The beginning of the 17th century marks a turning point in the history of Scottish politics and literature. James VI of Scotland, the great-great-grandson of Henry VIII of England (thanks to the marriage of Margaret Tudor, Henry’s daughter, to James IV in 1503), succeeded Elizabeth I when she died, childless, in 1603. James, who had personally governed Scotland since 1583, now became James VI of Scotland and James I of a new entity, the United Kingdom. There was a separate parliament in Scotland, which thus remained an independent nation, but the political destiny of the two – often warring – nations was moving closer.
England, of course, was a larger and richer kingdom than Scotland, and had its own institutions – a different kind of reformed church, for example – and, as we saw in William Drummond’s poem, ‘Forth Feasting’, at the end of the previous chapter, there was an anxiety in Scotland that the king had abandoned Scotland for a wealthier partner. Certainly, the traditional site for the composition of high literature, the court, also moved south with the king, and London became the cultural as well as the political centre of the two kingdoms.
If we look at the poetry written by James’ court poets in the late 16th century, and compare it to that produced in the early 17th century, we can see a decided move towards the use of the English language. This language shift was accelerated by print culture (more books in English were flooding into Scotland, promoting English linguistic forms), and by the publication in 1611 of the King James Bible, a translation into vernacular English that was authorised to be used in reformed churches north and south of the border.
So why did Scottish literature not simply die in the 17th century – why was it not simply subsumed into a larger ‘English’ tradition? Some would argue that it was – indeed it can be argued that Scottish literature has always been informed by and shaped by literature in England – as well as by French and Italian literature. But we can continue to read Scottish writers from the perspective of their own engagement with Scottish life and community, and that engagement survived the Union of the Crowns in 1603.
But the Union and its aftermath inevitably had an effect on Scottish literature, and that impact may be illustrated by two contradictory forces in 17th century Scottish literature, one towards a highly elaborate, courtly written style of literature in English, which we might term ‘baroque,’ and the other towards a plain, Scots style of literature, which is influenced by speech forms. As the 17th and 18th centuries progressed, the latter style would become more intimately associated with explicitly ‘Scottish’ literature, but the former style also had a less obvious but nevertheless lasting influence.
The origins of the two styles – baroque and plain – precede the 17th century. We have already seen, most obviously in the poetry of William Dunbar, that in the early 16th century there was a recognised contrast between a high, celebratory, ‘aureate’ style of writing, and a low, comic, native mode. Complex and simple styles can also be seen in prose as it developed in the 16th century. Prose fiction, of course, did not exist as such in the 16th century, but histories in different styles came to be associated with different ideological factions in the sectarian struggles of the Reformation. In particular, a highly latinate, complex style came to be associated with Catholic historians like John Leslie, Bishop of Ross. This is his account of the first marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots, to Francis, or, as he is called here, ‘the Dolphin’ [Dauphin]:
All thingis necessarie for the mariage of the Quene of Scottis with the Dolphine being prepared, and the hoill nobilitie and estatis of the realme of France being convenit at Paris, apoun the xx day of Aprill 1558, in the gret hall of the palice of the Louver, in presens of Kinge Henry of France, of the Quene his wyfe, and gret number of cardinallis, duikis, erlis, bischoppis and nobill men, the fanzeillis, utherwyis callit the hand fastinge, was maid with gret triumphe be the cardinall of Loran, betwix the excellent young prince Frances, eldest sone to the most valyeant, curageous and victorious prince Henry King of France, and Marie Quene, heritour of the realme of Scotlande, ane of the farest, most civile and verteous princes of the hoill world, with gret solempnitie, triumphe and banquating; and upoun the nixt Sonday, being the xxiii of Aprill, the mariage was solempnizat and compleit betwix thame be the Cardinall of Burboun, Archebishop of Rouen, in Noster Damis kirke of Pareis, quhair the bishop of Paris maid ane verrey lerned and eloquent sermon, in presens and assistance of the King, Quene, and money prelattis, nobill men, ladeis and gentill men of all estaitis and calling, with most excellent triumphe, and the herauldis crying with loude voces thrie sindre tymes, ‘larges’; casting to the people gret quantitie of gold and silver and all kinde of sortes of conye, quhair thair was gret tumult of peple, everie one trubling and pressing utheris for gredines to get sum parte of the money.
