The Brus by Barbour


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The Brus by Barbour

  1. 1. John Barbourc. 1320 - 1395 Contents: Biography.................................................................................................................................................................Page 1 The Brus - Preface ...................................................................................................................................Pages 2 - 5 Freedom Speech.......................................................................................................................................Pages 5 - 7 Bruce’s Address to his Troops .......................................................................................................... Page 7 - 10 Further Reading / Contacts .......................................................................................................... Pages 10 - 14 Biography: John Barbour (c. 1320 - 1395) : Poet, churchman and scholar. Probably born in Aberdeen, where he spent most his life and held the position of Archdeacon. He was granted passage to study at Oxford and Paris. Several poems have been attributed to Barbour, one of which, The Stewartis Originall relates the fictitious pedigree of the Stewarts back to Originall, Banquo and his son Fleance. His long patriotic poem The Brus, awarded a prize of 10 pounds by the king, is his most famous work. It supplies some facts of Robert the Bruce, many of which are told in anecdotal style and emphasises Bruce’s exploits in freeing Scotland from English rule. This poem is also where we can find the quotation “A! Fredome is a noble thing!”1 Copyright © 2003 Scottish Literary Tour Trust. All Rights Reserved.
  2. 2. John Barbourc. 1320 - 1395 The Brus - Preface: Barbour’s The Brus (The Bruce) is considered to stand right at the beginning of Scots literature and history, since it is the oldest Scots manuscript still in existence. It is an epic poem which tells the bloody tale of King Robert the Bruce, Sir James of Douglas and Edward Bruce and their fight for Scottish independence from a ruthlessly acquisitive Edward I of England who wanted Scotland (along with Wales and France) to become part of his kingdom. The poem includes a graphic depiction of the Battle of Bannockburn, and also relates the skulduggery and intrigue that surrounded Robert the Bruce in his accession to the Scottish throne. The language is essentially that of 14th century Scotland – which by my clock makes it over 600 years old. A lot can happen to a language in 600 years. Reading it now it’s difficult to get past the weird spellings, obscure words, twisted sentence structure, etc. But if you read it aloud (not recommended in libraries), or read it into yourself and try to hear the words as they are written, then you have won half the battle. A loose translation is provided to clue you in to the sense of the poem but really the greatest pleasure is reading this stuff as it was written. Just treat it like a word game or a puzzle. It doesn’t take long, and it’s only a short couple of extracts we have presented here. Storys to rede ar delitabill Reading stories is delightful suppos that thai be nocht bot fabill even if they are just fables. than suld storys that suthfast wer So hearing stories that are truthful and thai war said on gud maner And told well have doubill plesance in heryng Should give double the pleasure. the first plesance is the carpyng The first pleasure is in telling them and the tother the suthfastnes And the other in the truthfulness that schawys the thing rycht as it wes That shows the thing exactly as it was. and suth thyngis that ar likand And true things that are enjoyed till mannys heryng ar plesand To man’s hearing are pleasant. tharfor i wald fayne set my will Therefore I would happily set my will, giff my wyt mycht suffice thartill If my wits will last until the end, to put in wryt a suthfast story To write a truthful story that it lest ay furth in memory That will be remembered for a long time awa that na tyme of lenth it let and in time won’t fade away na ger it haly be foryet Nor be completely forgotten.2 for auld storys that men redys Because these old stories that men read representis to thaim the dedys Tell us of the deeds Of stalwart folk that lyvyt ar Of solid, worthy people who can seem rycht as thai than in presence war As alive now as they were then. and certis thai suld weill have prys And it is certain that we would prize that in thar tyme war wycht and wys Those who in their day were strong and wise, Copyright © 2003 Scottish Literary Tour Trust. All Rights Reserved.
