The Influence of the Reformation on the Scottish Character

A Lecture Delivered at Edinburgh, November 1865 by James Anthony Froude

I have undertaken to speak this evening on the effects of the Reformation in Scotland, and I consider myself a very bold person to have come here on any such undertaking. In the first place, the subject is one with which it is presumptuous for a stranger to meddle. Great national movements can only be understood properly by the people whose disposition they represent. We say ourselves about our own history that only Englishmen can properly comprehend it. The late Chevalier Bunsen once said to me of our own Reformation in England, that, for his part, he could not conceive how we had managed to come by such a thing. We seemed to him to be an obdurate, impenetrable, stupid people, hide-bound by tradition and precedent, and too self-satisfied to be either willing or able to take in new ideas upon any theoretic subject whatever, especially German ideas. That is to say, he could not get inside the English mind. He did not know that some people go furthest and go fastest when they look one way and row the other. It is the same with every considerable nation. They work out their own political and spiritual lives, through tempers, humours, and passions peculiar to themselves; and the same disposition which produces the result is required to interpret it afterwards. This is one reason why I should feel diffident about what I have undertaken. Another is, that I do not conceal from myself that the subject is an exceedingly delicate one. The blazing passions of those stormy sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are no longer, happily, at their old temperature. The story of those times can now be told or listened to with something like impartiality. Yet, if people no longer hate each other for such matters, the traditions of the struggle survive in strong opinions and sentiments, which it is easy to wound without intending it.

My own conviction with respect to all great social and religious convulsions is the extremely commonplace one that much is to be said on both sides. I believe that nowhere and at no time any such struggle can take place on a large scale unless each party is contending for something which has a great deal of truth in it. Where the right is plain, honest, wise, and noble-minded men are all on one side; and only rogues and fools are on the other. Where the wise and good are divided, the truth is generally found to be divided also. But this is precisely what cannot be admitted as long as the conflict continues. Men begin to fight about things when reason and argument fail to convince them. They make up in passion what is wanting in logic. Each side believes that all the right is theirs--that their enemies have all the bad qualities which their language contains names for; and even now, on the subject on which I have to talk to-night, one has but to take up any magazine, review, newspaper, or party organ of any kind which touches on it, to see that opinion is still Whig or Tory, Cavalier or Roundhead, Protestant or Catholic, as the case may be. The unfortunate person who is neither wholly one nor wholly the other is in the position of Hamlet's 'baser nature,' 'between the incensed points of mighty opposites.' He is the Laodicean, neither cold nor hot, whom decent people consider bad company. He pleases no one, and hurts the sensitiveness of all.

Here, then, are good reasons why I should have either not come here at all, or else should have chosen some other matter to talk about. In excuse for persisting, I can but say that the subject is one about which I have been led by circumstances to read and think considerably; and though, undoubtedly, each of us knows more about himself and his own affairs than anyone else can possibly know, yet a stranger's eye will sometimes see things which escape those more immediately interested; and I allow myself to hope that I may have something to say not altogether undeserving your attention. I shall touch as little as possible on questions of opinion; and if I tread by accident on any sensitive point, I must trust to your kindness to excuse my awkwardness.

Well, then, if we look back on Scotland as it stood in the first quarter of the sixteenth century, we see a country in which the old feudal organisation continued, so far as it generally affected the people, more vigorous than in any other part of civilised Europe. Elsewhere, the growth of trade and of large towns had created a middle class, with an organisation of their own, independent of the lords. In Scotland, the towns were still scanty and poor; such as they were, they were for the most part under the control of the great nobleman who happened to live nearest to them; and a people, as in any sense independent of lords, knights, abbots, or prelates, under whose rule they were born, had as yet no existence. The tillers of the soil (and the soil was very miserably tilled) lived under the shadow of the castle or the monastery. They followed their lord's fortunes, fought his battles, believed in his politics, and supported him loyally in his sins or his good deeds, as the case might be. There was much moral beauty in the life of those times. The loyal attachment of man to man--of liege servant to liege lord--of all forms under which human beings can live and work together, has most of grace and humanity about it. It cannot go on without mutual confidence and affection--mutual benefits given and received. The length of time which the system lasted proves that in the main there must have been a fine fidelity in the people--truth, justice, generosity in their leaders. History brings down many bad stories to us out of those times; just as in these islands nowadays you may find bad instances of the abuses of rights of property. You may find stories--too many also--of husbands ill-using their wives, and so on. Yet we do not therefore lay the blame on marriage, or suppose that the institution of property on the whole does more harm than good. I do not doubt that down in that feudal system somewhere lie the roots of some of the finest qualities in the European peoples.

