The Search for Nationhood in Older Scots Literature: A Study of The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy and The Tale of Ralph the Collier

By Glenn A. Mills
2019, Vol. 11 No. 02 | pg. 1/1

The corpus of Older Scots literature is hyper-attentive to the themes and issues surrounding nationhood and sovereignty. Authors of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries often espoused and exploited the national pride of the Scottish people, producing works which articulated an incipient sense of Scottish nationalism. Indeed, starting from the second half of the fifteenth century, Scotland began to enjoy a period of ‘national and cultural confidence.’[1] Despite a tumultuous period of Stewart minorities, James IV’s right to rule was gradually recognised by competing Scottish clans, thus engendering and consolidating a sense of collective Scottish identity.[2] Concurrently, Scotland was enjoying a burgeoning literary tradition which was facilitated and encouraged by the patronage of the ever-cultivated James IV. Such literature was often deeply concerned with the expression of the various forms of Scottish identity: national, ethnic and literary. In The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy, we find a work which explores internal Scottish ethnic identities as well as Anglo-Scottish animosity as a means of celebrating a collective Scottish identity. Another work, The Tale of Ralph the Collier, serves as an apt example of the expression of Scottish literary identity as the poem defines itself against its English antecedents. By examining these two works, I hope to demonstrate that Scottish literature is often used as a vehicle for the articulation and celebration of nationhood and identity.

Defined in A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue as ‘a contest between poets in mutual abuse’, the flyting is a literary genre characterised by invective, obscenity and poetic one-upmanship.3 Further, there is a broad scholarly consensus that the flyting was a form of oral poetry in which the competing poets would perform their invective exchange in the presence of an (often courtly) audience.4 Indeed, in William Dunbar and Walter Kennedy’s Flyting, the audience is directly tasked with determining the loser: ‘Juge in the nixt quha gat the war’ (FDK, l. 49).5 In vying to win the support of their audience, each poet appeals to ingrained Scottish prejudices, with a particular focus on the internal attitudes towards the Highland and Lowland regions. In his initial attack, Dunbar derides Kennedy’s Gaelic heritage with an obscene scatological metaphor:

Thy trechour tung hes tane ane Heland strynd,
Ane Lawland ers wald mak a bettir noyis. (FDK, ll. 55-56)

In his response, Kennedy recasts the ‘Heland’ pejorative in complimentary light, drawing on his heritage as a source of patriotic celebration. He implies that the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders are, in fact, the ‘true’ Scottish people:

Thou lufis nane Irische, I understand,
Bot it suld be all trew Scottis mennis lede.
It was the gud langage of this land… (FDK, ll. 345-47)

The impact of Dunbar and Kennedy’s treatment of the internal tensions of Scottish identity has attracted considerable critical interest. In her study of ethnicity in the Scottish flyting, Jacquelyn Hendricks contends that the Flyting’s exploration of the Highland-Lowland conflict ‘defeats the culturally unifying… purpose of the flyting ritual.’6 She further maintains that the ethnic tensions of the poem ‘threaten to spill over into the audience – comprised of Scots from both backgrounds.’7 However, Hendricks’ reading seems to underplay the importance of the tone and context of the Flyting. George Bannatyne, in his 1568 manuscript anthology of Scottish poetry, described the tone as ‘jocund and mirrie’ – an assertion supported by the abundance of juvenile humour pervading the flyting.8 Priscilla Bawcutt further notes that the flyting was merely ‘a court entertainment, carried on at night in winter.’9 Hence, not unlike the stand-up comic’s stage, the flyting genre provided a safe-zone where ethnic sensitivities could be treated in jest. Indeed, it could be argued that, rather than dividing the audience, the Highland-Lowland conflict could – paradoxically – engender a sense of collective Scottish identity. The conflict itself was woven into the fabric of broader Scottish society and, as such, would have found resonance with all members of the audience, Highlanders and Lowlanders alike. In short, what defined a Scot was not whether they were a Highlander or Lowlander, but rather their ability to appreciate the conflict as an endearing characteristic of the Scottish nation.

