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Arbroath and its Abbey
Appendix - No. I.—Note

On the Decay of Feudal Power and Emancipation of the Rural Inhabitants of Scotland.


THE three great events in Scottish history after referred to have been often treated in their political and religious aspects. But they also marked the commencement, advancement, and completion of the deliverance of the inhabitants from baronial and feudal bondage. A notice of them in this respect may help to enable us to understand how Scotland in the nineteenth comes to be so superior to the same country in the twelfth century; while in some other lands the cause of liberty has been stationary, or rather retrogressed.

The first of these events was the War of Independence into which the nation was plunged during the days of Wallace and Bruce, by the unprincipled attempt of Edward the First of England to subjugate our country under the sceptre of England, as his predecessor Henry the Second had previously done with the kingdom of Ireland. When the barons, clergy, and burgesses of Scotland, the only freemen then within its limits, found themselves in danger of being reduced to real if not professed slavery, and had the prospect of seeing the fruits of their labours and the fairest portions of their grounds, with their political privileges, seized or controlled by strangers, they then learned to sympathise with and respect the poor binds and "thralls" whom, in the days of their prosperity, during the long and peaceable reigns of William and the Alexanders, they had neglected, despised, and oppressed, and without the help of whose sinewy arms they found that they could neither man their armies nor save themselves from being ultimately reduced to a like state of servitude. In short, they seemed to have discovered that which Poland and some other nations have not found out at this day—namely, that in order to save their country from a foreign yoke, they must give the body of the population an interest in that national freedom which is to be fought for ; and that it would be vain to expect a people to exercise the valour and virtues of patriots in a war the only stake in which, to them, is merely a change of taskmasters.

Scotland's barons and burgesses, with the help of their hinds and labourers—who, it may be observed, are now no longer described as thralls and bondmen - did nobly achieve their independence, although at the cost of much blood and treasure, and at a loss to the kingdom of population, wealth, and prosperity, which the next four centuries were unable to repair. But this disastrous period, pregnant as it was with daring deeds, implanted in the breasts of Scotsmen a love of freedom, and a determination to secure it at all hazards, which has not been and will never be eradicated.

We may be excused from introducing this interesting period of our history when it is recollected that Arbroath is celebrated as the scene of the noblest declaration in behalf of national freedom which was ever made by the senators of this or any other country. In the very midst of Scotland's contest with all the power of England, the nobility, barons, and freeholders of the kingdom met at the Abbey of Arbroath on the 6th day of April 1320, and drew up the famed letter to the Roman Pontiff, in which they asserted the ancient independence of the country, and declared their resolution to maintain that independence to the last man, in spite of all the prowess of England's King, and whether his Holiness should be induced to recognise their rights or not.

Some of the passages in this document are exceedingly remarkable, as proceeding from the supreme council, of a poor and half-ruined country so far back as five hundred and forty years ago. The penman is believed to have been the bold and public-spirited Abbot and Chancellor Bernard, already referred to. After describing the miseries which the invasions of Edward the First had brought upon the kingdom, they alluded to their monarch and deliverer, Bruce, in the following terms—"At length it pleased God, who alone can heal the wounded, to restore us to freedom from these innumerable calamities by our Most Serene Prince, King, and Lord, Robert, who, for the delivering of his people and his own rightful inheritance from the hand of the enemy, did, like another Macabeus, or Joshua, most cheerfully undergo all manner of toil, fatigue, hardship, and hazard. Divine providence, through the right of succession by the laws and customs of the kingdom, which we will defend till death, and with the due and lawful assent and consent of all the people, made him our king and prince. To him we are obliged and resolved to adhere in all things, both on account of his right, and also from his merit, as being the person who has restored security to the people in the possession of their liberties. But after all, if he shall leave the principles he has so nobly pursued, and consent that we or our kingdom be subjected to the King of England or the English, we will immediately endeavour to expel him as our enemy, and as the subverter both of his own and of our rights, and will make a king who will defend our liberties; because so long as a hundred of us shall remain alive, we will never subject ourselves to the dominion of the English ; for it is not glory, riches, nor honour, but liberty alone that we fight and contend for, and with which no upright man will part except with life itself." The writer of a manuscript "Accompt of the Familie of Hamilton," in Panmure House, concludes, very justly however, that this celebrated letter was never delivered to the Pope, seeing that the principal writing, duly sealed, has been found among the Scottish records. He thinks it probable that Bruce, dissatisfied because his hereditary right to the kingdom was not sufficiently recognised in it, had forbidden the transmission of the document.

It was sometime after the close of his struggle that Barbour, in his "Bruce" (written in 1375), gives the following powerful description of freedom and slavery:—

"A! fredome is a nobill thing!
Fredome mayse man to haiff liking;
Fredomo all solace to man giffis:
He levys at ese that frely levys!
"A noble hart may haifl' nane ese,
Na ellys nocht' that may him plese,
Gyff fredome failyhe: for free liking
Is yharnyt our all othir thing
"Na he that ay haze levyt fre
May nocht knaw weill the propyrte,
The angyr, na the wrechyt dome,
That is cowplyt to foule thyrldome.
" Bot gyff he had assayit it.
Than all perquer he sold it wyt;
And sold think fredome mar to pryse,
Than all the gold in warld that is."

