OUR man this week, Gavin Douglas, was a makar, a medieval Scots poet. Sometimes, you’ll see the man of letters’ name spelled as Gawin of Gawain. This was because, in the past, no-one knew how to spell anything.

He may have been subject to dubious orthography but the Gavster could write and is best known for the Eneados, his translation of Virgil’s Latin blockbuster the Aeneid. 

It was the first translation of its kind in Britain and, indeed, in any Anglic or Germanic language, which is how Scots is usually categorised (don’t get on my case if it isn’t; I’m not that interested).

Would have been fine if he’d left it at that, but he got involved in high-level political and ecclesiastical shenanigans that make The Godfather look like The Famous Five.

Gavin Douglas was born probably around 1475, probably at Tantallon Castle, East Lothian. His posh family had hooses all over the shop, including Lanark, Forfar and Perth, but Tantallon was their main gaff.

He was the third son of Archibald, 5th Earl of Angus, by his second wife Elizabeth Boyd. Archie was nicknamed Bell-the-Cat, not for feline tintinnabulation but for being one of those chaps who, it says here, “takes the danger of a shared adventure upon oneself”. 

It’s from the fable by yon Aesop about one of a shoal of mice being brave enough to put a bell round the cat’s neck. Every day’s a school day.

Not much is known about Gavin’s schooling other than that he attended St Andrews back in 1489/94 when it was still a Scottish university, studying Aristotle’s logic, physics, natural philosophy and metaphysics. 

The Herald:

Though that would turn most of us to drink, he stuck at it and got a degree that qualified him for sod all, i.e. the church.

Accordingly, in 1496, he obtained, as they say, the parish of Monymusk, Aberdeenshire, and later was bunged forth, as they don’t say, to Prestonkirk, near Dunbar, a diocese with two chapels, thus causing Douglas to be called “Parson of Lynton and Rector of Hauch”. He was to be called much worse.

A heaven-sent job
Around 1501, he was preferred to the deanery or provostship of the collegiate church of St Giles’, Edinburgh. I have no idea what that means. The main thing is that his life as a clergymen left him plenty time to write poetry, which we’ll analyse authoritatively below.

Carrying on with his life, we begin where the poetry ends: with the Battle of Flodden in 1513, which Scotland uncharacteristically lost. 

It also left her with several deid priests and therefore vacancies for senior posts – and a deid king, James IV.

Gav’s nephew, the young and handsome 6th Earl of Angus, married James’s widow Margaret Tudor, to whom Douglas became a personal adviser. Shortly before the marriage, which aligned the Douglas family with the pro-English faction in Scotland (as against the pro-French faction), Margaret granted Gav the abbacy of Aberbrothwick.

Shorty afterwards, she also tried to have him made archbishop of St Andrews, but another bloke outmanoeuvred him, so she tried to have him replace the deid Bishop of Dunkeld, writing to the Pope on his behalf and enlisting the aid of Henry VIII, her fat, nutty brother. 

The Herald:

But the Duke of Albany arrived from France as regent and imprisoned Douglas for receiving bulls from the Pope. Bulls? Regent? Albany? What can it all mean?

Unsurprisingly, Douglas got out of Dodge, seeking safety in England. Never a good idea. England, as was its way, later declared war on Scotland, which was awkward. As was the plague, then raging in London, which killed Gavin Douglas in 1522. He was 46-ish.

So much for the life. What about the work? 

Well, other than the Eneados, the Aeneid translation completed in 1513 before everything went pear-shaped, two other known works and a possible third are accredited to Douglas.

Regal romp
IN 1501, he wrote Palace, or Palice as he misspelled it, of Honour, a romantic dream-allegory addressed to the aforementioned king, Jimmy 4. The hero in this chivalrous romp finds himself in a wilderness, where he joins a train of muses proceeding to the Palice, sorry Palace, a happy place.

Douglas makes a pretty decent fist (for the time) of nature appreciation: Our horses pasturit on mine pleasand plane/Law at the foot of ane fair grene montane.

A later adventure sees the hero falling off a narrow bridge into the water as he tries of enter a habitation of decent ladies, this in allusion to the law of celibacy preventing priests getting their leg over.

Conscience is a short poem which avers that men took the “con” from “conscience” leaving “science” then lost the “sci” leaving “ence”. Must have been his psychedelic period.

King Hart (uncertainly ascribed to Douglas) describes the soul’s progress from youthful pleasure through conscience, age and death. Sadly, it was never made into a film.

However, Douglas’s piece de renaissance, so to say, was his Eneados, a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, which tells of a chap who fled Troy to found Rome. Douglas wrote in Middle Scots (and indeed was first to use the term “Scottis” in reference to his language).

Here are his opening lines: The batalis and the man I wil discrive/Fra Troys boundis first that fugitive/By fait to Ytail come and cost Lavyne. 

I see.

Italian exile
HERE’S David West’s translation from the 1990 Penguin edition: I sing of arms and of the man/fated to be an exile/who long since left the land of Troy/and came to Italy to the shores of Lavinium.

Here’s my version: I’m talkin’ aboot chibs and a chiel/booted oot o’ yon Troy on his a***/and fetchin’ up in Italy, ken? Much more powerful, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Despite that, Ezra Pound said “the texture of Gavin’s verse is stronger, the resilience greater than Chaucer’s”. C. S. Lewis said it was “a great story … greatly told”. The pity of it is what else he might have written if he hadn’t got bogged down in a quagmire of political intrigue.

Gavin Douglas is remembered in Edinburgh’s magnificent St Giles’ Cathedral by a lovely Victorian brass plaque.

And in Glasgow, by having his name on a bin in Queen’s Park.

The Herald: