Church in Scotland to 1625


The Romans conquered southern England in AD43 and by AD83 the Roman governor, Agricola, had advanced through southern Scotland and was threatening the Caledonian tribes in the north. The tribes decided to fight, but after some initial success, they made the mistake of facing the experienced and disciplined Romans in pitched battle. It took place in AD84, somewhere in the Grampians, after the Romans had pushed deep into north-east Scotland. It is reported that some 10,000 were killed out of a possible army of 30,000. The tribes, however, were fortunate as Agricola was recalled to Rome; the new governor retrenched southwards, and in AD122 Hadrian’s Wall was built. Hadrian’s successor again took the Romans northwards, this time they built a wall (Antonine’s) between the Forth and the Clyde, but this did not last long, with the Romans returning back to behind Hadrian’s Wall. Apart from a few minor border skirmishes, there was peace for around the next hundred years.

During this time of peace the tribes in the north united to become the ‘Picts,’ a name that came from their tendency to paint their bodies. Sometime during the third century ‘Scots’ came over from Ireland to settle in the west of what is now Scotland. By AD306 conflicts became more serious as the Romans resisted the growing strength of the united tribes. During the fourth century the Roman Empire was in decline, and Hadrian’s Wall was abandoned in AD411. As the Romans left Britain, the vacuum was filled by the Angles and Saxons from the area of what is today Germany.

Christianity had come to Britain not many years after the death of Christ. It flourished to an extent at the time of the Roman occupation, but knowing when Christianity came to Scotland is difficult. It is likely that it arrived early in the second century. It could have come through trade, through the return of soldiers who had been fighting for the Empire, or through the Roman soldiers who occupied England and parts of Scotland. There seems to be evidence that King Donald I, his Queen and some courtiers were baptised in AD203, and other kings in the third century were favourable to the spreading of the Gospel. The Diocletian persecutions of AD302 were felt in Britain, and some fled beyond Antonine’s Wall into the land of the Picts.

According to Bede (writing around 720) the first missionary to Scotland was Ninian (but as already mentioned, missionaries were in Scotland long before Ninian). There is very little information about him. He is supposed to have been born around 360AD of Christian parents. When he was about 25 he went to Rome, where he remained for ten or twelve years. On his return he set about missionary work in Scotland. Unfortunately his long stay in Rome would undoubtedly have influenced his view of Christianity. His method would have been far more linked to the ritual of church service, rather than the preaching of the love of God through the power of the Spirit. His first church seems to have been in Whithorn, one of the most southern points in Scotland. This was a time when the Romans would come up from the south to push back the Picts who were invading from the north. The area of Whithorn was very secluded and was ignored by both the Romans and Picts, so it was a haven that Ninian could return to from his missionary journeys. His church there was made of stone and known as ‘The White House.’ Ninian seems to have evanglised the disputed area between the two walls, areas which had been evangelised before, but which now showed little sign of the work of his predecessors. He began a monastery where he taught young men who followed in his footsteps. He died in 432. Although Ninian appears to have had a powerful ministry, it appears that the results soon disappeared after his death.

Palladius, Ternan, Servan, Kentigern (also known as Mungo), are the main names handed down through history of the men who succeeded Ninian over the next two hundred years.Very little is known about these men; this period is not called the Dark Ages for no reason. Their influence seems to have been in the Strathclyde and Galloway areas, and even here it was not very deep. Mungo was brought up by Servan during the first half of the sixth century. At the age of 25 in around 540, Mungo began his missionary work in the area of the Clyde. He built a church where Glasgow is today, staying in the area for thirteen years training young men and travelling around the Strathclyde area preaching the Gospel. Tradition has it that he was driven away by the pagans, so he went to Wales were he founded a monastery (later to become St Asaph’s Cathedral). He had to remain there until 573 when conditions were safe for him to return home. Before leaving he appointed Asaph in his place. He went first to Hoddom in Dumfries, where he remained until 581 when he returned to Strathclyde. For his remaining years he built up a large community that was called ‘Clas-gu’ (dear family). Before he died in the early years of the seventh century, Mungo met with his contemporary, the great abbot of Iona, Columba. The meeting is said to have taken place at Kilmacolm.

Columba is the towering figure from this period. He was born in 521 in Ireland, which at that time was very Christian, and was a centre for Christian learning. Many great Christians were raised up through the monastic school at Clonard Abbey, where Columba was educated. Tradition says that around 560 Columba was involved in a serious argument, and that he was the cause of a great battle that resulted in the death of many men. Columba was allowed to go into exile, so he chose to make amends for the death of the men by going to evangelise Scotland. The main information on his life is from ‘Vita Columbae,’ which was the first book of Scottish literature, written a hundred years after his death.

Columba arrived in Scotland in 563 and was granted land in Iona, where he settled with his twelve companions. He was a ‘Scot’ and he settled amongst his people. He set up a monastery on Iona the only place of learning in the area. North east of Iona were the pagan Picts; to the south there was more than a sprinkling of Christianity, so Columba decided to target one of the main Kings of the Picts, Brude of Inverness. He and his companions travelled about 150 miles to confront King Brude. This was a very dangerous journey as the tribes were all pretty violent in those days. However, the Lord was with him and Brude became a Christian. He was the King’s advisor for over twenty years. When the King died in 584, his crown passed to a prince of the southern Picts, who was based at Abernethy, near Perth. This area had been touched by Ninian’s ministry, but by this time nearly all signs of his ministry had disappeared. Because of his reputation, Columba had influence in this court as well, and having recently consecrated Aidan as king of the Scots in the west, Columba and his missionaries had access to the whole of Scotland north of the Forth and the Clyde. Their influence extended to the northern and western islands; many churches were planted. Columba’s reputation as a holy man led to him being used as a diplomat amongst the tribes, which helped with evangelising, although this did not stop much local opposition and not a few martyrdoms amongst the intrepid missionaries from Iona. His diplomatic activity helped bring peace between the tribes; a peace that lasted 100 years.

Columba is reputed to have moved powerfully in the prophetic and miracles, signs and wonders, which would help explain his remarkable success among the superstitious pagans. He was a very learned man, transcribing many books and passing on his knowledge to the missionaries he trained. At the age of 76 his work was done. On 8th June 597 he retired for the night to his bed. The midnight bell called him to prayers, and before the rest of the brethren he entered the dark church, and lay down upon the stone floor in front of the altar. There in the darkness he was found by his companions, and after he had raised his hands in blessing over those whom he was leaving behind, he died in their arms.

Columba, more than anyone else, was responsible for spreading the Gospel around Scotland. The Gospel he preached was one of love, life and power – no wonder people turned to Christ. It was not a weak social Gospel such as we hear so often these days, but one which changed people’s lives. There are a few preaching this Gospel now, but we need to see more of the Gospel that Columba and his brave followers preached.

The followers of Columba set up centres based on the Iona model. Like Columba, a leader and twelve others would go to an area. They went far and wide into the lands of the Scots and the Picts, including the Hebrides, the Orkneys and the Shetland Isles. Their allegiance was to Iona, to the abbot. Despite historical assumptions, there is no record of any ‘bishop’ being in Scotland at this time, and no sign of the hierarchical church that was all over Romanised Europe, although this was coming. One of their activities was the transcription of the Scriptures. Undoubtedly this activity reminded the intrepid missionaries of the scriptural truths they were copying, so helping them speak out the truth to the local people. They also travelled down to England where they had evangelistic success all the way down to the Thames. The most notable missionaries to England were Aidan, Finian and Colman. Iona also sent missionaries to Europe, where they did some wonderful work, but sadly Rome was more powerful than Iona, and soon the situation was to change.

In 596 Gregory, Bishop of Rome, sent a prior called Augustine to Kent with the purpose of bringing the independent Church of Britain under the heel of Rome. Augustine and his team were accepted by the King of Kent and he made his headquarters in Canterbury. In 601 Augustine convened a council of British and Saxon Bishops near Worcester and demanded that the British Bishops recognise the authority of Rome, but they refused.