The expression of Scottish identity is further emphasised through allusions to historical Anglo-Scottish conflicts. In his response, Kennedy challenges Dunbar’s allegiance to the Scottish nation by referring to his alleged ancestry. Kennedy claims that Dunbar’s family can be traced to Gospatrick, Earl of Northumberland.10 Gospatrick’s descendants included Patrick IV, Earl of March, who had supported Edward I during the First War of Scottish Independence:

[Patrick came] with Edwart Langschankis to the field
Quhair twelf thowsand trew Scottismen wer keild
And Wallace chest, as the carnicle schawis. (FDK, ll. 270-272)

By linking Dunbar’s heritage to figures who were sympathetic to the English cause, Kennedy exploits the Anglophobia of the Scottish audience as a means of debasing his rival’s patriotism. However, aside from its value as a weapon in character assassination, this exploitation of Anglo-Scottish animosity also serves to consolidate Scottish identity. By alluding to an event in which masses of Scots fell to English swords, Kennedy introduces a common enemy of the Scottish people – an ‘other’. The notion of ‘otherness’ is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a ‘separateness from or oppositeness to a (frequently specified) thing.’11 Here, by introducing the perceived opposite of ‘Scottishness’, Kennedy instils in his audience an ‘us and them’ mentality. Just as Highlanders and Lowlanders are united by their mutual propensity for ethnic conflict, they are also united by their ‘non-Englishness’. Overall, the Flyting’s treatment of Anglo-Scottish friction serves as a compelling example of how identity and nationhood are defined by what a people are, but equally, by what they are not.

The previously discussed notion of ‘non-Englishness’ is particularly relevant when turning to another poem, The Tale of Ralph the Collier. While our only source comes from a print of 1572, it is clear that this tale was circulating in Scotland during the late fifteenth century and was well known among Scottish audiences.12 In a poem of c. 1505, written for James IV, William Dunbar makes reference to the tale, attesting to its popularity among the Scottish elite.13 This popularity may in part be attributed to the poem’s concern with the expression of Scottish literary identity. To appreciate this, some attention must first be given to the tale’s broader literary context. In Gavin Douglas’ The Palis of Honoure (1501) a scene is described in which the poet gazes into a mirror and sees an assemblage of great writers and their works. Among them is Ralph which is, significantly, paired with another text, John the Reeve:

I saw raf Coilyear with his thrawin brow,
Craibit Johne the reif and auld Cowkewyis sow… (ll. 1711-12)[14]

Indeed, there is clear evidence to suggest that Ralph is artistically indebted to John the Reeve. Both texts make use of the king-in-disguise motif as a vehicle for comedy and social commentary. However, there is a crucial distinction to be made in the identity of the two kings. In John the Reeve, the king is ‘Edward with the long shankes’ (l. 17) who is repeatedly referred to as ‘our kinge’ (ll. 12, 414, 915).15 The collective pronoun ‘our’ is an indicator of the tale’s English audience and also emphasises the tale’s overt sense of patriotism. As the figure responsible for the subjugation of Wales in 1283 and the campaigns against Scotland from 1296-1328, Edward I can be considered an archetypal English conqueror and a national hero.16 By contrast, in Ralph the kingly figure is ‘Charlis, that chosin chiftane’ (l. 1). In choosing Charlemagne as his deuteragonist, the author of Ralph introduces a European ruler who is strongly associated with France and hence the antithesis of the English conqueror. Moreover, while John the Reeve is set in the region of Windsor (l. 570), Ralph is set, at least formally, in Paris (RC, l. 5). These details, combined with the fact that Ralph is written in a Scottish dialect, suggest that the author of the poem has deliberately eschewed any elements which are characteristic of English culture, effectively disassociating the text from English literary tradition. Just as Dunbar and Kennedy implicitly define Scottish national identity in terms of its ‘non-Englishness’, the author of Ralph has articulated a Scottish literary identity by producing a text which is simultaneously comparable to, yet markedly distinct from, its English counterpart.

