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Domestic Annals of Scotland

OUR attention lights, a few years after the middle of the sixteenth century, on a little independent kingdom in the northern part of the British island—a tract of country now thought romantic and beautiful, then hard-favoured and sterile, chiefly mountainous, penetrated by deep inlets of the sea, and suffering under a climate not so objectionable on account of cold as humidity. It contains a scattered population of probably seven hundred thousand:- the Scots—thought to be a very ancient nation, descended from a daughter of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and living under a monarchy believed to have originated about the time that Alexander conquered India. A very poor, rude country it is, as it well might be in that age, and seeing that it lay so far to the north and so much out of the highway of civilisation. No well-formed roads in it—no posts for letters or for travelling. A printing-press in the head town, Edinburgh, but not another anywhere. A regular localised court of law had not yet existed in it thirty years. No stated means of education, excepting a few grammar-schools in the principal towns, and three small universities. Society consisted mainly of a large agricultural class, half enslaved to the lords of the soil: above all, obliged to follow them in war. Other industrial pursuits to be found only in the burghs, the chief of which were Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling, Perth, Dundee, and Aberdeen.

In reality, though it was not known then, the bulk of the people of Scotland were a branch of the great Teutonic race which possesses Germany and some other countries in the north-west of Europe. Precisely the same people they were with the bulk of the English, and speaking essentially the same language, though for ages they had been almost incessantly at war with that richer and more advanced community. As England, however, was neighboured by Wales, with a Celtic people, so did Scotland contain in its northern and more mountainous districts a Celtic people also, rude, poor, proud, and of fiery temper, but brave and possessed of virtues of their own, somewhat like the Circassians of our own day. These Highland clansmen—whom the English of that time contemptuously called Redshanks, with reference to their naked hirsute limbs—were the relics of a greater nation, who once occupied all Scotland, and of whose blood some portion was mingled with that of the Scots of the Lowlands, producing a certain fervour of character—’perfervidurn ingenium Scotorum ‘—which is not found in purely Teutonic natures. The monarchy had originated with them early in the sixth century of the Christian era, and had gradually absorbed the rest of Scotland, even while its original subjects were hemmed more and more within the hilly north. But, by the marriages of female heirs, this thorn-encircled crown had come, in the fourteenth century, into a family of Norman-English extraction, bearing the name of Stuart.

The present monarch was ‘our Sovereign Lady Mary,’ a young and beautiful woman, married to Francis II. of France. She had been carried thither in a troublous time during her childhood, and in her absence, a regent’s sceptre was swayed by her mother, a princess of the House of Guise. Up to that time, Scotland, like most of the rest of Europe, was observant of the Catholic religion, and under vows of obedience to the pope of Rome. But the reforming ideas of Luther and Melanethon, of Zuinglius and Calvin, at length came to it, and surprising were the effects thereof. As by some magical evolution, the great mass of the people instantaneously threw off all regard to the authority of the pope, with all their old habits of worship, professing instead a reverence for the simple letter of Scripture, as interpreted to them by the reforming preachers. Indignant at having been so long blinded by the Catholic priesthood—whose sloth and luxury likewise disgusted them—they attacked the churches and monasteries, destroyed the altars and images—did not altogether spare even the buildings, alleging that rooks were best banished by pulling down their nests: in short, made a very complete practical reformation through all the more important provinces. This was done by the populace, with the countenance and help of a party of the nobility and gentry; and the regent, Mary de Guise, who was firm in the old faith, in vain strove to stem the torrent. Obtaining troops from France, she did indeed maintain for a time a resistance to the reforming lords and their adherents. But they, again, were supported by some troops from Elizabeth of England, whose interest it was to protestantise Scotland; and so the Reformation got the ascendency. Mary the Regent sunk into the grave, just about the time that her faith came to its final and decisive ruin within her daughter’s dominions.

