“A! Fredome is a noble thing!”

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Knowledge in sound
“A! Fredome is a noble thing!”

There is more to the great medieval Scottish poem The Bruce than historical and literary worth.

That is perhaps the most famous line in John Barbour’s monumental 14th century poem The Bruce, which is nearly as large as Dante’s Divine Comedy. A book remarkable in many ways – a unique chronicle of Scotland’s War of Independence; a detailed biography of her greatest king and his loyal followers, notably Sir James Douglas; a romance (so says the author) of chivalry, where love for an ideal lady is replaced by love for one’s native land.

It is the first major literary work in Scots to survive, justly admired by Burns, Sir Walter Scott and many others. There are several excellent editions, the latest by Archibald Duncan, and a translation into modern English, but not, as far as I know, into any other tongue. I doubt that today it is much read in Scotland, let alone the wider world – it looks too bulky and difficult to follow – but, frankly, anyone with a decent command of Scots can give it a try, and will be rewarded. Bits may appear tedious, but there are passages of great vigour and beauty.

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Dr Dmitry Fedosov CorrFRSE, Institute of World History, Russian Academy of Sciences

Many years ago, before the internet days, when I got Bruce from my parents for my PhD in medieval history, it was a rarity in the USSR, though there were previous attempts at rendering some fragments in Russian. In a fit of excitement, I have translated the prologue myself, metred and rhymed. The result seemed not bad, but I did not proceed. The task was far too daunting, and there were more urgent matters to attend to. Later on, I had many wonderful trips to Scotland, and became utterly enchanted.

I have been to the scenes of action: Kildrummy, Loudon Hill, Linlithgow, Perth, the Borders, Bannockburn, and the Castle of Maidens, as the Edinburgh stronghold was once known. Long have I sat, alone at times, in St. Machar’s, Aberdeen, where Archdeacon Barbour had served and lies buried. I knew I had to resume my poetic labours and translated during morning strolls, train rides, dull meetings, even when picking fruit in the garden or mushrooms in a wood. Rhymes can be an awful headache, especially that many, but in tricky cases someone seems to prompt me along. Today, several parts of Russian Bruce are already printed with commentary, and to my own disbelief, I am now midway into Book XVI out of 20.

So, what’s in the poem The Bruce? Tremendous battle scenes, apparently related by a hardy warrior rather than the serene cleric that Barbour was. Lively portraits of historical figures. Memorable episodes with flashes of humour, as when the Earl of Surrey sneers at the solitary lame cow left to the English host in the whole of Lothian: “This is the derrest beiff that I saw evir yheit!”. Touches of warmth and compassion, as when King Robert halts the march of his army to help a poor laundress in childbirth. And something else besides.

Amazing relevance to the times of our own. Drawn-out wars of scorched earth, attrition and conquest; struggles for national sovereignty and personal freedom; great powers striving to devour their neighbours, denying their right to exist; ruthless violence; appalling bloodshed; agonies of defeat, suffering, captivity and exile – and triumphs of the righteous cause. These are not just things of the past. Have we not witnessed them all of late, are we not seeing them even now?! Indeed, liberty is to be cherished – we “suld think fredome mar to prys, Than all the gold in warld that is”.

Dr Dmitry Fedosov CorrFRSE, Institute of World History, Russian Academy of Sciences.

This article originally appeared in ReSourcE Summer 2023.

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