The Brus - Preface

Barbour’s The Brus (The Bruce) is considered to stand right at the beginning of Scots literature and history, since it is the oldest Scots manuscript still in existence. It is an epic poem which tells the bloody tale of King Robert the Bruce, Sir James of Douglas and Edward Bruce and their fight for Scottish independence from a ruthlessly acquisitive Edward I of England who wanted Scotland (along with Wales and France) to become part of his kingdom. The poem includes a graphic depiction of the Battle of Bannockburn, and also relates the skulduggery and intrigue that surrounded Robert the Bruce in his accession to the Scottish throne.

The language is essentially that of 14th century Scotland – which by my clock makes it over 600 years old. A lot can happen to a language in 600 years. Reading it now it’s difficult to get past the weird spellings, obscure words, twisted sentence structure, etc. But if you read it aloud (not recommended in libraries), or read it into yourself and try to hear the words as they are written, then you have won half the battle.

A loose translation is provided to clue you in to the sense of the poem but really the greatest pleasure is reading this stuff as it was written. Just treat it like a word game or a puzzle. It doesn’t take long, and it’s only a short couple of extracts we have presented here.

Storys to rede ar delitabill
suppos that thai be nocht bot fabill
than suld storys that suthfast wer
and thai war said on gud maner
have doubill plesance in heryng
the first plesance is the carpyng
and the tother the suthfastnes
that schawys the thing rycht as it wes
and suth thyngis that ar likand
till mannys heryng ar plesand
tharfor i wald fayne set my will
giff my wyt mycht suffice thartill
to put in wryt a suthfast story
that it lest ay furth in memory
awa that na tyme of lenth it let
na ger it haly be foryet
for auld storys that men redys
representis to thaim the dedys
Of stalwart folk that lyvyt ar
rycht as thai than in presence war
and certis thai suld weill have prys
that in thar tyme war wycht and wys
and led thar lyff in gret travaill
and oft in hard stour off bataill
wan gret price off chevalry
and war voydyt off cowardy
as wes king robert off scotland
that hardy wes off hart and hand
and gud schir james off douglas
that in his tyme sa worthy was
that off hys price and hys bounte
in ser landis renownyt wes he
off thaim I thynk this buk to ma
now god gyff grace that I may swa
tret it and bryng till endyng
that I say nocht bot suthfast thing

Reading stories is delightful
even if they are just fables.
So hearing stories that are truthful
And told well
Should give double the pleasure.
The first pleasure is in telling them
And the other in the truthfulness
That shows the thing exactly as it was.
And true things that are enjoyed
To man’s hearing are pleasant.
Therefore I would happily set my will,
If my wits will last until the end,
To write a truthful story
That will be remembered for a long time
and in time won’t fade away
Nor be completely forgotten.
Because these old stories that men read
Tell us of the deeds
Of solid, worthy people who can seem
As alive now as they were then.
And it is certain that we would prize
Those who in their day were strong and wise,
Who led their life through great troubles,
Often in the hard struggles of battle,
And won the great prize of chivalry
And never knew what it was to be cowardly.
Such was King Robert of Scotland
Who was strong of heart and hand,
And good Sir James Douglas,
A worthy man in his time,
Who for his esteem and his generosity
Was famous in far off lands.
I make this book with them in mind.
Now God give me the grace that I may
Write it well and bring it to the end
Telling you nothing but the truth.

In these opening lines of his poem (which runs to over 13,500 lines) Barbour is keen to inform us about the truthfulness of his writing. He lets us know right away that even though we may read for pleasure – “Storys to rede ar delitabill” – this is no mere “fabill”, or fiction, but a “suthfast thing”. In fact he tells us that reading a work of fact, or history, should give us double the pleasure since we can enjoy it simply for how the story is told, for the plot in other words, and we get satisfaction from knowing that it really happened.

This is sometimes called positioning the reader. In other words, he’s telling us what to think about the story without us being allowed to make up our own mind. In literature of this time we can generally trust the writer to be telling the truth – but we still have to be on our guard: is The Brus purely a work of historical investigation or reportage, or is it a work of literature as well? If it’s a work of literature then there will be aspects to it that take us away from “suthfastness” into more subjective territory. Not that we shouldn’t believe the accuracy of his facts, just that it’s as well to remember that Barbour is writing a story, first and foremost. And like any story teller, from Blind Harry all the way to Randall Wallace (American screenwriter of Braveheart), the first things to go when they get in the way of a good story are the facts.

Certainly, The Brus has provided us with great insights into a major part of our history that would be lost to us without this work. In a way he has an eye to posterity and the lasting importance of his work when he says:

tharfor i wald fayne set my will
giff my wyt mycht suffice thartill
to put in wryt a suthfast story
that it lest ay furth in memory
awa that na tyme of lenth it let
na ger it haly be foryet

He says that if he is up to the job intellectually (“giff my wyt mycht suffice thartill” – literally: if my wit might suffice thereto) then he is happy to put into writing a true story that will last beyond the memories of men, so that the essence of it will always remain, and never completely be forgotten. Remember that a great deal of our history and literature has never been written down. Much of it passed through generations by word of mouth – called oral history – and inevitably most of it has been lost. Not until poets like Robert Burns and James Hogg and Walter Scott did Scotland’s vast literary history in the form of ballads begin to be archived in books. Barbour knew what he was up to, knew that he was performing a great service to the nation and we’re glad he did.

There is another document which exists from the period of Bruce and Barbour: The Declaration of Arbroath. This is a letter written in Latin and sent in 1320 (55 years before Barbour’s The Brus was published) to the Pope in Avignon, France from a large number of Scottish nobles on behalf of the community of Scotland. Essentially, it sets out the reasons why the Scots are still at war with their English neighbours when all Christian provinces and kingdoms were supposed to have forgotten their differences and united against the Muslims in a kind of medieval coalition of the willing. Islam was perceived even then as a threat to Christian nations, and the Church began a holy war in the Middle East (or Holy Land) called the Crusades. Since the Pope sees the Scots to be causing internal division in the ranks of the Christian world (or Christendom) he excommunicates them from the Church. Again, a Middle Ages and more godly version of modern trade sanctions.

The Declaration does more than try to placate the Pope, however. It describes in no uncertain terms what the Scots have suffered under English rule:

Thus our nation . . . lived in freedom and peace up to the time when that mighty prince the King of the English, Edward, the father of the one who reigns today, when our kingdom had no head and our people harboured no malice or treachery and were then unused to wars or invasions, came in the guise of a friend and ally to harass them as an enemy. The deeds of cruelty, massacre, violence, pillage, arson, imprisoning prelates, burning down monasteries, robbing and killing monks and nuns, and yet other outrages without number which he committed against our people, sparing neither age nor sex, religion nor rank, no one could describe nor fully imagine unless he had seen them with his own eyes.

And in these famous lines The Declaration make clear that the Scots are unwilling to suffer this again:

for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom -- for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.

Fundamentally the Declaration of Arbroath sets forth Scotland’s ambitions for independent nationhood. More generally, it is seen as the first document which outlines a new kind of political landscape: i.e. one in which the greater good of the people is seen as of greater imperative than the will of the king. In other words, democracy.

Over 400 years later, in 1776, Thomas Jefferson and a number of others would use the Declaration of Arbroath as a model for their own manifesto when the United States declared its independence from Great Britain.