View site in Scots
Flickr YouTube

Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid

Archangellis, angellis, and dompnationis - a history of Christmas poetry in Scots

Christmas hasn't been the most productive subject for Scots language literature and poetry but over the centuries there have been a few gems. In this survey of seasonal poetry, Derrick McClure, picks out some of the best. This article is not available in English. 

Whit hae we in the mither tongue tae commemorate the saison o Yule?  No muckle, it maun be said.  Frae the Reformation til weel intae the lest yearhunner, the 25t o December wes jist anither day’s darg: naethin forbye tae mak sangs nor ballants about.  Gin we win back til the days o our Stewart keings, tho, we finn yin o the brichtest an graciest o mediaeval Christenmas lyrics amang the bardries o Dunbar, thon skeeliest an skyriest o makars.

Rorate, celi, desuper!
Hevins distill your balmy schouris,
For now is rissin the brycht day ster
Fro the ros Mary, flour of flouris.
The cleir sone quhome no clud devouris,
Surminting Phebus in the est
Is cumin of His hevinly touris;
Et nobis puer natus est.

Archangellis, angellis, and dompnationis,
Tronis, potestatis, and marteiris seir,
And all ye hevinly operationis,
Ster, planeit, firmament, and speir,
Fyre, erd, air, and watter cleir,
To Him gife loving, most and lest,
That come into so meik maneir;
Et nobis puer natus est.

The first line (o the whilk the saicont is an owersettin) is taen frae Isaiah XLV: viii, “Ye lifts, gin ye dreep frae abune, an’ the cluds toom righteousness doun: lat the yirth syne her bosom unfauld; an’ heal-haddin itsel come till frute, an’ righteousness braird frae the rute: it’s Jehovh, mysel, made it yald” (the owersettin o P. Hately Waddell).  An ower seiven verses, he gars us hear the sterns, the angels, the yird, the baests, the flouers an aa Creation sing tae the glore o the new-kyth’t Sauviour.    I hae hard students sayin at this michty sang is no as “Christmassy” as the Nativity Ode o John Milton; an deed, there nae snaw intil’t, nae shepherds, nae manger.  But in Dunbar we hear the rejycins o the Uiniverse aa an haill: his is the vyce o the auncient Catholic Kirk, at saw the Incarnation as the central event in the story o the warld; an his sang fair dirls wi the life an the jye o its celebration.

Forbye Dunbar’s ballant, we hae the sang o an onkent screivar whilk an onkent sangster pat tae muisic: the King’s Singers, for aa thair Sasunnach vyces, hae gien us a braw recordin o’t. 


All sons of Adam rise up with me,

Go lov the blissed Trinitie.

Sing we nowell, nowell, nowell,

Cry Kyrie with hosanna,

Sing Sabaoth, sing alleluja,

Now save us all Emanuel.

Then spak archangel Gabriel,

Said Ave Mary mild,

The Lord of Lordis is with thee,

Now sall thou go with child.

Ecce ancilla Domini.

Then said the virgin young:

As thou hes said so mot it be.

Welcom be heavin's king.

There cam a ship fair sailland then,

Sanct Michael was the stieresman,

Sanct John sat in the horn.

Our Lord harpit, our Lady sang

And all the bells of heav'n they rang

On Christsonday at morn.

Then sang the angels all and sum:

Lauda Jerusalem, Dominum,

Lauda Deum tuum, Sion.

The sons of Adam answered them:

Sing glore be to thee God and man,

The Father and the Sprit also,

With honor and perpetual jo.


Nae dout, thare naethin o Dunbar’s dentie musardrie here: wantin the tune, thare no muckle tae’t.  But whan ye hear it sung (or gin ye coud, whan ye sing it yoursel), it fair upheises ye tae the hichts!  “All merriness is worn away”, waementit Richard Maitland o Lethington no lang efter the Reformation; an gin this Yuletide sang is a fair ensample o whit Scotland tint wi the dounfaa o the auld Kirk, we can see ower weel whit he meant.

Nearer tae our ain days, a makar few o’s wull hae hard tell o, William Beattie o Aiberdeen, gied tae the Norlan Doric yin o its moniments in a lang an couthy ballant caa’d A Yule Feast.  A contemporary o Rabbie Burns (tho thare nae sign at thay war acquent), Beattie tae coud turn a braw Habbie, an coud sing the pleisurs o eatin an drinkin in blythesome company.  Here he’s winnin tae his auntie’s hous efter a strauchle throu the snaw.


“Cast aff yer sheen, an’ warm yer feet,

I’m sure they canna’ but be weet;

Hae, set them up on this bit peat

Anent the cutchack;

An’, Tibby, bring him ben some meat,

Ye senseless smutchack!


Make haste an’ gi’e ’m a glass o’ gin,

An’ that will make a’ right within;

Syne, Tib, I trow ye’ll need to rin

Forth to the stack

For peats, the roast will be ahin’;

An’ haste ye back.”


Tibby was back just in a jingle,

An’ soon set on a bleezin’ ingle,

Syne up afore’t she knit a lingle

To swing the roast;

They had nae jack, but this wou’d twingle

Wi’ little cost.


Upon’t she hung a leg o’ mutton,

As good as ever knife was put on:

Altho’ I say’t, I’m nae a glutton,

Nor yet ill fodder’d;

But, sang! thought I, I’ll slack a button

If ye were scowder’d.


Twa pots soss’d in the chimney nook,

Forbye ane hott’rin’ in the crook;

Wi’ viands, might ha’e pleas’d the duke

Of Derby’s heir:

Altho’ I say’t, my aunt can cook

Wi’ skill an’ care.