Sometime after the death of Augustine, Oswald, King of Northumbria, escaped political problems by fleeing to Scotland where he was converted. In 633 he returned at the head of a small army, and after prayer he had victory. Oswald asked for help from the monastery at Iona and several missionaries came from Scotland and Ireland to help him convert his people. The Word of God went into the south as well, but Oswald whilst still a young man, was killed in battle. Oswald was succeeded by Oswiu, a nominal Christian married to a Roman Catholic. His wife sent a young man called Wilfred to Rome to find out what Christianity was all about there and he returned a vigorous supporter of the Pope. From then on there was much political activity in Oswiu’s court to try to turn Northumbria to the Church of Rome. In 664 Wilfred felt the time was right to make a move and under the pretext of settling some disputes, particularly the date of Easter, he persuaded Oswiu to hold a Synod of Bishops at a monastery in Whitby. As d’Aubigne puts it: ‘It was not a mere question about Easter, or certain rules of discipline, but of the great doctrine of the freedom of the church under Jesus Christ, or its enslavement under the papacy.’ (page 47)

Unfortunately, the worldly wiles of Wilfred and his allies were no match for the godly, but politically naïve, Colman who came to represent the Celtic Church to speak for freedom. The result was that Oswiu fully embraced Rome. Had the decision gone the other way England and Scotland would probably have had a Church that taught biblical truths and moved in the power of the Holy Spirit and who knows where our history would have taken us. As it was the old Celtic usage in the observance of Easter was continued for half-a-century more. In 717, king Nectan of the Picts, wanting more glamour in the church rites, accepted the Roman way of doing things and exiled the Columban monks from his territory. It is likely that the Scots in the North West were still ignoring the edicts from Rome, so would have welcomed the Columban monks. Could it be that this act of Nectan’s resulted in the Picts losing control of the country 130 years later? There had been peace for one hundred years, whereas Nectan brought on a long period of aggression between the two nations.

In 802 the Vikings burnt the buildings on Iona; then they returned four years later, killing 68 people. These were some of the first attacks on Scotland that would last for around three hundred years, with the Norsemen occupying the Orkneys, Shetlands, Hebrides, Galloway and other parts in the far North. The East coast was attacked many times, but they did not colonise that area. In 851 the religious capital was moved from Iona to Dunkeld. The leadership of the church was in steady decline, so that by 873 the abbot of Dunkeld owned large tracts of land and married his daughter to the king. In 863 the new king moved the centre to Abernethy and then in 906 there was a bishop of St Andrew, which became the seat of the primate of Scotland.

Unfortunately, we do not know very much about the church of Columba at this time. We know that there was no hierarchy, so each pastor was independent. In view of this, it is likely that they did not have a uniform church method. Theologies probably changed over time. Also the pastors tended to hand their church/monastery to their sons, so the quality of cleric would be bound to have suffered. They would have been mostly simple pastors, caring for and teaching their flock, but there is no record of any miracles, signs and wonders, such as went with Columba’s ministry. It is likely that on the whole they were good men, doing the best they could, but lacking in power.

The Scots and the Picts had several battles to see who was going to rule over the whole of the land between the Spey and the Firth of Forth. Finally in 843, possibly because the Picts had been weakened through a major battle with the Vikings in 839, the Scots overcame the Picts, and Kenneth McAlpin, a descendant of Aidan the first king of the Scots, consecrated by Columba, became king over the united land called Alba. So the new boys took over one of the earliest inhabitants of the land. Soon after this the Picts disappear from history, but nobody knows how or why. It is probably for this reason that myths have grown up about the Scots slaughtering the Picts. This may or nor may not be true; we will have to just pass by this part of history, and accept that the Scots became the rulers over the land.

McAlpin left behind him a code of law known as the ‘McAlpin Code,’ which helped with the unifying of the nation. After setting up the new religious centre in Dunkeld, he brought over the relics of Columba and called back his followers who had been exiled from Pict territory in the early eighth century. He also brought the throne and the ‘Lia-Fail’ (stone of destiny) to Dunkeld, making the town in the old land of the Picts, the centre of the country. McAlpin died in 860 and asked to be buried at Iona. In 872 Constantin I murdered the king of Strathclyde and annexed the territory.

Around 880 King Gregory issued a law that “gave freedom to the Scottish Church, which had been in bondage till that time, according to the rule and custom of the Picts.” While it is argued that this bondage was the imposition of the ways of the Roman Church, this act allowed the followers of Columba to carry on their way of worship. Evidence to back this argument up is that two hundred years later they were charged with not conforming to Rome. The historians are very quiet about the Columban church, probably because as Roman Catholics they did not want to advertise the work of the competition, but the report on them still not conforming two hundred years later is evidence enough of their continued existence. Not only that, but the number of churches scattered over Scotland and Europe that are named after the Columban missionaries bear testimony to the effectiveness of their ministry.

In 906 King Constantin II called a great church assembly at Scone for the purposes of reforming the Church. It was presided over by the king and the bishop who was successor to Columba. The object of this national convention was ‘the reformation of religion, in accordance with the laws and discipline of the faith, the rights of the Church, and the precepts of the Gospel.’ There was no mention of Roman canons in the objects of this convention, and there was no Papal Legate present. It seems beyond doubt that at this time the Roman Church had no influence over the Scottish Church; she was still independent. The flame of Iona was still burning, although the very calling for this meeting acknowledges that the Church was in decline; the flame was dimming. However, there was a desire to get back to the roots of the faith that sprang out of Iona.

The knowledge of this Assembly is all we know of the Church at this time. Sadly, the Assembly must have been unsuccessful, as Scotland went into spiritual decline; one of the reasons for this may have been the myriad of wars that were to take place over the next 150 years. The Rev J A Wyllie, in his ‘History of the Scottish Nation,’ from which this essay is largely taken, talks about the talent that Scotland had been given. He writes, ‘Scotland, at this hour, gave but small promise of ever attaining the high destiny to which it seemed to be so surely and so rapidly advancing under Columba and his immediate successors. Its strength had been weakened in the way; it had turned aside from the only road that led to the goal which in former years it had so eagerly striven to reach. It looked as if fated to fall back into its primeval barbarism, and never see the good land of a perfected spiritual and political liberty. Scotland had received but one talent: it was therefore all the more incumbent on it to preserve that one talent, and trade with it, and turn it to the best possible account. Some of its neighbours had received ten talents. They had been gifted with ample territories, with a fertile soil, with a delicious climate, and the arts and letters which their ancestors had perfected and transmitted to them. But none of these rich endowments had fallen to the lot of the “land of brown heath and shaggy wood.” Scotland had received but one talent, and that one talent was Bible Christianity. If it should trade upon it and wax rich and great, and outstrip its neighbours with their ten talents, well; but if it should fold its one possession in a napkin and bury it in the earth, what had Scotland besides? It had squandered its all, and had nothing before it in the ages to come but poverty and serfdom.’

In 937 Constantin made an alliance with the Irish, the Norsemen and those Welsh speakers who occupied what is today southern Scotland against the Angles, who should now be called the English. The English king, Athelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, had united England by defeating the last of the Danes. The borders at that time were the England of today, but extending up the east side to the Firth of Forth; the old border of Northumbria. The Battle of Brunanburgh possibly took place near the mouth of the Mersey, and the result was a decisive win for Athelstan, although he did lose a number of men. Five kings died in the battle. A recent TV documentary (4/1/2009) claimed that the battle saved Scotland, but I do not understand this statement. Athelstan was a warlike king who had just united his own country, and crushed (even if at some cost to his own army) all potential international opposition. If he had wanted to conquer Scotland, I cannot see how losing a few men would have stopped him.

The following years were full of wars with the Danes, internal intrigue, civil war and war on the borders of the country. Nearly all of the kings of this period met with a bloody death. Around 960 the area around Edinburgh was annexed, and when Malcolm II came to the throne, like most of the kings he tried to take over the territory down to the Tweed. He invaded Northumbria, but was soundly beaten. In 1018 he tried again, and this time he was successful in annexing the territory. The Vikings then tried to invade Scotland, rather than just raid it. After two bloody battles they were repulsed, and were not to be a threat again (except for one final showdown 250 years later). Some time after this the name of ‘Alba’ changed to ‘Scotia.’ The first time this is recorded is in reporting the death of Malcolm II in 1034, calling him the king of Scotia.

In 1066 William conquered England and then he sent troops against Scotland. After several defeats, he entered Scotland himself, forcing Malcolm III to make peace. It is impossible to attribute blame for these constant battles between the Scots and the English. One king or another would attack because of ambition or revenge and this cycle went on for generations.

