“IN communicating to SCOTS LORE the little poem found among the statutes of James III.,1 I ventured to ask if it might be a specimen of one of the “makars” who have obtained an eternity of fame in Dunbar’s Lament with not a known verse of their own now remaining to attest their right to the bays. Such a question, of course, is always more easily asked than answered, but in the particular instance two things seemed to suggest where enquiry might at least begin – (1) The year 1468, the latest possible date of the poem, indicated that the author must be sought for among poets who flourished as early as that time, and (2) the place of the poem in the original volume of the records pointed to some clerk of the Scottish parliament as the transcriber if not the author. The identification of the clerk and the determination of the authorship, it is needless to say, appeared at the outset to be quite unrelated: their intimate connection, however, became apparent as soon as one of the questions had been satisfactorily resolved.
An examination of the parliamentary records for the year 1468, preserved in the Register House, and of the manuscript poem Schir William Wallace, now in the Advocates’ Library, shewed the penmanship to be identical, from which it followed that the clerk of parliament was unquestionably John Ramsay, whose docquet is appended to the unique manuscript of Henry the Minstrel’s famous epic. If the indirect evidence afforded comparatione literarum by itself might have been regarded by some as inconclusive, the subsequent discovery – on a second and more careful examination of the parliamentary records – of the signature “John Ramsay” at the top of folio 2, page 1 of the original volume v., among the statutes of 1471,2 seemed to come nearer complete demonstration of the identity of the clerk than could have been expected in the kind of quest I was then pursuing. The potentiality of a newly discovered fact may supply the stimulus to continued investigation; and so it was in the present case.
As one whose pen was indeed the pen of a ready writer, John Ramsay was well enough known alike to his contemporaries and to posterity; but posterity had long ago come to regard him simply as belonging to the tribe Adam Scrivener – as one whose many faults and escapes in transcription had much exercised the ingenuity and taxed the patience of the editors of Barbour and Blind Harry. For nearly four centuries his connection with the Lord Clerk Register’s department had been utterly forgotten.
It may be as well to note here what the editors have said regarding the scribe whose manuscripts furnish the text of both The Bruce and The Wallace. Dr. Jamieson, in a short sketch of Barbour in the excellent edition of The Bruce (preface xv. Edition 1820), quoting a note of an earlier editor of The Wallace,3 says that Ramsay was probably “one of those who wrote chronicles in the monasteries. From writs extant at Perth which belonged to the Carthusian monastery there, it appears that a religious man, Dean John Ramsay of the House of the Valley of Virtue of the Carthusian Order, near the burgh of Perth, was Procurator for the said monastery, May 23, 1493. The procuratorship was a usual step to the dignity of Prior. Before 1498 John Ramsay ceases to be mentioned as procurator, but in April that year John, whose sirname is not mentioned in any of the writs of Perth, is Prior, and continues in the prior’s office until his death in 1501. He was probably the same person who had been procurator. The transcriber of Henry’s book was therefore, perhaps, a charterhouse monk, who near the end of his life rose to be Prior of his convent.”… “There is certainly great probability,” Dr. Jamieson adds, “in the conjecture that this Ramsay was a monk and that he resided in or at no great distance from Perth.” Subsequent editors have added nothing to that note, which, as anyone can see, was in its inception merely conjectural – the editor who first suggested it having in a voyage of discovery, sailing without rudder or compass, found a churchman named John Ramsay and fastened on him as the person wanted. There is certainly not a particle of evidence connecting the Carthusian monk with the writer of the manuscripts.
Starting, however, from Ramsay’s employment in the Exchequer it became more and more apparent as public records were examined that what Dr. Jamieson approved as “no improbable conjecture” was wrong in fact, and that John Ramsay whom he regarded as a mere copyist might be none other than Sir John the Ross, the friend of Dunbar and Kennedy, twice named by these poets in their famous Flyting and since their day reckoned one of the lost makars of the fifteenth century. To identify John Ramsay and Sir John the Ross as one and the same person and so restore a Scottish poet to his place among “the prophets of a former magnitude” is the purpose of the present paper.
Let me ask (1) what is known about Sir John the Ross and (2) what have been the editorial conjectures regarding him.
To readers of Dunbar the name is very familiar. In the Flyting it occurs in the first poem “Dunbar to Schir Johne the Ross,” the opening lines of which are as follows:-
Sir Johne the Ross, ane thing there is compild
In generale be Kennedy and Quinting
Whilk hes thame self aboif the sternis styld.