As you will no doubt have noticed, this is a single sentence – highly complex, in that it is full of subordinate clauses. Leslie has an ostentatiously ‘writerly’ style that shows off the writer’s command of the written language, and the reader has to concentrate to combine the different elements into a discourse that makes sense. The core of the long sentence simply says that first the ‘handfasting’ (an engagement ceremony) took place and then the marriage ceremony followed. The rest is additional material, emphasising the pomp of the two occasions and advertising the importance of those involved.
The style of the passage can be contrasted with that of a Protestant historian of the same period, Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie. Here Lindsay is writing about the death in battle of James IV of Scotland:
The Earle of Huntlie answerit againe, and said he could nocht suffer his native prince to be owercome witht his enemeis befoir his ene, thairfoir callit his men togither be sloghorne and sound of trumpit to have passit to the king, bot, or he come, all was defait on ether syde that few or nane was levand, nother on the kingis pairt nor on the uther. Sume sayis thair come foure men upoun foure horse rydand to the feild witht foure speiris and ane wyspe upoun everie speir heid, to be ane signe and witter to thame, that everie ane of thame sould knawe ane uther. They raide in the feild and horssed the king and brocht him fourtht of the feild on ane dune haiknay. Bot soume sayis they had him in the Merse betwix Dunce and Kelso. Quhat they did witht him thair I can not tell. Bot ane man ten yeir efter convickit of slaughter offeirit to the Duik of Albanie, for his lyfe, to lat him sie the place quhair the prince was endit, to the taikin he sould lat him sie his belt of irone lyand besyde him in the grave; bot nochtwithstanding this man gat no audience be thame that was about them the Duik of Albanie, quho desyrit not at that tyme that sic thingis sould be knawin.
Lindsay has a much plainer style than Leslie. If you look in detail at how this style is constructed grammatically, you will see that he has looser, coordinate structures, linked by ‘and’ and ‘bot’ [‘but´]. He also appeals to speech, even rumour and gossip, in the repeated framing of events with ‘soume sayis … soume sayis’ [‘some say…some say’]. The narrative here lays less emphasis on decorative pomp than it does on telling a good story, about the appearance of four mysterious horsemen (the horsemen of the apocalypse?) at the time of the king’s fatal injury, and their taking of his body to a secret location, a burial place that the authorities (here the Duke of Albany) still wish to keep hidden.
The broad distinction between an ornate, highly Latinate baroque style and a more native, orally-influenced plain style is even sharper when we come to contrast the writing of the Scottish courtier, Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty (1611-c1660) with a genre that begins to attract attention in the 17th century – the Scottish ballads. Together, they represent two literary options open to Scottish writers in the 17th century.
Urquhart was born eight years after the Union of the Crowns, into a formerly Catholic family that had adopted Episcopalianism, a version of the reformed Church resembling the Church of England in that it continued to be governed by the king and bishops, rather than by assemblies of elders chosen from within the congregation. He attended Aberdeen University and travelled the continent, before returning to Scotland. He attended the court in London, being knighted by James VI’s son, King Charles I, in 1639. He also published books of poetry and epigrams in 1640-41. Then he produced, in 1645, a bizarre book on trigonometry, the Trissotetras, which demonstrated Urquhart’s considerable learning, and his baroque, nearly impenetrable style. This is an excerpt from the Trissotetras which gives a taste of the very strangeness of the text:
In all plain rectangled triangles, the ambients are equall in power to the subtendent; for by demitting from the right angle a perpendicular, there will arise two correctangles, from whose equiangularity with the great rectangle will proceed such a proportion amongst the homologall sides of all the three, that if you can set them right in the rule, beginning your analogy at the main subtendent (seeing the including sides of the totall rectangle prove subtendents in the partiall correctangles, and the bases of those rectanglets, the segments of the great subtendent) it will fall out, that as the main subtendent is to his base, on either side (for either of the legs of a rectangled triangle, in reference to one another is both base and perpendicular) … so the same bases, which are subtendents in the lesser rectangles, are to their bases, the segments of the prime subtendent. Then, by the golden rule, we find, that the multiplying of the middle termes (which is nothing else but the squaring of the comprehending sides of the prime rectangular) affords two products, equall to the oblongs made of the great subtendent, and his respective segments, the aggregate whereof, by equation, is the same with the square of the chief subtendent, or hypotenusa, which was to be demonstrated.