The second great event which advanced the cause of emancipation was the Reformation from Popery in the sixteenth century. The effects of this event are well described by the writer of a book entitled, "Historical Remarks on Government," who, after alluding to the slavery in which the common people were previously held, adds: "To complete their unhappy situation—to the exercise of this aristocratical power over their bodies —we must add the tyranny of the Church of Rome over their consciences. It was not till after a vigorous exertion of their minds in detecting the errors of the Church of Rome at the Reformation that the same excitement spewed the abject state in which they had always been kept by their kings and the barons. They then began to have some idea of their natural rights, and to perceive the illegality of those oppressive measures that had been constantly used to continue their slavish dependence on these two powers." Killigrew, Queen Elizabeth's envoy, observed this change so early as 1.572, when he wrote as follows: "Methinks I see the noblemen's great credit decay in this country; and the barons, burrows, and such like take more upon them." (Letter, Killigrew to Burghley, 11th Nov. 1572, State Paper Office.) But the political freedom, as well as the amelioration of manners, which certainly sprung from the Reformation, were not very apparent in the history of Scotland till some thirty years after that event. It is not so much about the year 1560 as between 1590 and 1600 that our statutes, chronicles, and courts of law records, skew the greatest steps toward improvement of manners —departure from the old physical force barbarism—and introduction of the common people into a place in society higher than they had previously been permitted to occupy, or had probably ever believed they would enjoy. This is just, however, what was to be expected. During these thirty or forty years the old generation, who had been bred up in the midst of papal ignorance and mental apathy and slavery, had died out, like the generation that came out of Egypt; and during the same space the younger generation, who had been educated with a knowledge of the Scriptures, and had their minds excited to activity and intelligence under the ministrations of the Reformed preachers, were now grown up, and were taking the management and control of the political and social relations throughout the country. A striking instance of this change is found in the erection of many villages into burghs of barony at that period, and of the conversion of their ward-holdings into feu-holdings; that is, they were relieved from the obligation to follow the barons in war, and bound to make a small annual return of money or poultry instead.

The third and last period of deliverance was during the sixty years which elapsed from the Revolution in 1688 to the abolition of heritable jurisdictions in 1748. The Revolution was rather the occasion of this deliverance than the immediate cause of it; for we are speaking of baronial rather than of monarchical bondage. It is also remarkable that the efforts made to undo that great event, which fixed and established British freedom in the highest departments of State, were made the immediate causes of emancipating the lowest classes in the country from the domination of the classes next above them in rank. Down to this period, many feuars and vassals were bound to follow their feudal superior in his wars against all to whom he might be opposed, the king only excepted. But when the cause of quarrel was, as in 1715 and 1745, Who was the rightful king? the superior, of course, held the exception to apply only to the king whom he acknowledged, and not to the usurper, against whom he mustered his dependents ; and these dependents were bound to adopt their lord's side of the disputed question upon pain of forfeiture of their possessions. This rendered it necessary for the Legislature to curtail such powers after the rising of the Scottish clans in 1715, and to abolish them entirely in 1748, soon after the Rebellion of 1745. Such a tenure of property was a remnant of a barbarous age, and of times of little or no central government; and was not less dangerous to a civilised State than oppressive towards the victims of its operation, who were often obliged, contrary to their inclinations, to leave their homes at the bidding of a restless superior, and engage in conflicts which might cost them liberty or life, and, at the least, involve themselves and others in hardships and losses. To complete this abolition of feudal dominion, the whole judicial powers which had formerly been annexed to property were swept away at the same time, leaving only a remnant so limited and hampered by restrictions that these have scarcely ever since been thought worth the exercising.

The unmitigated bondage of a section of the people of Scotland continued however to survive all the events alluded to, as if in order to show the depth from which the inhabitants in general had been raised by successive steps. These were the workmen at coal-mines and salt-pans, formerly referred to, who continued bound by law to perpetual service, merely by their entering to work, and who were transferable, along with the works, to a purchaser as part of the property. Even the statute of 1748 excluded them, by name, from that emancipation which it granted to others, excepting that it very considerately declared that the powers of their proprietors over their persons should not extend to life or demembration. Twenty-seven years afterwards a special act of parliament, declaring them free from 1st July 1755, was in great measure evaded; and their bondage continued to subsist till the closing year of the last century, when another statute declared that they should be thenceforward absolutely "free from their servitude:" and thus perished the last remnant of legal slavery in Scotland.

One short sentence in the statute of 1748 refers to the miserable prisons into which, for ages and centuries, the barons had thrust their victims during pleasure, and with or without trial. That law enacted that "every prison shall have windows or grates open to inspection from without," clearly evincing the existence at that time of dens having neither light nor air except when the door was opened ; or of still more dismal abodes of misery, such as those of the regality prison of Arbroath, in the tower which still frowns over the High Street, the pits in the castle of St Andrews, and many other old baronial seats. Into such a "pit" the magistrates of Arbroath thrust a poor "witch" in the year 1568. Such loathsome cells seem to have been yell-known to the sacred writers, from their allusions to "the pit," the "horrible pit," sitting in "darkness and the shadow of death, bound in affliction and iron." Indeed prisons generally were, till within a recent period, in every sense of the word, blackholes; and this, the original nucleus, formed till lately an indispensable part of even modern prisons, scarcely modified by the glimmer of day-light admitted by the window or grate prescribed by the Act of 1748 ; and which only served to make darkness visible. The walls of the Town-house of Arbroath exhibited till within these few weeks the frame of the slit which "lighted" the blackhole, sixteen inches high and six inches wide, but almost closed by an iron bar. Let any one visit modern prisons, regularly examined by Her Majesty's inspector, and their state published, and then let him visit the ancient prison of Arbroath in the tower—keeping in view the condition in which it was during the days of baronial power—and he will have little reason to regret the loss of what are occasionally termed the good old times of our fathers.


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