The Poets

April 28, 2015

Of Scottish Literature

Braveheart was an excellent movie, and for the most part was well directed by Mel Gibson. For those of you who have not seen the movie, it's about the Scottish hero and warrior William Wallace and the struggle he and his people underwent while at war with England in the 14th century. Though the movie itself was one of the best that I've seen, being one of my favorites, some of the historical claims that it made were modestly inaccurate.

One such claim was that prior to Wallace the Scots had no country of their own, hence the conflict with England and their struggle for independence. Wallace proclaims in Braveheart that (referring to the conflicts the Scots were undergoing with the English), "Now is our chance. Now. If we join we can win. If we win, well then we'll have what none of us has ever had before: a country of our own."

In fact, Scotland had been a country of their own since 843 AD- 427 years prior to Wallace. What the movie failed to mention was that prior to the
Scottish Wars of Independence there had been a long succession of kings; and that it wasn't until 1286, when Alexander III died without a rightful heir to take the throne (his 3-year-old granddaughter, Margaret the Maid of Norway, died before she could take it up), that Scotland slipped into a dire state of internal chaos which the English took aggressive advantage of.

That said, it was through the course of studying the events that led up to the Scottish Wars of Independence that I came across a poem that is considered "the oldest fragment of Scottish literature" that has survived to date. The poem is a lament over Alexander's death and a plea to Christ to prevent the motherland from succumbing to her troubled state without a king. Not only is it beautifully written, it was also written in dialect.

It was on the night of March 19th, 1286, that Alexander III, traveling horseback along the coast of Fife, near Kinghorn, was tossed from his steed and died there from wounds that he sustained. Scotland, without her righteous king and a rightful heir, would soon find herself plunged into some dark days to come ... hence the poem below (followed by one of many modern rendering of the old dialect).

The Original Fragment

Quhen Alysandyr oure Kyng wes dede,
That Scotland led in luwe and le,
Away wes sons off ale and brede,
Off wyne and wax, off gamyn, and gle:
Oure gold wes changyd in to lede.
Cryst, borne into Vyrgynte,
Succoure Scotland and Remede
That stad perplexyte.

Modern Translation

When Alexander our King was dead
That Scotland led in love and loyalty
Away were son[g]s of ale and bread
Of wine and success(?), of gaming and glee
Our gold was changed into lead.
Christ, born into Virginity,
Succor Scotland and remedy
That state['s] perplexity.
Lamentfully beautiful, right? Moreover, interesting both because of the dialect infused into it (led in luwe and le) and also because of the choice spelling of words (Vyrgynte). Anyhow, I hope you liked the poem and the brief story behind it. And about the movie, Braveheart, I highly recommend checking it out- it's an intense movie riddled with war and struggle and infused with romance and notions of freedom. Good flick ...

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As of April 9th, 2010