After a good deal of scrutiny, it might become apparent to the reader that this paragraph is a convoluted restatement of Pythagoras’ theorem, namely that for any right-angled triangle, the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. That it takes Urquhart so long to make this fairly simple point (and in doing so to complicate a relatively simple concept) suggests that the transparent communication of mathematical information is not his real purpose here. Rather, the Trissotetras can be read as a privileging of style over substance: we are to read it, understand its significance, yes, but mainly we are intended to marvel at its gratuitously sophisticated eloquence. This is the foppish grandchild of Dunbar’s high style, or the learned eloquence of James VI’s Reulis and Cautelis taken to its logical, ridiculous extreme. We can only wonder about what Urquhart’s contemporaries made of it.
After 22 years of governing England, Scotland and Ireland, James VI had died in 1625. His son, Charles I, married a Catholic princess, and was not trusted by the more committed Protestants in his kingdom. He attempted church reforms that were seen in both Scotland and England as promoting closer ties between the reformed church and Catholicism, and eventually this led to civil war and – finally – to his execution by the republican faction under Oliver Cromwell.
The execution by English republicans of the son of a Scottish king was met with a mixed response in Scotland. Scottish Protestants had not approved of Charles I’s perceived drift towards Catholicism. However, he was still regarded as a member of the Scottish royal family, and after his execution, many Scots joined the royalist cause and fought for the succession of Charles’ son, Charles II, now in exile in France. Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty was one of these royalist supporters, and he fought for Charles II at the Battle of Worcester in 1651.
This was the final battle of the English Civil War, and it resulted in a decisive loss for the royalists. Urquhart was taken prisoner and held captive in the Tower of London. It was there, in a burst of activity between 1652 and 1653, that Urquhart did most of his writing. This fact is an important one to note, since much of Urquhart’s writing is addressed to a hostile republican readership, and is in part at least an attempt to convince that readership that he and his work are of considerable value to the state, that he should be released, that his property in Scotland should be returned to him, and not transferred to his family’s creditors and enemies.
And so Urquhart writes Pantochronocanoun (1652) in which he indicates the importance of his family, tracing its genealogy all the way back to Adam and Eve. Around the same time, he writes The Jewel (Ekskybalauron) (1652), which is a mixed bag of material, mainly his plans for a new Universal Language, to replace Latin as the preferred lingua franca, but also a set of anecdotes about notable Scots in history. Urquhart’s linguistic treatise is as eccentric as his earlier work on trigonometry. He claims his fuller plans for the language were lost amongst his personal papers at the Battle of Worcester, but when the reader looks at his list of articles characterising the main points of his Universal Language, it quickly becomes clear how strange this project also is. Two of the articles characterising the nature of the language give a taste of the exaggerated quality of Urquhart’s claims:
Fifthly, So great energy to every meanest constitutive part of a word in this Language is appropriated, that one word thereof, though but of seven syllables at most shall comprehend that which no Language else in the world is able to express in fewer then fourscore and fifteen several words ; and that not only a word here and there for masteries sake, but several millions of such ; which, to any initiated in the rudiments of my Grammar, shall be easie to frame.
Sixthly, In the cases of the declinable parts of speech, it surpasseth all other Languages whatsoever : for whilst others have but five or six at most, it hath ten, besides the nominative.
