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St Machar's Cathedral, Aberdeen
St Machar's Cathedral, Aberdeen

John Barbour lived from 1320 to 13 March 1395. He was a churchman and poet and the first important author to write in the Scots language. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

John Barbour was born in about 1320, probably in Aberdeenshire. His name first enters the written record when in 1356 he was appointed Archdeacon of Aberdeen, based at St Machar's Cathedral in the city. He had previously held an ecclesiastical appointment at Dunkeld Cathedral, and there is a suggestion he had also visited France. In 1357 he travelled to the University of Oxford, where he spent some time. During 1360s, Barbour seems to have acted as a roving diplomat on behalf of Robert Stewart, the nephew of David II who succeeded to the throne as Robert II on David's death in 1371.

Barbour then became a courtier to Robert II, serving the king in a number of roles including as an auditor of exchequer and a clerk of audit. Meanwhile, Barbour was also writing poetry. His best known work was The Brus. This was a long narrative poem of approaching 14,000 octosyllabic lines. In it Barbour set out the story of Robert the Bruce and the Black Douglas during the Scottish Wars of Independence from the 1290s to 1332. At the time parts of the story would have been within the memory of some people still alive, and The Brus is important both for being the first major work to appear in the Scots language and because it was for centuries taken as the definitive account of what actually happened. It became a fundamental part of the story of Scotland and contained phrases that find much later echoes, such as "A! fredome is a noble thing".

Robert II awarded Barbour £10 Scots for The Brus in 1377, and a lifelong pension of £1 per year thereafter. Barbour went on to write a number of other poems, though some have been lost and the authorship of others is debated. The 33,000 line poem Legends of the Saints was probably written by him, as was The Scots Buik of the most noble and vailyzeand Conqueror Alexander the Great. Many view him as the father of Scots language poetry. Barbour continued to fulfil his duties at St Machars' Cathedral until the early 1390s, and he died in Aberdeen in 1395.

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