St Andrews: View from Rule tower
(photos: James Graham)
Nicola Royan (Nottingham)
Aberdeen and St Andrews

Two east coast burghs: mostly Inglis-speaking and facing towards mainland Europe, but with different emphases. St Andrews was the seat of Scotland’s senior archbishop, the centre of the Scottish church, and most likely the repository of documents and accounts of the Scottish past; by 1413, it was also the seat of Scotland’s first university. Aberdeen was a trading burgh and fishing port, a major burgh in the North East; its burgh records, beginning in 1380, are virtually complete, indicating a pride in burghal identity.

In 1348, these towns, like the rest of Scotland, were enduring the effects of a series of wars, both internal and external, that had begun with the death of Alexander III in 1286. These wars seem to have had as significant an impact on the economic and social well-being of the realm as the Black Death. For although plague arrived in 1349, and although both the written record and subsequent measures to control the infection suggest that St Andrews and Aberdeen were affected, the precise level of mortality is hard to gauge, but Moray is reported to have taken at least a generation to recover from its razing during the campaigns of Robert Bruce.

One effect of the wars was to encourage the articulation of national identity: three of the four surviving texts are concerned with presenting the Scots past. John Barbour’s Bruce (1375) is concerned with the recent past, and with supporting and advising Robert II (acceded 1371), the first of the Stewart monarchs. Yet while Barbour’s poem clearly engages with courtly concerns, and his other, now lost, work, Stewartis Originall, addressed dynastic politics, Barbour himself has more presence in the records as Archdeacon of Aberdeen than in the immediate circles of the king. His contemporary, John of Fordun, wrote up a history of the Scots from their origins, Chronica Gentis Scotorum (c. 1385). His place of origin, assumed to be Fordun (south of Aberdeen), was the centre of a shrine to the Scottish saint Palladius; however, his source material seems most likely gathered at St Andrews. Fordun does not claim any patron or commissioner, suggesting more strongly than Barbour perhaps that the east of Scotland had centres of expertise, in burghs like Aberdeen and St Andrews, rather than centres of patronage, like the royal court. 

One further national narrative survives from this period: Andrew of Wyntoun’s Original Chronicle (c. 1412). Wyntoun was prior of the Augustinian foundation at Loch Leven in Fife: he too must have used the library of St Andrews to prepare his work, an account of the history of the world with particular emphasis on the Scots. Like Barbour, whose work he admired, Wyntoun used four-stress couplets, and offered a slightly more ambivalent view of his people. Wyntoun’s work, like Fordun’s, demonstrates the successful appropriation of Gaelic foundation myths into Scots culture; through his identification of his patron, Sir John Wemyss, a local laird, and his citation of Barbour, Wyntoun also suggests a diffused cultural landscape.

The final surviving work of these years is the Legends of the Saints (c. 1400). The collection is probably the work of several hands in several varieties of Scots (including perhaps that of Aberdeen). Such a possibility implies a vibrant literary culture beyond the texts that survive; that there were students for a new university with a particularly Scottish outlook, and the possibility that European and English heresy was enough of a threat to need action (a reason for the foundation of St Andrews) supports a vision of Scotland between 1348 and 1412 as a realm open to wide intellectual influences and literary development, and on the cusp of a rich literary century.