Seventhly, There is none of the learned Languages, but hath store of Nouns defective of some case or other, but in this Language there is no Heteroclite in any declinable word, nor redundancie or deficiencie of cases.
Eighthly, Every word capable of number, is better provided therewith in this Language, then by any other : for instead of two or three numbers which others have, this affordeth you four ; to wit, the singular, dual, plural, and redual.
Ninthly, It is not in this as other Languages, wherein some words lack one number, and some another : for here each casitive or personal part of speech is endued with all the numbers.
Tenthly, In this Tongue there are eleven genders ; wherein likewise it exceedeth all other Languages.
Eleventhly, Verbs, Mongrels, Participles, and Hybrids, have all of them ten Tenses, besides the present ; which number, no Language else is able to attain to.
In other words, seven syllables alone of Urquhart’s language will express the equivalent of 95 separate words (fourscore and fifteen) in any other language, and it has no fewer than 10 declinable parts of speech, not including the nominative. Though this projected language might seem like fantasy – and it is certainly hyperbolic – there is evidence that Urquhart was familiar with other attempts to construct a Universal Language, and that some at least of his language is based on the principles underlying those attempts.
To the plan for the Universal Language, Urquhart added his tales of notable Scots, including one James Crichton, an adventurer known as ‘the Admirable Crichton’.
These tales are written again in a high, baroque style, which are often comic in their effect. In this episode, for example, we have one of the first sex scenes in Scottish prose, in which Urquhart typically combines with the erotic narrative an unexpectedly detailed knowledge of astronomy and grammar. Crichton is meeting his lover, an Italian countess:
Thus for a while their eloquence was mute, and all they spoke was but with the eye and hand, yet so persuasively, by vertue of the intermutual unlimitedness of their visotactil sensation, that each part and portion of the persons of either was obvious to the sight and touch of the persons of both; the visuriency of either, by ushering the tacturiency of both, made the attrectation of both consequent to the inspection of either. Here it was that passion was active, and action passive, they both being overcome by other, and each the conquerour. To speak of her hirquitalliency at the elevation of the pole of his microcosme, or of his luxuriousness to erect a gnomon on her horizontal dyal, will perhaps be held by some to be expressions full of obscoeness, and offensive to the purity of chaste ears; yet seeing she was to be his wife, and that she could not be such without consummation of marriage, which signifieth the same thing in effect, it may be thought, as definitiones logicae verificantur in rebus, if the exerced act be lawful, that the diction which suppones it, can be of no greater transgression, unless you would call it a solaecisme, or that vice in grammar which imports the copulating of the masculine with the feminine gender.
visotactil: involving sight & touch
tacturiency: desire to be touched
hirquitalliency: delighted shouts
solaecisme: error in grammar or etiquette
visuriency: desire to be looked at
attrectation: touching with hands
exerced act: performed act
definitiones logicae verificantur in rebus: logical definitions are verified by actual things
Like the treatises on trigonometry and the plan for a Universal Language, the passage employs an elaborate style to disguise its content: the arousal of the hero, Crichton, is described as the raising of a rod on a sundial, an event that is responded to with delighted shouts, or ‘hirquitalliency’. In case we are offended by this episode (and again we must remember that Urquhart, incredibly, was writing to impress a puritan republican readership), he hastens to justify the pre-marital coupling as being no more sinful than the grammatical ‘copulation’ between a masculine and feminine part of speech.
Urquhart’s greatest achievement, however, was his translation of a large part of François Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, a series of five books originally written between 1532 and 1564. Urquhart translated the three of Rabelais’ books, which tell the fantastic and frequently scatological adventures of two giants, Pantagruel and his father, Gargantua. The satire is anticlerical, which might have influenced Urquhart’s decision to translate it to impress his puritan captors – but even so, it is difficult to imagine what his readers made of it.
