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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

V. The Earliest Scottish Literature

§ 1. Early Fragments

AS has been indicated in the preceding chapter, it is probable that, from a very early period in the English colonisation of Britain, an English dialect was spoken from Forth to Tweed, which was, in most respects, practically indistinguishable from that spoken between the Tweed and the Humber. Even along the north-eastern coast, English was soon the language of the little towns that traded by sea. Before 1124, the communities of Aberdeen, Banff, Elgin, Forres, Nairn and Inverness had formed themselves into a miniature Hanseatic league, on which David I conferred sundry privileges. The inland country behind these communities remained for long in the hands of a Gaelic-speaking people. In the north of Aberdeenshire there is evidence that the harrying of Buchan, carried out by Robert the Bruce, in 1308, as part of his vengeance on his enemies the Comyns, introduced the English language to the inland districts, for in local documents the names of persons change speedily after that date from Gaelic to English.

Of a Scottish literature before the wars of independence there is no trace. In the period preceding the death of Alexander III, in 1286, Scotland was so prosperous that it is difficult to believe no such literature existed. But, as the dialect of Scotland was not yet differentiated from that south of the Tweed, such a literature, unless it took the form of chronicles or was of a strictly local character, could not easily be identified. It is noticeable that there is no lack of literature of which the scene is connected with Scotland. The romance of Sir Tristram, which is associated with the name of True Thomas, the mysterious seer of Erceldoune, is preserved only in a dialect which is not Scots. Though the Gawain cycle appears in different forms in different dialects, all of them seem to be English. Yet Gawain, according to the legend, was prince of Galloway; and, as we shall see, there is some reason to connect some of these poems with a Scottish author. The contradiction, however, is more in appearance than in reality. If these poems were composed by a Scottish author, they were, undoubtedly, intended rather for recitation than for reading; and, even if they were meant to be read, a southern scribe would be certain to adapt the forms to his own dialect. This adaptation might be either intentional or unintentional. If intentional, the purpose would be to make the poem more easily intelligible to southern readers; if unintentional, it would typify the result which always ensues in all languages from the mechanical copying of an alien dialect.

In the Scots dialect itself, the political separation brought about by the wars of Wallace and Bruce produced considerable changes. The oldest fragments of the dialect are to be found in the phrases introduced for greater precision into the Latin laws of David I and his successors. In these we hear of blodewit, styngisdynt, hereieth and so forth, for which, in the later Scots version, are substituted bludewyt, stokisdynt, hereyelde. Till Scotland has become again an independent kingdom, such words as these, and the vernacular glosses on the hard words in a Latin lease, are all that survive to us the old Scottish tongue. Of early continuous prose there are no remains. The earliest poetry extant appears in the few musical and pathetic verses on the death of Alexander III, which have been quoted a thousand times:

  • Quhen Alysandyr oure kyng was dede
  • That Scotland led in luve and le,
  • Away wes sons off ale and brede,
  • Off wyne and wax, off gamyn and gle;
  • Oure gold wes changyd into lede,
  • Cryst born into Vyrgynyté
  • Succoure Scotland and remede
  • That stad is in perplexyté.
  • Though preserved only by Wyntoun (c. 1420), they, no doubt, are not far removed from the original form of a hundred and fifty years earlier. In Fabyan’s Chronicle are preserved some of the flouts and gibes at the English, baffled in the siege of Berwick and defeated at Bannockburn. But it is with Barbour, whose poem The Bruce is the triumphant chronicle of the making of the new kingdom of Scotland by Robert and Edward Bruce and the great “James of Douglas,” that Scottish literature begins. As the national epic, coloured, evidently, to a large extent by tradition, but written while men still lived who remembered Bannockburn and the good king Robert, it is entitled to the first place, even though conceivably some of the literature of pure romance be not less old.