  3. 3. John Barbourc. 1320 - 1395 and led thar lyff in gret travaill Who led their life through great troubles, and oft in hard stour off bataill Often in the hard struggles of battle, wan gret price off chevalry And won the great prize of chivalry and war voydyt off cowardy And never knew what it was to be cowardly. as wes king robert off scotland Such was King Robert of Scotland that hardy wes off hart and hand Who was strong of heart and hand, and gud schir james off douglas And good Sir James Douglas, that in his tyme sa worthy was A worthy man in his time, that off hys price and hys bounte Who for his esteem and his generosity in ser landis renownyt wes he Was famous in far off lands. off thaim I thynk this buk to ma I make this book with them in mind. now god gyff grace that I may swa Now God give me the grace that I may tret it and bryng till endyng Write it well and bring it to the end that I say nocht bot suthfast thing Telling you nothing but the truth. In these opening lines of his poem (which runs to over 13,500 lines) Barbour is keen to inform us about the truthfulness of his writing. He lets us know right away that even though we may read for pleasure – “Storys to rede ar delitabill” – this is no mere “fabill”, or fiction, but a “suthfast thing”. In fact he tells us that reading a work of fact, or history, should give us double the pleasure since we can enjoy it simply for how the story is told, for the plot in other words, and we get satisfaction from knowing that it really happened. This is sometimes called positioning the reader. In other words, he’s telling us what to think about the story without us being allowed to make up our own mind. In literature of this time we can generally trust the writer to be telling the truth – but we still have to be on our guard: is The Brus purely a work of historical investigation or reportage, or is it a work of literature as well? If it’s a work of literature then there will be aspects to it that take us away from “suthfastness” into more subjective territory. Not that we shouldn’t believe the accuracy of his facts, just that it’s as well to remember that Barbour is writing a story, first and foremost. And like any story teller, from Blind Harry all the way to Randall Wallace (American screenwriter of Braveheart) the first things to go when they get in the way of a good story are the facts. Certainly, The Brus has provided us with great insights into a major part of our history that would be lost to us without this work. In a way he has an eye to posterity and the lasting importance of his work when he says: tharfor i wald fayne set my will giff my wyt mycht suffice thartill3 to put in wryt a suthfast story that it lest ay furth in memory awa that na tyme of lenth it let na ger it haly be foryet Copyright © 2003 Scottish Literary Tour Trust. All Rights Reserved.
  4. 4. John Barbourc. 1320 - 1395 He says that if he is up to the job intellectually (“giff my wyt mycht suffice thartill” – literally: if my wit might suffice theretill) then he is happy to put into writing a true story that will last beyond the memories of men, so that the essence of it will always remain, and never completely be forgotten. Remember that a great deal of our history and literature has never been written down. Much of it passed through generations by word of mouth – called oral history – and inevitably most of it has been lost. Not until poets like Robert Burns and James Hogg and Walter Scott did Scotland’s vast literary history in the form of ballads begin to be archived in books. Barbour knew what he was up to, knew that he was performing a great service to the nation and we’re glad he did. There is another document which exists from the period of Bruce and Barbour: The Declaration of Arbroath. This is a letter written in Latin and sent in 1320 (55 years before Barbour’s The Brus was published) to the Pope in Avignon, France from a large number of Scottish nobles on behalf of the community of Scotland. Essentially, it sets out the reasons why the Scots are still at war with their English neighbours when all Christian provinces and kingdoms were supposed to have forgotten their differences and united against the Muslims in a kind of medieval coalition of the willing. Islam was perceived even then as a threat to Christian nations, and the Church began a holy war in the Middle East (or Holy Land) called the Crusades. Since the Pope sees the Scots to be causing internal division in the ranks of the Christian world (or Christendom) he excommunicates them from the Church. Again, a Middle Ages and more godly version of modern trade sanctions. The Declaration does more than try to placate the Pope, however. It describes in no uncertain terms what the Scots have suffered under English rule: Thus our nation . . . lived in freedom and peace up to the time when that mighty prince the King of the English, Edward, the father of the one who reigns today, when our kingdom had no head and our people harboured no malice or treachery and were then unused to wars or invasions, came in the guise of a friend and ally to harass them as an enemy. The deeds of cruelty, massacre, violence, pillage, arson, imprisoning prelates, burning down monasteries, robbing and killing monks and nuns, and yet other outrages without number which he committed against our people, sparing neither age nor sex, religion nor rank, no one could describe nor fully imagine unless he had seen them with his own eyes. And in these famous lines The Declaration make clear that the Scots are unwilling to suffer this again: for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for4 freedom -- for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself. Fundamentally the Declaration of Arbroath sets forth Scotland’s ambitions for independent nationhood. More generally, it is seen as the first document which outlines a new kind of political landscape: i.e. one in which the greater good of the people is seen as Copyright © 2003 Scottish Literary Tour Trust. All Rights Reserved.