Like the rest of Urquhart’s work, his translation of Rabelais is largely in English; however there is at least one episode where Scots erupts onto the page, in a space that it will begin to occupy ever more securely in the next few centuries: in dialogue. On his travels, the giant Pantagruel comes across a young scholar from the country district of Limoges, whose education has led him to adopt an affected manner of speech, in mimicry of the Parisians, a fact that outrages the giant (Bk 2, Ch 6):
By G—(said Pantagruel), I will teach you to speak, but first come hither, and tell me whence thou art? To this the Scholar answered: The primeval origin of my aves and ataves was indigenerie of the Lemovick regions, where requiesceth the corpor of the hagiotat St. Martial. I understand thee very well (said Pantagruel), when all comes to all, thou art a Limousin, and thou wilt here by thy affected speech counterfeit the Parisiens: well, now, come hither, I must shew thee a new trick, and handsomely give thee combfeat: with this he took him by the throat, saying to him, Thou flayest the Latine: by St. John, I will make thee flay the foxe, for I will now flay thee alive: Then began the poor Limousin to cry; Haw, gwid Maaster, haw, Laord, my halp and St. Marshaw, haw, I’m worried: Haw, my thropple, the bean of my cragg is bruck! Haw, for gauad’s seck, lawt my lean, Mawster; waw, waw, waw. Now (said Pantagruel) thou speakest naturally, and so let him go, for the poor Limousin had totally berayed, and throughly conshit his breeches […]
The Limousin scholar’s affected speech is typical of Urquhart’s high style – full of Greek and Latin neologisms, periphrastic and largely impenetrable. And when Pantagruel seizes him warmly by the throat, he switches not only into Scots but recognisably into Aberdonian dialect, as is evident in the spelling gwid ‘good’. This the giant recognises as his ‘natural’ speech, and releases him.
This episode is significant in several ways. First, it specifically contrasts a written baroque style with a ‘natural’ style of speech. Secondly, it associates ‘natural’ speech not only with Scots, but with a type of Scots that can be regionally identified. Third, it uses that regional identity to characterise the Scots speaker as marginal, someone from the countryside, rather than the metropolis. This literary use of Scots to pinpoint a particular character type is a new feature of Scottish prose – in later centuries it will become standard practice.
There are other, perhaps more personally poignant, points to note about this short extract. It is surely significant that Urquhart chooses to translate the Limousin scholar, a man born in a country area where the corpse of St Martial is said to be buried, into an Aberdonian scholar who also swears by this particular saint when distressed (‘St Marshaw’). Urquhart was himself, though a gentleman, intimately familiar with the ‘natural’ speech of the Scottish countryside of his youth. He was also educated in Aberdeen, where Marischal College had been founded in 1593. What we have, then, in the description of the Limousin scholar is possibly a mocking self-portrait of a rural Scottish courtly writer in the mid-17th century, trying on affected speech to mimic the metropolitan elites, but reverting to spoken Scots when under stress. He comes to an unhappy end:
[T]his hug of Pantagruels was such a terrour to him all the dayes of his life, and took such deep impression in his fancie, that very often, distracted with sudden affrightments, he would startle and say that Pantagruel held him by the neck; besides that it procured him in a continual drought and desire to drink, so that after some few years he died of the death Roland, in plain English called thirst, a work of divine vengeance, shewing us that which saith the Philosopher and Aulus Gellius, that it becometh us to speak according to the common language: and that we should, (as said Octavian Augustus) strive to shun all strange and unknown termes with as much heedfulnesse and circumspection as Pilots of ships use to avoid the rocks and banks in the sea.
Again, given the bulk of Urquhart’s written output, we cannot read unironically the advice ‘to shun all strange and unknown terms with as much heedfulness and circumspection as pilots of ships use to avoid the rocks and banks in the sea.’ And yet, as is so frequent with Urquhart, it is difficult to know where or at whom the irony is being directed: at himself, or at those poor readers and writers who lack his (and the Admirable Crichton’s) esoterically-informed flamboyance and extraordinary panache. As far as we know, Urquhart himself had a slightly happier end than the Limousin: he was released by the republicans, possibly on condition that he go into exile on the continent of Europe. Although we do not know it for a fact, there is a pleasant legend that he died in a fit of laughter on hearing that, some time after the death of Oliver Cromwell, Charles II had been restored to the throne of the United Kingdom, which was a monarchy once more.
