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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

§ 3. Blind Harry’s Wallace

Barbour’s achievement in his age and circumstances is very remarkable. This is more vividly realised, if his work be compared with the other national epic, Blind Harry’s Wallace, which, in its own country, secured a more permanent and more general popularity than The Bruce. Till into the nineteenth century, one of the few books in every cottage was the Wallace. The causes of this popularity are to be sought in the fact that Wallace, being more genuinely a Scot than Bruce, as time went on, came more and more to be regarded as the national hero, and his exploits were magnified so as to include much with which Wallace had nothing to do. The very defects of Harry’s poem commended it to the vulgar. It professes to be the work of a burel man, one without special equipment as a scholar, though it is clear that Harry could at least read Latin. While Barbour’s narrative contains a certain amount of anecdotal matter derived from tradition, and, on some occasions, deviates from tradition, and, on some occasions, deviates from the truth of history, it is, on the whole, moderate, truthful and historical. Harry’s work, on the other hand, obviously is little but a tradition of facts seen through the mists of a century and a half. Historians are unable to assign to the activity of Wallace in his country’s cause a space of more than two years before the battle of Falkirk in 1298. Harry, though nowhere consistent, represents his hero as fighting with the English from his eighteenth year to his forty-fifth, which is, practically, the period from the death of Alexander III to the battle of Bannockburn. But Wallace was executed in 1305. The contents of the work are as unhistorical as the chronology. If Barbour took care, on the whole, that Bruce should have the best of it, though recognising that he suffered many reverses, Wallace’s path is marked by uniform success. Where Bruce slays his thousands, Wallace slays his ten thousands. The carnage is indiscriminate and disgusting. But, by the time that Wallace was composed, a long series of injuries subsequent to the wars of independence had engrained an unreasoning hate of everything English, which it has taken centuries of union between the countries to erase from the Scottish mind. hence, the very violence of Wallace commended it to its readers. To the little nation, which suffered so severely from its powerful neighbour, there was comfort amid the disasters of Flodden or of Pinkie in the record of the doughty Wallace.

Of the author of this poem we know next to nothing. According to John Major (Mair) the historian, Wallace was written in his boyhood by one Henry, who was blind from his birth, and who, by the recitation of his poem in the halls of the great (coram principibus), obtained the food and clothing he had earned. The date of the composition of the poem may be fixed, approximately, with the clue supplied by Major, as 1460. In the treasurer’s accounts various payments of a few shillings are entered as having been made to “Blin Hary.” The last of these payments is in 1492. Harry probably died soon after. Sixteen years later, Dunbar, in his Lament for the Makaris, enters him in the middle of his roughly chronological list of deceased poets. From Major’s account it is clear that Harry belonged to the class of the wandering minstrels who recited, like Homer of old, the deeds of heroes to their descendants. In Scotland, when the descendants of the heroes were no longer interested in such compositions, the bards appeared before humbler audiences; and many persons still alive can remember the last of them as, in the centre of a crowd of applauding yokels, he recited his latest composition on some popular subject of the day.

The sole manuscript of the poem, now in the Advocates’ Library at Edinburgh, was written in 1488 by the same time, wrote the two existing manuscripts of The Bruce. That he was a more faithful transcriber than he generally gets credit for having been, is shown by the well-marked differences between the language of the two poems. While, in Barbour, hardly a trace is to be found of the characteristic Scottish dropping of the final ll in all, small, pull, full, etc., we find this completely developed in Wallace, where call has to rime with law, fall with saw, etc. Here also pulled appears as powed, while pollis is mistakenly put for paws and malwaris for mawaris (mowers). As Harry was alive at the time when Ramsay wrote the manuscript, it may have been written from the author’s dictation. Be that as it may, there is nothing in Harry, and more than in Homer, to show that the author was born blind. On the contrary, some of his descriptions seem to show considerable powers of observation, though the descriptions of natural scenes with which he prefaces several of the books are an extension of what is found, though rarely, in Barbour (e.g. V, 1–13, XVI, 63 ff.) and had been a commonplace since Chaucer. The matter of his poem he professes to have derived from a narrative in Latin by John Blair, who had been chaplain to Wallace and who, if many of Wallace’s achievements are well nigh as mythical as those of Robin Hood, was himself comparable in prowess to Little John. He was, however, a modest champion withal, for Harry tells us that Blair’s achievements were inserted in the book by Thomas Gray, parson of Liberton. The book is not known to exist; but there is no reason to doubt that it had once existed. According to harry (XI, 1417), its accuracy was vouched for by Bishop Sinclair of Dunkeld, who had been an eye-witness of many of Wallace’s achievements. But, either the book from which Harry drew was a later forgery, or harry must have considerably embroidered his original; it is inconceivable that a companion of Wallace could have produced a story widely differing in chronology, to say nothing of facts, from real history.

