An ancient Moray poem with a political edge is being given a new lease of life over 500 years after it was initially committed to print.
The lengthy ‘Buke of the Howlat’ is thought to have been written in 1448 by Richard Holland, who was then Chaplain to the Earls of Douglas.
Now a new print of the work with explanatory text is to be launched at Darnaway Castle, the ancestral home to the Earl of Moray near Forres.
The poem was dedicated to Elizabeth Dunbar, heiress to the earldom of Moray who married Archibald Douglas, son of the 7th Earl of Douglas in 1442.
Written in Older Scots it tells the fable of an owl or howlat who complains to the peacock Pope that he is ugly. The Pope refers him to Mother Nature who convenes a Parliament of birds who all agree to each give the owl a feather.
Rather than being grateful the owl becomes smug and begins to throw his weight around to the irritation of the other birds, and is eventually punished by having the decision revoked.
As a result the owl thereafter confines himself to the night to hide his ugliness and protect himself from the wrath of the other birds.
While the poem appears to be a harmless children’s fable warning against vanity and arrogance, experts at the Scottish Text Society are convinced it is a political satire of the time possibly aimed at King James II or one of his advisers.
At the time it was written in the 15th century, James II (1430-1460) just come to adulthood and the Douglases’ were one of the most powerful families in Scotland representing a significant threat to the King.
Within 10 years of the poem being presented to the Earl of Moray and Elizabeth Dunbar, more than five leading figures in their family were dead and the family had fallen dramatically from power.
Now 250 printed copies of the poem, edited by Dr Ralph Hanna, former Professor of Palaeography (the study of Medieval Manuscripts and handwriting) at Oxford, have been published by the Scottish Text Society, a subscription based charity whose purpose is to make available works written in Scots prior to 1700.
The book is free to subscribers but retails at £40 from Boydell and Brewer. Because of its age and its poetic style, The Buke of the Howlat can be daunting to new readers – however, the edition provides a full introduction, notes and glossary to aid understanding.
Dr Nicola Royan, Associate Professor in Older Scots at the University of Nottingham and the President of the Scottish Text Society said: “This is a very significant work of its time.
“What to us appears as a beast fable for children has a political and possibly deathly influence although frustratingly its target is unspecified.
“We are delighted to be able to give this poem a new lease of life and given its significance to Moray absolutely delighted that the Earl of Moray has allowed us the use of his ancestral home to launch the book.”
Margery MacLennan, Chair of the Tourism Committee of the Moray Economic Partnership, who are supporting the book launch, said: “The republication of this charming yet powerful 15th century fable is a reminder of the cultural richness of Moray and of its place in Scottish history.
“Our culture and heritage are important in attracting visitors from all over the world and we are grateful to the Scottish Text Society for bringing the Buke of the Howlet back into the public domain”.
The 21st Earl of Moray, John Stuart, said: “We are delighted to host the re launch of ‘The Buke of the Howlat’ here at Darnaway.
It a fascinating and magnificent work that deserves to be known by a much wider audience.”
In the launch today for invited guests only Donald Lunan will read the poem.