An syne we hear about the splore: aa the fowk at cam til’t, thair cracks an clavers, an the dentie maets thay stappit thair wames wi.   It’s weel seen at Yule didna mean the same tae fowk o the eichteent yearhunner as the fifteent; but gin it gied thaim the chance at  foregetherins as canty as this yin, it canna hae been forgotten aa an haill.

Yin o the foremaist makars o the Scots Renaissance is Alexander Gray, mynit nou maistlins for Scotland, richtsomelie yin o the best-loe’d ballants in aa our letter-huird, but mairatowre a skeilie owersetter o sangs frae German an Danish.  Heinrich Heine is aiblins his maist important oreiginal: myn ye o his bonnie ballant “The auld sangs soored and cankered…”, whaur weel-kent meiths o Germanie is cheingit tae St Andrews’ auld draw-well, the auld brig pwer the Clyde, an “William Wallace that looks across the Forth”?  Gray tuik a wee Yuletide sang o Heine’s:


Die heil’gen drei Könige aus Morgenland,
Sie frugen in jedem Städtchen:
‘Wo geht der Weg nach Bethlehem,
Ihr lieben Buben und Mädchen?’ …


—    an made it intil:


There were three kings cam frae the East;

They spiered in ilka clachan;

“O, which is the wey to Bethlehem,

My bairns, sae bonnily lachin’?”


O neither young nor auld could tell;

They trailed till their feet were weary.

They followed a bonny gowden starn,

That shone in the lift sae cheery.


The starn stude ower the ale-hoose byre

Whaur the stable gear was hingin’.

The owsen mooed, the bairnie grat,

The kings begoud their singin’.


Ye see in this a curnie o the bonnie wee titches at mak Gray sic a skeelie owrsetter: “sae bonnily lachin’” is no tae finn in the German, nor “till their feet were weary”; “Whaur the stable gear was hingin’” taks the place o a line at in the German jist means “an in they gaed”.  An houbeit the maist feck o his oreiginal poesie, no like his owersettins, is in English an no Scots, Gray screivit forbye a bonnie Christenmas sang o his ain:


’Twas a cauld, cauld nicht i’ the back o’ the year;
The snaw lay deep, and the starns shone clear;
And Mary kent that her time was near,
As she cam to Bethlehem.
When Joseph saw the toon sae thrang,
Quo’ he: ‘I houp I be na wrang,
But I’m thinkin’ we’ll find a place ere lang;’
But there wasna nae room for them.

She quo’, quo’ she: ‘O Joseph loon,
Rale tired am I, and wad fain lie doon.
Is there no a bed in the hail o’ the toon?
For farrer I canna gae.’
At the ale-hoose door she keekit ben,
But there was sic a steer o’ fremmyt men,
She thocht till hirsel’: ‘I dinna ken
What me and my man can dae.’

And syne she spak: ‘We’ll hae to lie
I’ the byre this nicht amang the kye
And the cattle beas’, for a body maun try
To thole what needs maun be,’
And there amang the strae and the corn,
While the owsen mooed, her bairnie was born.
O, wasna that a maist joyous morn
For sinners like you and me?

For the bairn that was born that nicht i’ the sta’
Cam doon frae Heaven to tak awa’
Oor fecklessness, and bring us a’
Safe hame in the hender-en’.
Lord, at this Yule-tide send us licht,
Hae mercy on us and herd us richt.
For the sake o’ the bairnie born that nicht,
O, mak us better men!

Hou hyne awa is this hamely wee bit sang, garrin Mary an Joseph kythe afore us as auld-farrant fowk crackin in the mither tongue, frae the Heivenly spheres an angelic hosts o Dunbar!  But baith o thaim can muive us tae think on whit Christenmas is aa about.

Lestlins, here twa mair screivins frae the Nor-Aest.  Dauvit Ogston, a meinister o the Kirk forbye a knackie bard o the Doric, taks the auncient ploy o Nativity sangs an speils throu the yearhunners o pittin wirds in the leid o his ain days intae the mou o the fowk in the Bible speils, an gies us The Doric Angel an the Hill-men:


Reist yon deleerit dug, lads,

Or tyne yer yowes. Mair things

Are vrocht the nicht in Dauvit’s toun

Than ye jalouse yet, but I’ll wise ye.

The beuks are comin true,

The aul wirds are faistened.

The quine’s cam tull her cryin

An her new bairn beddit in a troch.

Mark him bi lantren licht

Faar a lane star devalls

Ower a cruive hard by the ale-house.

He ’s lichtsome yet; his day’s span

Maun be a shortsome een. Gin ye wad

See him, gyang nou.


Aiblins no whit ye think o as poesie?  An siccar no whit ye wad think an angel wad say.  But the bodeword o Christenmas hes kyth’t in mony a leid mair roch an hameilt nor the Doric or nou: an hes Phyllis Goodall, screivar o the lest o our Yuletide sangs, no a ballant caa’d Archangels Speak Doric?  Siccar, Phyllis Goodall in her skyrie wee new buikie There’s been Bonnie Days, hes a fair fouth o rhymes an tales in the auld leid: whiles giein a dowie backlins scance tae the days o langsyne, whiles garrin us lauch at the gyperies o our ain days.  Here tae enn up wi is pairt o her pictur o whit a faimily Christenmas is like tae turn out tae be — as we aa ken ower weel!


            His that man o oor dother’s

Tint the bottom till’s belly?

            Dis that quine o oor loon’s

            Ever stop watchin telly? …


            Fa gid the dog turkey,

            An foonert the craitur?

            Fa beat Mither at Scrabble,

            Put her in an ill naitur? …


            Fan wis’t, did ye say,

            Ye waar aa gyan hame?

            Are you ssure that your hooses

            Are safe sittin teem?


An a blythesome Yuletide tae us aa!