1: Beginnings

This website is an introduction to Scottish literature. In a work of this scale, it can, of course, only be partial. The site covers the period from around 1500-1900, and its emphasis is on literature both in Scots and in its southern cousin, the English language. The website is designed as a teaching and study guide: the ten chapters have been designed as a ‘digital companion’ to some of the literature of this period.

At the end of each chapter there are suggested tasks, as well as model responses provided by students who took a course on Scottish Literature at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. The students also provide readings of some of the texts. We hope that this website will inspire others to provide similar courses, particularly beyond Scottish shores.

We begin with the literature of mediaeval Scotland, focusing on the royal court, and, from there, we proceed to the songs and ballads of the common people, the mixed literary responses to Union with England and absorption into the United Kingdom, and we consider the spectacular rise of a north British print culture in the 19th century. We draw our story to a close on the brink of the 20th century, when the international image of Scotland hardened into a set of stereotypes that are still recognisable today.

The story we tell is a fascinating one, and the literary texts we’ll cover range from works of spiritual beauty to bawdy satire, from philosophical and intellectual rigour to heart-breaking sentimentality or horrifying madness, and from swashbuckling romance to biting political insight. On the way, we will meet the writers: wonderful characters – scoundrels and geniuses, victims and heroes. We will see the formation and development of a vibrant national literary tradition – but, rich as it is, it will only be a fraction of the story we could tell.

As much as we include in this short introduction, we leave out even more. We pay scant attention to the long and rich Gaelic tradition in Scottish literature, for example – that story must be told elsewhere. And by beginning around the year 1500, we omit at least eight centuries of previous writing in and about Scotland – writing in Gaelic, Latin, Old Norse, Old English and lowland Scots – that survives from the time before the nation was fully formed. The earliest literature from Scotland, or about Scotland, has recently been recovered and presented, mainly in translation, by scholars in an anthology called The Triumph Tree, edited by Thomas Owen Clancy. This anthology brings together a wealth of neglected poetry. Some of it was written in Latin by missionary churchmen, on the windswept and stormy outer margins of Europe.

It was churchmen who brought written language to the land we now call Scotland, and some of the earliest Scottish poetry survives from the religious community in the beautiful little north-western island of Iona, which was home in the 6th century to an Irish monk who became a Scottish saint: Columba or, in Gaelic, Colum Cille.

For centuries, poems were written, in both Latin and Gaelic, to celebrate the life of this heroic and charismatic man of God. One of Columba’s successors, Cú Chiumne, another Iona monk, is credited with this 8th century hymn to Mary, possibly intended to be sung by a two-part choir, as the opening suggests. Translated from Latin, it begins:



Let us sing every day

Harmonising in turns

Together, proclaiming to God

A hymn worthy of holy Mary.

In two-fold choir, from side to side,

Let us praise Mary,

So that the voice strikes every ear

With alternating praise.

Mary of the Tribe of Judah,

Mother of the Most High Lord,

Fitting care she gave

To languishing mankind.

Gabriel first brought the Word

From the Father’s bosom

Which was conceived and received

In the Mother’s womb.

She is the most high, she is the holy

Venerable Virgin

Who by faith did not draw back,

But stood forth firmly.

None has been found, before or since

Like his mother,

Not one of all the descendants

Of the human race […]

As we shall see, this hymn to Mary is one of the earliest surviving examples of a centuries-long tradition that draws from the Gaelic genre of praise poetry and combines it with an impulse towards elaborate religious celebration.

Some of the first literature associated with what was to become Scotland was actually written in Cumbric, another Celtic language that is related to present-day Welsh. Cumbric-speaking tribes-people populated what is now the south of Scotland, and they commemorated their military campaigns, their heroes, and their victories and defeats in poems like The Gododdin, which has as the location of part of its action the city of Din Eidyn, now known as ‘Edinburgh’, Scotland’s capital.

In Din Eidyn, the three hundred warriors of the Gododdin tribe feasted for a year before going south to die in battle against the vastly superior Anglian forces of Bernicia and Deira. The battle took place in the 6th century, though the poem is probably of later composition, its older sections possibly dating back to the 7th  century. The poem is composed in a series of stanzas, many of which lament the demise of particular heroes:

The soldiers celebrated the praise of the Holy One,

And in their presence was kindled a fire that raged on high.

On Tuesday they put on their dark-brown garments;

On Wednesday they purified their enamelled armour;

On Thursday their destruction was certain;

On Friday was brought carnage all around;

On Saturday their joint labour was useless;

On Sunday their blades assumed a ruddy hue;

On Monday was seen a pool knee deep of blood.

