Scottish literature

Three great men of Scottish literature: busts of Burns, Scott and Stevenson.

Scottish literature is literature written in Scotland or by Scottish writers. It includes literature written in English, Scottish Gaelic, Scots, Brythonic, French, Latin and any other language in which a piece of literature was ever written within the boundaries of modern Scotland.

The earliest extant literature written in what is now Scotland, was composed in Brythonic speech in the 6th century and has survived as part of Welsh literature. In the following centuries there was literature in Latin, under the influence of the Catholic Church, and in Old English, brought by Anglian settlers. As the state of Alba developed into the kingdom of Scotland from the 8th century, there was a flourishing literary elite who regularly produced texts in both Gaelic and Latin, sharing a common literary culture with Ireland and elsewhere. After the Davidian Revolution of the 13th century a flourishing French language culture predominated, while Norse literature was produced from areas of Scandinavian settlement. The first surviving major text in Early Scots literature is the 14th-century poet John Barbour's epic Brus, which was followed by a series of vernacular versions of medieval romances. These were joined in the 15th century by Scots prose works.

In the early modern era royal patronage supported poetry, prose and drama. George MacDonald.

In the 20th century there was a surge of activity in Scottish literature, known as the Scots Makar by the inaugural Scottish government in 2004. From the 1980s Scottish literature enjoyed another major revival, particularly associated with writers including James Kelman and Irvine Welsh. Scottish poets who emerged in the same period included Carol Ann Duffy, who was named as the first Scot to be UK Poet Laureate in May 2009.


  • Middle Ages 1
    • Early Middle Ages 1.1
    • High Middle Ages 1.2
    • Late Middle Ages 1.3
  • Early modern era 2
    • Sixteenth century 2.1
    • Seventeenth century 2.2
  • Eighteenth century 3
  • Nineteenth century 4
  • 20th century to the present 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8

Middle Ages

Early Middle Ages

A page from the Book of Aneirin shows the first part of the text from the Gododdin c. 6th century.

After the collapse of Roman authority in the early fifth century, four major circles of political and cultural influence emerged in Northern Britain. In the east were the Picts, whose kingdoms eventually stretched from the river Forth to Shetland. In the west were the Gaelic (Goidelic)-speaking people of Dál Riata, who had close links with Ireland, from where they brought with them the name Scots. In the south were the British (Brythonic-speaking) descendants of the peoples of the Roman-influenced kingdoms of "The Old North", the most powerful and longest surviving of which was the Kingdom of Strathclyde. Finally, there were the English or "Angles", Germanic invaders who had overrun much of southern Britain and held the Kingdom of Bernicia (later the northern part of Northumbria), which reached into what are now the Borders of Scotland in the south-east.[1] To these Christianisation, particularly from the sixth century, added Latin as an intellectual and written language. Modern scholarship, based on surviving placenames and historical evidence, indicates that the Picts spoke a Brythonic language, but none of their literature seems to have survived into the modern era.[2] However, there is surviving literature from what would become Scotland in Brythonic, Gaelic, Latin and Old English.

Much of the earliest Welsh literature was actually composed in or near the country we now call Scotland, in the Brythonic speech, from which Welsh would be derived, which was not then confined to Wales and Cornwall, although it was only written down in Wales much later. These include The Gododdin, considered the earliest surviving verse from Scotland, which is attributed to the bard Aneirin, said to have been resident in Brythonic kingdom of Gododdin in the 6th century. It is a series of elegies to the men of the Gododdin killed fighting at the Battle of Catraeth around 600 AD. Similarly, the Battle of Gwen Ystrad is attributed to Taliesin, traditionally thought to be a bard at the court of Rheged in roughly the same period.[3]

There are religious works in [4] In Latin they include a "Prayer for Protection" (attributed to St Mugint), c. mid-6th century and Altus Prosator ("The High Creator", attributed to St Columba), c. 597.[5] What is arguably the most important medieval work written in Scotland, the Vita Columbae, by Adomnán, abbot of Iona (627/8–704), was also written in Latin.[6] The next most important piece of Scottish hagiography, the verse Life of St. Ninian, was written in Latin in Whithorn in the eighth century.[7]

In Old English there is The Dream of the Rood, from which lines are found on the Ruthwell Cross, making it the only surviving fragment of Northumbrian Old English from early Medieval Scotland.[8] It has also been suggested on the basis of ornithological references that the poem The Seafarer was composed somewhere near the Bass Rock in East Lothian.[9]

High Middle Ages

Book of Deer, Folio 5r contains the text of the Gospel of Matthew from 1:18 through 1:21.

Beginning in the later eighth century, Viking raids and invasions may have forced a merger of the Gaelic and Pictish crowns that culminated in the rise of Cínaed mac Ailpín (Kenneth MacAlpin) in the 840s, which brought to power the House of Alpin and the creation of the Kingdom of Alba.[10] Historical sources, as well as place name evidence, indicate the ways in which the Pictish language in the north and Cumbric languages in the south were overlaid and replaced by Gaelic, Old English and later Norse.[11] The Kingdom of Alba was overwhelmingly an oral society dominated by Gaelic culture. Our fuller sources for Ireland of the same period suggest that there would have been filidh, who acted as poets, musicians and historians, often attached to the court of a lord or king, and passed on their knowledge and culture in Gaelic to the next generation.[12][13]