But, when the poem has been accepted as a late traditional romance, founded upon the doings of a national hero of whom little was known, Wallace is by no means without merit. Harry manages his long line with considerable success, and so firmly established it in Scotland that the last romantic poem written in Scots—Alexander Ross’s Helenore, or the Fortunate Shepherdess—carries on, after three centuries, the rhythm of harry with the greatest exactitude. There is no lack of verve in his battle scenes; but they are all so much alike that they pall by repetition. The following is typical (II, 398 ff.). Longcastell (Lancaster), we are told,

  • Hynt out his suerd, that was of nobill hew,
  • Wallace with that, at hys lychtyn, him drew;
  • Apon the crag with his suerd has him tayne;
  • Throw brayne and seyne in sondyr straik the bayne.
  • The ferocity of Wallace is such that he says:
  • I lik bettir to se the Sothren de
  • Than gold or land that thai can giff to me.V, 397 f.
  • Harry feels that the fame of his hero is a little dimmed by the fact that he belonged only to the ranks of the smaller gentry, but at once proclaims, like a greater successor, that the “rank is but the guinea stamp,” and strengthens his case by the example of the kinights of St. John at Rhodes:
  • Wallace a lord he may be clepyt weyll,
  • Thocht ruryk folk tharoff haiff litill feill;
  • Na deyme na lord, bot landis be thair part.
  • Had he the warld, and be wrachit off hart,
  • He is no lord as to the worthiness;
  • It can nocht be, but fredome, lordlyknes.
  • At the Roddis thai mak full mony ane
  • Quhilk worthy ar, thocht landis haiff thai nane.VII, 397 ff.
  • In Harry we find the same dry humour as in Barbour; but here it is of a grimmer cast when the English are in question. When Wallace, to escape his enemies, had to disguise himself as a maid spinning, harry says quaintly

  • he sat still, and span full connandly
  • As of his tym, for he nocht leryt lang.I, 248 f.
  • When their enemies were upon them,
  • His falow Stewyn than thocht no tyme to bide.V, 154.
  • When Wallace set the Englishmen’s lodging on fire,
  • Till slepand men that walkand was nocht soft,VII, 440,
  • and on another occasion
  • Quhar Sotheroun duelt, thai maid thair byggyngis hayt. IX, 1692.
  • Even to Julius Caesar he applies a quip:
  • Gret Julius, that tribute gat off aw,
  • His wynnyng was in Scotland bot full smaw.VIII, 1339 f.
  • In his Chaucerian passages at the beginning of several books, and in the apostrophe to Scotland in the last book (XI, 1109 ff.), harry employs those “aureate” terms which, through the following century, were to be a snare to Scottish literature. But the use of them proves that Harry was not, after all, a burel man. Here and there he makes pretensions to classical learning, and, like Barbour, occasionally refers to the heroes of old romance, to Charlemagne at Roncesvalles, to King Arthur slaying the giant at Mont St. Michel, to the Alexander story of Gawdyfer at Gaddris, also referred to by Barbour. He assumes that all men know Barbour’s book; though, curiously enough, the name of Wallace is not once to be found in Barbour’s poem. A still more recent writer is probably referred to in the apologue of the owl in borrowed plumes, which Stewart applies to Wallace, when angry because Wallace refused to let him lead the vanguard. For, only a few years before 1460, this story had been the subject of Holland’s Howlat.