Henry the Minstrel (DNB00)

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HENRY the Minstrel, or Blind Harry or Hary (fl. 1470–1492), Scottish poet, was author of a poem on William Wallace [q. v.], fortunately preserved in a complete manuscript (dated 1488) now in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh. The copyist was John Ramsay of Lochmalonie, in the parish of Kilmany in Fifeshire. The biographical facts of Henry's life are only known from a brief notice in John Major's history (1521), and a few entries in the ‘Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer’ (1490–2). Major states that ‘Henry, a man blind from his birth, composed the whole book of William Wallace in the time of my infancy, and collected the popular traditions in a poem in the vulgar tongue, in which he was skilled.’ He adds, in the spirit of a critical historian: ‘I credit such writings only in part, but the poet by reciting these histories before the nobles received food and clothing, of which he was worthy.’ As John Major [q. v.] died in old age in 1549–1550, his infancy would fall within the period between 1470 and 1480, or possibly a little earlier. The statement of Buchanan, in the fragment of his own life, that Major was in extreme old age as early as 1524 is not consistent with the known facts of Major's life. The ‘Treasurer's Accounts’ first refer to Blind Harry on 26 April 1490, when he received 18s. by the king's command at Stirling. Similar payments were made on 1 Jan. and 14 Sept. 1491, ending with one on 2 Jan. 1492 at Linlithgow. This is the last mention of his name, and, as James IV usually continued till their deaths the annual payments to the minstrels who attended his court, it is probable the poet died before January 1493. He is mentioned by William Dunbar in the ‘Lament for the Makaris’ along with Sandy Traill, so that he must have been dead when that poem was written in 1507 or 1508. His own poem was probably composed in the reign of James III, as it was transcribed by Ramsay in the year when James was killed at Sauchie (11 July 1488). The poet speaks in his own person at its close, and may have dictated it to the transcriber. His vivid descriptions have been thought by some incompatible with total blindness, but Major's statement, the best evidence on the point, would be confirmed by his using another hand to write his poem. His surname is unknown, having been eclipsed by the familiar Harry, proving him, like Sandy Traill, Davy Lindsay, and other Scottish poets, to have been a popular favourite in his lifetime. He probably belonged to Lothian, for otherwise he would not have been known to Major in his infancy, which was passed in the neighbourhood of North Berwick. The dialect of his verses is that of Lothian, the best Scotch of that period, which had been adopted by the court and cultivated by earlier poets. There is little of personal allusion in the poem, which is entirely devoted to the description of Wallace, but a few inferences seem legitimate.

From the lines

For my laubour ne man hecht me reward,
Ne charge I had of king or other lord

(bk. xi. l. 1434), he appears to have composed the poem before he began to receive gratuities or pensions either from the nobles or the king.

The frequent references to his ‘Autor’ are explained by the lines:

Eftyr the Pruff gevyn fra the latin Buk,
Quhilk Maister Blayr in his tyme undertuk.

John Blair [q. v.] was a chaplain of Wallace; Sir Thomas Gray, parson of Liberton, and called by Harry ‘priest to Wallace,’ was also among his authorities. Both were contemporaries of Wallace (bk. xi. 1. 1423). Andrew Wyntoun alludes to many books on Wallace having been written before his time, all now unfortunately lost, and Blair's was doubtless one of them. Bishop Sinclair of Dunkeld, called ‘Bruce's bishop,’ obtained John Blair's Latin book, according to Blind Harry, with a view of sending it to the pope, and confirmed the truth of its contents (bk. xi. 1. 1417).