After William’s invasion of England, the royal family sought refuge in Scotland. Malcolm III took them in; one of their numbers was the elder sister of the heir to the throne, a very accomplished woman called Margaret. Malcolm was impressed by her and married her. She was a very religious woman, but her religion was a rule to work by, a formula to be observed, rather than living a life led by the Holy Spirit. She was more concerned about good works than faith, a very common error in those days before the Reformation. It was this woman who decided to reform the Scottish Church, and to this end her husband called a meeting at his Dunfermline palace; made up of a few Columban pastors on the one side, and three English ecclesiastics on the other, chosen and dispatched by Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, at Margaret’s request. The Columban pastors knew no language other than Gaelic, so Malcolm interpreted. The meeting went on for three days, with the Queen making it clear that she wanted to reorganise the church on the basis of Canterbury – in other words, like Rome.

The points raised were: uniformity of rite, the Lenten fast, the observance of the Sabbath, the practice of marriage, the celebration of the Eucharist and the time of the observance of Easter. The Scottish Church and her clergy were charged on all these points, as being in error, and needing to be “brought back into the way of truth. The report of the meeting only gives one side of the discussions, ignoring the point of view of the Columban pastors. It is clear that there was not a change overnight. There were two ways by which the king could make sure that the kingdom bowed the knee to Roman ways. First, he could make an edict making it compulsory to worship in the Roman Catholic way, and then enforce it with arms. Malcolm was not the sort of man to force religion on his people and anyway it would have been a very difficult and time consuming job. Secondly, he could have sent preachers all over the kingdom to ‘persuade’ the people to turn from their wicked ways, but where was he to find such people? The only language the people knew was Gaelic, but none of the preachers from England or the Continent could speak Gaelic. Strangely, language in this case was a barrier to the true Gospel being destroyed, whilst later it was the English language that enabled the Gospel to be preached around the world.

Margaret was left with only one strategy, her own influence. “She erected a noble church (in Dunfermline), which she dedicated to the Holy Trinity; and she decorated it with many ornaments, among which not a few of her gifts, which were designed for the most holy service of the altar, consisted of vases of solid and pure gold. She also introduced the crucifix into the Church, having presented one to this church richly ornamented with gold and silver, intermixed with precious stones, and similar crucifix she left to other churches as marks of her piety and devotion, of which the church of St. Andrews affords an instance.” She used her influence in Court to turn people to her religion, using as an attraction beautiful buildings and rich trappings. It is quite easy to persuade people that God would prefer us to worship him in pomp and ceremony, rather than plainness and simplicity.

The Bishop who reported on the conference stated that the Columban pastors agreed to all Margaret’s recommendations, but this was clearly not the case, as future events showed. Although the conference did not result in any major changes, it was the turning of the tide, with many significant changes happening slowly over time. In 1093 Malcolm and his oldest son were killed in yet another battle with the English, and Margaret died from a long illness four days later. This same year the last Columban Bishop of St Andrews died.

Malcolm and his son Eadgar opened the doors to Saxon and Norman nobleman settling in Scotland. They were given lands and they brought to Scotland greater refinement, but they alienated the local people and brought a new language, lowland Scotch. This was the beginning of the decline in Gaelic as the native tongue. The next king, Alexander, had spent several years trying to exalt the Church with all the pomp and ceremony that his mother had envisaged. He built churches, acquired relics and brought in monks to fill monasteries. The see of St Andrew was vacant for fourteen years. Clearly, the likely candidates to fill the position that was originally held by Columba, either were not considered suitable by the king, or would not accept the position, because they would not embrace Popish rites etc. This shows that it was likely that there were still numbers of Columban pastors around at this time. The new incumbent came from Durham, but he only lasted a year owing to disagreements with the king, and there followed another twelve years without a bishop being appointed.

In 1120 Alexander asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to supply someone for the post. This was duly done, but the new man wanted to be consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The king would not allow this because it would subjugate the Church of Scotland to England, and if this happened there was a chance that his crown would go the same way. The result was the bishop returned to England and the see was vacant again. After choosing two other candidates, who both died before taking up their posts, Alexander finally ended up with his bishop in 1124, an Englishman who was prior of the Augustine monks at Scone. Alexander also took the step of creating two new bishoprics at Moray and Dunkeld, to add to that of St Andrews. This was the beginning of diocese and parishes coming to Scotland. The king died in 1124, but his tireless work in Catholicising Scotland brought the country to a place of no return.

Another of Margaret’s sons, David, succeeded to the throne. He was educated in England, living there until he was forty; time enough to be immersed in the Roman rites that were all over the country. It was his life’s ambition to change the religion of Scotland. Though the religion of the age was weak, its ecclesiasticism was powerful, and was every year becoming more so, and David was not the only monarch who was borne along with the current, believing that in addition to the grandeur of Rome, he was adding to the power of Christianity.

David added six bishoprics. Many Columban pastors were stripped of all their lands and possessions, which were handed over to the foreign monks who took their place. If they bowed the knee to the new regime they could stay, if not they were often thrown out. An example of this was the monastery at Lochleven.‘In the royal charter now given to the Bishop of St Andrews David declares that “he had given and granted to the Canons of St. Andrews the island of Lochleven, that they might establish canonical order there; and the Keledei (Columbans) who shall be found there, if they consent to live as regulars shall be permitted to remain in society with and subject to the others; but should any of them be disposed to offer resistance, his will and pleasure was that such should be expelled from the island.”’ Many Columban establishments were gradually suppressed, with more or less violence, ending in spoliation and extinction.

At St Andrews, the representative of Columba was now an English Augustinian monk. He took some of his monks with him and gave them some of the Columbans’ possessions. The Columbans were told to merge into the monks’ way of life, or else. The godly descendants of Columba, although out-numbered and out-resourced, resisted the move against them for almost two hundred years. In 1147 they were deprived by a Papal bull of their right to elect the Bishop of St. Andrews. This was appealed against, and for more than a century their part in the episcopal election was confirmed and disallowed by various popes. In 1162 their share in the altar offerings was denied them. In 1220 they refused to hand over the possessions of one of their number who had died, but were compelled to do so by the Pope. In 1273 they were finally banned from participating in the election of the bishop of St Andrews, and in 1332 in the election of any bishop. Although they lost the war, some of them still carried on until the Reformation under the name ‘Provost and Prebendaries of St. Mary of the Rock.’

David raised up many abbeys, priories and other religious houses, and he brought in many foreign ecclesiastics to conduct the services. The actions of David and his predecessors were laying up great trouble for the years ahead. Because of the land and money that these religious organisations were given, they were disliked by both the nobles and the people, because both were made poorer to fund these new interlopers. So the form of Popery was spread throughout the land, but how much did it affect the people? The services in the cathedrals were in Latin, which the people would not have understood; in the country, the monks would have spoken in Saxon or French, neither of which the people would have been able to understand, and the Bible was hardly every read. After many years, no doubt the monks will have learned Gaelic, but if it is anything like it was in England, the monks would have been entirely ignorant of the Bible and would have preached myths and Papal decrees. They used metaphor and allegory a great deal. An example from the ‘Monasticon’ is ‘A lark is a bird which sings a song proceeding from the recollection of the benefits of God. For the lark, when she begins to mount, lightly sings Deum, Deum, Deum; when she comes a little higher, she sings many times Deum, many times Deum; when she comes highest of all she sings entirely Deum. Thus does the pious soul from gratitude.’

David died in 1153, leaving his weak grandson, Malcolm, as king. Malcolm was up against his cousin, the astute Henry II in England, and Henry was able to force Malcolm to give up the principalities of Northumbria and Cumbria which had been in dispute for some years. Malcolm in his short reign added many more monasteries and convents to the Scottish landscape. Considering the size of population, one would have thought they already had enough. His successor was his brother William who put the lion on the flag in place of the dragon that had always been there. William tried to get the English lands back, but was captured for his troubles, and forced in 1175 to sign a water tight agreement whereby he acknowledged Henry as his liege-lord. William also gave up five castles including Edinburgh and Stirling. This was a huge blow to Scotland; she had lost her independence for the first time, and without a blow being struck. However, Scotland was fortunate. When Henry died, Richard I wanted money for the crusades, so he sold the oath of fealty back for £100,000 in 1189. William and his successor were able to extend the Scottish territory through defeating the Earl of Caithness in 1196, and Guthred in 1216, thus securing the North.

