reduction of Scotland to the status of a conquered province: and then proceeds, with the skill of an expert story-teller – and more surprisingly for a mediaeval chronicler, with a high degree of historical accuracy – to recount the story of Robert Bruce’s claiming the throne, his heroic campaigns of resistance, his gradual recovery of Scotland from the English, and his shattering victory over the invaders at Bannockburn.
Finally, since Bannockburn was by no means the conclusion of either Bruce’s career or the struggle for independence, Barbour tells us of the king’s audacious but unsuccessful attempt to establish his brother Edward as High King of Ireland, his humiliating defeat of a new invasion led by England’s young king Edward III, and his triumphant recognition from Edward, just before his death, of Scotland’s freedom and his own status as its independent sovereign.
For writing the poem, Barbour was rewarded with a ‘perpetual annuity’ from the King – that is, a pension which would pass to the recipient’s heirs after his death – which was confirmed by Robert III on his accession in 1390. Barbour in his will provided for the annuity to pass to the bishop and chapter of St Machar’s Cathedral, with the direction that a special mass should be celebrated, for the repose of his soul, on the anniversary of his death: a duty which was faithfully performed for well over a century.
Barbour’s poem, with its lively and fast-moving narrative, its memorable accounts of battles, sieges and single combats, and its stirring tone of patriotism, is one of literature’s great epics, and a worthy curtain-raiser to the splendid pageant of literature in the Scots tongue.
In its own time, however, it had a significance additional to its actual literary merit. Barbour lived and wrote during one of the Scottish kingdom’s least distinguished periods. Robert Bruce must have died a happy man, knowing that his long and heroic struggle had secured Scotland’s independence; but his death (as so often in Scottish history) occurred before his son, David II, was of an age to assume power; and during David’s minority the kingdom was plunged into a new war when John Balliol’s son Edward made a vigorous effort, with English support, to seize the throne. He was soon sent packing, but even when David came of age he proved a far lesser king than his father; and worse was to come.
David’s nephew and successor Robert II, Bruce’s grandson by his daughter Marjorie, has the distinction of being the first monarch of the House of Stewart (the dynasty takes its name from the title of Marjorie’s husband Walter, the Great Steward of Scotland); but he is one of its least impressive figures. Though he had proved a brave fighter in his youth, he was long past his prime, and almost blind into the bargain, by the date of his succession; and his prestige was diminished by his claim to the throne being through the female line.
It was Robert who commissioned Barbour to write the Bruce (and also a verse history of the ancestry of the House of Stewart, though this has not survived); and his hope was probably that an epic account of his heroic grandfather would cast some much-needed reflected glory on his own undistinguished reign.
Barbour’s response was both complex and pointed. His inspiring account of Bruce’s heroic exploits also contains expressions of hope that his successors will maintain the freedom and the dignity of the kingdom as he did – with the clear implication that they were conspicuously failing to do so. On the other hand, his poem gives full credit to Bruce’s followers, most notably Sir James Douglas, for their part in the war’s successful outcome; and veiled criticisms occur in the poem of the fact that their successors are proving less loyal to Bruce’s grandson than the nobles and commons of Bruce’s time were to him. Barbour’s Bruce is a historical epic; but the history has a strongly-hinted applicability to the poet’s own time.
And it is not for nothing that the poem is written in the vernacular. The normal language for historical chronicles was Latin: Barbour’s use of Scots is a bold innovation, indicative of the fact that even if the Scottish monarchy was at that point living sadly on past glories, the nation itself could still proudly proclaim its independence.
The Scots tongue was not yet as distinct from metropolitan English as it was eventually to become. Though there is no documentary evidence, it is likely that Barbour was personally acquainted with Chaucer – both were important men holding responsible positions in council and diplomacy, and Barbour, as we have seen, made several visits to England – and as the two conversed about poetry and politics over the fourteenth-century equivalent of a pie and a pint, they would have understood each other much more easily than a Doric-speaker and a Cockney-speaker of today.
But the independent development of the Old English tongue north of the Tweed was well under way; and though Barbour himself never used the word Scottis of his language, it was already unmistakeably Scottish. And by what finer route could the Scots tongue have been initiated as a language of poetry than an epic celebration of the nation’s heroic and successful struggle for independence!
J. Derrick McClure is a Senior Lecturer in English at Aberdeen University, specialising in Scots language and literature. Born in Ayr, but resident for 30 years in Aberdeen, he is therefore keen on both Burns and Doric.
This is an article from the February 2008 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.