And again in the answer “Kennedie to Dunbar”:-
Wan-fukkit funling that Natour maid ane yrle
Baith Johne the Ross and thow sal squeill and skirle
And evir I heir ocht o’ your making mair.4
It will be plain to any one who reads the Flyting attentively that the person addressed by Dunbar and referred to by Kennedy was a friend of both these poets and himself a poet, appealed to in the first instance by Dunbar as fit to judge between the combatants. Dunbar is regarding Sir John as a senior who will certainly acknowledge him to be a brother poet and decide as certainly that that Kennedy is no poet at all: but the poem must be read as a perfectly friendly wit-combat and not as some editors have strangely thought as exhibiting a certain amount of acerbity on both sides.
Then again, in The Lament for the Makars, Dunbar numbers his friend among the dead poets, naming him immediately after Henryson:-
In Dunfermline he hes done roune
Gud Maister Robert Henrisoun:
Schir Johne the Ross embrast hes he;
Timor mortis conturbat me.*
Here then we have a poet living in the last quarter of the fifteenth century, well known to Dunbar and Kennedy, who had completely evanished – as a dead man out of memory. To bring him forth again into the light may not be easy of accomplishment: it is at any rate worth attempting.
The following note in the recent edition of Dunbar (Scot. Text Society Intro. app. cclvi) gathers up the editorial conjectures which have accumulated during the fully a century and a half:- “The name Sir John the Ross is so peculiar that there appears little doubt that he is John the Ross to whom twenty unicorns** were paid in February, 1490, and who also received another payment of which the amount cannot be read in the Treasurer’s accounts on 21 April, 1498. He may have been a priest and so received the courtesy title of Sir as was common in the case of the Pope’s Knights at that time, and this is the conjecture of Lord Hailes: or a layman who had not in 1498 been yet knighted. If the latter is the correct surmise it gives the date of the Flyting as subsequent to 1498. There seems no ground for Mr. Chalmers’ conjecture that he was the well-known Sir John Ross of Montgrennan the King’s advocate of James III. who was forfeited for siding with that King at Sauchie against James IV. Nor can he have been Sir John Ross of Hawkhead, Sheriff of Linlithgowshire, 1479-83. It is more probable that he was designed ‘the Ross’ to distinguish him from Ross of Montgrennan and Ross of Hawkhead. Perhaps he had some connection with the shire of Ross as the last entry in 1498 in the Treasurer’s accounts bears that the payment then made to him was ‘to mak his expensis in Ros…’ “
Except the entry relating to the payment of the 20 unicorns in 1490 and the surmise that he “may have been a priest,” it will, I think, be possible to shew that there is not a pennyweight of fact in that long note, and that Sir John the Ross was dead in 1490.
The error of the editors, in my opinion, has been in taking “the Ross” for a surname instead of a familiar name of address designating the holder of the office of Ross Herald.
While it may frankly be admitted impossible, out of the public records so far as printed, to construct anything deserving the name of a biography of Ramsay, yet, undoubtedly, it is in such “remnants of history” – the planks of a shipwreck (tanquam tabula naufragii in Bacon’s felicitous phrase) – that one may hope to recover the most trustworthy facts about him. In admirably edited volumes like the Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer and the Exchequer Rolls – which in manuscript for were almost inaccessible to editors of a former time – there is enough at any rate both to disturb earlier conjectures and at the same time throw a clear light on certain biographical facts lurking in Ramsay’s colophons. And if it be still unavoidable to ring the changes on “the hard driven words,” seems, possibly, probably, and such like, it is to be hoped at least that extended research among the unprinted documents in the Register House will yet supply whatever is left uncertain in this narrative.
