Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Northern Muse
An Anthology of Scots vernacular Poetry arranged by John Buchan (1924)


I have made this little anthology with no other purpose than to please myself. It contains the things which, as . a lover of Scots verse, I turn to most often and desire to have in a compact form. Since there is no motive of instruction, I have felt myself at liberty to arrange it, not chronologically, but according to subject, and boldly to mingle old and new. Many Scots poems have a vogue altogether independent of their poetic merit; these I have neglected, and have confined my choice to pieces which in varying degree seem to me to be literature, from a bottle song just redeemed from doggerel by some quaintness of fancy to the high flights of Bums and Dunbar. If it is complained that much has been omitted which was worthy of inclusion, the reply must be that the book is not a Corpus Poeticum Boreale, but a selection, and a selection governed by personal tastes.

The Ballads have been sparingly used, for they are accessible in many editions. I have not scrupled to print a single verse or a group of verses from a poem, or to omit a passage where it seemed desirable ; the notes in the Commentary will show where the complete text may be found. The fantastic spelling of the older pieces has in certain cases been very slightly modified. With a little practice there is no difficulty in under-xix standing the “makars,” even Gawain Douglas, providing they be read aloud. There is a glossary at the foot of each page to vernacular words and idioms, and to those accustomed to one dialect only, let me repeat the advice to read aloud. “Aberdeen-awa” looks difficult to, say, a Lothian eye, but it is simple enough to a Lothian ear.

The compiler of such an anthology as this makes by implication a claim of merit for his exhibits. It is only by an effort that I can force myself to judge these with any pretence to impartiality. The sweet old airs to which the lyrics go have been in my ear since childhood. The speech with its rich and vigorous idiom is so linked to memories that no other tongue can ever seem to me so expressive. But since everybody has not this happy obsession, I propose briefly to set forth what seems to me to be the reasonable claim which can be made for the Scots vernacular and its literature.

The Teutonic speech of Northern England was brought into Scotland by the first Anglian settlers, and acquired throughout the succeeding centuries certain minor but clearly marked peculiarities. When Scots literature begins, towards the close of the fourteenth century, it is written in a tongue substantially the same as the Northern dialect of Early English, which was the speech current north of the Humber. Gradually a literary language was formed, akin to, but not the same as, the spoken tongue, and this literary language was influenced by Chaucer and the poets of the South. But presently the Midland dialect became the only literary language in England, and the Northern dialect drew further away from it and followed a path of its own. The early Scots writers, like Barbour and Wyntoun, wrote what was virtually Northern English. The Kingis Quair of James I., though written originally in Southern English, was northemized by the copyists; Henryson’s language was little affected by the south; then, as the Middle Scots period develops, we find Dunbar and Gawain Douglas and Sir David Lyndsay using a language of their own —Northern English in stock, with a slight French element, and a strong kinship with the spoken tongue of the Lowlands, which had developed its own idiosyncrasies. But to every Scots writer, however robust his patriotism, his speech was “English,” and Dunbar calls Chaucer “of our Inglisch all the lycht.” Gawain Douglas, indeed, claims to be a “Scottis” and not an “Inglis” poet, but he confessed himself forced to use some “ Sudroun ” words, and his work, though it accepts more from the spoken vernacular, is in the same tradition as that of the other “makars,” so that Lyndsay could speak of him as “in our Inglis rethorick the rose.” A stout Scots nationalist like Hume of Godscroft, who lived at the close of the sixteenth century, might maintain that he wrote his Scottish mother-tongue, and that he had “ever accounted it a mean study to learn to read or speak English ... esteeming it but a dialect of our own, and that (perhaps) more corrupt.” But his claim was a mere juggling with words.

Perhaps the process might be thus summarily and broadly stated. The Scots speech was in its beginnings the Northern dialect of English, which, as a spoken tongue, soon acquired minor local differences. When it came to be written it was the language of Northern England, and, though influenced to some extent by the South, it remained Northern. It was a literary speech, coloured by French and Latin, but it kept its affinities with the spoken vernacular and borrowed from it, being perhaps not much further removed from it than any book language is from that spoken in street and ale-house. As the Midland dialect became the literary language of England, Scots preserved its Northern quality and drew farther apart, developing powers and beauties of its own, though much clogged by an imperfect assimilation of its borrowings. It called itself English, but it was a substantive national speech, and its literature was a national literature, close enough to the common people to be intelligible to them, and yet capable of treating of all themes from the homeliest to the highest. Had circumstances been different Scots might have developed into a true world-speech, “perhaps,” as Mr. Henderson says, “more than rivalling literary English in fertility of idioms, and in wealth, beauty, and efficacy of diction,” or Southern and Northern might have united in one majestic stream.