This change may be considered as having been completed in August 1560, when an irregular parliament, or assembly of the Estates of the kingdom, abolished the jurisdiction of the pope, proscribed the mass under the severest penalties, and approved of a Confession of Faith resembling the articles which had been established in England by Edward VI. The chief feature of the new system was, that each parish should have its own pastor, elected by the people, or at least a reader to read the Scriptures and common prayers. While thus essentially presbyterian, there was a trace of episcopal arrangements in the appointment of ten superintendents (one of whom, however, was a layman), whose duty it should be to go about and see that the ordinary clergy did their duty. The great bulk of the possessions and revenues of the old church fell into the hands of the nobles, or remained with nominal bishops, abbots, and other dignitaries, who continued formally to occupy their ancient places in parliament, while the presbyterian clergy were insufficient in number, and in general very poorly supported.

‘Lo here,’ then, ‘a nation born in one day; yea, moulded into one congregation, and sealed as a fountain with a solemn oath and covenant!’ So exclaims a clerical writer a hundred years later; and we, who live two hundred years still further onward, may well echo the words. But a little while ago, there were priests, with vestments of ancient and gorgeous form, saying mass in churches, which were the only elegant structures in the country. The name of the pope was a word to bow at. Confession was one of the duties of life. Barefooted friars wandered about in the enjoyment of universal reverence. Any gentleman going out with his sovereign on a military expedition, would have been thought liable to every evil under the sun, and altogether a scandalous person, if he did not beforehand obtain pardon for his sins from the Grayfriars, and leave in their hands his most valuable possessions, including the very titles of his estate, which he might hope to get back if he survived; but otherwise, he well knew all would go to the enriching of these same friars, who were under vows to live in perpetual poverty. The king himself sought for his highest religious comfort in pilgrimising to St Duthae’s shrine in Ross-shire, or to the chapel of our Lady of Loretto, at Musselburgh. The bishop of Aberdeen felt a solacement in the hour of death, in the trust that his bowels would be buried, as he requested, in the Black-friars Monastery in Edinburgh. So lately as 1547, the Scotch, fighting with the English at Pinkie, called out reproachful names to them, on the score of their having deserted the ancient faith. But here is now Scotland also converted, and that as it were in a day, from all those old reverences and observances, and taken possession of by a totally new set of ideas. The Bible in the vulgar tongue has been suddenly laid open to them. Their minds, earnest and reflecting, though unenlightened, have been impressed beyond description by the tale of miraculous history which it unfolds, and the deeply touching scheme for effecting the salvation of man which the theologian constructs from it. They feel as if they had got hold of something of priceless value, and in comparison with which all the forms and rites of medieval Christianity are as dust and rubbish. The Evangel, the True Religion, as they earnestly called it, is henceforth all in all with this poor and homely, but resolute people. Nothing inconsistent therewith can be listened to for a moment. Scarcely can a dissentient be permitted to live in the country. The state, too, must maintain this system, and this system alone, or it is no state for them. Above all, the errors of Popery must be unsparingly put down. The mass is idolatry: God, in his Book, says that idolatry is a sin to be visited with the severest judgments; therefore, if you wish to avoid judgments, you must extinguish the mass. Even modified forms and rituals which have been preserved by English Protestantism, as calculated to raise or favour a spirit of devotion, and maintain a decency in worship, are here regarded as but the rags of Rome, and spurned with nearly the same vehemence as the mass itself. Scotland will have nothing but a preacher to expound, and say a prayer. That, with the Bible in the hands of the people, is enough for her. No hierarchy does she require to maintain order in the church. Let the ministers meet in local courts and in General Assembly, and settle everything by equal votes. Bishops and archbishops are a popish breed, who must, if possible, be kept at a distance.