So much for the temporal side of the matter; and the spiritual was not very unlike it. As no one lived independently, in our modern sense of the word, so no one thought independently. The minds of men were looked after by a Church which, for a long time also, did, I suppose, very largely fulfil the purpose for which it was intended. It kept alive and active the belief that the world was created and governed by a just Being, who hated sins and crimes, and steadily punished such things. It taught men that they had immortal souls, and that this little bit of life was an entirely insignificant portion of their real existence. It taught these truths, indeed, along with a great deal which we now consider to have been a mistake--a great many theories of earthly things which have since passed away, and special opinions clothed in outward forms and ritual observances which we here, most of us at least, do not think essential for our soul's safety. But mistakes like these are hurtful only when persisted in in the face of fuller truth, after truth has been discovered. Only a very foolish man would now uphold the Ptolemaic astronomy. But the Ptolemaic astronomy, when first invented, was based on real if incomplete observations, and formed a groundwork without which further progress in that science would have been probably impossible. The theories and ceremonials of the Catholic Church suited well with an age in which little was known and much was imagined: when superstition was active and science was not yet born. When I am told here or anywhere that the Middle Ages were times of mere spiritual darkness and priestly oppression, with the other usual formulas, I say, as I said before, if the Catholic Church, for those many centuries that it reigned supreme over all men's consciences, was no better than the thing which we see in the generation which immediately preceded the Reformation, it could not have existed at all. You might as well argue that the old fading tree could never have been green and young. Institutions do not live on lies. They either live by the truth and usefulness which there is in them, or they do not live at all.

So things went on for several hundred years. There were scandals enough, and crimes enough, and feuds, and murders, and civil wars. Systems, however good, cannot prevent evil. They can but compress it within moderate and tolerable limits. I should conclude, however, that, measuring by the average happiness of the masses of the people, the mediŠval institutions were very well suited for the inhabitants of these countries as they then were. Adam Smith and Bentham themselves could hardly have mended them if they had tried.

But times change, and good things as well as bad grow old and have to die. The heart of the matter which the Catholic Church had taught was the fear of God; but the language of it and the formulas of it were made up of human ideas and notions about things which the mere increase of human knowledge gradually made incredible. To trace the reason of this would lead us a long way. It is intelligible enough, but it would take us into subjects better avoided here. It is enough to say that, while the essence of religion remains the same, the mode in which it is expressed changes and has changed--changes as living languages change and become dead, as institutions change, as forms of government change, as opinions on all things in heaven and earth change, as half the theories held at this time among ourselves will probably change--that is, the outward and mortal parts of them. Thus the Catholic formulas, instead of living symbols, become dead and powerless cabalistic signs. The religion lost its hold on the conscience and the intellect, and the effect, singularly enough, appeared in the shepherds before it made itself felt among the flocks. From the see of St. Peter to the far monasteries in the Hebrides or the Isle of Arran, the laity were shocked and scandalised at the outrageous doings of high cardinals, prelates, priests, and monks. It was clear enough that these great personages themselves did not believe what they taught; so why should the people believe it? And serious men, to whom the fear of God was a living reality, began to look into the matter for themselves. The first steps everywhere were taken with extreme reluctance; and had the popes and cardinals been wise, they would have taken the lead in the enquiry, cleared their teaching of its lumber, and taken out a new lease of life both for it and for themselves. An infallible pope and an infallible council might have done something in this way, if good sense had been among the attributes of their omniscience. What they did do was something very different. It was as if, when the new astronomy began to be taught, the professors of that science in all the universities of Europe had met together and decided that Ptolemy's cycles and epicycles were eternal verities; that the theory of the rotation of the earth was and must be a damnable heresy; and had invited the civil authorities to help them in putting down by force all doctrines but their own. This, or something very like it, was the position taken up in theology by the Council of Trent. The bishops assembled there did not reason. They decided by vote that certain things were true, and were to be believed; and the only arguments which they condescended to use were fire and faggot, and so on. How it fared with them, and with this experiment of theirs, we all know tolerably well.

