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Barbour's life story cannot be reconstructed in detail; but much more is known, or can be reasonably deduced, about him than about many mediaeval figures. The post of Archdeacon (that is, a church official second in rank to a bishop, with responsibility for distributing charities, presiding over meetings of the church court and supervising appointments to lower orders, including priesthood) was in his hands from 1357 till his death in 1395. The earlier period of his life is obscure: we know that he was precentor of the cathedral at Dunkeld in 1355, and very little else: neither the date nor the place of his birth is recorded. We cannot even say with certainty that he was an Aberdonian, except by adoption: there are, indeed, powerful arguments for the view that he came originally from the south-west, in that the name is to this day much commoner in that part of Scotland than here; that several people whom he mentions in his poem were certainly from the south-west, and that the episodes in the poem which take place south of the Forth-Clyde line are described in more detail, and with more apparent knowledge of the terrain, than those set further north.

As Archdeacon of Aberdeen, Barbour earned high renown. He travelled widely throughout the extensive diocese, and must have become a well-known figure among its parishioners. Shortly after his appointment he went to Edinburgh as the bishop's representative at a meeting of the National Council, held to discuss the ransoming of King David II (son of Robert Bruce, though not a man of his father's calibre) from English captivity. Later, he visited Oxford to study, travelling on a safe-conduct from Edward III; this courtesy of the English king was utilised on several subsequent occasions, when he returned to Oxford or journeyed through England to Paris or St Denis. These trips may have been for study, to buy books for St Machar's Cathedral library, for church business, or for pilgrimage: we cannot be certain; but they clearly suggest the activity of an energetic and conscientious churchman. When David II died in 1371 and was succeeded by his nephew Robert II (the first of the Stewarts), Barbour was appointed auditor of the royal exchequer, with a substantial salary. Many charters bear his name among the list of witnesses; many documents relating to church administration or national government testify to his presence; the Pope accorded him the singular privilege of appointing a deputy if he was prevented by illness from travelling on church business.

In his time, this Archdeacon of Aberdeen earned a reputation that spread far beyond the bounds of his diocese. His greatest legacy to posterity, however, is his epic poem. We have no direct evidence of what prompted him to write it; but we may conjecture. Barbour lived during one of the least glorious ages in Scottish history. Robert Bruce's achievement in securing Scotland's independence had been almost undone during his son's minority; and David II's reign was a gloomy period of disorder at home and chronic warfare with England. Robert II, elderly and almost blind when he came to the throne, was an even weaker ruler, and with his son Robert III, who succeeded him in 1390, royal government reached a nadir: it is indeed strange that the brilliant saga of the House of Stewart should have begun so ingloriously. Could Barbour have wished to inspire the feeble kings of his time to rule in a manner more worthy of their great ancestor, and their lawless subjects to display the loyalty which Bruce's lords showed to him? We know that Barbour wrote a history of the House of Stewart from its origins: quite possibly at the suggestion of Robert II, who may have hoped thereby to increase his personal prestige. Perhaps his epic on the heroic career of Robert Bruce was a pointed comment on the reason for the reigning king's lack of popularity: not that his family had only recently become royal — Bruce himself had technically usurped the throne — but that, being enthroned, he had failed to provide decisive leadership.

Barbour’s poetic treatment of the life and achievements of Robert Bruce is on a scale, and of a quality, worthy of its subject. Rapid and lively in its action, abounding in realistic dialogue passages, full of exciting and vividly-described scenes of combat ranging in scale from Bruce’s single-handed defeat of three traitors to the Battle of Bannockburn: considered simply as a narrative, it is the work of a master story-teller. The tales familiar to generations of Scottish schoolchildren — Bruce’s escape from the bloodhound at the ford, the taking of Edinburgh Castle, the Douglas Larder, the felling of Henry de Bohun — are all here, in memorable detail. In Bruce we have an admiring but realistic portrait of a great warrior king: besides the episodes which show his indomitable courage, his ferocity in battle and his tactician’s ability to seize the advantage in the most daunting of military situations, we see him delaying the departure of his troop while a camp laundress gives birth, or cheering his disheartened company with stories of ancient heroes. As a dramatic poem plain and simple, the Brus would earn Barbour a place among Scotland’s greatest writers.

However, to appreciate the full measure of Barbour’s achievement, it is useful to consider his epic not only as it appeals to modern readers but against the literary background of its own time. The type of poem known as "romance", in which the deeds of a hero such as Hector of Troy, King Arthur or Charlemagne were recounted on an epic scale, was a popular genre throughout Europe in the Middle Ages; and the Brus stands firmly within this tradition. Yet in many respects Barbour’s choice and treatment of his subject is highly innovative. Firstly, it is in Scots — in a vernacular tongue instead of Latin or a language with a long literary tradition like French — and its hero is not a semi-legendary figure or one from a remote historical period, but a man whose exploits had occurred within living memory. That is, Barbour was writing for a popular audience, not only the learned and courtly hearers of traditional romances; and about real events in a historical period very close to his own: he in fact states specifically on several occasions that he had got his information from men who had been present at the action. Yet, though it is a thoroughly Scottish poem, Scotland is deliberately placed in a wider context: Barbour is fond of comparing his protagonists Bruce, his brother Edward, his lieutenants Douglas and Randolph — to the heroes of antiquity, and citing classical precedents for their deeds and their heroic virtues.

Next, though Bruce in the poem is as heroic as Hector or Sir Lancelot, his heroism consists not simply in an ability to fight bravely; and though Barbour is among the most ardently patriotic of poets, he does not naively equate Bruce’s or Scotland’s cause with the right side. The poem is written from a moral stance far more elevated than this: Barbour is at pains to argue that the English put themselves morally in the wrong, not simply by fighting against the Scots, but by making an unprovoked attack on a smaller and weaker country which had shown no hostility to them. Patriotism is a virtue in Barbour’s poem and inspires men to great deeds, but patriotism operates in the service of a higher moral imperative, the duty to fight against those who would break God’s law by acts of oppression and robbery. Barbour is ready to criticise his heroes - Edward Bruce is sometimes rash and hasty, Randolph can make military errors, even Bruce can sometimes act unwisely or give way to loss of heart - or praise the valour of an English knight.

In Barbour’s Brus, then, we have a worthy opening to the splendid tradition of Lowland Scots literature: a thrilling narrative poem of doughty deeds, written with a churchman’s awareness of right and justice, and researched with sufficient care to make it a major source of historical information. The Friends of St Machar’s Cathedral have every cause to take pride in the legacy of this great mediaeval Archdeacon of Aberdeen.

The best edition of "The Brus" is by M.P MacDiarmid and A.C. Stevenson, ed. Scottish Text Society, 1980-85

Barbour and his Brus

Where and when does Scottish literature begin? If we include Gaelic literature in the answer to this question, as of course we should, then we have to open the search in a very remote period: St Columba himself is known to have composed some hymns in Gaelic. The Lowland tongue took much longer to develop as a literary medium, though again the accidents of survival obscure the precise date of its beginning: the earliest records consist of a short but expertly-turned lament for the death of Alexander III, a scrap of doggerel celebrating the Battle of Bannockburn, and very little else; though we have frustrating contemporary references to works that are no longer to be found. If, however, we ask a somewhat different question: "What is the first major work in the Scots tongue to survive?", the answer is clear: it is the epic poem on Robert Bruce and the War of Independence by John Barbour, Archdeacon of Aberdeen.