  5. 5. John Barbourc. 1320 - 1395 of greater imperative than the will of the king. In other words, democracy. Over 400 years later, in 1776, Thomas Jefferson and a number of others would use the Declaration of Arbroath as a model for their own manifesto when the United States declared its independence from Great Britain. Written by Colin Clark Freedom Speech A! Fredome is a noble thing Freedom is a noble thing. fredome mays man to haiff liking Freedom gives Man choice. fredome all solace to man giffis Freedom gives all men comfort. he levys at es that frely levys He who lives at ease lives freely. a noble hart may haiff nane es A noble heart may have no ease, na ellys nocht that may him ples Nor anything else that pleases him gyff fredome failyhe, for fre liking If he doesn’t have his freedom, for happiness is yharnyt our all other thing Is desired over everything else. Na he that ay has levyt fre Only he that he always lived freely May nocht knaw weill the propyrte May never know well what it’s like, The angyr na the wrechyt dome The anger or the wretched condition That is couplyt to foule thyrldome That comes with foul enslavement. Bot gyff he had assayit it But if he ever experienced it Than all perquer he suld it wyt Then he would know it perfectly, And suld think fredome mar to prys And should prize freedom more highly Than all the gold in warld that is Than all the gold in the world. These words appear from lines 225 – 240 of the poem, so we’re still really only in the introduction. It is verses like this which set The Brus up more as literature than a work of reportage. Basically, Barbour is letting us know what kind of life we would be subject to (“foul thyrldome”) if not for the heroic deeds of Bruce and his companions-in-arms. Having assured us in the opening lines that he will deliver nothing but the truth, he still manages to digress from the story and provide the reader with sections like these: in this case a meditation on freedom. It isn’t until line 445 when Barbour writes . . . Lordingis, quha likis for till her,5 The romanys now begynnys her Lords, who would like to hear The romance now begins here. Copyright © 2003 Scottish Literary Tour Trust. All Rights Reserved.
  6. 6. John Barbourc. 1320 - 1395 . . . that we get down to the story proper. Interestingly he calls it a “romanys.” This has nothing to do with Mills and Boon, of course. The romance is a form of story-telling that we traditionally associate with spirited tales of adventure surrounding figures like King Arthur and the knights of the round table: swashbuckling heroes, fair damsels in distress, and a strong magical element – dragons, spells and curses, etc. Our modern use of the word as a love affair retains some of that association, although a romantic deed these days would be to present a bouquet of roses to your loved one rather than the still beating heart of a monster. Romances were a form of literature imported into the British Isles from France, which gives us a clue about the literary tradition Barbour was working in: clearly The Brus is identifying with a particular genre. It might have been enough to present the facts simply and directly as they happened, but like all good stories, “the plesance is the carpyng” – the pleasure’s in the telling. It wouldn’t hurt the story too much and he would probably get a few more readers if he promised them a bit of drama, a bit of blood and guts. A story, in fact . . . Off men that war in gret distres And assayit full gret hardynes Of men that were in great distress And fully experienced great hardship . . . but . . . throu thar gret valour Come till gret hycht and till honour through their great valour Achieved great standing and honour And the substance of The Brus is not far removed from the world of chivalry and adventure of the romances. It is a lively tale told in a galloping tetrameter with rhyming couplets all the way, full of ands and buts and thens that drag us forward with the narrative at a brisk clip. There are lengthy descriptions of battle – hand-to-hand as well as full scale military combat – there are subplots and betrayals, risks taken against unfavourable odds, heroic deeds accomplished. Not that The Brus gives a one-sided glorification of Bruce – Barbour details his character very well giving us moments6 where we witness the compassionate side of Bruce, as well as moments that reveal his ruthlessness, or his indecision What makes this story unusual for a romance is that Bruce and Douglas and company were all real people who had lived and died and committed these incredible deeds within Copyright © 2003 Scottish Literary Tour Trust. All Rights Reserved.
