One of the very first books printed in Scotland, was a verse biography of the great national hero, William Wallace, composed sometime late in the fifteenth century (c. 1471-79) by the epic balladeer, Blind Harry. Written more than a century and a half after Wallace’s death, Harry’s account was supposedly based on an eye-witness account written in Latin by Wallace’s chaplain and former schoolmate, John Blair. Alas, there are no longer any surviving manuscripts of Blair’s hagiography--indeed, there is only one surviving manuscript of Blind Harry’s. Nevertheless, these are the primary sources for all the Wallace lore to this day.
The Wallace was probably written as a corrective to the fourteenth-century vernacular verse biography of the other most renowned Scottish national hero, Robert the Bruce. Harry refers to The Bruceand its author, John Barbour, a long-serving archdeacon of Aberdeen, a number of times in his own poem. Harry, while respectful of Bruce’s legacy, argues that Wallace merits a favorable comparison with Bruce. While he qualifies this with the acknowledgment that Bruce was the legitimate “heir” to the throne of the kingdom, Wallace was actually the greater hero because he was braver and more patriotic; he was unimpeachable in his virtue; and of course, he rescued Scotland from the English time after time and even challenged the enemy on their own ground.
The poem is a paragon of the Scotch-English verse style, from that century of transition between Chaucer and Shakespeare:
All worthi men that has gud witt to waille,
Bewar that yhe with mys deyme nocht my taille.
Perchance ye say that Bruce he was none sik.
He was als gud quhat deid was to assaill
As of his handis and bauldar in battaill,
Bot Bruce was knawin weyll ayr of this kynrik;
For he had rycht we call no man him lik.
Bot Wallace thris this kynrik conquest haile,
In Ingland fer socht battaill on that rik.