However, the author of The Tale of Ralph the Collier has not defined Scottish literary identity purely in terms of its ‘non-Englishness’. When we examine the text further, we can see that it is in fact replete with conspicuously Scottish imagery. This is particularly relevant when considering the – as it turns out - ambiguous setting of the tale. As previously mentioned, we are told that the tale transpires in the rural periphery of Paris. Yet there has been a considerable consensus among critics that the physical geography described in the poem is highly evocative of the Scottish landscape. J. P. Oakden has observed ‘many descriptions of true Scottish scenery.’17 F. J. Amours goes even further by arguing that the poem contains ‘pictures of the manners and ideas of contemporary Scotland’, suggesting that the Scottish imagery is not only geographical, but cultural.18 Indeed, the contentions of both critics find currency within the text. By the second line, we are already presented with a vivid image of Scottish climate:

Thair fell ane ferlyfull flan within thay fellis wyde… (RC, l. 2)

The heavy alliteration of the fs creates an accretionary effect, emphasising the spontaneity and violence of the storm. As any present-day inhabitant will confirm, a fickle and bitter climate is one of Scotland’s defining characteristics. Elsewhere, we find descriptions of an undulating landscape which is redolent of the Scottish Highlands:

And as that ryall raid over the rude mure…
Thair micht na folk hald na fute on the heich fell. (RC, ll. 14-19)

However, the arguments for a Scottish setting have not gone uncontested. Randy Schiff has argued that ‘it is neither topographically nor culturally clear why Scotland is a clearer candidate than England for the alternative site shadowing Ralph Collier’s France.’19 He argues that the text’s description of moors and mountains is equally applicable to regions on the Anglo-Scottish border such as Yorkshire or Cumberland.20 Yet when we return to Amours’ point - that the tale contains both cultural and geographical Scottish elements - we find that Schiff’s objection loses potency. This is best illustrated through an analysis of Ralph himself. Upon inviting Charlemagne back to his home, a comical scene unfolds in which the king violates etiquette by presuming to allow Ralph to enter before him. Ralph responds with characteristic aggression:

‘Thow art uncourts; that sall I warrand!’
He tyt the King be the nek, twa part in tene… (RC, ll. 122-23)
Later, following yet another misstep, Ralph violently strikes the king:
‘Now is twyse,’ said the carll, ‘me think thow hes forget!’
He let gyrd to the King, without ony mair,
And hit him under the eir with his richt hand… (RC, ll. 148-50)

Ralph’s idiosyncrasies - his simultaneously cordial and abrasive hospitality, his proclivity for violence and his acerbic tongue – all combine to form an image of the quintessential (if stereotypical) Scot. Hence, while the author of Ralph has expressed Scottish literary identity by disassociating the text with English literary tradition, he or she has also recast the alliterative romance in a distinctly Scottish form.

A final and more subtle aspect of The Tale of Ralph the Collier is the tale’s treatment of anxieties about independence and sovereignty. Upon first encountering Charlemagne, Ralph introduces himself and places a peculiar emphasis on the land which he inhabits:

I leid my life in this land with mekle unrufe,
Baith tyde and time, in all my travale;
Hine ovir sevin mylis I dwell… (RC, ll. 47-49)

Schiff has noted that, in stating that he lives ‘ovir sevin mylis’ away, Ralph implicitly indicates that his economic territory covers a seven-mile section of the land.21 Schiff further observes that Ralph is a poacher:

That carll carpit of the King cumlie and cleir…
Thay have me all at inuy, for dreid of the deir… (RC, ll. 194-96)

Ralph is thus characterised as something of a recalcitrant who lives by his own laws, a king over his own nation as it were. Indeed, Ralph’s response to the Charlemagne’s supposedly discourteous behaviour is to assert his authority over his home by telling his guest he ought to ‘mak me (Ralph) lord of my awin’ (l. 128). An argument could be made that the tale’s preoccupation with independence and sovereignty echoes the contemporary issues surrounding Scottish nationhood. Ralph’s determination to assert his authority over his home could be interpreted as a veiled political comment on Anglo-Scottish relations – an assertion of Scottish sovereignty from English rule.

It has been demonstrated that the increasing consolidation of Scottish nationhood in the late fifteenth century was manifested and paralleled in the corpus of Scottish literature. Dunbar and Kennedy’s Flyting, although ostensibly a mere humorous war of words, can also be read as an exercise in uniting a Scottish audience under a single national identity. Similarly, in The Tale of Ralph the Collier we find a tale which is suffused with the defining characteristics of the Scottish landscape and culture and a tale which is pervaded by themes of independence and autonomy, attesting to tale’s concern with Scottish literary identity. Scottish literature is defined by the nation, but equally, the Scottish nation is defined by her literature.