For many years York and Canterbury had laid claim to the Scottish realm as part of their diocese. William decided to end the dispute by offering Scotland’s allegiance to the Pope directly. The Pope agreed, thus ending the claims of the English bishops. William died in 1214 to be succeeded by his son, Alexander, who died in 1249. Alexander threatened to remove the Norsemen from the Orkneys, Shetlands and other islands, so the Norse king reacted in the reign of Alexander’s son, Alexander III, by bringing a fleet of 160 ships to attack Scotland in 1263 for the last time. The Vikings had the upper hand, but they took too much time plundering, which gave Alexander time to muster a large army. The Vikings were soundly beaten and their king died on the way home. This victory led, in time (1472), to Scottish sovereignty over all the islands.

In 1243 Alexander added Galloway to his territories. The English took over Galloway in the eighth century, and then for about two hundred years the Vikings settled there. In the twelfth century, Fergus of Galloway, followed by his sons and grandsons, retained independence for the area by shifting allegiance between the English and Scottish kings. This situation changed on the death of Alan who had three daughters and an illegitimate son. The people of Galloway wanted the son, but were defeated by Alexander who supported the daughters, and their independence was lost.

Alexander died as a result of falling from his horse in 1286. On the religious side nothing of significance happened for the following two centuries; Scotland remained firmly in the grip of Roman Catholicism, made all the stronger through alliances with France. On the political side, Alexander left his three year old grand-daughter as Queen, but she died aged seven and with her the line died out. Edward I of England oversaw the choosing of the next king on the understanding that he would be acknowledged as Lord Superior of Scotland. John Balliol was chosen over Robert the Bruce. A treaty with France in 1295 was viewed by Edward as a declaration of war, and so ended more than 100 years of peace between the two nations. Edward attacked Scotland, won the battle of Dunbar, displaced the king, took the Stone of Scone to England and received the fealty of the Scottish lords. War went backwards and forwards until 1328 when peace was signed. By this time Robert the Bruce had murdered his main rival and taken the crown.

More infighting happens on the death of Bruce, when he leaves a five year old as king. The next two hundred years are full of intrigue, murder, wars against England and civil wars. Two Scottish kings were captured by the English and freed at great cost to the Scottish treasury. Much of the political uncertainty came from a number of young children succeeding to the throne. This essay is focusing on the Church of Scotland, so I shall leave the political aspects of this long period for others to untangle. One significant event that happened was the Black Death in 1349 which killed about 20% of the Scottish population.

In the second half of the fourteenth century John Wycliffe, the Morning Star of the Reformation, arose in England and his followers, the Lollards, went far and wide preaching the good news of the Gospel. One of these, James Resby, arrived in Scotland around 1406. He soon attracted the attention of the Church and was called before an ecclesiastical council. There were forty counts against him, of which two were: He denied that the pope is the vicar of Christ, and that anyone could be Pope or Vicar of Christ who was not personally holy. The Church of Scotland had got to a place where it could not stand any criticism of the Pope; it had come a long way. Resby was burned at the stake in Perth in 1407, the first Scottish martyr.

The Church of Scotland had by this time declined to such an extent that forces without were getting ready to change it. The idle and dissolute lives of the great majority of the monks, the ignorance and contemptible habits of the secular clergy and the rapacity and cruelty with which all classes of churchmen exacted their dues on all manner of pretexts, had produced among the people distrust and dislike that only waited a fit opportunity to obtain expression. Paul Craw, a Bohemian who had learned about Wycliffe’s doctrines from Hus, arrived in Scotland to help people of a like mind. Unfortunately, there were not yet people in Scotland who could give him support. Craw had insisted that the Scriptures should be put into the hands of the people; that the doctrines of priestly absolution and of purgatory were human inventions; and that churchmen should be subject to the civil government like other men. He was tried by the ecclesiastical court in St Andrews and was hurried from the trial to the stake.

Not every clergyman was bad. James Kennedy was appointed Bishop of St Andrews in 1446. He insisted upon all the parsons and vicars living constantly in their parishes and attending to the instruction and edification of their flocks, to the preaching of the Word of God among the people, and to the visiting of the sick. He regularly visited each kirk within his diocese four times every year, preaching himself and making enquiries as to the instructions given by the vicar and his diligence generally in his work. He also carefully enquired as to the training of the young and the support given to the poor.

Kennedy’s successor was his half-brother Patrick Graham, who was elected in 1465; however, the king’s guardians would not accept him as bishop. Graham went to Rome where the Pope confirmed his election and also made the bishopric of St Andrew’s an archbishopric, placing all the other bishoprics in Scotland under his control. He had evidently succeeded in convincing the pope that the stability of the church in Scotland was being seriously endangered by the wide-spread corruption of the clergy, and by the appointment on political grounds of incompetent and irreligious persons to bishoprics and the richer abbacies. And so, in order that the new primate of Scotland might have all the greater influence in putting down irregularities in the churches under his rule, the pope gave him for three years the rank of legate, or papal nuncio, and thus, in carrying out his reforms, he could act with the authority of the pope himself. Unfortunately, both the king and the clergy were against being reformed, and they succeeded in a plan to get the pope to throw Graham out of office. The plan was most likely a huge bribe. Graham was pronounced mentally incapable, and the revenues of his position were taken by the king. So no reformation took place.

Despite the best efforts of the bishops, the evangelical teachings of Wycliffe entered Scotland slowly but surely. In 1494 the new archbishop of Glasgow summoned 30 suspected Lollards from the area of Kyle to Ayr to face 34 counts of accusation. Their spokesman was a man of wit which pleased the king, so they were released.

In 1507 the first printing press arrived in Scotland. It was set up in Edinburgh as a monopoly under the king’s patronage, and nobody was allowed to buy or sell any books printed abroad. Either there could have been very little demand for books in Scotland at that time, or the government wanted to suppress all literature it did not approve of; otherwise there would not have been such a law. Incredibly, virtually nothing was printed until 1530. From 1511 Scotsmen had their books printed abroad. The restrictions were lifted at some point, because by 1550 there were presses in St Andrews and Aberdeen. Scotland was one of the last countries in Europe to embrace the printing press.

After Graham, his bitter enemy took the see of St Andrews, and he was followed by the king’s brother and illegitimate son. This shows what depths the Church had got to.



Patrick Hamilton was born in 1504, the son of a brave knight. He was educated in Paris, where he eagerly followed the teachings of Erasmus and Luther. He went to St Andrews University in 1524. The following year there was an Act passed at the insistence of the bishops which forbade the discussion of Luther’s ideas or the importation of any of his books. Traders ignored the act, bringing in Luther’s works, and even William Tyndale’s New Testament. Hamilton began to speak out the truths he had been taught, but the Archbishop of St Andrews heard about it and summoned him to answer a charge of heresy. Hamilton fled to Europe, meeting up with Luther, Tyndale and others as he travelled from city to city. While with Tyndale he wrote and published a set of theses where he laid out the new doctrine; this was the first piece of Scottish Reformation literature.

He returned to Scotland to his family home at Kincavel in 1527, preaching his first sermon at Binny parish church. He preached the Gospel in all the districts around Linlithgow. After about three months of preaching the Archbishop heard him speak and laid out a trap for him. He invited him to come to a conference at St Andrews to discuss matters. Hamilton went, knowing full well the risks. He was allowed to discuss and speak in St Andrews for a month while the Archbishop got all his evidence together; because he knew that Hamilton had powerful friends, he had to get everything right; then he summoned him. Hamilton’s friends and family told him to escape, but he knew he had to stand for his faith and not appear to be afraid. He was tried, found guilty and executed the same day; it took six hours for the flames to consume him. His older brother had raised a force to rescue him, but there was a storm which prevented them from arriving in time.

The martyrdom of Hamilton did not have the effect that his persecutors hoped for. A companion of the Archbishop later said “If ye will burn them, let them be burnt in hollow cellars, for the smoke of Mr. Patrick Hamilton hath infected as many as it blew upon.” People started to discuss why Hamilton had been burned and the justice of his preaching. Executing a man of noble birth, who was renowned for his learning, spotless character, gracious manners and his protracted sufferings, was clearly a mistake. The Church could not have done more to encourage people to investigate why such a man had to be burned. One of the Blackfriars of St Andrew, Alexander Seaton, began to preach against the traditions of the Church. The king’s favour protected him for a while, but in the end he had to escape to England where he became chaplain to the Duke of Suffolk. Henry Forrest, a Benedictine friar of Linlithgow was burned later for sympathising with his writings. There were then ten years of civil war, so there was a lull in persecution.