  7. 7. John Barbourc. 1320 - 1395 living memory. In his poem Barbour lifts Bruce from the annals of history and raises him to something like a folk legend, a true romantic hero who fought for the freedom of his country. Written by Colin Clark Bruce’s Address to his Troops and quhen it cummys to the fycht And when it comes to the fight ilk man set hart will and mycht Every man set his heart, will and might to stynt our fayis mekill prid To weaken our foes’ great pride. on hors thai will arayit rid They will come on horseback and cum on you in full gret hy, And be upon you with great speed - mete thaim with speris hardely Meet them with sturdy spears and think than on the mekill ill And think of the great wrong that thai and tharis has done us till, That they and those like them have done to us and ar in will yeit for to do That they are determined to continue to do giff thai haf mycht to cum thar-to If they have the strength to defeat us. and certis me think weill that we I am certain that we, for-out abasyng aucht to be Without giving in, ought to be worthy and of gret vasselagis Worthy and very brave for we haff thre gret avantagis For we have three great advantages: the fyrst is that we haf the rycht The first is, that right is on our side – and for the rycht ay God will fycht And God will always fight for those in the right; the tother is that thai cummyn ar The second is that they have come here forlyppynyng off thar gret powar Completely convinced of their own great power to sek us in our awne land To seek us out in our own land and has brocht her rycht till our hand And they have brought here, right into our hands ryches into sa gret quantité Riches in such great quantity that the pourest of you sall be That the poorest of you shall be bath rych and mychty tharwithall Both rich and powerful– giff that we wyne, as weill may fall If we win, as well we may. the thrid is that we for our lyvis The third is that we - for our lives and for our childer and for our wyyis And for our children and our wives and for our fredome and for our land And for our freedom and for our land - ar strenyeit in bataill for to stand Are bound to stand in battle. and thai for thar mycht anerly They are here just because they are powerful, and for thai let of us heychtly Because they look down on us, and for thai wad distroy us all And because they want to destroy us all. mais thaim to fycht, bot yeit may fall That’s what makes them fight; but it may yet happen that thai sall rew thar barganyng That they will regret their decision.7 and certis I warne you off a thing And truly, I warn you of one thing that happyn thaim, as God forbed That if they, God forbid, till fynd fantis intill our deid Find us so faint-hearted that thai wyn us opynly That they defeat us easily thai sall off us haf na mercy They will have no mercy on us. and sen we knaw thar felone will And since we know their wicked intentions Copyright © 2003 Scottish Literary Tour Trust. All Rights Reserved.
  8. 8. John Barbourc. 1320 - 1395 me think it suld accord to skill I think it would suit our abilities to set stoutnes agayne felony To set our bravery against their cruelty and mak sa-gat a juperty And fight like that. quharfor I you requer and pray Therefore I ask and beseech you that with all your mycht that ye may That with all the strength that you can muster that ye pres you at the begynnyng When the battle starts prepare yourselves but cowardys or abaysing Without cowardice or holding back to mete thaim at sall fyrst assemble To meet those that reach you first sa stoutly that the henmaist trymble So stoutly that those at the back tremble. and menys of your gret manheid And think of your great valour, our worschip and your douchti deid Your courage, and your brave deeds and off the joy that we abid And of the joy that waits for us giff that us fall, as well may tid If it happens, as well it might, hap to vencus this gret bataill That we are victorious in this great battle. in your handys without faile In your hands, without fail, ye ber honour price and riches You bear honour, reputation and riches, fredome welsh and blythnes Freedom, wealth and happiness, giff you contene you manlely, If you carry yourselves like men; and the contrar all halily And exactly the opposite sall fall giff ye lat cowardys Will befall if you let cowardice and wykytnes your hertis suppris And wickedness take over your hearts. ye mycht have lyvyt into thryldome You could have lived under their thumb, bot for ye yarnyt till have fredome But, because you yearned to have freedom ye ar assemblyt her with me You are gathered here with me; tharfor is nedfull that ye be So it is necessary that you be worthy and wycht but abaysing ... Strong and bold and without fear … ... giff ye will wyrk apon this wis … If you will behave in this way ye sall haff victour sekyrly. You will surely have victory. In the extract above Barbour speaks with the voice of King Robert the Bruce and delivers a rousing speech to his assembled army as it is ready to do battle with the enemy English army under King Edward’s command. His army were a bit shaky – the English army outnumbered them considerably and they were better armed: they had horses, the medieval equivalent of the latest military hardware. The Scots had little going for them in that sense, and it could have been a messy rout. In fact, at one point Bruce even decided not to go ahead with the battle, but was informed by a defector from the English camp that Edward’s army had a very low morale and were in a weak spot strategically. In the end Bruce decided to go ahead with the battle, but before he did – like any good manager before his team takes to the pitch – he gave them a bit of a pep talk. The bottom line was this: if you fail in your desire to win the battle you will lose your freedom and face8 eternal serfdome (“thryldome”) under English rule. The poem reminds modern readers here of Robert Burns who would have been familiar with this work and composed his anthem Scots Wha Hae with reference to it. It makes for a useful comparison: Copyright © 2003 Scottish Literary Tour Trust. All Rights Reserved.