But the sixteenth century brought a sharp fissure. The chief disruptive agent was the Reformation, which in Scotland not only involved a more violent breach with the past than elsewhere, but put secular literature under a ban and cut at the root of vernacular art and song. It led to a severance with France and a closer contact with England. It made the chief reading of Scotland the Bible—in English; it gave her the metrical Psalms—in English; and its great protagonists, like John Knox, had so many English affiliations that they were accused by their enemies of being “triple trait oris quha... knappis suddrone.” The making of verse ceased to be a pastime of people strongly troubled about their souls, and the few who still practised the art turned, like the poets of the Delicice Poetarum Scotorum, to Latin, or, like Drummond of Hawthomden, Aytoun, and Alexander, to the courtly muse of Edmund Spenser. The tongue which was spoken at kirk and market went out of literature for a century and more, and when it returned it was no longer as a national speech, but as a modish exercise. Politics, theology, a little law, and less history held the boards in seventeenth century Scotland, and their language was for the best part an ungainly English.

There was a revival early in the eighteenth century at the hands of Allan Ramsay, but its motive was antiquarian. The very men who laboured to expunge any Scotticisms from their prose and polished their Augustan couplets as their serious contribution to letters, turned a curious eye back to their own sixteenth century, and Ramsay’s Tea-Table Miscellany and Ever Green were the consequence. We owe much to this antiquarian interest, for it preserved the old poetry when it was in imminent danger of perishing. Thomson’s Orpheus Caledonius appeared in 1725; and following on the publication of Bishop Percy’s Reliques came a flood of invaluable miscellanies, such as Herd’s Ancient and Modern Scots Songs (1769), Pinkerton’s two volumes of Ballads (1781 and 1783), Johnson’s Musical Museum (1787), culminating in Sir Walter Scott’s great Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-3). The vernacular had become a book tongue to be studied and annotated; but when its students had anything to say, they said it in that English which was now the common speech of the literate from Devon to Aberdeen.

But Scots had one season of flowering left to it so splendid that it is hard to believe that the blossoms were the product of artificial tending and not the indigenous growth of the fields. Burns is by universal admission one of the most natural of poets, but he used a language which was, even in his own day, largely exotic. His Scots was not the living speech of his countrymen, like the English of Shelley, and—in the main—the Scots of Dunbar; it was a literary language subtly blended from the old “makars” and the refrains of folk poetry, much tinctured with the special dialect of Ayrshire, and with a solid foundation of English, accented more Boreali. No Scot in the later eighteenth century, whether in Poosie Nansie’s or elsewhere, spoke exactly as Bums wrote. Perhaps the plain speech of a people can never be the language of poetry, but a speech so limited and specialized as the spoken vernacular of eighteenth century Scotland could scarcely suffice for the needs of a great poet. Burns, as he was bound to be, was retrospective and antiquarian in his syntax and vocabulary. He created a noble poetic diction, but it was a creation, not the reproduction of a speech still in the ears of men.

