Last Saturday, writer and broadcaster Billy Kay delivered the inaugural The Betty Boyd Memorial Scots Language Lecture. In this extract he talks about the great tradition of poetry in the Scots language.
Here in the Scottish Poetry Library this efternuin I want tae tak aboot the great Scots tradeition o makars an muckle sangs that ye can breathe in the air here in in the Canongate o Auld Reikie.
An in the beginnin wis Andrew o Wyntouns Chronykill that perfectly summed up the natiouns predicament efter the incident that sparked aff the wars o independence:
Quhen Alexander our kynge was dede,
That Scotlande lede in lauche and le
Away was sons of alle and brede,
Off wyne and wax, of gamyn and gle
Our golde was changit into lede.
Crist, borne in virgynyte,
Succoure Scotlande, and ramede,
That is stade in perplexite.
Oor nation wis foundit on siccan leiterature whaur the stories in the oral & folk tradeition wis taen up bi Barbour wi Bruce an Blin Harry wi Wallace an owreset intae high art bi kenspeckle makars that brocht their subjeck maitter alive.
This is Bruce afore Bannockburn…….. listin the factors that favouered the Scots :
The first is, that we haif the richt;
And for the richt ilk man suld ficht.
The tothir is, thai are cummyn heir,
For lypning in thair gret power,
To seik us in our awne land,
And has broucht heir, richt till our hand,
Richness in‑to so gret plentee,
That the pouerest of yow sall be
Baith rych and mychty thar‑with‑all,
Gif that we wyn, as weill may fall.
The thrid is, that we for our lyvis
And for our childer and our wifis,
And for the fredome of our land,
Ar strenyeit in battale for to stand
And thai for thair mycht anerly….
We are hear to defend everthing we love – they are here to exercise their might.
This is Blin Hary on the attack on the English occupyin airmy at Barnweill near Ayr – an airmy owerindulgin in the guid clairet wine fae their ither colony o Gascony.
Nae watch wis set because they had nae doot
Aw Scottish men that leivin.. were withoot
Labourit in mynd they had been aw that day
O ale an wine eneuch chosen hae they
As beastly fowk tak o themsels nae keep
In their banes suin slid the slothfu sleep
Through full gluttony in swarf swappit like swine
Their chieftain then wis great Bacchus o wyne.
Anither memory as a wean cam when ma uncle drove us doon tae Ayr an whan we passed the turn aff tae Barnweel, ma faither ay quotet fae the wallis when he saw the muckle lowe comin fae the conflagratioun in the English camp, ‘burn ye weel ye barns o Ayr.’ Blin Hary’s poem had the magnificent full tile o The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace. Ma faither, like Burns, maist likely got that fae Hamilton o Gilbertfield’s 18th century version, raither than Blin Hary’s 16th century oreiginal.
But it wis in periods o peace that the makars an their poetry shone brichtest. Henryson owersetin the fables o Aesop intae a Scots that could descrieve a sleekit tod snoovin oot a daurk thicket tae perfectioun in the taill o the fox that begylit the wolf in the schadow o the mune:
Lowrence cam lourand for he luvit never licht.
Gavin Douglas taks the Aeneid fae its blinterin hoat classical landscape an transports us intae a gey snell northern ambience tae gie us a gleg glisk o the croodit thrang o deid sowels eident tae catch the ee o Charon tae bring them ower the Revers Styx an Acheron
Thir ryveris and thir watyris kepit war
By ane Charon, a grisly ferryar,
Terribil of schap and sluggart of array,
Apon his chyn feil cannos harys gray,
Lyart feltrit tatis; with burnand eyn red,
Lyk twa fyre blesys fixit in his hed;
(feil many; cannos hoary; lyart feltrit tatis withered matted tufts)
Douglas of coorse wis ane o the first to refer tae his leid as Langage o Scottish Natioun and like Dante in Italy or Chaucer in England jaloused that tae mak the vernacular as rich as the classical leids, they wad hae tae borrae words fae ither soorces.
William Dunbar wis the maist consummate makar o thaim aw, ane o a wheen kenspeckle airtists in a gowden age for Scots an Scottish culture as a European natioun wi kings like James IV an V at the hert of the Renaissance an biggin palyces that in the words o Sir David Lyndsay…includit Linlithgow …..
Lihgae whase palyce of pleasaunce
Micht be ane pattern in Portingale or Fraunce.
This is Dunbar’s tongue in cheek dirge to James V persuading him tae lea the provincial gloom, puir cuisine an tuim gardyveen O Stirlin tae prie the sensual culinary an vinous delichts o his metropolitan palyce o the Haly Ruid here in Embro:
We that ar heir in hevins glory,
Tae you that ar in purgatory,
Commendis us on our hairtly wyiss;
I mene we folk in parradyis,
In Edinburcht with all mirriness,
To you of Striuilling in distress,
Quhair nowdir plesance nor delyt is,
For pety thus ane Apostill wrytis.
O ! ye heremeitis and hankersaidilis,
That takis your pennance at your tablis,
And eitis nocht meit restoratiue,
Nor drynkis nae wyn confortatiue…….
Ye may in hevin heir with us duell,
To eit swan, cran, peirtrik, and pluver,
And everie fische that swowmis in rever,
To drink withe us the new fresche wyne
That grew apone the revar of Ryne,
Fresche fragrant claretis out of France,
Of Anger and of Orliance,
With mony ane cours of grit daynté.
Say ye amen, for chirrité.