Barbour’s Brus

The Oul Leid, from Ullans Nummer 3, 1995

(This article is reproduced here with the permission of the author, Dr Philip Robinson. It was originally published in “The Oul Leid” from Ullans, the Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Number 3, Spring 1995, pages 18–20.)

The Oul Leid

The earliest of the truly great pieces of Scots literature was Barbour’s epic historical poem The Bruce, written about 1375. John Barbour was Archdeacon of Aberdeen and his massive work in Scots ran to 20 books – each “book” containing about 500–600 lines of poetry. The story was that of Robert the Bruce, Earl of Carrick and King of Scotland at the time of the Battle of Bannockburn.

Of great Ulster interest are not only the references to Robert’s visits to Rathlin Island, and later to Carrickfergus, but the three year expedition of his brother Edward the Bruce: this included his sojourn here, his coronation as “King of Ireland” (possibly at Carrickfergus), and, finally, his death in battle near Dundalk. Edward’s stay in east Ulster was from 1315–1318, and it is almost incredible, but nevertheless true, that the equivalent of two entire “books” of The Bruce are set in east Ulster.

The description of the countryside around Carrickfergus by Barbour has been described by one great scholar of this great work as showing “a feeling for nature not inferior to that of other poets of his period such as Langland or Chaucer”.

Ulster-Scots place names are revealed too – the version from which the small abstract below has been taken names Larne Lough as “Vaveryng fyrth”, while other early copies use “wokingis firth” and “wolyngs firth”. These are all understood to mean “Vikings firth” as the “Scoto-Scandinavian” name for Larne Lough.

In another part of the work, (relating to the Battle of Connor in Antrim); “Connor” is spelt “Coigner”. It is assumed that this was pronounced con-yer and modern scholars have noted that this remains the local pronunciation! Clearly this most important work of early Old Scots literature solidly embraces east Ulster. Barbour’s Bruce is as much a part of Ulster-Scots literary heritage as it is for any other part of the Scots-speaking world.

In vaveryng fyrth arivit thai
Saufly, bur bargane or assay,
And send thair schippis home ilkane.
A gret thing haue thai vndertane,
That with [sa] quheyne as thai war thar,
That wes sex thousand men but mar,
Schupe for to warray all Irland,
Quhar thai sall se mony thousand
Cum armyt on thame for to ficht.

Bot thoch thai quheyne var, thai var vicht,
And, for-outen dreid or effray,
In twa battelis thae tuk the way
Toward cragfergus, it to se.
But the lorddie of that cuntre,
Mavndwell, byste and logane,
Thar men assemblit euirilkane;
De sawagis wes alsua thair.
And, quhen thai all assemblit war,
Thai war weill neir tuenty thousand ...

... Thir-till thai set ane sege in hy
Mony ysche full apertly
Wes maid, quhill thar the sege lay,
Quhill trewis at the last tuk thai.
Quhen that the folk of wllister
Till his pes haly cummyn wer,
For schir eduard walk tak on hand
Till ryde forthirmair in the land.

In Viking’s Firth they landed fair.
No opposition found they there,
And home they sent their fleet entire.
Great things indeed did they aspire
That with a force of men so small
(a bare six thousand men in all)
They hoped to take the whole country;
Where many thousands would they see
Come to oppose them with their might!

But they, though few, were skilled in fight.
Without misgiving or delay
Their two divisions made their way
To Carrickfergus. But the men
That held and ruled the country then,
The Logan, Bisset, Mandeville,
And Savages, when they heard tell
Of such a host upon their land,
Summoned their followers to hand,
In all near twenty thousand men,
And marched against Sir Edward...

Forthwith a siege to it was set.
Many a sortie there was met
And skirmish fought, while siege was laid,
Until at last a truce was made.
When all the Ulster folk entire
Acknowledged him as lord and sire,
Sir Edward boldly took on hand
To ride forth further through the land.