Even one who may now take more charitable and lenient views can scarcely fail to sympathise with, yea, admire, this little out-of-the-way nation, in seeing it dictate and do thus against the might of an ancient institution of such imposing dimensions as the Romish Church. And to do it, too, in the teeth of their own ruling power, such as it was. And all so effectually, that from that hour to this, Rome, in all her back-surgings upon the ground she lost in the sixteenth century, was never able to put Scottish Protestantism once in the slightest danger. Undoubtedly, if there be merit in a faithful contending for what is felt to be all-important truth, it was a worthy thing, and one that shewed there was some good metal in the constitution of the Scottish mind. It could not surprise one that a people who acted thus, should also prove to be a valiant and constant people under physical difficulties; that they should make wonderful results out of a poor soil and climate; that they should do some considerable things in the science of thinking and in letters; and, above all, stand well to their own opinions and ways, and to the maintenance of their political liberties and national independence, frown, threaten, and drive at them who might.

It was so—and yet—for every picture of noble humanity has its reverse—it is forced upon us that the Scots were, at this very time, a fearfully rude and ignorant people. As usual, they were so without having the least consciousness of it: their greatest author of that age, George Buchanan, speaks in perfect earnest of the refinement of his own time, in comparison with the barbarism of former days. But, whatever the age might be relatively to past ages, it was rude in itself. The Scotland of that day was ruder than the England of that day, ruder than many other European states. Few persons could read or write. Few knew aught beyond their daily calling. Men carried weapons, and were apt to use them on light occasion. The lords, and the rich generally, exercised enormous oppression upon the poor. The government was a faction of nobles, as against all the rest. When a man had a suit at law, he felt he had no chance without using ‘influence.’ Was he to be tried for an offence ?—his friends considered themselves bound to muster in arms round the court to see that he got fair-play; that is, to get him off unharmed if they could. Men were accustomed to violence in all forms, as to their daily bread. The house of a man of consideration was a kind of castle: at the least, it was a tall narrow tower, with a grated door and a wall of defence. No one in those days had any general conceptions regarding the processes of nature. They saw the grass grow and their bullocks feed, and thought no more of it. Any extraordinary natural event, as an eclipse of the sun or an earthquake, still more a comet, affected them as an immediate expression of a frowning Providence. The great diseases, such as pestilence, which arose in consequence of their uncleanly habits and the wide-spread famines from which they often suffered, appeared to them as divine chastisements; not perhaps for the sins of those who suffered—which would have been comparatively reasonable - but probably for the sins of a ruler who did not suffer at all. The ruling class knew no more of a just public economy than the poor. Through absurd attempts to raise the value of coin by statute, the Scotch pound had fallen to a fraction of its original worth. By ridiculous endeavours to control markets, and adjust exportation and importation, mercantile freedom was paralysed, and penury and scarcity among the poor greatly increased. The good plant of Knowledge not being yet cultivated, its weed-precursor, Superstition, largely prevailed. Bearded men believed that a few muttered words could take away and give back the milk of their cattle. An archbishop expected to be cured of a deadly ailment by a charm pronounced by an ignorant countrywoman. The forty-six men who met as the first General Assembly, and drew from the Scriptures the Confession of Faith which they handed down as stereotyped truth to after-generations, were every one of them not more fully persuaded of the soundness of any of the doctrines of that Confession, than they were of the reality of sorcery, and felt themselves not more truly called upon by the Bible to repress idolatry than to punish witches. They were good men, earnest, and meaning well to God and man; but they were men of the sixteenth century, ignorant, and rough in many of their ways.

While, then, we shall see great occasion to admire the hardy valour with which this people achieved their deliverance from bondage, we must also be prepared for finding them full of vehement intolerance towards all challenge of their own dogmas and all adherence to alien forms of faith. We shall find them utterly incapable of imagining a conscientious dissent, much less of allowing for and respecting it. We must be prepared to see them—while repudiating one set of superstitious incrustations upon the original simple gospel—working it out on their own part in creeds, plats, covenants, and church institutions generally, full of mere human logic and device, but yet assumed to be as true as if a divine voice had spoken and framed them, breathing war and persecution towards all other systems, and practically operating as a tyranny only somewhat less formidable than that which had been put away.

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