A century and a half have passed since Burns wrote, and the vernacular, confined to an ever-narrowing province, has suffered a further detrition. Old words and constructions have lapsed from use; modes of speech which were current so late as thirty years ago among the shepherds of Ettrick and Galloway are scarcely intelligible to their successors; in the towns the patois bids fair to become merely a broadened and dilapidated English; and though the dwellers north of Tweed will be eternally distinguishable from their neighbours by certain idiosyncrasies of speech, these idiosyncrasies will be of voice and accent, and not of language. The Scots vernacular ceased in the sixteenth century to be a language in the full sense, capable of being used on all varieties of theme, and was confined to the rustic and the parochial; capable, indeed, in the hands of a master of sounding the depths of the human heart, but ill suited to the infinite variety of human life. Even from this narrowed orbit it has fallen, and is now little more than a robust rendering of colloquial English. The literary Scots which Burns wrote is more than ever a literary tongue, far removed from any speech in common use. It is understood by many, not because it is in their ears from hearing, but because it is in their memories from reading. To restore the Scots vernacular is beyond the power of any Act of Parliament, because the life on which it depended has gone. Thirty years ago I learned in the Tweedside glens to talk a Scots, which was then the speech of a people secluded from the modern world; to-day if I spoke it at a Tweeddale clipping I should find only a few old men to understand me. Scots can survive only as a book-tongue, and it is to that purpose that I would bespeak the efforts of my countrymen. The knowledge of the book-tongue is still fairly common, and if, in the mill of a standardized education, it should ever be crushed out, we shall lose the power of appreciating not only the “makars,” but the best of the Ballads, Burns, and Sir Walter Scott— that part of our literary heritage which is most intimately and triumphantly our own.

It follows that the Scots poets since Burns have been retrospective, as he was. They are all of them, from the minor bards of Whistle Binkie to Stevenson and Mrs. Jacob and Mr. Charles Murray, exponents of a literary convention and not singers in the speech of the common day. That is not to say that their art is not fresh and spontaneous, for art may work through conventions and yet be free. Poetry, composed with infinite pains from a thousand echoes, may have the sound of the natural voice, and to this virtue I think some of our modern Scots verse attains. It is always an exercise, the fruit of care and scholarship, and since the literary tongue is so nobly pedigreed, it will preserve (so long as it has an audience to understand it) a flavour and a grace which make it the fittest medium for a Scot to express certain moods and longings. It will be least successful when it is too antiquarian and becomes a mere clot of coagulated dialect, or when it attempts to reproduce phonetically a spoken word which is too disintegrated for literature. It must always be in a sense a pastiche, but that is not inimical to artistic excellence. Nevertheless—let us regretfully face the fact — the pastiche is not a growth of enduring vitality, and it has the further drawback that its appeal is circumscribed owing to the lack of any canon of vernacular Scots. Every shire has its variant. If we call Sir Walter Scott’s version the classic standard, what are we to make of Burns ? And if the Border speech is metropolitan, is Mr. Charles Murray provincial?

There is a sentence in a letter of Burns to George Thomson1 wich seems to me to point a way to the true future of Scots in our literature. “There is a naivete,” he wrote, “a pastoral simplicity in a slight admixture of Scots words and phraseology which is more in unison — at least to my taste, and, I would add, to any genuine Caledonian taste—with the simple pathos or rustic sprightliness of our native music, than any English verses whatever.” He was speaking only of songs to be set to old airs, but the words have a wider application. It is to be noted that in some of the greatest masterpieces of our tongue, in the Ballads, in Burns’s Ae Fond Kiss, in Scott throughout— in Proud Maisie, in Wandering Willie’s Tale, in the talk of Jeanie Deans— the dialect is never emphasized; only a word here and there provides a Northern tone. I can imagine a Scottish literature of both verse and prose based on this “slight admixture,” a literature which should be, in Mr. Gregory Smith’s admirable phrase, “a delicate colouring of standard English with Northern tints.” In such work the drawbacks of the pastiche would disappear; because of its Northern colouring it would provide the means for an expression of the racial temperament, and because it was also English, and one of the great world-speeches, no limit

From what has been written it follows that Scots poetry after the sixteenth century has not the width and variety of a national literature, covering all the moods of life and thought. Judged by his scope, Dunbar is its greatest figure. He has been differently estimated: Mr. Russell Lowell thought him a bore— “He who is national enough to like thistles may browse there to his heart’s content”; Mr. Andrew Lang is tepid in his praise; Sir Walter Scott, on the other hand, thought him the greatest Scots poet before Burns; and the friends of the late W. P. Ker will remember with what gusto he used to declare, “Dunbar is my poet.” To me he seems to rank with the Ballads, Burns, and the Waverley Novels as one of the four of Scotland’s main contributions to letters. In any case it will not be disputed that the “makars alone essayed and succeeded in the grand manner—alone attempted (with varying success) the full circle of poetic material. Since their day vernacular poetry has had its wings clipped, and though it has soared high the latitude of its flights has shrunk.