From the eleventh century French, Flemish and particularly English became the main languages of Scottish burghs, most of which were located in the south and east.[14] At least from the accession of David I (r. 1124–53), as part of a Davidian Revolution that introduced French culture and political systems, Gaelic ceased to be the main language of the royal court and was probably replaced by French. After this "de-gallicisation" of the Scottish court, a less highly regarded order of bards took over the functions of the filidh and they would continue to act in a similar role in the Highlands and Islands into the eighteenth century. They often trained in bardic schools, of which a few, like the one run by the MacMhuirich dynasty, who were bards to the Lord of the Isles,[15] existed in Scotland and a larger number in Ireland, until they were suppressed from the seventeenth century.[13] Members of bardic schools were trained in the complex rules and forms of Gaelic poetry.[16] Much of their work was never written down and what survives was only recorded from the sixteenth century.[12]

It is possible that more Middle Irish literature was written in medieval Scotland than is often thought, but has not survived because the Gaelic literary establishment of eastern Scotland died out before the 14th century. Thomas Owen Clancy has argued that the Lebor Bretnach, the so-called "Irish Nennius", was written in Scotland, and probably at the monastery in Abernethy, but this text survives only from manuscripts preserved in Ireland.[17] Other literary work that has survived includes that of the prolific poet Gille Brighde Albanach. About 1218, Gille Brighde wrote a poem — Heading for Damietta — on his experiences of the Fifth Crusade.[18]

In the 13th century, French flourished as a literary language, and produced the Roman de Fergus, the earliest piece of non-Celtic vernacular literature to survive from Scotland.[19] Many other stories in the Arthurian Cycle, written in French and preserved only outside Scotland, are thought by some scholars including D. D. R. Owen, to have been written in Scotland. There is some Norse literature from areas of Scandinavian settlement, such as the Northern Isles and the Western Isles. The famous Orkneyinga Saga however, although it pertains to the Earldom of Orkney, was written in Iceland.[20] In addition to French, Latin too was a literary language, with works that include the "Carmen de morte Sumerledi", a poem which exults triumphantly the victory of the citizens of Glasgow over Somairle mac Gilla Brigte[21] and the "Inchcolm Antiphoner", a hymn in praise of St. Columba.[22]

Late Middle Ages

James I, who spent much of his life imprisoned in England, where he gained a reputation as a musician and poet.

In the late Middle Ages, Middle Scots, often simply called English, became the dominant language of the country. It was derived largely from Old English, with the addition of elements from Gaelic and French. Although resembling the language spoken in northern England, it became a distinct dialect from the late fourteenth century onwards.[16] It began to be adopted by the ruling elite as they gradually abandoned French. By the fifteenth century it was the language of government, with acts of parliament, council records and treasurer's accounts almost all using it from the reign of James I onwards. As a result, Gaelic, once dominant north of the Tay, began a steady decline.[16] Lowland writers began to treat Gaelic as a second class, rustic and even amusing language, helping to frame attitudes towards the highlands and to create a cultural gulf with the lowlands.[16]

The first surviving major text in Scots literature is John Barbour's Brus (1375), composed under the patronage of Robert II and telling the story in epic poetry of Robert I's actions before the English invasion till the end of the war of independence.[23] The work was extremely popular among the Scots-speaking aristocracy and Barbour is referred to as the father of Scots poetry, holding a similar place to his contemporary Chaucer in England.[24] In the early 15th century these were followed by Andrew of Wyntoun's verse Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland and Blind Harry's The Wallace, which blended historical romance with the verse chronicle. They were probably influenced by Scots versions of popular French romances that were also produced in the period, including The Buik of Alexander, Launcelot o the Laik and The Porteous of Noblenes by Gilbert Hay.[16]

Much Middle Scots literature was produced by makars, poets with links to the royal court, which included James I (who wrote The Kingis Quair). Many of the makars had university education and so were also connected with the Kirk. However, Dunbar's Lament for the Makaris (c.1505) provides evidence of a wider tradition of secular writing outside of Court and Kirk now largely lost.[25] Before the advent of printing in Scotland, writers such as Robert Henryson, William Dunbar, Walter Kennedy and Gavin Douglas have been seen as leading a golden age in Scottish poetry.[16]

In the late 15th century, Scots prose also began to develop as a genre. Although there are earlier fragments of original Scots prose, such as the Auchinleck Chronicle,[26] the first complete surviving work includes John Ireland's The Meroure of Wyssdome (1490).[27] There were also prose translations of French books of chivalry that survive from the 1450s, including The Book of the Law of Armys and the Order of Knychthode and the treatise Secreta Secretorum, an Arabic work believed to be Aristotle's advice to Alexander the Great.[16] The establishment of a printing press under royal patent in 1507 would begin to make it easier to disseminate Scottish literature and was probably aimed at bolstering Scottish national identity.[28] The first Scottish press was established in Southgait in Edinburgh by the merchant Walter Chepman (c. 1473-c. 1528) and the bookseller Andrew Myllar (f. 1505-08). Although the first press was relatively short lived, beside law codes and religious works, the press also produced editions of the work of Scottish makars before its demise, probably about 1510. The next recorded press was that of Thomas Davidson (f. 1532-42), the first in a long line of "king's printers", who also produced editions of works of the makars.[29] The landmark work in the reign of James IV was Gavin Douglas's version of Virgil's Aeneid, the Eneados, which was the first complete translation of a major classical text in an Anglic language, finished in 1513, but overshadowed by the disaster at Flodden.[16]

Early modern era

Sixteenth century

William Alexander, statesman and author.

As a patron of poets and authors