A Short History of Scotland Before the Scottish Enlightenment

Paul Mueller for AdamSmithWorks

March 18, 2020
Understanding basic Scottish history and institutional change in the two centuries before the Scottish Enlightenment, especially with respect to religious reform and structures, can help readers better understand the works of Adam Smith, David Hume, and other 18th century Scottish thinkers. For example, although Presbyterian discipline “was found fault with as one that laid uncalled-for restraints upon the joy of living...It had, however, a hand in the making of a nation.”[i] What follows is a brief sketch of Scottish history from the early 16th century through the middle of the 18th century.

 At the beginning of the 16th century, the Catholic clergy and the Scottish universities were marked by apathy, greed and a lack of intellectual rigor and vitality. Abuses and neglect by Catholic clergy were widely reported: “At home, a clergy, who were at once licentious and rapacious, held in their hands wellnigh half the wealth of the land. And the looseness of their living was matched only by the ignorance that prevailed in their ranks.”[ii] The universities did not attract students from abroad and, even more tellingly, many Scotsmen left the country to attend universities elsewhere. John Knox and the other Scottish reformers set out to change all of that.

 The Scottish Reformation (1528-1558) constituted a kind of intellectual and theological awakening in Scotland. Previously,
Scotland, though it had national freedom, was an ill-governed country. It had a weak central executive, a turbulent aristocracy, a bloated Church, and a down-trodden commonalty. Its internal history is a record of feud and faction which secured for the strong hand the supremacy of the local tyrant. There was hardly a country in Europe that was more backward in civilisation [sic], or one in which life and property were less secure.[iii]

Of course, the Reformation fundamentally involved persuading people in Scotland to abandon Catholicism for Protestantism; and in Scotland it was wildly successful in doing so. But after converting the vast majority of their fellow countrymen, the reformers set about reorganizing the country’s religious life town by town.[iv] The original “founding” documents of the Presbyterian Church were Knox’s Liturgy (1556), the Scots Confession (1560), and The Book of Discipline (1st Book in 1560, 2nd Book in 1578). The Book of Discipline set out the structure and functions of the Scottish Church. It included extensive discussion of increasing basic literacy in Scotland as well as reforming the universities.[v] It laid out the process of establishing ministers (and comments on the dearth of educated, qualified men to be ministers in the 16th century). It abolished many of the trappings of the Catholic Church such as “the taking of special vows, the wearing of distinctive dress, the superstitious observance of fasting days and saints’ days, the feasts of the Christian year.”[vi] And it provided guidelines for accountability and discipline of members or of ministers:
The Discipline of the Kirk was one of the most potent instruments for bringing a hitherto turbulent and untamed community into some shape of order, decency and civilisation [sic]. Then, also, the Discipline which dealt with the highest and did not let them escape at the same time did not forget the poorest. And all the while this discipline sought not to humiliate men but to promote their highest good. The fight that the Church put up for its rights in this connection made it ultimately the tribune of the people and the instrument for breaking the tyranny of the feudal order.[vii]

 Of course, these changes were resisted by the Catholic church and various nobles allied with them. But most of the common people were persuaded by the ideas of Knox and the reformers. Many powerful nobles backed the reformers;--some out of genuine faith, some to gain political advantage over their Catholic rivals, and many to gain land or wealth held by the Catholic church.

The reformers in Scotland developed a “two kingdoms” doctrine: the kingdom of man, of which the monarch was the head, and the kingdom of God, of which Christ was the head. This doctrine flew in the face of monarchical designs for power and so was never accepted by their monarchs in the 16th or 17th centuries.
The political theories espoused by reformers on winning the revolution of 1567...quite forcefully emphasized the constitutional limitations on royal power and suggested a belief that sovereignty was delegated to the prince by God through the people, to whom the prince remained responsible.[viii]

The two kingdoms doctrine also differed radically from Anglicanism where the monarch was the head of both the state and the church. While there are many reasons why the Presbyterians and the Anglicans developed contrary doctrines of ecclesiology, the most obvious and important one was the difference between the strength of the monarchies of England and Scotland during the Reformation.

In the 17th century, England was marked by the firm reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Henry VIII was instrumental in breaking with Rome, and Elizabeth I further established Anglicanism during her long reign. In Scotland, the monarchy was much weaker relative to the Scottish nobility, in part because so many Scottish monarchs began their reigns as infants. For half of the 16th century regents, rather than monarchs, governed Scotland.[ix] James V died in 1542 in the midst of conflict between Catholics and reformers. But by the time his daughter Mary took the reins of power, Scotland had become firmly Protestant country.