  9. 9. John Barbourc. 1320 - 1395 Scots, wha hae wi Wallace bled, Scots, wham Bruce has aften led, Welcome to your gory bed Or to victorie! Now’s the day, and now’s the hour: See the front o’ battle lour, See approach proud Edward’s power – Chains and slaverie! Wha will be a traitor knave? Wha can fill a coward’s grave? Wha sae base as be a slave? – Let him turn, and flee! Wha for Scotland’s King and Law Freedom’s sword will strongly draw, Freeman stand, or Freeman fa’, Let him follow me! By Oppression’s woes and pains, By your sons in servile chains, We will drain your dearest veins, But they shall be free! Lay the proud usurpers low! Tyrants fall in every foe! Liberty’s in every blow! – Let us do, or die! The comparison stands more in Burns’s favour here. He packs into his three stanzas the passion and conviction of Bruce, but does it with such an economy of words and a lightness of touch that leaves poor old Barbour’s Bruce sounding rather longwinded. We imagine the army would rather the King just gave them the nod for them to get on with it. Bruce’s army was unlikely to have been made up entirely of professional soldiers, and would have included many dispirited tradesmen, farmers and fishermen fearful of imminent slaughter. In a square-go my money would be on the army that hears the speech Burns wrote. Burns’s verses are punchier and we grasp the sense more immediately than in Barbour, not just because we feel more at home with his more modern language, but also because of his variation of meter and rhyme. Burns also punctuates each of his stanzas – in the9 middle and at the end – with dramatic interjections or questions – rhetorical devices that have worked for speech-makers for millennia. Barbour more or less sticks to the same rhyming couplet scheme throughout the 13,500 or so lines of The Brus and his metrical pattern is similarly unvaried, though it suits this kind of epic narrative. In other words, Burns wants us to get the full impact of every line so he keeps halting the momentum, Barbour wants us to keep reading, a bit like a modern novelist, so he pushes us onward. Copyright © 2003 Scottish Literary Tour Trust. All Rights Reserved.
  10. 10. John Barbourc. 1320 - 1395 Scots Wha Hae reads like modern English and Scots. It is interesting to note that the opening stanza makes judicious use of Scots (wha, wham, aften, lour etc.) while the final stanza is written completely in English (“We will drain your dearest veins”, “Tyrants fall in every foe!”, etc) as if the message here – from Bruce and from Burns is being directed specifically at English ears. We are comfortable with the way Burns’s lines either contain complete sentences, or add on subordinate clauses before reaching the main verb (e.g. “By Oppression’s woes and pains/ By your sons in servile chains/ We will drain your dearest veins . . .”). Reading Barbour in the 21st century is especially tricky because his grammar is quite alien to us – frequently we need to read a couple of lines before we can grasp the full meaning of a sentence. Assuming we can spot the verb, that is. But ultimately we must judge the poem on its own merits and as a literary and historical testament to the bravery and heroism of the Scots and their leaders in the face of aggressive occupation and possible annihilation it stands alone in Scottish and European literature. Written by Colin Clark Further Reading Websites The Earliest Scottish Literature In-depth discussion of Barbour, from an on-line encyclopaedia. Barbour and “The Brus” the historical background of John Barbour and the subject of his long poem. Why read “The Brus”? interesting discussion about the poem and its author. The following websites will be of general interest to the student of Scottish literature: Scottish Literary Tour Trust Featuring an extensive section on the Makars’ Literary Tour10 National Library of Scotland Copyright © 2003 Scottish Literary Tour Trust. All Rights Reserved.
