Biography John Barbour

John Barbour

photo of John Barbour
  • Time Period1320 - 1395
  • Place
  • CountryScotland

Poet Biography

Barbour was a native of Aberdeen, a well educated man and served as Archdeacon at St. Machar's Cathedral for 40 years. He was not of noble birth and his date of birth and parentage are uncertain but by virtue of his ecclesiastical office we can trace him not only in the public records of both Scotland and England but also in the registers of his diocese.
In the mid 14th century there were no Scottish universities so Barbour was educated abroad. He studied at the University of Oxford in 1357 and 1364, having been granted safe passage through England by Edward III. In 1365 and 1368 he was granted safe passage to allow him to visit French universities.

Although engaged in ecclesiastical duties Barbour was also a writer and is today regarded as the father of Scottish poetry and history. Although he would have conducted his church business in Latin, he wrote his poetry in his own tongue, a language that was a Latinised version of the old northern type of Anglo-Saxon with the addition of a few Norman-French phrases. This was the language, more or less, used from the Moray Firth down to the northern parts of England so with some justification Barbour could also be considered the father of English poetry.

Barbour's masterpiece is The Bruce, a poem of the epic exploits of King Robert the Bruce, which Barbour dates 1375. The Bruce is regarded as the most accurate near contemporary account of the life and adventures of the king, the facts being presented in a simple way, although the average modern reader may find it a little impenetrable. Despite the now archaic language new editions of The Bruce are still being published some six centuries after the first edition.

As already mentioned, John Barbour was more than just a scholar. He attended parliament as a proxy of the Bishop of Aberdeen and in 1373 was Clerk of Audit of the King's Household and an Auditor of the Exchequer (also in 1382 and 1384). For his services he received pensions from both David II and Robert II.

During Barbour's lifetime the centre of the town was near the Castlegate and it is likely that he would have had a dwelling house in the vicinity. Although there is no proof, it has been suggested that he was the son of Andrew Barber who was "a citizen and proprieter of a tenement in the Castlegate".