If baroque rhetoric undercut by flashes of oral Scots was to constitute one possible avenue for literary Scots in the 17th century, another, certainly more productive one, was to turn to the language of a class of people so far neglected in this introductory survey: the common people. When ordinary folk appear in courtly mediaeval and renaissance literature they are often the object of mockery, as in Dunbar’s comic poems, the ruder episodes in A Satire of the Three Estates, and in James VI’s advice to draw upon ‘corruptit termes’ and ‘grosse ignorance’ when writing of country matters, or as he calls them, ‘landwart effairis.’ Even ‘John the Common Weill’ in A Satire of the Three Estates speaks for the common man, as a kind of abstract representation – he himself is not necessarily one of the poor men, women and tradespeople who are frequently ridiculed in the play.
The 17th century, however, is often – albeit problematically – associated with a group of texts known as the ‘Scottish ballads’. These anonymous poems and songs may reach back into the mediaeval period, and they began to be systematically collected, reworked (and possibly added to) in the 18th and 19th centuries. But that they began to be taken seriously in the 17th century is perhaps a significant indicator of social change.
With a vacuum created by the absence of a Scottish court, and the slow rise of a (still small) literate middle class, more attention began to be paid to the artistic productions of the peasantry, the songs sung and the stories told in domestic and social contexts among the lower classes of society. While the stories and songs often told of knights, ladies and kings, they were composed using unsophisticated language, and according to conventions that eased the burden of memorisation and live performance.
A typical example of a ballad is that of ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ (Child Ballad 37), a version of which begins:
True Thomas lay on Huntlie bank;
A ferlie he spied wi’ his e’e;
And there he saw a ladye bright
Come riding down by the Eildon Tree.
ferlie = marvel
The rhyme scheme is undemanding (abcb), and the rhythm simply alternates a four beat line with a three beat line. Other variations are possible (e.g. lines can have a regular four beats), but this form is relatively common. Versions of this poem were ave orally transmitted, possibly from the 13th century, although variants only began to be recorded in writing in the 17th and 18th centuries. Ballads have conventional features – they are stronger on action than description, and often contain direct speech in Scots to dramatise the content. Recurrent phrases or ‘formulae’ are used to fill in lapses in memory or to provide convenient rhymes.
Since Vladimir Propp published his Morphology of the Folk Tale in Russian in 1928, scholars have also been keen to identify a ‘grammar’ that characterises different kinds of ballad. A finite set of characters are identified on the basis of their description and their contribution to the plot (their ‘tale role’), and a finite set of plot events (or ‘functions’) are also identified. Thus the tale of ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ shares with other ballads a character who falls under a spell (Bespelled), a character who casts a spell (Bespeller) and a character who breaks the spell (Unspeller). In the case of Thomas the Rhymer, he falls under the spell of the Queen of Elfland, who later breaks the spell herself. She combines the roles of Bespeller and Unspeller. Other ballads, like ‘Allison Gross’ (Child Ballad 35), are variations on this basic plot: here the hero falls under the spell of the main female character, Allison Gross, a witch, until he is freed by the Queen of Elfland:
O ALLISON GROSS, that lives in yon towr,
The ugliest witch i the north country,
Has trysted me ae day up till her bowr,
An monny fair speech she made to me.
She stroaked my head, an she kembed my hair,
An she set me down saftly on her knee;
Says, Gin ye will be my lemman so true,
Sae monny braw things as I woud you gie.
On the basis of such features, the ballads are classified into broad groups that share a narrative ‘grammar’, e.g. ‘magical and marvellous ballads’.
