Blind Harry

Blind Harry

Blind Harry or Henry the Minstrel, fl. late 15th cent., supposed Scottish poet. He is considered the author of the patriotic epic, The Wallace, which celebrates the life of Sir William Wallace. Violently anti-English, the poem was popular in Scotland down to the 18th cent. Since the skillful literary technique of The Wallace makes its composition by the traditionally blind and humble Harry unlikely, it is felt that the poem owes much to another hand.

See edition by W. A. Craigie (1940).

Blind Harry (c. 1440 – 1492), also known as Harry (also spelt Hary) or Henry the Minstrel, is renowned as the earliest surviving lengthy source for the events of the life of William Wallace, the Scottish freedom-fighter. He wrote The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace around 1477, 172 years after the death of Wallace in 1305. His poem of Wallace's defeat of the English at Dunnottar Castle is thought to be the earliest work of verse to address that site (J. Reid, Picturesque Stonehaven, 1899).

Blind Harry's words were made more accessible by a translation written by William Hamilton of Gilbertfield (ca. 1665-1751) published in 1722. In this form they met the notice of poets such as Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Robert Southey, John Keats, Joanna Baillie, and William Wordsworth. It was also a prime source for Randall Wallace in his writing of the screenplay Braveheart, upon which the Award Winning Hollywood film was based. Most recently, in 1998, Elspeth King published Hamilton's text amended for modern readers, as Blind Harry's Wallace.

Little is known about Blind Harry's life, but a few snippets of information are available. One source is the Lord High Treasurer's Accounts of 1473-1492, which recorded payments to him for performances at the court of James IV. He is mentioned by William Dunbar on line 69 of his Lament for the Makeris early in the 16th century. Historian John Major also wrote about Harry in 1518. These sources differed on whether or not he was blind from birth, but Harry almost certainly seems to have had a military background.

Harry's depiction of Wallace has been criticised by Major and others as being fictionalized. Some parts of it are at variance with contemporary sources; the work describes Wallace leading an army to the outskirts of London; adopting the disguises of a monk, an old woman, and a potter while a fugitive; and travelling to France to enlist support for the Scottish cause, there defeating two French champions as well as a lion. "Are there any more dogs you would have slain?" Wallace asks the French king.

The minstrel claimed it was based on a book by Fr. John Blair, Wallace's boyhood friend and personal chaplain, but this may have been a literary device; the chief sources seem to have been traditional. Most historians nowadays regard it as effectively a historical novel, written at a time of strong anti-English sentiment in Scotland. At twelve volumes, the work is also doubted to be solely his work. Elspeth King maintained that despite any inaccuracies, Harry's patriotic and nationalistic portrayal was to ensure Wallace's continuing reputation as a hero. Burns acknowledged his debt to Harry, incorporating the following lines from Harry's Wallace in his own poem Robert Bruce's Address to his Army at Bannockburn (Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled):

A false usurper sinks in every foe
And liberty returns with every blow
which Burns described as a "a couplet worthy of Homer".

Harry is often considered inferior to Barbour as a poet, and has little of his moral elevation, but he surpasses him in graphic power, vividness of description, and variety of incident. He occasionally shows the influence of Chaucer, and is said to have known Latin and French.

Mel Gibson's film Braveheart draws heavily on this source.


  • Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain (London: The Reader’s Digest Association, 1973), 520.
  • Blind Harry's Wallace translated by William Hamilton, introduction by Elspeth King (Edinburgh: Luath Press, 1998). ISBN 0-946487-33-2.

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