  11. 11. John Barbourc. 1320 - 1395 Scottish Poetry Library A very attractively laid out website with information on some of the major poets of the 20th century along with detailed readings of their best-known works. SLAINTE The name stands for Scottish Librarians Across the Internet. This excellent site features brief, well-written biographies of many of the great Scottish writers. Scots Online From essays to an online dictionary this is a web-based resource with everything you could possibly need to know about the Scots language and how it is used. Shudder at the Niffer Gaelic & Scottish Connections A resource on Gaelic language and culture, featuring poetry and essays and an online dictionary. Electric Scotland Electric Scotland is a real mixed bag of Scottish paraphernalia with nationalist overtones. This page in particular allows you to hear and read complete Scots poems, from MacDiarmid to Dunbar. Literature links An encyclopaedic web of links to Scots magazines, monuments, libraries and languages. - lit Project Gutenberg This is a web-based publisher of copyright expired books. Poetry Archive A good, user-friendly site, sponsored by a bookseller, which features examples from some of the best poets in the world.11 Poem Index Almost 900 poems in the English language from 13th to 19th centuries. Copyright © 2003 Scottish Literary Tour Trust. All Rights Reserved.
  12. 12. John Barbourc. 1320 - 1395 Representative Poetry On-line An enormous and easy to use resource based at the University of Toronto featuring alphabetical and chronological lists of 450 poets with substantial selections of their work. Scottish PEN The name stands for Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists and Novelists and exists to promote the friendly co-operation between writers in the interests of freedom of expression throughout the world. Writers’ Portraits Photographic and biographical pen portraits of some of Scotland’s greatest contemporary writers. Anthologies The Book of Prefaces edited and glossed by Alasdair Gray Bloomsbury (2000) Every home should have one. Dust jacket contains this advice: “Warning to Parents, Teachers, Librarians, Booksellers. Do not let smart children handle this book. It will help them pass examinations without reading anything else.” The Faber Book of Twentieth Century Scottish Poetry Edited by Douglas Dunn Faber & Faber (1992) A detailed account of the dramatic transformations the Scottish verse underwent in the previous century, with an enlightening introduction by Dunn. The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse edited by Robert Crawford and Mick Imlah Penguin (2000) A beautifully presented chronology of some of the greatest Scottish poetry, from the 6th century to the present. The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse12 edited by Tom Scott Penguin (1970) Earlier incarnation of above, edited by Scott – a recent inductee to Makars’ Court. Contains the infamous and controversial rude verse attributed to Burns. Makes for an interesting comparison with Crawford & Imlah’s anthology. Copyright © 2003 Scottish Literary Tour Trust. All Rights Reserved.
  13. 13. John Barbourc. 1320 - 1395 An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets Edited by Catherine Kerrigan Edinburgh University Press (1991) Covers folksong, ballad, Scots and Anglo-Scots, from the middle ages to contemporary poets. Studies and Criticism Scottish Literature eds Douglas Gifford, et al Edinburgh University Press (2002) This is all just about all you need to know about Scottish literature. A comprehensive, and very readable book. Excellent. The Mainstream Companion to Scottish Literature Trevor Royle Mainstream (1993) Alphabetically arranged standard reference on Scottish literature. Modern Scottish Literature Alan Bold Longman (1983) Learned, erudite discussion of the major writers and texts of Scottish literature in the 20th century. Brilliant study material for Higher English. Imagine a City: Glasgow In Fiction Moira Burgess Argyll (1998) The definitive work on Glasgow’s place in Scottish literature, written by the author of the Makars Court Tour script. A History of Scottish Women’s Writing edited by Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan Edinburgh University Press (1997) This is the best book around for Scottish women’s writing at the moment. Tone can be a bit academic in places.13 Copyright © 2003 Scottish Literary Tour Trust. All Rights Reserved.
  14. 14. John Barbour1320 - 1395 Contacts For further information about this project contact: Morris Paton Scottish Literary Tour Trust. Suite 2 97b West Bow Edinburgh EH1 2JP E-mail: Web: Copyright © 2003 Scottish Literary Tour Trust. All Rights Reserved.