Mary had a short and troubled reign ending when a group of Scottish lords forced her to abdicate the throne. Catholicism, intrigue, and multiple marriages—the last to the man suspected of murdering her second husband—generated significant political opposition to her reign. Still, forcing her abdication was a bold move asserting the right of the people, or at least of the nobles, to remove monarchs who failed to act as they should. George Buchanan, an important reformer and leader of the Presbyterian Church, gave a remarkable defense of these events called De Jure Regni apud Scotos (1579). In this dialogue, Buchanan asserted the rights of the people and the constitutional limits of rulers. This was entirely consistent with the earliest Presbyterian theology that rejected the unlimited sovereignty of monarchs.

Upon Mary’s abdication, James VI became the official monarch of Scotland when he was one-year old. Before he took control of the government, Scotland experienced significant political turmoil as competing Presbyterian and Episcopalian regimes jostled for power. Even though the vast majority of people were Presbyterian, the king and a significant faction of nobility advocated Anglicanism primarily for their own political and material advantage. The conflict only deepened after Queen Elizabeth I died, allowing James VI of Scotland to become James I of England, Scotland, and Ireland. The constant but relatively moderate political and religious conflict during James VI’s reign broke into violent conflict under his son, Charles I.

As Charles I tried to increase his authority in Scotland further, discontent among the Scots continued to heat up until it boiled over into outright rebellion. The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was William Laud’s (archbishop of Canterbury) imposition of bishops in Presbyterian churches and his requirement that every Christian service begin by reading the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The first day ministers in Edinburgh tried to follow this act, the congregants threw things at them and started rioting in the streets. So began the age of the Covenanters.

Not long after widespread resistance to “innovations” like reading the Book of Common Prayer broke out, church leaders who gathered in the Presbyterian General Assembly created a National Covenant (1638) rejecting all imposed Anglican practices. The Covenanters forcibly removed Anglican bishops and declared their unwillingness to submit to the crown’s decrees regarding Anglicanism. Charles I raised a small army of loyalists to reinstate the bishops but was defeated by Scottish forces in 1639. He was defeated again when he returned with an English army in 1640.

These conflicts were known as the Bishops’ Wars. The defeats at the hands of the Scottish Covenanters left Charles I in dire straits. Scottish armies occupied the northern parts of England waiting to be compensated for the costs of the war. Because he could not raise taxes himself, Charles I was forced to summon Parliament in 1640, which he had not done in eleven years. This “Short” Parliament, far from giving Charles the funds he requested, lobbied him with huge numbers of petitions and grievances that had built up over time. Frustrated by their complaints and their defiance, the king dissolved Parliament only three weeks after convening it.

But Charles still needed money and so he reconvened Parliament again later that year. This “Long” Parliament voted that it could not be dissolved without the agreement of its members and lasted until 1660. While they did give Charles funds to settle the Scottish issue, their grievances with the monarch were far from settled. After clashing throughout 1641, Charles I entered Parliament with armed men in January 1642  to arrest five of his most vocal opponents. The opponents had been warned and were not present. But the unprecedented violation of Parliament’s independence signaled irreconcilable differences. Within a week the King declared Parliament to be in a state of open rebellion.

Besides forcing Charles I to call Parliament to raise money, which created the conflict that led to the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (English Civil War), Scottish Covenanters actively participated in these wars. The conflict began as a civil war between royalists (Cavaliers) and Parliamentarians (Roundheads). The English Parliament persuaded the Scottish Presbyterian Covenanters to enter the conflict on their side in 1643 by joining with them in the “Solemn League and Covenant.”  Although the main purpose of this agreement was to bring the Scottish Covenanters into the war on the side of the Roundheads, it also summoned divines from England and Scotland to meet at Westminster and establish a statement of faith for the English Church. They drafted the influential Westminster Confession of Faith and the Longer and Shorter Westminster Catechisms in 1646. The Scottish Parliament adopted them in 1647 and the English Parliament adopted them with a few amendments in 1648.

The first civil war ended in May 1646 when Charles I surrendered. But two years later war broke out when the Covenanters joined the Presbyterian faction of Parliament to fight against Cromwell’s New Model Army. Their disputes ranged across several theological and political issues. One of the major conflicts was over whether monarchy, of any kind, was a good form of government. Cromwell and his followers were stridently anti-monarchical while the Scots strongly supported constitutional monarchy. Cromwell quickly defeated the Covenanters in 1649. Charles I was then executed with the approval of a purged “Rump” Parliament. A final conflict between the Scottish Covenanters and Cromwell broke out when the Scots tried to put Charles II back on his father’s throne in exchange for his agreement to institute Presbyterianism across England, Ireland, and Scotland for three years. They were defeated by Cromwell again in 1651.