Archbishop Beaton died and was followed by his nephew, who had long been his vicious adviser. In February 1540 five were burned on Castle Hill at Edinburgh and two others later in Glasgow. By now Henry VIII had dissolved the monasteries, taking all their money and property. He tried to persuade King James to do the same, but Archbishop Beaton made sure that his influence was great enough so this did not happen. James died and under the regency a bill was passed allowing anyone to own a translation of the Old or New Testament. Unfortunately, the Regent was a weak man, and allowed the Archbishop and the nobles attached to him to get control of the government. Beaton arranged for a break with England to form an alliance with France, and made a proclamation saying that heresy had to be suppressed. He went with bishops and nobles to Perth to try four men and a woman. The men were hanged; the woman with her baby were put in a sack and drowned.

The death of each martyr brought more people into investigating what had influenced such brave men and women. More and more people got hold of a copy of the Bible and read for themselves the truths that they had been prevented from reading for centuries. The first disciples were nobles and lairds, but these burnings spread Christianity among the people. Because of the persecutions many learned men fled to England, but the humbler people had to stay at home and avoid the hands of the vicious prelates.

In 1542 King James V attacked Henry as part of the priest’s party policy to try to stop Protestantism from entering the country through England. The result was a humiliating defeat at Solway Moss and the death of the king a few days later. The Earl of Arran, a professedReformer and the premier noble in the land, was made Regent for the 8 day old Queen Mary. He chose other Reformers as advisers and two as chaplains, so the truth was preached at the heart of the Court. The Regent’s most important Act was in 1543 that permitted anyone to read the Bible in his mother tongue; up to now this had been banned by the priest’s party.This Act opened up the Word to the whole nation. Unfortunately Arran’s keenness for the Reformation waned rather quickly, as did his power as David Beaton came back into prominence.

In July 1542 George Wishart returned to Scotland from the Continent, where he had gone to escape persecution. Wishart was a wonderful preacher, so a great boon to the growing Reformation. He began preaching in Dundee, staying there until he felt he was putting his congregation at risk. He then went to Ayr and Kyle, the land of the Lollards, where the churches were closed to him, so instead he spoke to thousands outside. He returned to Dundee on hearing that the plague had arrived, preaching to the stricken outside the Cowgate and the healthy who were on the inside. He was fully involve in helping the sick until the plague left and he left Dundee at the end of 1545, but not before foiling an attempt on his life. He next went to Edinburgh, preaching there and in the villages of East Lothian. He was captured at Ormiston on January 16th and was thrown into the Sea Tower at St Andrews. He was burned on March 1st, the day after his trial. However, unknown to anyone, he had in the days prior to his capture, handed over his baton to John Knox, who had heard him speak privately and publicly several times before his arrest.

On 28th May some nobles who were supporters of Wishart ran the Archbishop through with their swords. After the killing, 140 men came to join them in holding the Castle. The new Archbishop was of a similar persecution type to his predecessor. He tried to take possession of his castle, but Henry supplied the band with money and provisions so that they could hold out. John Knox was fed up with the persecution he was experiencing under the Archbishop, so he had decided to go to Europe, but his employer encouraged him to go to St Andrews with the two children he tutored, and carry on his work there. He arrived on Easter 1547, and while there he preached to the people when he was able. The leaders of the reform party holding St Andrews recognised his rare gift and proposed that he should become the pastor to the people there. After much prayer Knox accepted.

Under pressure from the Archbishop, the sub-prior, who had heard Knox preach, summoned him to a convention where he set out Knox’s doctrine under nine headings. ‘1, No mortal man can be head of the Church; 2, The Pope is an antichrist, and so is no member of Christ’s mystical body; 3, Man may neither make nor devise a religion that is acceptable to God, but man is bound to observe and keep the religion that from God is received, without chopping or changing thereof; 4, The sacraments of the New Testament ought to be administered as they were instituted by Christ Jesus, and preached by his Apostles: nothing ought to be added to them, nothing ought to be diminished from them; 5, The mass is abominable idolatry, blasphemous to the death of Christ, and a profanation of the Lord’s Supper; 6, There is no purgatory, in which the souls of men can either be pined or purged after this life, but heaven resteth to the faithful, and hell to the reprobates and unfaithful; 7, Praying for the dead is vain and to the dead is idolatry; 8, There is no bishop, except he preach ever by himself, without any substitute; 9, The tithes by God’s law do not appertain of necessity to the churchmen.’ The Romish party was determined to have their own people in the pulpit on Sunday so as to prevent Knox from preaching, but Knox was preaching every day to those within and without the castle walls.

The Queen and her party were enraged and called for help from the French, who sent 21 ships to attack the castle. The attack began on June 29th, but had no success. On July 23rd the Regent’s land forces joined the fleet, blockading the castle on all sides. After a six hour bombardment on the 30th, the walls were in ruins and many of the defenders were dead, so a surrender was arranged on the condition that all lives would be saved. They were promised service under the French king or anywhere else they wanted other than Scotland. They were taken away by the French galleys, but the leaders were imprisoned in Rouen, with the remainder, including Knox, going to work in the galleys. Those in Rouen escaped to England, where they found Knox, who with the others in the galley were released after 18 months.

Knox remained in England for five years, being a pastor in Berwick and Newcastle; and he assisted the reformers preparing church services. In 1551 he was appointed one of Edward VI’s chaplain’s, but he turned down the offer of the bishopric of Rochester. On the accession of Mary I, Knox went to Geneva where he pursued his studies, became friends with Calvin and others, and became pastor of an English congregation in Frankfurt until a minority drove him out. He was accused of treason for having said that the Emperor was little better than Nero and Queen Mary I was more cruel than Jezebel. The magistrates of Frankfurt were afraid for his safety, so he returned to Geneva and on receiving a call from some friends he left for Scotland in 1555.

A number of reformers in Scotland went to England when Henry died, and they came back again when Mary came to the throne. Two of these were William Harlaw and John Willock, who built up small protestant congregations under the protection of different landowners. Scotland was more fortunate than England, as the persecution was not nearly so fierce. The main reason for this is that England had a strong monarchy throughout the sixteenth century, so hardly anyone would defy the will of the monarch. In Scotland there had not been a strong monarch for centuries; so local rivalries were numerous, alliances shifted, parties ruled and then were deposed. The history of the Scottish people was such that acting under authority was not one of their favourite occupations; most Scots held their independence as sacrosanct. So it was possible for protestant preaching to occur so long as the local laird was sympathetic and powerful enough to protect them.

Knox was able to preach in many different places which alarmed the Dowager Queen, so he was summoned to Edinburgh to answer charges of heresy. He went with so many supporters that the court never took place. Knox’s time in Scotland was short, but effective. Several leading nobles were now under the Reformation banner and gave up mass, receiving instead the Lord’s Supper from the hands of Knox. Protestantism was now no longer just a doctrine, it was a congregation. In July 1556 Knox went to Geneva after a call for help from some of his old congregation. As soon as he was gone he was summoned to answer charges of heresy, tried in his absence and burned in effigy at the stake.

The Reformation now grew more quickly. The midland counties of Forfar, Fife, the Lothians and Ayr had few places where there were not followers of the Reformation. They had as yet no preachers, but they met in such places and at such times, as circumstances permitted, for their mutual edification. The most pious of their number was appointed to read the Scriptures, to exhort and to offer up prayer. They were of all classes — nobles, barons, burgesses, and peasants. They felt the necessity of order in their meetings and purity in their lives; and with this in mind they chose elders to watch over their morals, promising subjection to them. Thus gradually, stage by stage, they approached the outward organisation of a Church; and it is interesting to note that in the Reformed Church of Scotland elders came before ministers, just as they did in the early Church.

Knox was called back to Scotland by his friends, and on the advice of Calvin and others he started his journey home, only to find letters from the same lords at Dieppe, backtracking on their invitation. He wrote to them but got no reply, so he returned to Geneva where he wrote a great deal, including ‘First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.’ He basically said that women should not be in positions of authority. This was aimed primarily at Mary of England, who had been so cruel in her persecution of Protestants, several of them Knox’s friends. Knox expected a storm to come at him over this publication and he was right. He was attacked from all sides, losing several friends at the same time. If he had waited a few months before publishing he may have cancelled it, because Mary died and Elizabeth came to the throne. Elizabeth really resented the publication and never forgave Knox for writing it. It was undoubtedly a mistake, and he knew it as he cancelled his plan to write a second and third ‘Trumpet Blast’. Knox was also one of the contributors to the ‘Geneva Bible’, which became the most popular Bible of its time. It was hatred of this Bible, due to it not supporting Episcopacy, that James VI of Scotland and I of England arranged for a new Bible to be produced, the ‘King James Version’.