The Gododin relates that after the toil,

Before the tents of Madog, when he returned,

Only one man in a hundred with him came

This poem belongs to the genre of heroic elegies that tell of inter-tribal battles in early Britain, and celebrate the ethos of fighting men who preferred martial fame and a noble death to worldly comfort.

Some of the ancient battles for loot and territory involved Vikings, who began to ravage the northern coasts and islands around 800 AD, before some settled and intermarried with the local inhabitants. While sheltering from the cold in Maes Howe, a chambered cairn on the main island of Orkney, a group of Vikings scratched graffiti in runes, their ancient script. You can still see these 900-year-old inscriptions today. One of them reads, in translation:

Viking Graffiti, Maes Howe

Viking Graffiti, Maes Howe

The man who is

Most skilled in runes

West of the ocean

Cut these runes

With the axe

Once owned by Gauk

Son of Trandil

In the south country.

The author of this boastful piece of self-affirmation is sometimes thought to be Thorhall Asgrimsson, an Icelander who appears in the Orkneyinga Saga, a historical record of the Earls of Orkney, written in Old Norse in the late 13th century. The Saga is a blend of fiction and fact, prose and poetry. Thorhall Asgrimsson is mentioned in a passage that tells the story of one of the Orkney earls, Rognvald:

Earl Rognvald stayed a very long time in Hordaland that summer when he came into the land, and heard then many tidings out of the Orkneys.  […] He fared west on board that trading-ship which Thorhall Asgrim’s son owned; he was an Icelander, and of great kindred, and had a house south at Bishopstongues.

While early documents in poetry and prose survive in different languages, much of the earliest surviving poetry of Scotland is written in early Gaelic. Gaelic is thought to have come to the west of Scotland with tribes migrating from the north of Ireland – the name of this Irish tribe was the Scoti, or Scots.

The Scots established a kingdom in Dal Riata in the west, in 500 AD, and the language of the Scottish Gaels gradually displaced that of the eastern Picts. By the ninth century the political and cultural influence of the Gaels had spread over much of Scotland, and the kingdom was eventually united by Kenneth McAlpin. The centre of the Scottish court moved east, to Scone, and eventually to Edinburgh.

The Scottish Gaels inherited from their Irish forbears a culture in which tribal leaders patronised bards, poets and singers who in turn praised their qualities and actions. It was the function of the bardic singer to extol – but the praise extended beyond the chieftain to celebrate beautiful women, and also to sing of the wonders of the landscape.

From records of early Gaelic poetry, we have some of our earliest engagements with the celebrated scenery of Scotland, as in this poem, dating from the mid-late 12th  century, which speaks of the beautiful, west coast island of Arran:

Sunset on Arran

Sunset on Arran


Arran of the many stags,

the sea reaches to its shoulder;

island where companies are fed,

ridges whereon blue spears are reddened.

Wanton deer upon its peaks,

mellow blaeberries on its heaths,

cold water in its streams,

mast upon its brown oaks.

Hunting dogs there, and hounds,

blackberries and sloes of the dark blackthorn,

dense thorn-bushes in its woods,

stags astray among its oak-groves.

Gathering of purple lichen on its rocks,

grass without blemish on its slopes;

over its fair shapely crags

gambolling of dappled fawns leaping.

Smooth is its lowland, fat are its swine,

pleasant its fields, a tale to be believed;

its nuts on the boughs of its hazel-wood,

sailing of long galleys past it.

It is delightful when fine weather comes,

trout under the banks of its streams,

seagulls answer each other round its white cliff;

delightful at all times is Arran

The earliest literature of Scotland, then, was various in subject matter and diverse linguistically. Indeed, English, and its northern cousin, lowland Scots, have so far been absent from this account of early Scottish writing. A northern variety of the language of the Anglo-Saxons, however, was present in the Lothian area just south of Edinburgh, and also in Cumbria, which is now south of today’s border with England, but which in older times was a part of the Scottish kingdom.

The northern Old English language was quite unlike its Celtic neighbours, Cumbric and Gaelic; it was in fact closer to the Old Norse language of the Vikings. They even shared the ancient runic alphabet found in the Viking graffiti in Maes Howe – and it is in carved runes that we find one of the oldest English poetry in Scotland – a part of the religious poem ‘The Dream of the Rood’, which was inscribed onto a large, public cross that still stands today in Ruthwell Church, in Galloway. This astonishing poem tells the story of Christ’s crucifixion from the perspective of the cross itself.

Only a few brief passages of the full poem are carved onto the Ruthwell Cross; fuller versions exist in manuscript. An excerpt from a modern translation by Jonathan Glenn is given below. The lines inscribed on the Ruthwell Cross are shown in italics:

I beheld all that.

Sore was I with sorrows distressed, yet I bent to men’s hands,

with great zeal willing. They took there Almighty God,

lifted him from that grim torment. Those warriors abandoned me standing

all blood-drenched, all wounded with arrows.