Bawcutt, Priscilla, ‘The Art of the Flyting’, Scottish Literary Journal Vol. 10, Iss. 1, 1983, pp. 5-24.

Bruce, Mark and Terrell, Katherine H. The Anglo-Scottish Border and the Shaping of Identity, 1300-1600. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST). Electronic database. [Accessed 17/11/2017].

Dimmock, Matthew and Hadfield, Andrew, Literature and Popular Culture in Early Modern England. Farnham: Ashgate, 2009.

Douglas, Gavin, The Palis of Honoure in J. Tasioulas (ed.), The Makars: The Poems of Henryson, Dunbar and Douglas. Edinburgh: Canongate, 1999.

Dunbar, William, William Dunbar: The Complete Works, ed. John Conlee. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2004.

Furrow, Melissa (ed.), Ten Bourdes. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2013.

Hendricks, Jacquelyn, ‘A Battle of “Trechour Tungs”: Gaelic, Middle Scots and the Question of Ethnicity in the Scottish Flyting’, in Barbara I. Gusick and Matthew Z. Heintzelman (eds.) Fifteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 37. Suffolk: Camden House, 2012, pp. 71-92.

Lupack, Alan (ed.), Three Middle English Charlemagne Romances. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 1990.

Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. [Accessed 19/11/2017].

Simpson, Kenneth, ‘The Legacy of Flyting’, Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol. 26, Iss. 1, 1991, pp. 503-514.

Treharne, Reginald, ‘Edward I’ in Encyclopaedia Britannica. Accessed electronically at [Accessed 19/11/2017].

Watson, Roderick, Literature of Scotland: The Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century 2nd ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.


1.) Roderick Watson, Literature of Scotland: The Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century (Basingstoke, 2007), p. 32.

2.) Ibid, p. 32.

3.) A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST). Accessed electronically at

4.) Kenneth Simpson, ‘The Legacy of Flyting’, Studies in Scottish Literature Vol. 26, Iss. 1 (1991), p. 513. Note that Kennedy addresses James IV: ‘Hye souverane lorde…’ (l. 481), confirming the likelihood of a courtly audience.

5.) References to Dunbar and Kennedy’s Flyting come from William Dunbar, William Dunbar: The Complete Works, ed. John Conlee (Kalamazoo, 2004). The text is abbreviated as FDK.

6.) Jacquelyn Hendricks, ‘A Battle of “Trechour Tungs”: Gaelic, Middle Scots and the Question of Ethnicity in the Scottish Flyting’, in Barbara I. Gusick and Matthew Z. Heintzelman (eds.), Fifteenth-Century Studies Vol. 37 (Suffolk, 2012), pp. 72.

7.) Ibid, p. 72.

8.) Quoted in Priscilla Bawcutt, ‘The Art of the Flyting’, Scottish Literary Journal Vol. 10, Iss. 1 (1983), p. 10.

9.) Bawcutt, ‘Art of the Flyting’, p. 11.

10.) John Conlee’s gloss to ll. 257-64 of FDK.

11.) Oxford English Dictionary. Accessed electronically at

12.) References to this tale have been taken from an edition printed in Alan Lupack (ed.), Three Middle English Charlemagne Romances (Kalamazoo, 1990). The tale is abbreviated as RC.

13.) Matthew Dimmock and Andrew Hadfield, Literature and Popular Culture in Early Modern England (Farnham, 2009), p. 78.

14.) Gavin Douglas, The Palis of Honoure in J. Tasioulas (ed.), The Makars: The Poems of Henryson, Dunbar and Douglas (Edinburgh, 1999).

15.) Quotations from John the Reeve have been taken from Melissa Furrow (ed.), Ten Bourdes (Kalamazoo, 2013).

16.) Reginald Treharne, ‘Edward I’ in Encyclopaedia Britannica. Accessed electronically at

17.) Oakden quoted in Randy Schiff, ‘Sovereign Exception: Pre-National Consolidation in The Taill of Rauf Coilyear’ in Mark Bruce and Katherine H. Terrell (eds.), The Anglo-Scottish Border and the Shaping of Identity, 1300-1600 (Basingstoke, 2012), p. 33.

18.) Ibid, p. 33.

19.) Schiff, ‘Sovereign Exception’, p. 33.

20.) Ibid, p. 33.

21.) Schiff, ‘Sovereign Exception’, p. 37.

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