On December 3rd, Argyle, the lords Knox had written to, Glencairn, Morton, Erskine of Dun and a great number of influential and earnest men in Edinburgh signed a Covenant promising continually to apply their whole power, substance, and their very lives to maintain, set forward, and establish the most blessed word of God and his congregation, and to forsake and renounce the congregation of Satan with all the superstitions, abominations, idolatry thereof, and to declare themselves manifestly enemies thereto. These lords again wrote to Knox, asking him to return; this time he did, arriving in Edinburgh in May 1559.

The Archbishop of St Andrews tried to negotiate with the reformers, but having failed he resorted to persecution, arresting an 81 year old man for heresy. Walter Miln was a priest who wandered too near to St Andrews, was arrested, tried on April 20th and burned at the stake on April 28th. The Scottish Church realised that it was in trouble, so a provincial Synod met for a year to come up with some reforms. The results were that clergy immorality should cease, that clergy should dress properly; bishops should preach at least four times a year and priests more often if possible. These measures were clearly inadequate to appeal to the reformers. Shortly before Knox’s arrival, the regent issued a proclamation prohibiting all persons from preaching or dispensing the Sacraments without authority from the bishops. Four (Paul Methven, John Christison, William Harlow, and John Willock) reformed preachers disobeyed. The Regent, on learning this, summoned them to appear before her at Stirling on the 10th of May and answer to a charge of heresy and rebellion. At the same time France and Spain had concluded a peace and formed a league for the suppression of the Reformation by force of arms. The French Queen Regent was formulating plans to have French soldiers occupy Scotland. This was a pivotal time for the Reformation, and in walked John Knox. A messenger came to the provincial council, which was meeting, to say that Knox had arrived. The meeting broke up in disarray, a sign of what even the name of Knox could do. A message was sent to the Regent in Glasgow and Knox was declared a rebel and outlaw.

Knox was the man sent by God to lead the Reformation. His devotion and zeal, now fully matured in the school of suffering; his sincerity and uprightness; his magnanimity and courage; his skill in theological debate, and his political insight, in which he excelled all living Scotsmen; the confidence and hope with which he was able to inspire his fellow-countrymen; and the terror in which the prelates stood of his very name, all marked him out as the chosen instrument for his country’s deliverance. The result was very much in doubt. Half the nobles, the church and the Highlands were for Catholicism; and of the half of the nobles who supported the Reformation most, were more interested in personal gain than faith. The greatest support for the Reformation came from the merchants and traders.

Knox went to join the four preachers at Perth, before going on to Stirling. A large band of men from Dundee and Angus also came to Perth to support the preachers. John Erskine went ahead to assure the Regent that the men came in peace, but she panicked, telling Erskine that the men did not need to appear before her. Erskine returned to tell the men to go home, but the Regent was lying again, and as soon as nobody showed for the trial, the four were outlawed. On hearing the news Knox preached a powerful sermon at St John’s, Perth, denouncing lies and the idolatry of the mass. After the service, a monk very unadvisedly celebrated mass. A boy threw a stone at the monk; it missed, hitting and breaking an image and a riot ensued, where everything in the church was destroyed. Others joined in, destroying three monasteries in the town. It had not been Knox’s sermon that had brought about the destruction, but the lies and perfidy of the Regent and the Catholic party.

The Regent was so angry when she heard the news that she said she would destroy every man woman and child in the town and raze it to the ground. She sent an army of 8,000 French soldiers to attack Perth, but the Protestant lords knew what was planned and raised up an army of their own. The Regent was forced to make terms, the lords withdrew to allow her to enter Perth.

The lords, now known as the Lords of Congregation, took stock of their situation. They realised that they had to move forward, whatever the consequences. They resolved to set up the Reformed worship at once in all those places to which their authority extended, and where a majority of the inhabitants were favourable to the idea. The Earl of Argyle and Lord James Stuart, Prior of St. Andrews, both new converts, arranged with Knox to meet in that city on an early day in June, and inaugurate there Protestant worship. The archbishop found out about the plan, so he sent a message to Knox that he would be shot if he came to St Andrews to preach. The lords agreed that the risk was too great; especially as the French army was only fifteen miles away, but Knox was determined to go as to give way under threats would encourage more of the same later. Years earlier, while chained to an oar, Knox had seen the cathedral and promised himself that he would preach there before his career ended.

Knox discerned this was a time for courage and boldness, not timidity. He preached on June 11th in the parish church, to perhaps the most influential audience that the Scotland of that day could furnish: nobles, priests and townspeople crowding to hear him. Every part of the vast edifice was filled and not a finger was lifted, nor a word uttered, to stop him. He preached on the cleansing of the Temple. This one sermon in the parish church of St. Andrews, followed as it was by a sermon in the same place on the three consecutive days, cast the die, and determined that the Reformation of Scotland should go forward. The magistrates and townspeople assembled and came to a unanimous resolution to set up Reformed worship in the city. The church was stripped of its images and pictures and the monasteries were pulled down. The example of St. Andrews was quickly followed by many other places of the kingdom. Protestant worship was set up at Craft, Cupar, Lindores, Linlithgow, Scone, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

From the time of his famous sermon in St. Andrews, Knox had been the soul of the movement. The year that followed was one of incessant and Herculean labor. His days were spent in preaching, his nights in writing letters; he roused the country and kept it awake. His voice like a great trumpet rang through the land, firing the lukewarm into zeal, and inspiriting the timid into courage. When the friends of the Reformation quarreled, he reconciled and united them; when they sank into despondency, he rallied their spirits. The Regent’s party had no answer except to outlaw him. They had no one who could come close to Knox in debate.

The Lords of the Congregation tried to get help from Elizabeth I to expel the French troops from Scotland. Her tardiness in making a decision could have been due to her dislike of Knox, who helped in the negotiations. It was clearly in England’s interest to help, as she would not have wanted a threat of invasion by French troops who were sitting in Scotland. At the end of February 1560 a treaty was signed, and the English and Scottish troops united to besiege Leith. This was quite an extraordinary event after centuries of warfare between the two nations. The army had no success, but peace came after the Regent died in June. A treaty was signed on July 6th whereby French and English troops left Scotland, amnesty was given to all those who resisted the Regent and the Scottish Parliament was to meet to settle affairs.

When the Parliament met on the 8th of August 1560, they simply gave expression to the nation’s choice when they authoritatively decreed the suppression of the Romish hierarchy and the adoption of the Protestant faith. A short summary of Christian doctrine had been drawn up by Knox and five of his colleagues; and being read article by article in the Parliament, it was on the 17th of August adopted by the Parliament. It is commonly known as the First Scots Confession. Only three temporal lords voted in the negative, saying “that they would believe as their fathers believed.” The bishops, who had seats as temporal lords, were silent. On the 24th of August, Parliament abolished the Pope’s jurisdiction; forbade, under certain penalties, the celebration of mass; and rescinded the laws in favour of the Romish Church, and against the Protestant faith. There were other documents to prepare concerning order of service etc. The Second Prayer Book of Edward VI was being used wholly or in part in the services of reformed congregations in Scotland, but in no case did Knox or his associates acquiesce in the compulsory enforcement of a liturgy. The prayers and services of the Anglican liturgy were to be employed at the discretion of the ministers. In addition, an order went out to destroy all monuments of idolatry.

Knox organised the structure of Church government as Ministers, Doctors who expounded the Scriptures to the youth etc, Elders who helped run the church and Deacons who ran the finances. He also arranged for each minister and elder in an area to meet as a Presbytery; above them was the Synod; and finally the Assembly. He also proposed a school in every parish, a college in every notable town and a university in the three biggest cities. His idea was that every young person should be able to receive an education. Sadly, the education idea never happened because the nobles took the money he had earmarked for the schools.

Queen Mary’s husband, the French king, died and she returned to Scotland. She had already demanded the breaking of relationships with England and the league with France renewed, together with a restoration of the priests, but the Privy Council refused. On her arrival she held mass, coming into immediate conflict with Knox. Mary understood the power of Knox, so she planned to silence him. He was called before her to answer charges of stirring up rebellion and writing a book against female government. They argued about the rights of princes to have whatever religion they wanted in their country. She became very angry when Knox disagreed, saying that if a prince went beyond the bounds, then it was the duty of the subject to resist. This was the first of many such conversations between them.