To trace the lineage of John Ramsay is at present scarcely possible, for the surname was borne in the fifteenth century by not a few Scottish families of consequence, many of the cadets of which are met with as then holding places of position in church and state; and among whom, as one would expect, there are several having the Christian name John.5 We learn, however, on his own authority, that he had been trained as a churchman, and from the newly-discovered fact of his being one of the clerks of the exchequer – a branch of the public service then generally filled by men of birth – it may be assumed that he owed the appointment to family influence. It is noteworthy indeed that among the great officers of the exchequer there was one Sir David Guthrie of Kincaldrum (after 1465 always styled “of Guthrie”), a neighbour of the Ramsays of Auchterhouse, who was, in 1468, Lord Clerk Register and ex officio Chief Clerk of the Exchequer,6 as Dr. Dickson observes in the luminous preface to the Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer, having no fixed place of abode, usually followed the Court, the clerks being lodged and maintained at the King’s charge. It is easy, therefore, to understand how the clerks, members of the royal household, might become favourites and obtain for themselves the patronage of the sovereign. Between 1468 and 1471 Ramsay appears to have been more particularly attached to Parliament in the capacity of clerk of the journals – an employment one must suppose of considerable dignity.7 For a priest or chaplain to enter the royal service as a clerk or notary was at one time of frequent occurrence, young clerics, by their special training, being better fitted than any other class for the posts which are now always held by the legal or diplomatic professions.8
Closely associated also with the Parliament, and at the same time with the exchequer, were the officers-at-arms of whom the Lyon was chief. At least a century earlier than the reign of James III. the office of herald existed in Scotland. We read of Lyon Herald in 1377, of Rothesay in 1401, of Marchmond in 1436, of Snowdoun in 1448, and of Albany in 1451. Ross Herald is not met with until 1474, but in the rolls mention is made of a pursuivant Diligence who in 1475-6 obtains his salary from the Crown land of Culessey and who is then referred to as “Diligence now called the Ross Herald.”9 As is well known the function of the heralds and pursuivants was to attend the Sovereign at Parliament and on certain high festivals, to make proclamations, marshall public processions, serve certain parliamentary writs, and frequently to act as royal messengers to foreign courts. Most of these duties,10 as the records shew, were performed by the pursuivant Diligence and Ross Herald between 1474 and the date for his death which happened in or about the year 1490.
It may be noted in passing that payments to pursuivants and heralds appear in the rolls without any mention of the surname of these officers, and what is perhaps more remarkable charters under the Great Seal were directed “to our lovite the Ross Herald” and “to our lovite the Marchmond Herald” with nothing in gremio designating the individual.11 The grantee doubtless easily obtained his rights at the time, but it is certainly matter of regret now to meet with a formula so defective in the important essential of designation.
In the Accounts of the L. H. Treasurer disbursements are entered with great minuteness and are not stereotyped in style as in the rolls. The miscellaneous nature of the payments easily accounts for the more homely kind of book-keeping followed by the treasurer and his assistants, many being doles by the king, trifling enough one would have thought to have been slumped at the annual audit as petty payments or sundries. But a great charm of these household expenses undoubtedly lies in the very minuteness of the entries, and their value as a historical record is much enhanced thereby. Unfortunately, however, only one account is extant relating to the reign of James III., viz., from August, 1473, to December, 1474. In it we meet with Diligence twice, once as the parliamentary pursuivant summoning the Earls of Crawford and Buchan to answer for an unlawful gathering of armed retainers, and again as a messenger passing to London for letter of safe-conduct “to certane lordis”;12 but the only Ramsay names is Sir John of Corston, sheriff of Forfar, father of the Earl of Bothwell, the well-known favourite of the king.
When the Accounts relating to the reign of James IV. are reached – embracing the decade 1488 to 1498 – we find three payments to “Ross Herald” between 1488 and 1489, and one on 8th May, 1490, to “Johne the Ross.” If the 1490 entry refers to John Ramsay as “the Ross” herald, which I think it does, it must have been the last he received from the household treasurer, for the Exchequer Rolls of the same year chronicle his decease.13
Examined carefully, these household accounts of James IV. shew that there were at least four John Ramsays frequently at court – (1) Sir John Ramsay of Corston, always so styled; (2) Sir John of Kilgour, a cleric of Dunblane diocese serving in the royal household; (3) Sir John the Ross, whom I believe to be the Ross Herald; and (4) Sir John Ramsay, style sometimes “knight” or by territorial designation “of Trarinyeane.”14 One may easily imagine how, in order to distinguish the one John from the other, the royal servants would readily adopt the familiar names Sir John of Kilgour and Sir John the Ross for two of their own number, and at the same time prevent confusion between servants and courtiers.
Thus far we have been following closely the public records. It is time to turn now to the few biographical scraps supplied by Ramsay himself, and examine these in the light of what has been gleaned from the exchequer rolls and household accounts. There are five manuscripts of his, each having a colophon. The oldest of these, The Bruce, now in the library of St. John’s College, Cambridge, tells us that it was finished on August 28, 1487, by the hand of J. de R., chaplain.15 The same manuscript also contains two short poems, both written “by the same hand at the same time” – the one entitled, “How the good wife taught her daughter,” with this colophon, “Explicit documentum matris as filiam per manum J. de. R., capni.,” the other the copy of a poem by Lydgate rendered into lowland Scottish dialect.16 Next in order of date comes The Wallace, attested thus – Explicit vita nobilissimi Defensoris Scotie, viz., Willielmi Wallace militis per me Johannem Ramsay, anno domini 1488 (Here ends the life of a noble defender of Scotland, viz., William Wallace, soldier through me John Ramsay of the year 1488). It is bound in the same volume with the copy of The Bruce (in the Advocates’ Library), having this colophon – Finitur Codicellus de virtutibus et actibus bellicosis, viz., Domini Roberti Broyss, quondam Scottorum regis illustrissimi, raptim scriptus per me Johannem Ramsay, &c,17 1489 (An end note, the acts and actions defenders, viz., Lord Robert Broyss, once illustrious king of Scots, was hastily written by me, John Ramsay, &c, 1489).