The poet apologises for departing on one point from Blair (bk. xi. 1. 1446), and the reader is sensible throughout that the poet is translating rather than producing original matter. While he modestly styles his work a ‘Rural Dyt’ (i.e. poem) and himself a ‘Burel man,’ or countryman, he was far from illiterate. Besides a knowledge of Latin he shows an acquaintance with the historical romances of Troy, Alexander the Great and Arthur, and with the astronomy of his time. He also has a very precise knowledge of Scottish topography. He probably had been educated in the school of some monastery. Even apart from his blindness, which makes his poem a wonderful effort of memory, it is impossible to accept Mr. Tytler's description of him as ‘an ignorant man, who was yet in possession of authentic and valuable materials’ (Scottish Worthies, iii. 299). No doubt he added imaginary incidents to the authentic materials he possessed. But the tradition of nearly two centuries must have already expanded Blair's narrative. The tale that the English queen fell in love with Wallace and of his conflict with a lion in France are examples of such additions. The historical accuracy of the poem has been impugned by Lord Hailes and others, yet on some points it has been corroborated by records or histories discovered or published since it was written, as in the account of the treachery of Patrick Dunbar, earl of March [q. v.], at the siege of Berwick, the narrative of the taking of Dunbar, and the visit of Wallace to France. On the other hand the chronology is often impossible. Historical knowledge of Wallace, apart from Blind Harry, is limited to the period from the spring of 1297, when he slew Hazelrigg, sheriff of Ayr, to the battle of Falkirk on 22 July 1298, with a few incidents of the guerilla war he carried on after his return from France, his betrayal by Menteith, and his execution at London in 1305. But Blind Harry crowds the early life of his hero with deeds of daring otherwise unknown, though it is impossible to say that they are all unauthentic. He inserts, however, a battle at Biggar, where Wallace is made to defeat Edward before the battle of Stirling. Of this there is no trace in history, and Edward was not at that time in Scotland. Possibly it is a confusion with the battle of Roslin in 1303, but there is no proof that Wallace was present at that battle.

About the poetic merits of the poem opinions have widely differed, some critics placing it above Barbour's ‘Bruce,’ and others treating it as chiefly valuable for the ardent love of liberty it displays. If Blind Harry had not high poetical gifts he had a modest and simple style, and a natural eloquence more telling because never overstrained. Like Barbour, whom in this he probably followed, his poem is an early example of rhymed heroic metre, and is singularly free from alliteration. The effect of its popularity can scarcely be over-estimated. Next to the deeds of their heroes the poems of Barbour and Blind Harry created Scottish nationality, and spread through all classes the spirit of independence.

The printed editions of the poem on Wallace are more numerous than of any other old Scottish book. Mr. D. Laing mentions in his preface to ‘Gologras and Gawain’ having seen fragments of one printed by Chepman & Myllar, but these are not known to exist. The earliest extant edition is that printed by Lekprevik at the expense of Henry Charteris in 1570. Charteris himself reprinted it in 1594 and 1601, and Andro Hart in 1611 and 1620. Thomas Findlayson, on the assumption that they had been long out of print, got an exclusive privilege for twenty years to print ‘The Wallace,’ along with ‘The Book of King Robert the Bruce’ and ‘The Book of the Seven Sages’ (Acts of Privy Council, 1610–12). A printer in Aberdeen issued an edition in 1630, and the local presses of Perth and Ayr published it in the following century. Later editions are numerous. The modern Scottish version of 1722, by William Hamilton of Gilbertfield [q. v.], though described by Irving as an ‘injudicious and a useless work,’ was reprinted thirteen times, and became more familiar than the original. Of this edition and a chap-book ‘Life of Hannibal’ Burns says ‘they were the first books I ever read in private, and gave me more pleasure than any two books I have read since.’ The best edition of the original was till recently that of Dr. Jamieson, 1820, but a more accurate text has been published for the Scottish Text Society by Mr. Moir of Aberdeen, 1885–6.

[Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer, 1475–1489, Scottish Records; Life of Wallace by John Carrick, 1820; Jamieson's Preface to edition of The Wallace; A Critical Study of Blind Harry, by James Moir, Aberdeen, 1888; Annals of Scottish Printing, by Dickson and Edmund, 1890.]

Æ. M.