Long ago I heard the story of the South Italian prince who interrupted a discussion about the army’s new uniforms with “dress them in red, blue, or yellow, they will run away all the same.” The story embodies a truth that there is a big difference between looking like an army and being an army (and that some types of reform have more of an impact than others). But where does it come from? Twentieth-century British writers like Bernard Cornwell love telling stories about European foreigners and their national deficiencies, and I grew up reading a lot of twentieth-century British and US writers.
Throughout the long five hundred years of war between Scottish and English kings, the Scots tended to win the wars but lose the big battles. Scotland was a smaller and poorer kingdom, and the way of fighting battles that the Scots were good at (lining up big masses of spearmen and axemen with jacks and steel caps) was not very effective against the way that the English were good at (dismounting their armed men and galling the enemy with arrows until they charged, breaking formation as they came because no prince in Europe could keep a large army together long enough to drill it). A fourteen-line gem of a poem describes the way of fighting which proved most successful in campaign after campaign:
On fut suld be all Scottis weire, // weire = Wehr, defense By hyll and mosse themself to reare. // reare: roar? an earlier edition has weire “defend” Lat woods for wallis be bow and speire, That innymeis do them na deire. In strait placis gar keep all store, And byrnen ye planeland thaim before. Thane sall thai pass away in haist Wenn that thai find na thing but waist. With wykes and waykings of the nyght // wyke: wake And mekill noyis maid on hytht, // mekill: big, large Thaime sall ye turnen with gret affrai, // affray: fright, alarm As thai ware chassit with swerd away. This is the counsall and intent Of gud King Robert’s testiment.
Now roll that around in your mouth a bit and savour it. Enjoy the language and the rhythm and the joy with which it describes something horrible in ways that poor crofters and shepherds can understand. Think about how rare it is to have something like this from the side which was wise to avoid battle. And then if you really must, go on where I ask my annoying academic question, namely where does this poem come from?