The Righteous Blood of the Bard is a song cycle for voice and guitar or string orchestra featuring the work of two poets of central significance to Scottish and Russian literature, respectively: the mediaeval bard Thomas the Rhymer and his probable descendant the great Russian poet Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov.
The Righteous Blood of the Bard: Prophecy and Succession in Russia and Scotland
Our story begins on the 19th of March 1286. It was a dark blustery night in Fife Scotland when King Alexander III, keen to visit his second wife Queen Yolande on the occasion of her birthday, fell from his horse and broke his neck. Although Yolande later turned out to be pregnant, presumably to Alexander (although it is unlikely he knew about the pregnancy at the time of his death), the child was lost, probably stillborn. By now, Alexander’s three children to his first wife Margaret of England were also dead. When Margaret of Norway, Alexander’s infant granddaughter and sole surviving heir, also died before she could be crowned, the Scottish throne found itself completely vacant in 1290.
At a time when Kublai Khan was founding the Yuan dynasty in China, as well as cementing control over vast tracts of Eurasia, this tumultuous period towards the end of the 13th century saw Scotland at the centre of intense competition between the major local powers of England, France and Norway. Thus, whoever was to lead Scotland would have to either defeat or deal with each in turn. The tragic story of the famous Scottish rebel William Wallace is well known, albeit in distorted form, from Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart. Following Wallace’s gruesome death, Robert the Bruce would lead one of the leading factions in the competition for the Scottish crown to a resounding victory over the English army at Bannockburn on 23rd June, 1314.
It is against this historical background that the legend of the prophetic bard Thomas the Rhymer emerged. Thomas Learmonth of Erceldoune was probably a minor noble, whose mastery of the linguistic and musical arts may have seen him performing at Alexander’s court. The name “Learmonth” is Anglo-Norman; however, Thomas probably also had maternal family links to Scotland’s indigenous Celtic culture. Although by King Alexander’s time, the influence of Gaelic (a Goidelic Celtic language) was already in decline, it is known that Celtic bards still frequented his court: at his coronation in 1249, in accordance with established custom, a traditional seanchaidh recited his genealogy in Gaelic all the way back to his 6th century progenitor Fergus Mòr. At the same time, remnants of the Brythonic Celtic branch still held sway in what had earlier been the neighbouring Kingdom of Strathclyde. From this culture, a common Celtic storytelling tradition led back all the way to King Arthur and his legendary druid – or bard – Merlin. So, in order to have risen to such posthumous renown in both Anglic and Gaelic Scottish culture, Thomas the Rhymer must have been acquainted with at least four cultural and linguistic traditions: Celtic (presumably drawing from both Brythonic and Goidelic strands), Norse, Latin (French) and Anglic.
Like any bard (and contemporary exponents of successor forms including rock musicians and rappers), Thomas the Rhymer knew the value of self-mythologisation. Recycling what was probably an earlier storyline drawn from Brythonic culture, he put himself centre stage in what is frankly a rather salacious account of an encounter with the Faery Queen (or Muse), in which, after seducing her, he is deprived of the power of speech and transported to the Faery Kingdom, where, over a period of seven years, he is imbued with the bardic and prophetic arts. When he returns to the human realm, he becomes known as True Thomas due to his inability to tell anything except the truth! Here we may pause to observe that truth tends to be what people remember: Thomas made sure that people would remember his words using the form of rhymed recitation.
Although the Romance and Prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune survives in the form of several Middle English manuscripts dating back to the 15th century, their variability implies that the work existed previously in an oral form passed down the generations, probably recited by bards on suitable social and ceremonial occasions. Other fragments exist in both English and Gaelic versions, including the well-known ballad collected by Sir Walter Scott. In the scholarly 19th century work edited by James Murray, the Romance (mythic encounter with the Faery Queen) precedes the subsequent Prophecies, whose self-fulfilling character is set against what is retrospectively known to have occurred over the course of Scottish (and British) history.
One such prophecy concerns the “blood of Bruce”, which Thomas the Rhymer predicts will not only form an enduring Scottish dynasty, but even unite Scotland and England under a single crown. This prophecy would indeed come to pass in 1603 with the accession of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England to become James I of the United Kingdom of Great Britain.
Our story now passes to Russia, where, on 21st February 1613, following a protracted conflict between both internal factions and the external Polish-Lithuanian enemy, which is known as the “smutnaya vremya” (time of troubles), Mikhail Fyodorovich Romanov was unanimously elected by the Zemsky Sobor (parliament) to rule the Tsardom of Russia. Although not in an unbroken male line, scions of the Romanov dynasty continued to rule the Russian empire until the abdication of Nicholas Alexandrovich Romanov on 15th March 1917. By this time, the same “blood of Bruce” was already flowing through their royal Russian veins from intermarriage with their British counterparts.
In the same year that Mikhail I was crowned Tsar, a Scottish soldier of fortune named George Learmonth entered Russian military service with the rank of ensign. Although it is not known whether George was directly descended from Thomas, their common surname and family traditions indicate this likelihood. What is certainly known is that George (now named Yury) went on to sire the Lermontov family lineage from which the famous poet Mikhail Yuryevitch would spring on 15th October 1814.
Despite his tragically curtailed life, Mikhail Yuryevich is often cited as second only to Pushkin in terms of his influence on Russian literature. In his short 26 years, he managed not only to distinguish himself militarily, write the first Russian “psychological novel” along with a number of plays, lyrics and narrative poems, but also to combine the roles of poet and prophet in an approach that strikingly resembles that of his illustrious Scottish forebear Thomas the Rhymer.
Anyone who knows the period of Russian history that culminates with the Revolution and Civil War will feel a chill run down their spine on hearing the lines, written almost a century earlier:
A year will come, a dreadful year indeed –
The Russian crown shall fall, the noble creed;
The people shall forget their former love,
The food of many shall be blood and death;
When little children, modest girls and all,
Cast down will be, not sheltered by the law;
When pestilence from stinking, dead remains
Through weeping streets shall waft from open drains
To summon forth the headscarves from the huts
The people shall be brought to eating rats.
The rivers then shall all be stained with red:
Then on that day shall come a mighty head,
And you shall know him – and you’ll understand
For what he holds a dagger in his hand:
And woe be unto you! – your cry, your moan
To him will seem absurd, whose heart is stone;
And callous disregard shall rule within
His jet black cloak, his jutting, haughty chin.
Thus, it can be seen that the weaving together of the national destinies of Scotland (Britain) and Russia by the blood of Bruce running through their royal families’ veins was anticipated by another intermingling – the blood of two great prophet-poets Mikhail Yuryevitch Lermontov and Thomas “the Rhymer” Learmonth.