The first General Assembly of the Reformed or Protestant Church of Scotland met in Edinburgh on 20th December, 1560. The third Assembly took place a year later, after the return of the Queen. Knox declared that the calling of the Assembly should be independent of the will of the sovereign. In due course, Superintendents were appointed over areas and a moderator over the whole Assembly. Mary was a very accomplished politician, and a very elegant and beautiful woman; people were usually very impressed by her when they came into her presence. She had never given the royal assent to the decisions of the Parliament that was held in her absence, including the acceptance of Protestantism as the religion of the nation. This was intentional as she intended to bring back the mass, and she would often point out that the 1560 Parliament was illegal. On arriving in England she followed a policy of divide and conquer. The majority of the Parliament was made up of lords and lairs, so she ensured that she flattered, promoted and aggrandised the lords; in particular letting them divert some of the church finances to themselves. With their egos and their purses now full, the lords were keen to help the new Queen by not pursuing Knox’s plans.

Knox could not have believed, unless he had seen it, that the men who had summoned him from Geneva, carried their cause to the battlefield and entered into a solemn bond, pledging themselves to God and to one another to sacrifice goods and life in the cause if need were, could have so woefully declined in zeal and courage; that they could so prefer the good-will of their sovereign and their own selfish interests to the defense of their religion and the welfare of their country. Knox spoke in Edinburgh, speaking out on the Queen’s proposed marriage to a papist and against the lords who had failed to support the Reformation. The Queen summoned him. After a difficult interview he was told to wait in the ante-room where there were many of his acquaintance, however all but one turned their back on him. The Queen was persuaded not to arrest him, so he was permitted to go home.

Knox stood firm like a rock, speaking out against any who warranted it. Mary thought a circular put out by Knox was treasonable, so she called him to trial before the Privy Council, but Knox successfully proved that he had not been treasonous and he was unanimously acquitted. Had Mary succeeded, it is difficult to know the effect on the Reformation. If Knox had been executed, it may well have been the end of the Reformation in Scotland.

In 1567 Darnley, Mary’s husband, was murdered by Bothwell, the Queen’s favourite, with many believing (later it was proved) that Mary was complicit in the plot. The Lords were already unhappy with the situation, and Mary marrying Bothwell brought things to a head. She was defeated at Carberry Hill and imprisoned in Lochleven Castle. The Lords wanted help from the ministers in deciding how to deal with Mary, so they agreed to several demands of the Assembly; including abolishing Papal authority, giving two thirds of church revenue for the upkeep of the ministers and that all future monarchs should swear to the upholding of the true religion before coronation, suppressing everything contrary to it. Mary abdicated in favour of her infant son, the future king of Scotland and England.

The next two years were good for the Reformation. The appointment of Moray as Regent was a major boost, as he was a friend of the Reformation. Knox continued his preaching tours, spreading the boundaries of the Reformation as he went, but he was tiring.

There were some in the north who wanted to remain in the Catholic faith. They were causing trouble, so at the request of the Assembly, the Regent visited the University of Aberdeen and commanded the officials to appear before the Privy Council. Those who refused to sign a Reformed Constitution of Faith were removed from their posts. Moray, the Regent, soon built up a reputation for fairness and honour, but he was murdered by the Queen’s party in 1570. Dumbarton, the only fortress left in the hands of the Queen’s party was taken; the most significant prisoner was the Archbishop of St Andrews. He was tried for being involved in virtually all the plots and murders of the last few years, and he was hanged in April 1571 in the coat of mail that he was wearing when he was captured.

The situation for the Reformation was so ambiguous that it was thought too dangerous for Knox to remain in Edinburgh, so he went to St Andrews. The Earl of Lennox and then the Earl of Mar, succeeded to the Regency and they set about watering down the power of the Protestant ministers by appointing unsuitable men to the pre-reformation diocese of archbishops and bishops (known as Tulchan). Their purpose was to ensure that he and other Lords were able to take as much of the church revenues for themselves as possible, by paying these new bishops a fee, with the local lord taking the remainder of the income from the Benefice. This was a form of Church that was described as episcopacy, but was not really, because the bishops had no power as they were subject to the Synod and Assembly.

On 24th November 1572 an era closed with the death of John Knox. (A short biography of his life can be found elsewhere on this website.) Knox was the heartbeat of the Reformation. By the time of his death Scotland was completely changed. Before the Reformation Scotland was a feudal country with little identity of its own; there were the nobles, the clergy and the people. The people were serfs, but the Reformation changed all that. The Reformation was a popular movement. Carlyle wrote, ‘Scotland was a poor, barren country, full of continual broils, dissensions, massacres; a people in the last stage of destitution. It is a country as yet without a soul, nothing developed in it but what is rude, external, and semi-animal. And now at the Reformation, the internal life is kindled, as it were, under the ribs of this outward material death.’ The Reformation called into being a nation. It awoke among the people a national consciousness. They were serfs, but they were now citizens. Lord Burleigh wrote, ‘You would be astonished to see how men are changed here. There is little of that submission to those above them which there used to be. The poor think and act for themselves. They are growing strong, confident and independent.’

The Reformation also gave birth to a national Church where the poorest member recognised his responsibility to maintain its purity, promote its interests and share in its government. At the same time the expounding of Scripture helped in the education of the people. Knox introduced family worship, where the head of the family would lead worship in their home. This was very important in the spread of religion. No longer was the peasant reliant on the priest and the church; now everyone could have a relationship directly with their Lord and worship Him at home.

The first Bible from a Scottish press came in 1579; it was known as the Bassandyne Bible and was based upon the Geneva Bible that James I of England later took such pains to destroy. English Bibles had already been circulating in Scotland for a long time. An act of Parliament stated that every household above a certain value had to have a copy of the Bible and a copy of the Psalms. Early in 1581 there was a second Confession of Faith, commonly called the King’s Confession and known as the National Covenant. There were now many more ministers in position, so presbyteries were laid out in groups of two or three under local Synods. At this time some parishes were too large and some too small, so it was resolved to rearrange the parishes, to reduce the number to six hundred, to divide these into fifty presbyteries, under eighteen provincial synods. The moderator of a presbytery was to remain in office till the next provincial synod, and each presbytery was to have in its possession a copy of The Book of Policy (Church government), signed by all the ministers within its bounds. The Assembly agreed on the Book of Policy in 1578, although it was not given the sanction of Parliament until 1592.

The new Tulchan bishops were unsuitable for various reasons, and the Assembly was always having to deal with complaints against them. The new Regent, Morton, threatened to take power away from the Assembly and give it to the government. Unfortunately, there was nobody with the skill required to take over from Knox. The Reformation needed a leader, and then in 1574 Andrew Melville arrived.

Andrew Melville was Scotland’s greatest reformer after Knox. Having turned down a chaplaincy to the king, he became the principal of Glasgow University. He worked tirelessly to raise the University from a disastrous state, and in 1580 he moved to St Andrew’s University, St Mary’s college, where he carried out more reforms. He worked hard to have the position of bishop cancelled, and in 1580 this was finally achieved in the General Assembly. In February 1581 he was summoned before the Privy Council to answer the charge of using treasonable language in his preaching. He refused to acknowledge the Council’s rights over religious matters; he was sentenced to prison, but escaped to England, where he remained for two years, on being warned that his life was in danger.

James VI was beginning to take over the reins of government himself, and was influenced by two young worthless men, the future Earls of Lenox and Arran. Their advice was to get rid of this new independent Presbyterian Church, because neither power nor glory in a throne could be achieved unless the monarch was absolute. This view was to have an absolutely disastrous effect on England when James became king, and eventually led to the civil war during the reign of his son Charles I. These next years were a battle between the Church, which was the only organ that spoke for the people, and the favourites who wanted to silence and control her.

The favourites got the upper hand, when in 1584 Parliament was held at which measures were passed, usually called the Black Acts, at the instigation of Adamson (Archbishop of St Andrews), for the overthrow of the Presbyterian discipline and the destruction of the liberties of the church. In this parliament, the meetings of which were held within closed doors, Adamson and Montgomery sat as bishops. These famous Acts pronounced those guilty of treason whosoever should decline the judgment of the king or council in any manner whatsoever. The refusal to acknowledge the office of bishop was deemed treason. No church court could meet without the kings authority and nobody was allowed to criticise king of council in a sermon; no Lords or burgesses objected to these provisions. Three Edinburgh ministers spoke out against it and then fled to England. The remaining ministers were forced to sign a declaration agreeing to the terms of the act or lose their jobs. Hardly anybody signed the bond, so the words ‘according to the word of God’ were added, which enabled more than a few to append their signatures. About twenty ministers went into exile, nearly all the rest signed.