After their defeat, the Scots found themselves fallen from major players in national politics to essentially a provincial backwater. Cromwell largely left the Presbyterians alone. But when Charles II returned to the throne in 1660, Scotland began to feel the squeeze of monarchical authority and Anglicanism again – only this time it would involve significant violent oppression in what is known as “The Killing Time.” The historian Thomas Macaulay described “the contest between the Scottish nation and the Anglican Church as thirty years of the most frightful misgovernment ever seen in any part of Great Britain.”[x] This period saw the violent torture and death of thousands of Scottish Presbyterians.[xi]

Many Presbyterians had stubbornly maintained their independence and institutions during the Restoration and suddenly found themselves free of persecution after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. With William and Mary on the throne: “The relief afforded to all those in England and Scotland who had been persecuted on account of their political and religious opinions under the crushing tyranny of the past eight-and-twenty years was instantaneous and complete.”[xii] But Scotland still lived in England’s shadow. Given the fresh political start accorded them with the Glorious Revolution, they decided to try to beat the English at their own game of global trade and finance.

The Scottish Parliament chartered the Bank of Scotland in 1695 to imitate the Bank of England. Yet unlike the Bank of England or other European banks at the time, the Bank of Scotland was a private institution: “The government neither did business with the bank nor regulated it. In fact, the act creating the bank prohibited its lending to the government, under heavy penalty.”[xiii] The chartering of this bank kicked off a long period of free banking which several historians, including Adam Smith, argue contributed to rapid economic growth in Scotland in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The Scottish Parliament also chartered and granted monopoly privileges to the “Company of Scotland” in 1695 to compete with the British East India Company. Through that Company, the Scots launched a massive undertaking called the Darien Scheme to colonize part of modern day Panama. The idea was to set up a trading post, which they christened New Edinburgh, between the Atlantic and the Pacific. This scheme raised a massive amount of money solely from within their poor nation because the British East India Company had blocked their attempt to raise funds in England and overseas. Estimates of funding enlisted in the venture range from 20% to 50% of all the money in Scotland.[xiv]

Without going into detail, the Darien Scheme was a massive failure. Of 2500 settlers who left, only a few hundred survived to return to Scotland. King William and the English Parliament refused to protect the colonists from the Spanish. They also forbade British colonies in the Caribbean from providing any aid to the Scottish colonists. Other Scottish attempts to compete with the English through trade also failed with multiple ships never returning to Scotland. Unsurprisingly, the collapse of the Company of Scotland led to widespread financial ruin.

Besides the Company of Scotland debacle, the late 1690s were characterized by widespread privation in Scotland. Due to extremely bad weather, the country experienced several years of famine known as the “seven ill years” during which the Scottish population declined by 5% to 15%.[xv] Some of the decline was due to emigration, but most was the result of widespread starvation. The failure of the Darien Scheme embittered most Scots against the English. Yet that failure, along with grinding poverty and alack of trading options, opened the door to union with England by convincing many elites that their best hope for prosperity was closer ties to England. The Act of Union in 1707 opened the door for constructive expansion of state capacity in Scotland through better rule of law, infrastructure, and protection of international trade by England’s navy.

Still, it’s rather remarkable that the Scottish Parliament ratified the Act of Union. Scotland was clearly the junior partner and merging the Parliaments meant Scottish politicians would be a perpetual minority voting bloc. Furthermore, the Act was vehemently opposed by “ordinary” Scots who resented the English. Many of them thought that the Act of Union betrayed Scotland and made it subservient to England. Explicit English bribery of Scottish MPs helped the Act pass. But more importantly, the Act passed because William Carstares, the principal of the University of Edinburgh and the Moderator for the General Assembly, persuaded the Presbyterian Kirk, the most important entity in Scotland at the time, to throw its weight behind the Act.[xvi]

