Category Archives: Illustration

Revisiting and Reviving ‘The Buke of the Howlat’ by James Robertson

James Robertson and Kate Leiper have produced one of the most striking children’s books of the year, ‘The Book of the Howlat’ – and the Scots Version, ‘The Buke of the Howlat’ – is a re-telling, in prose, of one of Scotland’s oldest poems.

In this blog, author James Robertson, talks about the history of the text, its importance and how he, and illustrator Kate Leiper, breathed new life into the story and re-wrote it for a 21st century audience.


The Book of the HowlatSir Richard Holland’s poem The Buke of the Howlat was composed in the 1440s at Darnaway Castle, Morayshire, for the Earl and Countess of Moray. It is a very long poem, made up of 77 stanzas of 13 lines each, and is written in medieval or Middle Scots. A very early work in the Scottish literary canon, it has survived until today because it was preserved in two documents, the Asloan and the Bannatyne manuscripts, compiled in the 16th century.

The poem is an allegory in which the birds of the air are given human traits: the central character, a howlat or owl, hates his ugly appearance and appeals to the peacock, the spiritual head of the birds, to help him. (In medieval Scotland owls were not considered beautiful and wise, as they are today.) The peacock summons a conference of birds and, after a great feast complete with songs and other entertainment, they decide to summon Dame Nature and ask her to improve the Howlat’s appearance. Nature commands each bird to donate one of its feathers to the Howlat who, thus transformed, becomes unbearably arrogant. The birds call on Dame Nature again, and she restores the owl to his former state, leaving him to conclude that he should have known his place and not been so ambitious.

A large chunk of the poem – about a quarter – is a passage extolling the virtues and valiant deeds of the Douglas family. Richard Holland was the Earl’s secretary, and knew on which side his bread was buttered. But although this section is of interest to historians, it is tedious fare for most modern readers, and holds up the main action for twenty stanzas! When I was asked by Birlinn to write a new version of The Buke of the Howlat, for a 21st-century audience and in prose rather than verse, it was soon clear that the Douglas praise section had to go.

Then, when Kate Leiper and I had our first meeting to discuss how we were going to combine my words with her illustrations, we also agreed that the moral of the original poem – ‘Know your place, and stay in it!’ – was not quite the message we wanted to send out in 2016, especially as we hoped many of the book’s readers would be young people. We felt that we could tweak the moral slightly without betraying the spirit of the poem: ‘Know yourself – and make the most of what you are!’ Our new Buke of the Howlat is a variation on the ‘Ugly Duckling’ theme. Kate had the brilliant though challenging idea of showing the Howlat growing from a chick into a fully-fledged adult, a bird of the night not of the daylight:

‘Oh, oh, I see now!’ the Howlat cried, and his voice carried far through the trees… ‘I
wanted to be something I could not be, when what I had to do was be patient, until I
grew into myself . . . To be truly happy, you have to be true to your own nature.’

I don’t think my challenges as writer were as great as Kate’s as illustrator. Still, I had to consider a number of issues. Richard Holland’s poem is written in an alliterative style, much in vogue at the time:

He grat grisly grym and gaif a gret yowle,
Cheverand and chydand with churliche cheir.
‘Quhy is my fax,’ quod the fyle, ‘fassonit so foule,
My forme and my fetherem unfrely, but feir?’

I wanted to retain some of this alliteration, and I managed this without too much difficulty, but without overdoing it, as in the opening descriptive passage:

The air was fresh, the fields were green, flowers were blooming, deer were grazing. A broad river flowed through a forest of tall trees, and as it went by them the trees bowed their branches to the water.

Another challenge was that I had been asked to produce two versions, one in English and the other in Scots. Sometimes the alliteration worked better in Scots:

Sae the Howlat set aff, scuggin alang in the shaddas as weel’s he could, till he cam tae the Paycock, wha wis prinkin up and doun in the castle gairden.

the-buke-of-the-howlatMy Scots version is closer to the original poem in terms of vocabulary (my Howlat ‘greets’ just as Holland’s ‘grat’) and syntax than the English version. However, I also needed to make the Scots accessible to readers, young and old, who may hear and speak Scots but seldom see it written down, and whose Scots vocabulary may not be that extensive. For this reason we decided to include a short glossary of the more unusual words in the Scots edition. But any reader cribbing from the English edition should have no difficulty reading the Scots. (I confess I prefer the Scots, partly because it seems more conversational: in English, the Peacock ‘must be one of Nature’s favourites’. In Scots, ‘He maun be awfie chief wi Nature.’) The two texts thus complement each other, and in fact when I was revising them I found that I was adjusting the English in the light of the Scots, and vice versa, hopefully bringing out the strengths and subtleties of both languages.

Another challenge was to ensure that my words fitted with Kate’s beautiful images. She worked from an early draft of my English version, and then, as her illustrations took shape, I adjusted some of my words to fit them. At least one of these adjustments came very late on: in the banquet scene, I had written of the Jay juggling gold goblets, but Kate had drawn them as gold-rimmed. Fortunately, this was easily corrected, but had we missed it no doubt some eagle-eyed reader would have pointed out the inconsistency!

Sometimes the words are hardly needed. I love the final image of the Howlat flying off into the night and his new life. It’s a two-page spread, but only fifteen English, or sixteen Scots words appear. The picture, in this instance, says it all!

By James Robertson

Both The Book of the Howlat and The Buke of the Howlat are available now, from all good bookshops and online.