The Original Ballads

The poems gathered in The Gude and Godlie Ballatis, published in the 1560s and known as the ‘Dundee Psalms’, were probably written over the previous 20 years at the height of the ferment leading to the Reformation in Scotland. Their authors are most likely the three Wedderburn brothers, James, John and Robert, whose various works represent a key moment in Scottish culture across the written arts.

Between John the poet, James the dramatist, and Robert the prose writer, the complex ferment of a hugely significant historical event was played out within the confines of a single volume, a single family, and, initially at least, a single town. By the end of the sixteenth century, its influence was nationwide – indeed Knox cites it in his History of the reformatioun.

The Ballates are something more than parody of popular texts – they might be described as polemical ‘translations’ influenced by and including German models picked up by John, perhaps their main author. They demonstrate the arrival of new theological ideas as well as critiques of the established church, which the brothers had learnt about at the University of St Andrews. In modern terms, we might call them instances of radical détournement.

These ideas were largely Lutheran in principle, and the consequences of proclaiming them could be severe and divisive. James and John were forced into flight and exile, while Robert reconciled himself to some degree with the Church, and became Vicar of Dundee in 1546. He died sometime just before 1560, the year of the first sitting of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

Click here to visit the Gude and Godlie Ballatis at archive.org. You can download the original text in a variety of formats including .pdf and textfile.