In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Medieval Scottish Poetry

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Anthologies and Editions
  • Critical Approaches
  • Essay Collections

British and Irish Literature Medieval Scottish Poetry
Nicola Royan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 September 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0129


In the title “Medieval Scottish Poetry,” “poetry” is by far the least contentious term. The other two may each be defined in many different and incompatible ways, and together they pose different challenges. “Scottish” may refer to the geography, rather than to one specific language, while “medieval” can extend in Scottish contexts further into the 16th century than is usual in British or English accounts. This article will focus primarily on poetry written in Older Scots, between 1350 and 1513, but it will also gesture toward Scottish poetry in other languages, primarily Gaelic, and poetry written or transmitted before or after those dates. Most evidence for this poetry comes from the southeastern half of the country: poets can be associated with Moray, Aberdeen, Fife, Edinburgh and the Borders, and Ayrshire. Although some material is associated with the court, at least as much is associated with noble families. It is rare to find contemporary manuscripts for the poetry, for the main witnesses for many texts are 16th-century prints and miscellanies, such as the Asloan and Bannatyne Manuscripts. This suggests that the poetry retained its cultural value well into the early modern period and beyond. The earliest Older Scots poem surviving is John Barbour’s the Bruce, dated c. 1375, It narrates the exploits of Robert I and James Douglas during the First War of Independence (1295–1314) for the benefit of the heroes’ descendants, Robert II and Archibald Douglas. Its length, sophistication, and manipulations of tropes and stories indicates that the Bruce had antecedents, certainly in French and in English, and possibly in an earlier form of Scots—indeed, it preserves a version of a quatrain, beginning “Quhen Alexander oure king was dead,” sometimes identified as the earliest surviving Scottish poem, although it only survives embedded in other works. The Bruce first articulates some recurrent themes in medieval Scottish poetry: kingship, national identity, and self-government. These also appear in the latest text to be considered here, Gavin Douglas’s Eneados, the first translation of the Aeneid into any variety of English. Completed in July 1513, this immense work points forward to the next historical period.

General Overviews

Accounts of medieval Scottish poetry tend to be enfolded into wider narratives of Scottish literature. As a result, they can be very abbreviated and occasionally misleading. One useful introductory text is Crawford 2007, Scotland’s Books, which dedicates substantial sections to early poetry in all the languages of Scotland. More specific work can be found in two histories of Scottish Literature. Although the first, Jack 1988, is quite elderly, it still offers some useful insights by important scholars. The second one is more recent, and more comprehensive: Brown, et al. 2006 includes essays on earlier as well as later poetry. There is one final, more targeted, volume: Bawcutt and Hadley Williams 2006 has introductory essays on the most significant writers and genres in Older Scots, together with guides to further reading. Linguistic questions, including stylistic ones, are addressed comprehensively in Smith 2012 and more narrowly in Aitken 1983. Lyall 1989 offers an important introduction to Scottish book culture, on which subsequent work has built.

  • Aitken, A. J. “The Language of Older Scots Poetry.” In Scotland and the Lowland Tongue. Edited by J. Derrick McClure, 18–49. Aberdeen, Scotland: Aberdeen University Press, 1983.

    This essay describes the key linguistic features of Older Scots poetry, including the features peculiar to genre and register. It is a foundational account of this area.

  • Bawcutt, Priscilla, and Janet Hadley Williams, eds. Companion to Medieval Scottish Poetry. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2006.

    Less concerned with chronological sweep, this collection focuses on poetry in Scots and includes important essays on most of the major authors and texts. It also includes substantial bibliographies for each essay, up to 2006. Where possible, this bibliography attempts to supplement rather than duplicate those lists.

  • Brown, Ian, Thomas Owen Clancy, Murray Pittock, and Susan Manning, eds. The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature. Vol. 1, From Columba to the Union (until 1707). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.

    This collection has a wider brief, both chronologically and generically, than Bawcutt and Hadley Williams 2006. There is more material on writing in Gaelic, and as a result its representation of Scottishness is slightly different.

  • Crawford, Robert. Scotland’s Books: The Penguin History of Scottish Literature. London: Penguin, 2007.

    A single-volume guide to Scottish literature, with careful attention paid to early material and to the multiple languages of medieval Scotland.

  • Jack, R. D. S., ed. The History of Scottish Literature. Vol. 1, Origins to 1660. Aberdeen, Scotland: Aberdeen University Press, 1988.

    Organized by genre and language, this collection of essays offers a good introduction to the main writers and texts, and to critical issues and approaches.

  • Lyall, R. J. “Books and Book Owners in Fifteenth-Century Scotland.” In Book Production and Publishing in Britain 1375–1475. Edited by J. Griffiths and D. Pearsall, 239–256. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    While there has been a good deal of work subsequently on Scottish manuscripts and their circulation, Lyall’s essay is still an important introduction to some key questions.

  • Smith, Jeremy J. Older Scots: A Linguistic Reader. Edinburgh: Scottish Text Society, 2012.

    For those new to reading Older Scots, this volume provides a thorough account of its history and changes, as well as guides to pronunciation, orthography, and register.

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