They laid there the limb-weary one, stood at his body’s head;

beheld they there heaven’s Lord, and he himself rested there,

worn from that great strife.

Over the centuries, then, from around 700 AD onwards, we see different strands of poetry and prose, in different languages and dialects, being woven into an as-yet unnamed tapestry of cultural tradition. There is the Latin language and literature of the monks, the Old Norse of the Vikings, the Celtic tongues of the Gaelic and Cumbric bards, and the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons. Of these, the Gaelic thread was to grow and prosper far beyond the event that led to its relative eclipse: the Norman Conquest of England in the middle of the 11th century.

The impact of Anglo-French culture on Scotland was indirect but pervasive. First, the Norman invasion caused the remnants of the Anglo-Saxon royal family to flee north, and Princess Margaret and her retinue were given refuge by the king of Gaelic Scotland, Malcolm III. Princess Margaret was later beatified; her chapel still stands today as the oldest part of Edinburgh Castle. Malcolm and Margaret married, and at least three of their six sons later became Scottish kings: Edgar, Alexander and David.

David spent much of his early life in exile in England, at the Anglo-Norman court, and when his brother, Alexander I of Scotland, died in 1124, he returned to govern Scotland with the backing of the Anglo-Norman king of England, Henry I. David I established a number of great abbeys in southern Scotland, granted land to Anglo-Norman barons, and established towns with special trading privileges, called royal burghs.

These actions helped foster migration into Scotland of Anglo-Saxon speakers, whose influence in the south began to result in the displacement of the Gaelic language there. Over the next few centuries, the main language of southern Scotland, and eventually the Scottish court, became a mixture of northern Old English, Old Norse and French. Originally spoken, early written records of this language survive from the 14th century, at the end of which is the foundational poem of the Scots language, John Barbour’s Brus or The Bruce.

A brief, Latin epitaph for Robert the Bruce, the nobleman of Anglo-Norman descent who unified the Scots and finally defeated the English in the Wars of Independence, is dated from 1329. In 1375, John Barbour’s epic vernacular romance celebrating the same heroic figure is the first substantial literary work in the language that was later to be called ‘Scots’. The poem contains some of the best-known lines in Scottish literature, including the eulogy on freedom:

Statue of Robert the Bruce, Stirling Castle

Statue of Robert the Bruce, Stirling Castle

A! Fredome is a noble thing

Fredome mays man to haiff liking.

Fredome all solace to man giffis,

He levys at es that frely levys.

A noble hart may haiff nane es

Na ellys nocht that may him ples

Gyff fredome failyhe, for fre liking

Is yharnyt our all other thing.

A! Freedom is a noble thing,

Freedom allows men to be happy.

Freedom gives men comfort,

He who lives freely is at ease.

A noble heart may have no ease

Nor anything else that pleases him

If freedom fails, for love of freedom

Is desired above every other thing.

And this is where our present story begins: in an independent Scotland in the late middle ages, centred on a court that is now based mainly in Edinburgh. The language of the court is now Scots, in both speech and writing, though churchmen are still literate in Latin, and in the highlands and to the west, Gaelic is still commonly spoken and written – and sung. But it is the literature of the ‘makars’, those poets of the Older Scots vernacular tradition, that takes centre stage in Chapter 2.

Further reading & links

Thomas O. Clancy’s (1998) anthology The Triumph Tree contains essential reading for the earliest period of Scottish literature. For more detailed critical discussion of this period, see:

Brown, Ian, et al. (2007) The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature: Volume I: From Columba to the Union. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Crawford, Robert (2007) Scotland’s Books: A History of Scottish Literature Oxford: Oxford University Press

The texts quoted in this chapter are:

Anonymous, ‘Arran.’ Translated by Kenneth Jackson: http://www.rampantscotland.com/poetry/blpoems_arran.htm

Anonymous, ‘The Dream of the Rood’. Translated by Jonathan Glenn: http://www.lightspill.com/poetry/oe/rood.html

Anonymous, ‘The Gododdin’. A translation by John Williams is available on the Project Gutenberg website: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/9842/9842-h/9842-h.htm

Anonymous, ‘Hymn to Mary’ & Viking graffiti. In Clancy, T. O., ed./trans. (1998) “The Triumph Tree.” Scotland’s Earliest Poetry AD 550-1350. Edinburgh: Canongate. A Latin version of the Marian hymn can be read at http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/L400002/index.html

Anonymous, The Orkneyinga Saga. A translation is available at http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/ice/is3/is304.htm

Barbour, John, The Brus. See Barbour’s Bruce, edited by Matthew P. McDiarmid and James A. C. Stevenson, 3 volumes. Edinburgh, Scottish Text Society, 1980-5.

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