For my present purpose it is enough to call attention to the fact that Ramsay was a chaplain, and so, being a pope’s knight, was by courtesy addressed as Sir John Ramsay. Twice he writes his name at length “Johannes Ramsay,” and three times contracts it into “J. de R.” What does J. de R. signify? Not surely “John de Ramsay,” as Professor Skeat translates it – perhaps naturally enough, considering that he had no inkling of the biography of the scribe – for that form of the name is not found in Scotland after the middle of the fourteenth century, and manifestly it was not used by Ramsay when he wrote his name in full. As it seems to me, in the light of the records, it was meant to stand for “Johannes de Ross,” the equivalent of which is, of course, the de quo queritur (of the complaint), Johne the Ross – or, writ large, Sir John Ramsay, Ross Herald.
But the autobiographical value of the colophons is enhanced by much internal evidence in the manuscript of Harry the Minstrel’s Wallace – by a certain discoverable egotism, as one might say, in whole passages which seem to be confidences and asides meant for the ear of the good reader. Harry, it must be remembered, was born blind, and his work, as has been pointed out more than once, is consequently exposed to two different sources of weakness. “All his information,” as the Marquess of Bute neatly puts it, “had to get to him by means of other persons, and his digest of it had to reach he reading public by the same means. I do not know if any instance exists of a man born blind mastering a dead language; but if ever it did, it can hardly have done so in the fifteenth century so that the poet was almost certainly dependent on a translator also.”18 The unique manuscript which preserved the poem till the printing press multiplied the digest for the reading public was written by John Ramsay; so much is not doubtful. Did he sit with Blind Harry and write to dictation the 11,800 and odd lines which make up that national epic? And are we to believe that the blind minstrel recited his lines in Chaucerian heroic stanza just as we find them set down in the manuscript? Then indeed must Ramsay have meant what he wrote in 1468 – “Prent in ye patiens” – and by the year 1488, when he had bidden adieu to Harry, have become himself a past-master in the shining virtue which is claimed in perfection for only one patriarch; and Harry’s performance too, for many reasons besides his skill in versification, must be regarded, to quote Professor Schipper, as “the most wonderful phenomenon in literature.”19
The many evidences of collaboration, however, may better be discussed as a separate subject; at present I wish only to suggest two things in The Wallace which make for John Ramsay being (1) the collaborateur with Harry, skilled enough in versification to have been reputed one of the fifteenth century makars, and (2) a herald by profession. But considering the length to which this paper has already extended I can do little more at present than touch these two points, leaving those interested in the subject to examine the poem for themselves.
A reader, long before he has gone through the eleven books into which The Wallace is now conveniently divided, will have discovered that there is a Sir John Ramsay of Ouchterhous who figures among the chiefest of the doughty companions of the hero. That the Ramsay family was an ancient and honourable one can be proved by eleventh century charters, but history – apart from Harry – knows nothing about the martial achievements under Wallace of the Knight Sir John. His son Sir Alexander, once mentioned by Barbour in a long list of knights and squires, as
The Ramsay als of Ouchterhous
That wes wycht and chewalrous
Has no outstanding place in the story of The Bruce. But it is otherwise with Sir John Ramsay in The Wallace. In that poem he is one of the heroes. From the moment he is introduced into the narrative, in Book Seventh, he shares the honours with Sir John the Graeme. Wallace consults him about the taking of Perth; he is guide of the host in the march thither; along with Graeme, Boyd, and Lundy, he is in the battle:-
All in the stone fast fechtand face to face
The great prominence given to him time after time will be remarked even by an uncritical reader. Let me cite the passage in Book Seventh where the poet introduces Sir John, and for the moment forgets that he is singing of William Wallace.
Schir Jhon Ramsay, that rychtwys ayr was borne
Off Ouchterhous, and othir landis was lord
And schirreff als, as my buk will record;
Off nobill blud, and als haill ancestré
Contenyt weill with worthi chewalré
In till Straithern that lang time he had beyne,
At gret debait agaynys his enemys keyne;
Rycht wichtly wan his lewing in to wer;
Till him and his, Sotheroun did mekill der;
Weill eschewit and sufferyt gret distress.