The exiled ministers joined with some exiled Lords, returning to Scotland in October 1585. The people, who had been bowed by the tyranny of the Regent, supported the party and the Regent fled; however, the Lords who were now in favour attended to their personal situations and ignored the state of religion. The new Earl of Morton celebrated mass, something not seen in Scotland for twenty five years. This was a step too far and the offenders were imprisoned for three months. The unity amongst the Presbyterians had gone as a result of some signing the bond and others not doing so.

The Romanists were disappointed at the failure of Philip’s Armada in 1588. They asked the king of Spain to send a second Armada, but their letters got into the hands of their enemies. The threat from Spain united the people and many of the nobles behind the Church. Even James VI began to realise that he could not push through the measures he wanted to, due to the strong anti Catholic feelings of his people and some nobles; he even pretended to be a good Presbyterian. The tide had turned to such an extent that the Parliament of 1592 restored the Presbyterian Church as it had formerly existed. The Act even gave the Church a legal pledge that the jurisdiction of the Romish Church would not be restored.

The General Assembly of March/April 1596 was a time when the first revival may have taken place in Scotland, although the time of Knox was clearly an incredible one. John Davidson was very concerned with the religious state of the Church and the country, even though it was only thirty years since the Reformation. This was a time of a new generation; few of those who experienced the Reformation were still alive. Davidson, through his Presbytery, put to the General Assembly that there was a need for ‘universal repentance and earnest turning to God.’ The Assembly agreed to address this, meeting from March 24th, 1596 at St Giles in Edinburgh. The following was reported in a book by David Calderwood, As the Holy Spirit pierces their hearts with razor sharp conviction, John Davidson concludes his message, steps down from the pulpit, and quietly returns to his seat. With downcast eyes and heaviness of heart, the assembled leaders silently reflect upon their lives and ministry. The words they have just heard are true and the magnitude of their sin is undeniable. As the minutes pass, a growing sense of God’s presence and holiness intensifies, and a spirit of deep repentance breaks in upon them, disrupting their silence. Suddenly loud sighs and groans reverberate throughout the Cathedral as proud men donning long beards and clerical garb begin to shake uncontrollably in tearful sobbing, melting under profound conviction of their sin.’

The main subject of this General Assembly was the way that ministers lived their lives. The Holy Spirit brought a wave of ‘Holiness’ into that Assembly, and everybody (except one) held up their hands ‘to testify their entering in a new league with God.’. This repentance was re-created in most of the Synods, many of the Presbyteries and some of the Congregations throughout Scotland. Unfortunately, there seems to be no proof that this ‘Spirit of Holiness’ went across the nation, but Calderwood again in his ‘History of the Church of Scotland’, published in 1678 says, a remarkable year ofthe Kirk of Scotland, both for the beginning and for the end of it. The Kirk of Scotland was now come to her perfection, and the greatest purity that she ever attained unto, both in doctrine and discipline, so that her beauty was admirable to foreign kirks. The assemblies of the saints were never so glorious, nor profitable to every one of the true members thereof than in the beginning of this year.’

This period marked the culminating point in the prosperous course of the Reformed Church in Scotland, while her history in the years which followed was one of decline. It would be a mistake to suppose that the great mass of the people of Scotland had at this time been brought under the influence of divine truth. The Popish Church had been overthrown; the Gospel had been restored in its primitive purity; and a Scriptural framework of ecclesiastical government and discipline had been erected; but much irreligion, ignorance, wickedness, and barbarism still remained..

At the end of 1596 David Black, the minister at St Andrew’s, spoke about the dangers of Popery at home and those of Episcopacy in England. As a result he was called before the Privy Council. Black questioned the authority of the Council over what was said in the pulpit, so he put himself before the religious courts instead. The whole Church backed Black, and Bruce himself spoke out against a proposed compromise by James. This was too important an issue to allow compromise. After the question went back and forth for some time, the Privy Council decided that Black was guilty on all counts and was imprisoned. This was the first cut of the civil sword into Church affairs.

In 1597 James started on his course towards his great goal of Episcopacy. He blew up a very small occurrence into a major attempt on his life. He used this as an excuse to temporarily remove some senior ministers from their posts and then he called a General Assembly of the Church to be held in Perth the following month. He arranged for as many northern ministers to attend as possible, for several of them were at best lukewarm Presbyterians. His plan worked, as he was able to get passed several important motions that put the Church on the first steps to control by the king. It was agreed that no unusual conventions should be held amongst pastors without the royal consent, that the acts of the privy council or the laws passed by the three estates should not be attacked or discussed in the pulpit; that in the principal towns of the realm no minister should be chosen without consent of the king and of the flock; and that no man should by name be rebuked in the pulpit, unless he had fled from justice or were under sentence of excommunication.

James now went back to his duplicitous ways. It was discovered that the traitorous Romanist lords, who had gone into exile, were coming back to Scotland as favourites of the king. A deputation of ministers went to see James, and there was a confrontation between the king and Andrew Melville. Melville seemed to win the argument, but no sooner were the ministers out of the palace than steps were taken to bring back the insurgent nobles.

In 1603 the time came which James had been waiting for; Elizabeth I died and James went to England as James I. He knew that there would have been no hope of him becoming king of England if he were thought to be anything other than a staunch Protestant. The prize was well worth his holding out a few olive branches to the Protestants, as England had a Church that was far more to his taste. To begin with, it had the hierarchical structure that he would have liked to have seen in Scotland. He genuinely believed that the health of the crown depended on hierarchical church with bishops. He often said ‘No bishops, no king.’ More importantly, the Crown in England was head of the Church. Also, the Church of England leaned far more towards Catholicism than did the Church of Scotland. The Anglo-Catholic nature of the Church would have pleased James, and during his time in England he made sure that it leaned even further in that direction. As a result of his persecution towards the Protestants (Puritans), several left the country and some went to America. It was his son’s persistence in the same direction, and the same desire to rule absolutely, that led to the civil war.

In May 1606 Andrew Melville, his nephew and six other leading Presbyterian ministers, were told to go to England to confer with the king on the affairs of the Church of Scotland. The result was that Andrew Melville ended up in the Tower from 1607-11, being let out to take a position at Sedan University in France,, where he died in 1622. Uncompromising and incorruptible, absolutely fearless and gifted with a wonderful command of clear and forcible language, Melville stood for the Presbyterian Church of Scotland against despots who wanted to bring in Episcopacy. Just as John Knox stood fearlessly before Mary, Queen of Scots; so Melville did the same before James VI. His nephew was told to go to Newcastle and then Berwick, and told not to leave the district. He died in 1614. The other six ministers were ordered to confine themselves to certain towns in Scotland. Another great pillar of the Church who stood up to James, Robert Bruce, had already been exiled in 1600; and in 1605 he had banished another great minister, John Welch. All his opposition gone, James now carried out his despotic measures, and introduced one by one all those offices and ceremonies into the Scottish Church which her best members had so long and so zealously opposed.

Bishops were restored to their old rank and privileges (1610), the General Assembly was flooded with nobles and statesmen favourable to the king, and he took control of the ecclesiastical courts; in fact James did everything he could to take over control of the Church and bring in Episcopacy. In 1617 an Act was passed in Parliament, ‘That whatever his Majesty should determine in the external government of the Church, with the advice of the archbishop, bishops, and a competent number of the ministry, should have the strength of a law.’ The Assembly at Perth in 1618 brought in: kneeling at Communion, private Communion for the sick, Baptism on the Sunday after birth, Episcopal confirmation of the young and observance of Holidays. Churches where ministers conformed to these new practices were deserted by the people. The High Court of Commission rigorously prosecuted non-conformism. Many good ministers were either banished or fled to avoid persecution. James did his best to get everyone worshipping as he wanted. He finally said that any minister who failed to offer Communion on Easter Day, conforming in every way, would be deposed from the ministry; but he died before the day in question.

Much of this essay was taken from, ‘The History of Protestantism,’ Volume 3, Book 24 by J A Wylie Published around 1890. This can be seen at, and ‘A History of the Church in Scotland, from the earliest times down to the present day,’ by John Macpherson. Published 1901. This can be seen at

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