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and quhen it cummys to the fycht
ilk man set hart will and mycht
to stynt our fayis mekill prid
on hors thai will arayit rid
and cum on you in full gret hy,
mete thaim with speris hardely
and think than on the mekill ill
that thai and tharis has done us till,
and ar in will yeit for to do
giff thai haf mycht to cum thar-to
and certis me think weill that we
for-out abasyng 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
forlyppynyng off thar gret powar
to sek us in our awne land
and has brocht her rycht till our hand
ryches into sa gret quantitÄ
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
our 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 thryldome
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.
And when it comes to the fight
Every man set his heart, will and might
To weaken our foes’ great pride.
They will come on horseback
And be upon you with great speed -
Meet them with sturdy spears
And think of the great wrong
That they and those like them have done to us
That they are determined to continue to do
If they have the strength to defeat us.
I am certain that we,
Without giving in, ought to be
Worthy and very brave
For we have three great advantages:
The first is, that right is on our side
And God will always fight for those in the right;
The second is that they have come here
Completely convinced of their own great power
To seek us out in our own land
And they have brought here, right into our hands
Riches in such great quantity
That the poorest of you shall be
Both rich and powerful
If we win, as well we may.
The third is that we - for our lives
And for our children and our wives
And for our freedom and for our land -
Are bound to stand in battle.
They are here just because they are powerful,
Because they look down on us,
And because they want to destroy us all.
That’s what makes them fight; but it may yet happen
That they will regret their decision.
And truly, I warn you of one thing
That if they, God forbid,
Find us so faint-hearted
That they defeat us easily
They will have no mercy on us.
And since we know their wicked intentions
I think it would suit our abilities
To set our bravery against their cruelty
And fight like that.
Therefore I ask and beseech you
That with all the strength that you can muster
When the battle starts prepare yourselves
Without cowardice or holding back
To meet those that reach you first
So stoutly that those at the back tremble.
And think of your great valour,
Your courage, and your brave deeds
And of the joy that waits for us
If it happens, as well it might,
That we are victorious in this great battle.
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 under their thumb,
But, because you yearned to have freedom
You are gathered here with me;
So it is necessary that you be
Strong and bold and without fear
If you will behave in this way
You will surely have victory.
In the extract above Barbour speaks with the voice of King Robert the Bruce and delivers a rousing speech to his assembled army as it is ready to do battle with the enemy English army under King Edward’s command. His army were a bit shaky the English army outnumbered them considerably and they were better armed: they had horses, the medieval equivalent of the latest military hardware. The Scots had little going for them in that sense, and it could have been a messy rout. In fact, at one point Bruce even decided not to go ahead with the battle, but was informed by a defector from the English camp that Edward’s army had a very low morale and were in a weak spot strategically.
In the end Bruce decided to go ahead with the battle, but before he did like any good manager before his team takes to the pitch he gave them a bit of a pep talk. The bottom line was this: if you fail in your desire to win the battle you will lose your freedom and face eternal serfdome (“thryldome”) under English rule.
The poem reminds modern readers here of Robert Burns who would have been familiar with this work and composed his anthem Scots Wha Hae with reference to it. It makes for a useful comparison:
Scots, wha hae wi Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,
Welcome to your gory bed
Or to victorie!
Now’s the day, and now’s the hour:
See the front o’ battle lour,
See approach proud Edward’s power
Chains and slaverie!
Wha will be a traitor knave?
Wha can fill a coward’s grave?
Wha sae base as be a slave?
Let him turn, and flee!
Wha for Scotland’s King and Law
Freedom’s sword will strongly draw,
Freeman stand, or Freeman fa’,
Let him follow me!
By Oppression’s woes and pains,
By your sons in servile chains,
We will drain your dearest veins,
But they shall be free!
Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty’s in every blow!
Let us do, or die!
The comparison stands more in Burns’s favour here. He packs into his three stanzas the passion and conviction of Bruce, but does it with such an economy of words and a lightness of touch that leaves poor old Barbour’s Bruce sounding rather longwinded. We imagine the army would rather the King just gave them the nod for them to get on with it. Bruce’s army was unlikely to have been made up entirely of professional soldiers, and would have included many dispirited tradesmen, farmers and fishermen fearful of imminent slaughter. In a square-go my money would be on the army that hears the speech Burns wrote.
Burns’s verses are punchier and we grasp the sense more immediately than in Barbour, not just because we feel more at home with his more modern language, but also because of his variation of metre and rhyme. Burns also punctuates each of his stanzas in the middle and at the end with dramatic interjections or questions rhetorical devices that have worked for speech-makers for millennia. Barbour more or less sticks to the same rhyming couplet scheme throughout the 13,500 or so lines of The Brus and his metrical pattern is similarly unvaried, though it suits this kind of epic narrative. In other words, Burns wants us to get the full impact of every line so he keeps halting the momentum, Barbour wants us to keep reading, a bit like a modern novelist, so he pushes us onward.
Scots Wha Hae reads like modern English and Scots. It is interesting to note that the opening stanza makes judicious use of Scots (wha, wham, aften, lour etc.) while the final stanza is written completely in English (“We will drain your dearest veins”, “Tyrants fall in every foe!”, etc) as if the message here from Bruce and from Burns is being directed specifically at English ears.
We are comfortable with the way Burns’s lines either contain complete sentences, or add on subordinate clauses before reaching the main verb (e.g. “By Oppression’s woes and pains/ By your sons in servile chains/ We will drain your dearest veins . . .”). Reading Barbour in the 21st century is especially tricky because his grammar is quite alien to us frequently we need to read a couple of lines before we can grasp the full meaning of a sentence. Assuming we can spot the verb, that is. But ultimately we must judge the poem on its own merits and as a literary and historical testament to the bravery and heroism of the Scots and their leaders in the face of aggressive occupation and possible annihilation it stands alone in Scottish and European literature.