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Robert Burns (1759-1796). Portrait by Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840) (detail). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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Scottish poetry, the poetry of Scotland, includes poetry written in Scottish Gaelic, Scottish , and English.

Late medieval Edit

The first surviving major text in Early Scots literature is John Barbour's Brus (1375) composed under the patronage of Robert II.[1] Barbour is referred to as the father of Scots poetry in parallel with his contemporary, Chaucer, who independently occupies a similar position vis a vis the English canon. Wyntoun's Kronykil and Blind Harry's Wallace followed Barbour in their use of the "Brus" genre, a blend of historical romance with verse chronicle. Scots versions of popular continental romances were also produced in the period, for example: Launcelot o the Laik and The Buik of Alexander.

Classical, French and Chaucerian literary language was an increasing influence on Scots poetry in the 15th century which saw the use of an increasing range of genres. Much Middle Scots literature was produced by makars, poets with links to the royal Court. At least 2 of Scotland's kings in the period were themselves makars, James I (who wrote The Kingis Quair) and his descendant James VI. 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.[2]

16th and 17th centuriesEdit

Gaelic was also still a major language in Scotland and Walter Kennedy, one of the makars associated with the court of James IV, may have written works in the language, although only examples of his poetry in Scots survive. Writers such as Robert Henryson, William Dunbar, Walter Kennedy, Gavin Douglas and David Lyndsay led a golden age in Scottish literature. The survival of many of their works is due, in part, to a number of mid-16th century manuscript collectors, such as George Bannatyne, who were instrumental in the transmission of works from the Middle Scots period. Many important figures — particularly Henryson — wrote before the advent of printing in Scotland (c.1508).

The Scottish ballad tradition can be traced back to the early 17th century. Francis James Child's compilation, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882–1898) contains many examples, such as The Elfin Knight (first printed around 1610) and Lord Randal. In this period, Scotland began to see more anglicisation among some social classes, although Lowland Scots was still spoken by the vast majority of the population of the Lowlands. THis was the time when many of the oral ballads from the borders and the North East began to be written down. Literary writers of the period include Robert Sempill (c.1595-1665), Lady Wardlaw and Lady Grizel Baillie.

18th centuryEdit

[Allan Ramsay (1686-1758)]] laid the foundations of a reawakening of interest in older Scottish literature, as well as leading the trend for pastoral poetry. The Habbie stanza was developed as a poetic form.[3]

In 1760, James Macpherson claimed to have found poetry written by Ossian. He published translations which acquired international popularity, being proclaimed as a Celtic equivalent of the Classical epics. Fingal written in 1762 was speedily translated into many European languages, and its deep appreciation of natural beauty and the melancholy tenderness of its treatment of the ancient legend did more than any single work to bring about the Romantic movement in European, and especially in German, literature, influencing Herder and Goethe in his earlier period.[4] It inspired many Scottish writers, including the young Walter Scott, but it eventually became clear that the poems were not direct translations from the Gaelic but flowery adaptations made to suit the aesthetic expectations of his audience as has been demonstrated in Derick S. Thomson, The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson's "Ossian".[5]

19th centuryEdit

Among the best known Scottish writers are 2 who are strongly associated with the Romantic Era, Robert Burns and Walter Scott. Scott's work is not exclusively concerned with Scotland, but his popularity in England and further abroad did much to form the modern stereotype of Scottish culture. Burns is considered Scotland's national bard; his works have only recently been edited to reflect the full breadth of their subject matter, as during the Victorian era he was censored.

Scott was initially rather more inclined to poetry and even collected Scottish ballads, eventually published The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border before launching into a novel-writing career in 1814 with Waverley, often called the first historical novel. Other novels by Scott which contributed to the image of him as a patriot include Rob Roy. He also wrote a History of Scotland. He was the highest earning and most popular author up to that time. As time goes by, Scott's novels have proven that his fame and success was well deserved for the inventiveness of his eloquent writing, his memorable characters and his recreation of lost ages.

1950s to the presentEdit

Edwin Morgan became known for translations of works from a wide range of European languages. He was also the first Scots Makar (the officially-appointed national poet,[6] equivalent to a Scottish poet laureate). He was succeeded by Liz Lochhead in 2011.

Glasgow born poet Carol Ann Duffy was named as Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom in May 2009. She was the first openly homosexual (and female) poet to hold the position.


  1. Duncan, A.A.M. (ed. 1997). The Brus. Canongate. p.3
  2. Grant, Alexander (1984). Independence and Nationhood, Scotland 1306-1469. Edward Arnold, Baltimore. pp.102-3
  3. Buchan, James (2003). Crowded with Genius. Harper Collins. pp. 311. ISBN 0060558881. 
  4. Buchan, James (2003). Crowded with Genius. Harper Collins. pp. 163. ISBN 0060558881. 
  5. Thomson, Derick (1952). The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson's "Ossian". Aberdeen: Oliver & Boyd. 
  6. The Scottish Government (2004-02-16). "The Scots Makar". Press release. Retrieved 2007-10-28. 

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