But the first few decades after the Union were rough for Scotland. It seemed as if the English were going to dominate Scotland, whether politically, religiously, or economically. For example, besides the Scottish Parliament being subsumed into the much larger English Parliament, the Scottish Privy Council was also abolished in 1708: “By taking away the Privy Council, Parliament had deprived Scots of the one remaining intermediary body between them and the government in London. From that moment, the notion of a separate Scottish political interest had ceased to exist.”[xvii] Parliament also introduced English liturgy into Anglican services in Scotland and passed an Act of Toleration requiring Scottish Presbyterians to allow Anglicanism in Scotland. Economically, Scottish merchants and businesses that had been protected by tariffs now found themselves competing more directly with their English counterparts. They also found themselves paying higher taxes:
The Scots were also taxed more highly, with some of the new impositions being in breach of the Treaty of Union itself. In addition to linen, taxes rose on salt in 1711 and, most notoriously of all, on malt in 1725. These were basic articles of life, and it is not surprising that the increases on them produced a furious political response, including serious urban rioting in Glasgow in 1725.[xviii]

Certain industries in Scotland suffered contraction initially because of higher taxes and increased competition. But over time, Scottish businessmen discovered that they received more law and order, better roads, and most importantly, protection by the British navy in exchange for these taxes: “Yet, in the long run, taxation hardly drained Scotland dry. Modern estimates suggest only about 15-20 percent of tax revenue actually left the country in the five decades after 1707.”[xix] Taxes went up, but apparently most of the additional revenue was still spent on civil and military expenditure in Scotland itself. Ultimately, the Scots came to recognize the benefits they gained from Union, certainly by the time the Scottish Enlightenment begins in the 1750s.

Finally, two other important events in Scottish history before the Enlightenment were rebellions in 1715 where James II’s son, James Stuart, tried to claim the British throne, and in 1745 when James Stuart’s son, Charles Stuart, tried to claim the throne. Both uprisings were primarily based in Scotland and were largely conflicts between royalist highlanders and Whig Presbyterian lowlanders. These two uprisings left a significant imprint on the Scottish psyche. They revealed the possibility of political instability even in an age of increasing commerce, education, and refinement. They also represented a clash of civilizations - with the highlanders being more primitive, but also more war-like and more powerful than the lowlanders. These uprisings made the relevance of militias versus professional armies an important topic of debate during the Scottish Enlightenment. They also had direct bearing on how Scottish thinkers evaluated social progress and civilization.

Buchanan, George. (1982 [1799, 1579]). De Jure Regni Apud Scotos; A Dialogue Concerning the Rights of the Crown in Scotland. Trans. Robert Macfarlan. Sprinkle Publications: Harrisonburg.
Cameron, James K. (1972). The First Book of Discipline. The St. Andrew Press: Edinburgh.
Cameron, James K. (1980). The Second Book of Discipline. The St. Andrew Press: Edinburgh.
Davidson, Neil. (2003). Discovering the Scottish Revolution 1692-1746. Pluto Press: London.
Devine, T. M. (2004). “Scotland.” The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain vol. 1 ed. Floud & Johnson. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Herman, Arthur. (2001). How the Scots Invented the Modern World. Three Rivers Press: New York, NY.
Macleod, John. (1974 [1943]). Scottish Theology: in Relation to Church History Since the Reformation. The Knox Press: London.
Macpherson, John. (2015 [1901]). A Story of the Church in Scotland: From the Earliest Times Down to the Present Day. FB &c Ltd.: London.
White, Lawrence H. (1984). Free Banking in Britain: Theory, Experience, and Debate, 1800-1845. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

[i] MacLeod 1943:34-35

[ii] Ibid 3

[iii] Ibid 3

[iv] Cameron 1972:40-42

[v] Ibid 58-62

[vi] Ibid 16

[vii] MacLeod 1943:12

[viii] Cameron 1980:61; see also 12, 58-62

[ix] Following the death of James IV in a battle with the English (1513), there were 15 years of regency before James V took the reins of power in 1528. After James the V died in 1542, there were 19 years of regency before Mary Queen of Scots formally took power in 1561. After she was forced to abdicate in 1567, there were 16 years of regency before James VI took power in 1583.

[x] Macpherson 2015:285

[xi] Robert Wodrow gives a remarkable and important account of this time in his book: The History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland from the Restoration to the Revolution published in 1721-1722.

[xii] Macpherson 2015:285

[xiii] White 1984:22

[xiv] Herman 2001: 33-34

[xv] “The overall figure cannot, however, have been less than 5 per cent and may have been as high as 15 per cent; that is to say between 50,000 and 150,000 people.” Davidson 2003:87

[xvi] Herman 2001:45

[xvii] Ibid 55

[xviii] Devine 1995: 43

[xix] Ibid 43