THE warm and genial south generates civilization; the cold and hardy north repeatedly conquers the lax and lazy south, and absorbs and transforms civilization. The extreme north—Scotland, Norway, Sweden, Finland—fights the almost Arctic elements to provide some welcome to civilization, and to contribute to it in the face of a thousand obstacles.
In Scotland the sterile, roadless Highlands encouraged feudalism and discouraged culture, while the green and fertile Lowlands invited invasion after invasion by Englishmen who could not understand why Scotland should not receive their overflow and their kings. The Scots, anciently Celtic, medievally mingled with Irish, Norse, Angles, Saxons, and Normans, had by 1500 merged into a people narrow as their peninsula in feelings and ideas, deep as their mists in superstition and mythology, proud as their promontories, rough as their terrain, impetuous as their torrents; at once ferocious and tender, cruel and brave, and always invincible. Poverty seemed rooted in geography, and manners in poverty; so parsimony grew out of the grudging soil. The peasants were too burdened with toil to have time for letters, and the nobles who kept them in bondage prided themselves on illiteracy, finding no use for the alphabet in their feuds or wars. The mountains and clans divided the sparse population into passionate jealousies that gave no quarter in war, no security in peace. The nobles, having nearly all the military power in their private bands, dominated the Parliament and the kings; the Douglases alone had 5,000 retainers, and revenues rivaling the Crown’s.
Before 1500 industry was primitive and domestic, commerce was precarious, cities were few and small. All Scotland had then some 600,000 inhabitants—half of Glasgow’s number today. Glasgow was a minor fishing town; Perth was, till 1452, the capital; Edinburgh had 16,000 souls. The individual, local, and national spirit of independence expressed itself in village and township institutions of self-government within the framework of feudalism and monarchy. The burghers—the enfranchised citizens of the towns—were allowed representatives in the Parliament or Assembly of Estates, but they had to sit, not in their own Commons as in England, but amid the feudal landowners, and their voice and vote were lost in the noble majority. Unable to buttress their power against the nobles by an alliance, as in France, with rich merchants and populous cities, the kings sought support in the affluence and influence of the Church. The nobles, always at odds with the kings, learned to hate the Church and love her property, and joined in the universal cry that national wealth was being siphoned to Rome. In Scotland it was the nobles—not, as in England, the kings and merchants—who made the Reformation, i.e., freed secular from ecclesiastical power.1
Through its hold on the piety of the people the Scottish Church achieved opulence amid dulling poverty and transmundane hopes. A papal envoy, toward the end of the fifteenth century, reported to the pope that ecclesiastical income in Scotland equaled all other income combined.2 The preachers and the burghers almost monopolized literacy. The Scottish clergy were already in the sixteenth century noted for scholarship, and it was the Church, of course, that founded and maintained the universities of St. Andrews and Aberdeen. After 1487 the bishops and abbots were “nominated”—in effect appointed—by the kings, who used these offices as rewards for political services or as sinecures for their illegitimate sons. James V endowed three of his bastards with the ecclesiastical revenues of Kelso, Melrose, Holyrood, and St. Andrews. The worldly tastes of these royal appointees were in a measure responsible for the deterioration of the clergy in the sixteenth century.
But the general laxity of morals and discipline that marked the Church in the later Middle Ages was evident in Scotland long before the royal nomination of the prelacy. “The corruption of the Church, bad everywhere throughout Europe in the fifteenth century,” writes the strongly Catholic Hilaire Belloc, “had in Scotland reached a degree hardly known elsewhere”;3 hence, in part, the indifference with which the common people, though orthodox in creed, would look upon the replacement of Catholic with Protestant clergymen. In 1425 King James I complained of monastic dissoluteness and sloth; in 1455 a chaplain at Linlithgow, before receiving his appointment, had to give bond that he would not pawn the property of his church, and would not keep a “continual concubine.”4Cardinal Beaton had eight bastards, and slept with Marion Ogilvy on the night before he went to meet his Maker;5 John, Archbishop Hamilton, obtained from divers sessions of the Scottish Parliament letters of legitimation for his increasing brood. The pre-Reformation poets of Scotland spared no words in satirizing the clergy; and the clergy themselves, in the Catholic provincial synod of 1549, ascribed the degradation of the Church in Scotland to “corruption in morals and profane lewdness of life in churchmen of almost all ranks.”6 We should add, however, that the morals of the clergy merely reflected those of the laity—above all, of the nobles and the kings.