Another way of thinking about the ballads is as a form of social regulation: though the narratives are often fantastic, they dramatise, interrogate and enforce a set of community values. The ballad ‘The Daemon Lover’, for example, dwells on the awful fate of a married woman who deserts her husband and children to go off with an old lover, who – ominously – has spent seven years travelling in the suspect country of Ireland before returning with the promise of wealth and exotic travel:
The Daemon Lover
“O where have you been, my long, long love,
This long seven years and more?”—
“O I’m come to seek my former vows
Ye granted me before.”—
“O hold your tongue of your former vows,
For they will breed sad strife;
O hold your tongue of your former vows,
For I am become a wife.”
He turn’d him right and round about,
And the tear blinded his ee;
“I wad never hae trodden on Irish ground,
If it had not been for thee.
“I might hae had a king’s daughter
Far, far beyond the sea;
I might have had a king’s daughter,
Had it not been for love o’ thee.”—
“If ye might have had a king’s daughter,
Yer sell ye had to blame;
Ye might have taken the king’s daughter,
For ye kend that I was nane.”—
“O faulse are the vows of womankind,
But fair is their faulse bodie;
I never wad hae trodden on Irish ground,
Had it not been for love o’ thee.”—
“If I was to leave my husband dear,
And my two babes also,
O what have you to take me to,
If with you I should go?”—
“I hae seven ships upon the sea,
The eighth brought me to land;
With four-and-twenty bold mariners,
And music on every hand.”
She has taken up her two little babes,
Kiss’d them baith cheek and chin;
“O fair ye weel, my ain two babes,
For I’ll never see you again.”
She set her foot upon the ship,
No mariners could she behold;
But the sails were o’ the taffetie,
And the masts o’ the beaten gold.
She had not sail’d a league, a league,
A league but barely three,
When dismal grew his countenance,
And drumlie grew his ee.
The masts that were like the beaten gold,
Bent not on the heaving seas;
But the sails, that were o’ the taffetie,
Fill’d not in the east land breeze.—
They had not sailed a league, a league,
A league but barely three,
Until she espied his cloven foot,
And she wept right bitterlie.
“O hold your tongue of your weeping,” says he,
“Of your weeping now let me be;
I will show you how the lilies grow
On the banks of Italy.”—
“O what hills are yon, yon pleasant hills,
That the sun shines sweetly on?”—
“O yon are the hills of heaven,” he said,
“Where you will never win.”—
“O whaten a mountain is yon,” she said,
“All so dreary wi’ frost and snow?”—
“O yon is the mountain of hell,” he cried,
“Where you and I will go.”
And aye when she turn’d her round about,
Aye taller he seem’d for to be;
Until that the tops o’ that gallant ship
Nae taller were than he.
The clouds grew dark, and the wind grew loud,
And the levin fill’d her ee;
And waesome wail’d the snaw-white sprites
Upon the gurlie sea.
He strack the tap-mast wi’ his hand,
The fore-mast wi’ his knee;
And he brake that gallant ship in twain,
And sank her in the sea.
The 17th century, then, saw the rapid decline of Scots as a normative written language (especially in the high style), although it remained the language of ‘natural’ speech north of the border. One consequence of this shift in language was the move of Scots from the written medium of the narrative voice into the restricted space of directly reported, dialogue in literary prose, where it would often come to express the voice of marginalised characters – often represented as uneducated, country folk whose social class and regional origins were evident in their linguistic habits.
By the end of the 17th century we also see a rise of interest in formulaic oral forms in Scots – folk tales, songs, ballads – possibly of long antiquity, or at least, antiquity is often claimed for them. The strong narratives and the plain language of the folk songs and ballads was to exert an increasing influence on the poetry and later the prose composed by Scottish writers as we move into period of modern Scottish literature.
Further reading and links
Two university lectures on 16th century Scottish prose and on Urquhart’s prose style are available online at http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=598
An online edition of Child’s anthology of the English and Scottish popular ballads is available at https://archive.org/details/englishscottishp11chilrich