The Oul Leid

The earliest of the truly great pieces of Scots literature was Barbour’s epic historical poem The Bruce, written about 1375. John Barbour was Archdeacon of Aberdeen and his massive work in Old Scots ran to 20 books — each ‘book’ containing about 500-600 lines of poetry. The story was that of Robert the Bruce, Earl of Carrick and King of Scotland at the time of the Battle of Bannockburn. Of great Ulster interest are not only the references to Robert’s visits to Rathlin Island, and later to Carrickfergus, but the three-year expedition of his brother Edward the Bruce: this included his sojourn here, his coronation as ‘King of Ireland’ (possibly at Carrickfergus), and finally, his death in battle near Dundalk. Edward’s stay in east Ulster was from 1315-1318, and it is almost incredible, but nevertheless true, that the equivalent of two entire ‘books’ of The Bruce are set in east Ulster. The description of the countryside around Carrickfergus by Barbour has been described by one scholar of this great work as showing “a feeling for nature not inferior to that of other poets of his period such as Langland and Chaucer”. Ulster-Scots placenames are revealed too — the version from which the small abstract below has been taken names Larne Lough as “Vaveryng fyrth”, while other early copies use “wokingis furth” and “wolyngs firth”. These are all understood to mean “Viking’s firth” as the “Scoto-Scandinavian” name for Larne Lough.

In another part of the work, (relating to the Battle of Connor in Antrim); “Connor” is spelt “Coigner”. It is assumed that this was pronounced con-yer and modern scholars have noted that this remains the local pronunciation! Clearly this most important work of early Old Scots literature solidly embraces east Ulster. Barbour’s Bruce is as much a part of Ulster-Scots literary heritage as it is for any other part of the Scots-speaking world.

A small fragment of about 70 lines is provided below, paralleled by a loose translation in verse form of the same passage:

In vaveryng fyrth arivit thai

Saufly, but bargane or assay,

And send thair schippis home ilkane.

A gret thing haue thai vndertane,

That with [sa] quheyne as thai war thar,

That wes sex thousand men but mar,

Schupe for to warray all Irland,

Quhar thai sail se mony thousand

Cum armyt on thame for to ficht.

Bot thouch thai quheyne var, thai var vicht,

And, for-outen dreid or effray,

In twa battelis thae tuk the way

Toward cragfergus, it to se.

Bot the lordis of that cuntre,

Mavndwell, byset, and logane,

Thar men assemblit euirilkane;

De sawagis wes alsua thair.

And, quhen thai all assemblit war,

Thai war weill neir tuenty thousand.

Quhen thai wist that in-till thar land

Sic a menzhe arivit war,

With all the folk that thai had thar,

Thai went toward thame in gret hy.

And fra schir eduard wist suthly

That neir till him cumand war thai,

His men he gert richt weill aray

The vaward had the erll thomas,

And in the rerward schir eduard was.

Thar fais approchit to the fichting,

And thai met thame but abaysing.

Thar mycht men se a gret melle;

For erll thomas and his menzhe

Dang on thair fais sa douchtely,

That in schort tym men mycht se ly

Ane hundreth that all bludy war.

For hobynis, that war stekit thar,

Rerit and flang, and gret rowme maid,

And kest thame that apon thame raid.

And schir Eduardis Cumpany

Assemblit syne so hardely,

That thai thar fais ruschit all.

Quha hapnyt in that ficht to fall,

It was perell of his Risyng.

The scottis men in that fechting

Swa apertly and weille thame bar,

That thair fais swa ruschit war,

That thai haly the ficht has tane.

In that battale wes tane or slane

All hale the flour of wllister.

The Erll of murreff gret pris had ther;

For his [richt] worthy cheuelry

Confortit all his Company.

That wes a full fair begynnyng;

For, newlyngis at thair ariwyng,

In playne ficht thai discomfit thar

Thar fais, that ay fowr for ane war.

Syne to Cragfergus ar thai gane,

And in the toune has Innys tane.

The castell wele wes stuffit then

Of-new with wittale and vith men;

Thar-till thai set ane sege in hy

Mony ysche full apertly

Wes maid, quhill thar the sege lay,

Quhill trewis at the last tuk thai.

Quhen that the folk of wllister

Till his pes haly cummyn wer,

For schir eduard walk tak on hand

Till ryde forthirmar in the land.

In Vikings’ Firth they landed fair.

No opposition found they there,

And home they sent their fleet entire.

Great things indeed did they aspire,

That with a force of men so small

(A bare six thousand men in all)

They hoped to take the whole country;

Where many thousands would they see

Come to oppose them with their might!

But they, though few, were skilled in fight.

Without misgiving or delay

Their two divisions made their way

To Carrickfergus. But the men

That held and ruled that country then,

The Logan, Bisset, Mandeville,

And Savages, when they heard tell

Of such a host upon their land,

Summoned their followers to hand,

In all near twenty thousand men,

And marched against Sir Edward.


He knew that they were on their way

He set his men in good array.

The vanguard did Earl Thomas steer;

Sir Edward took in hand the rear.

And when they saw their foes come near

The Scotsmen met them without fear.

Then might one see a great mêlée.

Earl Thomas and his men that day

Attacked their foes so dauntlessly

That in a short time one could see

A hundred men lie bleeding there.

The Irish horses, stabbed by spear,

Reared up and kicked and lashed around,

And threw their riders to the ground.

Sir Edward and his company

Soon joined the fray so doughtily

That all their foes were driven back.

Who chanced to fall in that attack

Was little like to rise again!

For in that fight the Scottish men

So bore themselves with bravery,

And so o’erwhelmed the enemy

That all as one they took to flight.

The slain or captured in that fight

Were all the flower of Ulster’s men.

Earl Thomas won great honour then;

His valour and his chivalry

Encouraged all his company.

Thus was beginning made right fair;

For they had scarcely landed there

When they had crushing victory won

O’er foes that numbered four to one!

To Carrickfergus soon they went,

In quarters there some time they spent.

The castle was well furnished then

With newly-garnered food, and men.

Forthwith a siege to it was set.

Many a sortie there was met

And skirmish fought, while siege was laid,

Until at last a truce was made.

When all the Ulster folk entire

Acknowledged him as lord and sire,

Sir Edward boldly took on hand

To ride forth further through the land.



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