His sone was cald the flour off courtlyness;
As witness weill in to the schort tretty
Eftir the Bruce, quha redis in that story.
He rewllit weill bathe in to wer and pes;
Alexander Ramsay to nayme he hecht, but les.
Quhen it wes wer till armes he him kest;
Undir the croun he wes ane off the best:
In tyme of pees till courtlynes he yeid,
Bot to gentrice he tuk nayne othir heid.
Quhat gentill man had nocht with Ramsay beyne,
Off courtlynes thai cownt him nocht a preyne.
Fredome and treuth he had as men would ass
Sen he begane na bettyr squier was.
Roxburch hauld he wan full manfully
Syne held it lang, quhill tratouris tresonably
Causit his dede, I can nocht tell yow how:
Off sic thingis I will ga by as now.
I haiff had blayme to say the suthfastnes;
Tharfor I will bot lychtly ryn that cace
Bot it be thing that playnly sclanderit is;
For sic I trew thai suld deyme me no myss.
Off gud Alexander as now I spek no mar.
His fadyr come, as I told off befor:
Wallace off hym rycht full gud comford hais
For weill he coud do gret harmyng till his fais,
In wer he was rycht mekill for to prys,
Besy and trew, baith sobyr wycht and wys.20
I confess I was gratified though not greatly surprised to find Dr. Moir, the orthodox editor of the excellent edition of The Wallace, published by the Scottish Text Society, who only once casually mentions the manuscript as written “by a John Ramsay,” adding this note to the lines I have quoted at length:- “This digression in praise of the Ramsays seems to me due to the fact that the scribe who wrote the only existing copy of the manuscript was a John Ramsay.” If in these passages glorifying the Ramsays we are dealing with a cipher which was meant to escape suspicion then surely is it to be reckoned a notable example of ciphra simplex.
And now for the instances of heraldry. In Book Sixth,21 when the English king was encamped near Biggar, we are told he despatched two heralds to charge Wallace
That he sulde cum him till
With out promyss and put him in his will.
Along with them went a young squire – a nephew of the king – “dysgysit” as an officer-at-arms,22
A cot off armes he took on him but baid,
With the harroldis full prewaly he raid.
and came to Tinto where Wallace then was. Then follows the parley. The heralds present their writ:-
Credence we haiff brocht fra out worthi king –
and having read it, Wallace delivers his letter to the English king –
This wryt he gaiff to the harroldis but mar
And gud reward he gart delyver thar.
On the point of setting forth on their return journey the disguised herald is soon discovered, and then follows the summary trial and terrible doom. Squire, says Wallace:-
sen thow has fenyeit armys
On thè sall fall the first part off thir harmys
Sampill to geyff till all thi fals natioune.
Apon the hill he gert thaim set him doune.
Straik off his hed or thai wald forthyr go.
To the herrold said syne with outyn ho,
For thow art falss till armys and maynsuorn
Throuch thi chokkis thi tong sall be out schorn.
Quhen that way doyne than to the thrid said he,
Armyss to juge thow sall neuir graithly se
He gert a smyth with his turkas rycht thar
Pow out his eyne, syne gaiff them leiff to far.
To your falss king thi fallow sall thow leid
With my ansuer turss him his newois head:
Thus sar I drede the king and all his bost.
Then, again, in Book Eighth23 we have the King of France sending a herald inviting Wallace to pay a visit to the French Court. The royal letter is in the courtliest terms, but it contains not the message proper and Wallace is asked to hearken to the herald and accept what he tells as the king’s “closs lettir.” The herald sets out for Scotland and “harold lyk he sekis” for Wallace. When they are nmet we have a perfect narration of minute ceremonial, and when all is over and Wallace has accepted the invitation we are told:-
The harrold baid on to the twenty day
With Wallace still in gud weilfayr and play;
Contende the tyme with worship and plesaunce.24
And again Wallace
Rycht rych reward he gaiff the harrold tho
And him convoyed when he had leyff to go
Out off the toun with gudly companye.
I have cited these as two of the best examples. In them are we not being shewn the herald’s office by a herald? The punctilios are minutely described; the “largesse” which no herald ever could forget is lovingly dwelt on; the heralds “falss till armys” hear their doom rehearsed as Garter or Lyon might have done in a court of chivalry. Is it credible that a “bural man,” born blind and living in the fifteenth century, could have given these details, which, be it noted, are found not merely in the text but in the very texture of the poem itself? And if not, who else than John Ramsay can have been Harry’s collaborateur? If so much be granted it will not be difficult to believe that the lost makar Schir Johne the Ross was Ross Herald, and is found again in Sir John Ramsay the Clerk of Exchequer.
J. T. T. BROWN.”