Defects have followed from this circumscription of area, this absorption in too narrow a world. The most notable is a certain provincialism of theme, which is always in danger of degenerating into a provincialism of thought. Scots poetry is apt to be self-absorbed, to become the scrupulous chronicle of small beer, to lack the long perspective and the “high translunary things” of greater art.

“Tiny pleasures occupy the place Of glories and of duties: as the feet Of fabled fairies, when the sun goes down, Trip o’er the grass where wrestlers strove by day.”

This in itself is no blemish, and, indeed, a confined outlook could scarcely have been avoided in the literature of a speech diverted from the larger uses of life and forced back upon one class and environment. But it means that it does not enter for the greater contests of the Muses, since a cameoist can never be a Pheidias, or a Teniers a Rembrandt.

From this inevitable provincialism spring two faults which are the prime weaknesses of Scots verse. One is a distressing facility, a preference for easy cadences and trite epithets and tedious jingles, a lack of the classic reticence and discipline. Bums is a supreme example to the contrary, and he remains a miracle in the Scots tradition. He has the sureness and the rightness of the antique, but much Scots verse is marred by a cheap glibness, an admiration for the third or fourth best, which is due to the lack of a strong artistic canon. It is a defect which is found in popular songs and popular hymns, the price which poetry must pay for popular handling. Scott said that a “vile sixpenny planet” looked in at the window when James Hogg was born, and that planet has not lost its baneful influence. The second defect is sentimentality, which is a preference for the inferior in feeling as the other is a preference for the inferior in form. A study of Whistle Binkie and the immense body of minor Scots verse in the last century shows us writers painfully at ease in Zion, who gloat over domestic sentiment till the charm has gone, who harp on obvious pathos till the last trace of the pathetic vanishes, who make so crude a frontal attack upon the emotions that the emotions are left inviolate. Whether it be children, or lost love, or death, or any other of the high matters of poetry, there is the same gross pawing which rubs off the delicate bloom. Heaven is as frequent and as foolish a counter in such verse as in bad hymns, and there is a perpetual saccharine sweetness which quickly cloys. Instead of Burns’s “stalk of carle hemp,” there seems to be in such writers a stalk of coarse barley sugar.

The misfortune is that these faults are found not only in trumpery verse, but in work of real and often of high merit. Burns is free from them, but they are rampant in Hogg, Tannahill, Allan Cunningham, and most of their successors. They are the result of the provincialism into which the vernacular speech fell, and the consequent “in-breeding” of vernacular literature. But the same cause has produced qualities which may well be held to redress the balance. They are qualities, too, which belong to the whole literature from Henryson to our own day. Vernacular poetry is in a peculiar degree the reflex of the Scots character, and, like that character, combines within itself startling anomalies. It has on one side a hardy and joyous realism, a gusto for close detail, a shrewd, observing intimacy with the natural world. Even in conventional work there will come pieces of sharp concrete experience which give it a rude life, and at the best there is a constant sense of the three dimensions of space,‘of men and women moving in a world riotously alive. The other side is within hearing of the horns of Elfland—a paradox from the point of view of art, but complementary when seen in relation to the national character, which is founded on these opposites. Romance is always at call, an airy, diaphanous romance, so that Scots poetry is like some cathedral of the Middle Ages, with peasants gossiping in the nave and the devout at prayer in side chapels, carved grotesques adjacent to stained-glass saints, and beams of heavenly light stealing through the brooding upper darkness. The Hogg of the Shepherd’s Calendar can claim with justice to be a “king of the mountain and the fairy school.” The combination is found in every literature, but in Scots the transition from the commonplace to the fantastic and back again is especially easy, since each mood has its source in the history and character of the race. Our Muse is like the Gifted Gilfillan in Waverley, who turned readily from the New Jerusalem of the Saints to the price of beasts at Mauchline fair, or like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, who can pass from banter with a peasant to a rnood of sublime soliloquy. Romance in the North has always some salt of the pedestrian, and the most prosaic house of life has casements opening upon fairy seas.

J. B.

The Northern Muse
An Anthology of Scots vernacular Poetry arranged by John Buchan (1924) (pdf)


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus