Like King Arthur, Robin Hood is most firmly associated in the world’s collective imagination with England – and specifically Sherwood Forest. However, as with King Arthur, when we look back in history we find that myth, legend and established history are not quite so simple and both these strange, alluring figures also have links to the place we now call Scotland.
Indeed, many of the earliest written references to Robin Hood, can be sourced from southern Scotland and not England. The important 15th century history of Scotland Scotichronicon begun by John of Fordun in the 14th century and completed by Walter Bower, Abbot of Inchcolm, in the 1440s, contains possibly the first written mention of Robin Hood – but as a very old legend.
John of Fordoun’s Chronica Gentis Scotorum or Chronicles of the Scottish People was concluded, unfinished, around 1385 and lamented the lack of older records which were destroyed during the almost continuous warfare of the 1300s. Indeed, this first attempt to write a continuous history of Scotland was written as an expression of national identity and in reaction to the invasion of Edward I of England – whom Bower describes as a tyrant whose invasion led to the destruction of much of Scotland’s ancient manuscripts and histories, during the Wars of Independence. Bower extended the reach of this history, which he titled Scotichronicon, up to the murder of James I, King of Scots, in 1437.
The Scotichronicon is a fascinating insight into medieval Scotland. The founding legend of the Scots as descendants of Scota, a daughter of Pharoah, is included as is a passage on why many Englishmen have tails!
The reference to Robin Hood, under the year 1265, refers to
the famous armed robber, Robert Hood, along with Little John and their accomplices. The foolish common folk eagerly celebrate the deeds of these men with gawping enthusiasm in comedies and tragedies, and take pleasure in hearing jesters and bards singing of them more than in other romances. Yet some of his exploits thus recited are commendable…
An alternative translation starts this passage by calling him the famous murderer! Robin, of course, is a nickname for Robert. Robert Burns, Scotland’s eighteenth century national poet, for example, was never (never!) known as Rabbie Burns – despite the common use of this today – but he was, in his lifetime, known as Rob or Robin.
Fourdon / Bower mention Barnsdale in the English county of Yorkshire as the location of the tale of Robin Hood. The passage concerns his devout worship and godliness, rather than glorifying some daring deeds. It is interesting, though, that it is the celebration of the figure of Hood by the people that takes most of the author’s attention here. Also notable is the fact that ballads or stories of Robin were not simply confined to England. Like Arthur, the legend of Hood – or the spirit of who (or what) he represents – would cross national boundaries.
Around 1450, a ballad was written in Middle English, “A Gest of Robyn Hode” and may well be a printed version of a much older oral ballad or story, which travelling minstrels may have sung to audiences.
Lythe and listin gentilmen
That be of frebore blode
I shall you tel of a gode yeman
His name was Robyn Hode
Another ballad, “Robin Hood and the Munk” [Monk], was also published around 1450 in England and, like “A Gest‘, may incorporate much older folk ballads and tales, perhaps dating back to the period of the Wars of Independence in the 14th century. That would help explain why the ballads and legend of Robin had travelled around southern Scotland – minstrels perhaps accompanying the soldiers of the English army. Robin seems to have been a central part of plays that were performed around May Day, in both England and southern Scotland. These plays included performances of tales of Robin Hood, dancing and feasting, celebrating spring and fertility in the land. It is interesting that where May Day celebrations take place today, a man in green – or a Green Man – feature, including in the resurrected (or manufactured, depending on your point of view!) Beltane Festival in Edinburgh.
In the first half of the twentieth century, the idea that Robin, dressed in forest green attire, was a symbolic figure taken from folklore or earlier folk-belief gained some support. Margaret Murray, whose Witch Cult in Western Europe, became one of the set texts for those who claimed historical witchcraft to be alive and kicking into the modern era, claimed such. Robin Goodfellow, Puck, the Green Man and others, besides, were proposed by a number of different authors as being a nature spirit, or remnant of pagan Briton’s ancient belief system. It’s also worth remembering that green clothing was associated with Fairies and also featured in witchcraft confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries.
The idea of continuous witch cults, surviving from the pre-Christian era into the present day is an idea which still divides opinion, academic and popular, to this day. Now, however, there is little mainstream support for the idea that Robin was some type of spiritual entity, linked to the woodlands – an erstwhile nature spirit or guardian. But, the idea still appeals to many. To some, Robin Hood is a simple corruption of Robin of the Wood, a green god which lingered on long after Christianity replaced (partially?) the Old Ways.
Supporters of this idea claim that this is why the figure of the Green Man can be found in so many medieval churches. The term Green Man is modern – dating to a 1939 volume of The Folklore Journal, where Lady Raglan wrote of “The Green Man in Church Architecture”. Jack-in-the-Green is an alternative that has been used, as has Herne, Cernunnos, Bacchus and, of course, Rob or Hob. The origins of the figure and the reasons why he has appeared carved in some many churches and temples around the world is obscure. Examples can be seen from Saint Magnus’ Cathedral, Orkney; to Nicosia, Cyprus; Istanbul and beyond.
In Scotland, the image is more rare, but can be found in spectacular detail in Rosslyn Chapel, Midlothian, with over 100 different appearances in this spectacular building.
There is also at least one little green man in Melrose Abbey, Selkirkshire which, not surprisingly is less well known that his near neighbour, the bagpipe-playing pig. But more on this another time…