John Barbour’s, The Brus: Thoughts

For a while now I’ve been reading John Barbour’s epic, The Brus, and one of the things that most fascinates me about the poem is that it gives us an undeniable window into the mindset of a man who lived during that time; whereas so much of history is told to us through dusty old texts and boring lectures, where one man’s opinion, or the opinions of a small group is often times how we ourselves interpret what it is we are reading, in The Brus, however, we are listening to a man speak, and not just factually state his approximation of events that transpired, but of how he himself would have known and told them; how he did, in fact, tell such stories to the Scottish court and to King Robert II, Bruce’s son. John Barbour was a man who had actually meet those brave Scots who had fought alongside the previous King Robert; he existed around the time that these events had taken place, and had meet and spoken to those now elderly warriors, or their children, about such events; and so again, what fascinates me is when he says a line to the effect of “I heard it once told” or “as I heard tell” that through these anecdotes, and his own personable approach to telling this history, the reader is able to gain an insight into that time through just one man, John Barbour; who links us to the man at Bannockburn, or the man who fought alongside Bruce in Glentrool forest.

Bruce stone at Glentrool
The Bruce stone at Glentrool

And even if you’re not solely interested in Scottish history, the book nonetheless is a great read in that it manages to lend humor and a sense of personality into an historical subject in a way that a history book, or text, simply cannot. It is its firsthand and secondhand accounts that help lend a sense of character to the people and places from the perspective of a man who knew those people, and those places, and during the time in which they existed. For me, it truly is an invaluable source of information of the time of The Scottish Wars of Independence; it’s a Scottish source, and unashamedly so; it champions Scotland and her heroes (Whilst being more than fair to her enemies), and tells their story in what is widely considered to be a more than reasonably true account of such matters; both historic victory, and historic defeat being encountered there in the pages as they happened.

For instance, in Book 2, line 349, The Battle of Methven is recorded, wherein; the bridle of King Bruce’s horse is seized by Sir Philip Mowbray, who then calls out ‘Help! Help! I have the new-made King.’ Christopher Seaton then fly’s to the aid of the King and strikes Mowbray unconscious, thus releasing King Robert, which is followed shortly after by a retreat of the Scots force; and yet despite this mention of dramatic heroism, the account of the battle is still rightly attested to, and that Bruce and his men were defeated, is made clear. It’s a warts and all history that mentions the good times, and the bad; heroism and betrayal; its content easily being corroborated by other sources from that era, both Scottish, and English.

Now, I will say, that within the pages; liberally sprinkled among the numerous accounts of valorous deeds, and acts of ‘great courage’; are the use of words such as chivalry, stoutly, boldly and bravely; and whilst these words make for good story telling, their frequent usage can become noticeable, even a little heavy handed. Yet if an eyewitness was to tell Barbour that Bruce fought valiantly, as is often reiterated dramatically within the pages of the poem, or that a battle went this way or that way; then why would I choose to disbelieve that? Bruce was a fighter, and very much a warrior King; he fought a multitude of battles and wars, and survived them all. No one would doubt his prowess, or even that of his chivalric enemies, and so when lines attest to as much, and are reiterated heavily; mentioning his great chivalry and his overwhelming courage etc. I choose to believe it as a true characteristic of the man’s nature, and given by those who had witnessed him in such moments. For instance, the forces Bruce led where usually dangerously outnumbered, and yet he was often victorious. This alone should go some way to making such favorable descriptions of the King’s prowess and bravery, and that of the men who followed him, at the least believable.

“in his youth he was a match for the super athletes of today”
“a privileged and muscular man, with large, broad features”

But regardless of the fast paced action sequences, it’s the lines which give you a rare glimpse into how men shaped by that time viewed each other, and the world around them; of how the nature of war and conflict were viewed through the lens of the prejudices and social norms of that period, which really interest me: Book 3, line 153:

There was a baron, Macnaughton, who paid great heed in his heart to the King’s (Bruce’s)chivalry, and he esteemed him greatly in his heart. He said to the lord of Lorn, ‘Assuredly, you can now see the heaviest trespass-payment taken that you ever saw taken in your lifetime. For yon Knight, by his bold deed and by his superhuman (outrageous manheid) qualties, in a short time has killed three men of great pride (Noblemen or Knights). He has discomfitted all our company so that no man dare go after him, and he turns his horse so often that he seems to have no fear of us.’ Then the lord of Lorn said, ‘You seemed to be pleased, perfay, that he kills our men like that.’ ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘as God is my witness, saving your presence, it’s not like that. But whosoever wins the prize in chivalry, be he friend or foe, men should speak faithfuly of it. And assuredly, in all my life, I never heard tell, in song or verse, of a man who achieved great chivalry so vigerously.’

Now contrast that glowing endorsement of the King, by non-other than an enemy, with how the King himself makes statement after the battle: Book 3, line 187:

‘For being discouraged,’ as he said then, ‘is the worst thing possible. For through great discouragement men often fall into despair, and when a man is in despair, then he is utterly beaten. If the spirit is discouraged, the body is not worth a jot. Therefore,’ he said, ‘above all keep yourselves from despair, and remember that, though we now feel injuries, God may yet relieve us well.’

Bruce and the spider
Bruce contemplating the spiders determined resolve

So whilst others begin to champion his legend, we see a hint of the concern of the here and now that Bruce and his men must surely have found themselves in, and no doubt often dwelt upon; yet unconcerned with whether or not history would remember them as heroic, or how ‘right manfully’ the country thought they conducted themselves; Bruce simply try’s to lift his men’s spirits in those closing moments after the battle, knowing that lives had been at stake, and that the men around him had faced down real danger; regardless of the glory to be won in the hindsight. It’s often difficult to remember that these were real men who had no idea then, that they would eventually be victorious. At that point in time, they were just a handful operating within a violent country, and surrounded daily by literal armies of enemies at every turn in the road. Did he say, verbatim, those exact words written above? Who can say? Did he ever actually utter similar words to his beleaguered army? It’s very possible.


But of course, no one will ever truly know what had really gone through the mind of the Bruce during that time, with the same being true of the men who followed him. Did they fight solely for Scotland, or did they simply hate the English? Did they fight for their lands that had been seized, or did they truly fight for the sake of liberty and the cause of freedom alone? Is it naive to assume some of them did fight for that? I don’t know, it’s all subjective and an exercise in educated guesswork to try and read the minds of people long dead, and from an era with a vastly different morality scale. What I do know however, is that the book itself is pretty entertaining, insightful and interesting in respects to mindset of the 1300’s, and one that I would highly recommend.

John Fordun: Indeed he is said to have said to his Knights one day when worn out by such…hardships and dangers, ‘Were I not moved by Scotland’s freedom still, for rule of the world I would not bear this ill.’

That all the punishment and strife he endured, Bruce wouldn’t have suffered so for the sake of the world, that he continued onward for Scotland, and Scotland only, to who he owed his allegiance, in my humble opinion, should never be doubted.

Bruce and Wallace at Stirling
Wallace and Bruce at Stirling

Cinead MacAlpin.