Biography

William Dunbar (c. 1460 - 1520) : has left vivid images of Scotland during the reign of James IV, but much of his own life remains obscure. It is certain, however, that Dunbar was a Lowlander, from the Lothian region, and spent many years in Edinburgh. He was well- educated and studied at St Andrews, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in 1477, and a Master’s degree in 1479. It is assumed that he spent the subsequent years travelling abroad, possibly to Denmark, France, and England. Between 1500 and 1513, he received a ‘Pensioun’ or annual salary, from James IV as a member of the royal household and may have fulfilled clerical functions there. He was ordained in 1504, but occasionally acted as advocate in the law courts. The last mention of him in the court record is in May 1513, the year of the battle of Flodden, in which King James IV died. Dunbar may have survived into the reign of James V, but there is no evidence to back it up.

Much of his poetry is addressed to the king and queen and fellow courtiers, from humble fools to powerful officials, and there is some festive poetry, written for specific occasions, such as royal weddings (The Thissil and the Rose for the marriage of James IV and Margaret Tudor) and tournaments.

Much of his poetry, however, is satirical in its analyses of courtly life, and reveals an uneasy atmosphere of envy and distrust.

His verse is very brief and compressed, and he himself labelled his writings ‘ballatis’ and defined himself as a Makar, a term that lays stress on the poet as a skilled and versatile craftsman. Indeed, he experimented with many genres, elegy, panegyric, love epistle, fable, satire, and dream poetry. He is at his most personal in The Lament for the Makars. The last verse of that poem offers both the reader and himself a glimmer of hope, in what has become a prayer for his immortality. Through this poem, at least, he achieved it.

Sen for the ded remeid is none
Best is that we for ded dispone
Eftir our deid that lif may we
Timor mortis conturbat me