The effect was very different in different countries. Here, in Scotland, the failure was most marked and complete, but the way in which it came about was in many ways peculiar. In Germany, Luther was supported by princes and nobles. In England, the Reformation rapidly mixed itself up with politics and questions of rival jurisdiction. Both in England and Germany, the revolution, wherever it established itself, was accepted early by the Crown or the Government, and by them legally recognised. Here, it was far otherwise: the Protestantism of Scotland was the creation of the commons, as in turn the commons may be said to have been created by Protestantism. There were many young high-spirited men, belonging to the noblest families in the country, who were among the earliest to rally round the Reforming preachers; but authority, both in Church and State, set the other way. The congregations who gathered in the fields around Wishart and John Knox were, for the most part, farmers, labourers, artisans, tradesmen, or the smaller gentry; and thus, for the first time in Scotland, there was created an organisation of men detached from the lords and from the Church--brave, noble, resolute, daring people, bound together by a sacred cause, unrecognised by the leaders whom they had followed hitherto with undoubting allegiance. That spirit which grew in time to be the ruling power of Scotland--that which formed eventually its laws and its creed, and determined its after fortunes as a nation--had its first germ in these half-outlawed wandering congregations. In this it was that the Reformation in Scotland differed from the Reformation in any other part of Europe. Elsewhere it found a middle class existing--created already by trade or by other causes. It raised and elevated them, but it did not materially affect their political condition. In Scotland, the commons, as an organised body, were simply created by religion. Before the Reformation they had no political existence; and therefore it has been that the print of their origin has gone so deeply into their social constitution. On them, and them only, the burden of the work of the Reformation was eventually thrown; and when they triumphed at last, it was inevitable that both they and it should react one upon the other.

How this came about I must endeavour to describe, although I can give but a brief sketch of an exceedingly complicated matter. Everybody knows the part played by the aristocracy of Scotland in the outward revolution, when the Reformation first became the law of the land. It would seem at first sight as if it had been the work of the whole nation--as if it had been a thing on which high and low were heartily united. Yet on the first glance below the surface you see that the greater part of the noble lords concerned in that business cared nothing about the Reformation at all; or, if they cared, they rather disliked it than otherwise. How, then, did they come to act as they did? or, how came they to permit a change of such magnitude when they had so little sympathy with it? I must make a slight circuit to look for the explanation.

The one essentially noble feature in the great families of Scotland was their patriotism. They loved Scotland and Scotland's freedom with a passion proportioned to the difficulty with which they had defended their liberties; and yet the wisest of them had long seen that, sooner or later, union with England was inevitable; and the question was, how that union was to be brought about--how they were to make sure that, when it came, they should take their place at England's side as equals, and not as a dependency. It had been arranged that the little Mary Stuart should marry our English Edward VI., and the difficulty was to be settled so. They would have been contented, they said, if Scotland had had the 'lad' and England the 'lass.' As it stood, they broke their bargain, and married the little queen away into France, to prevent the Protector Somerset from getting hold of her. Then, however, appeared an opposite danger; the queen would become a Frenchwoman; her French mother governed Scotland with French troops and French ministers; the country would become a French province, and lose its freedom equally. Thus an English party began again; and as England was then in the middle of her great anti-Church revolution, so the Scottish nobles began to be anti-Church. It was not for doctrines: neither they nor their brothers in England cared much about doctrines; but in both countries the Church was rich--much richer than there seemed any occasion for it to be. Harry the Eighth had been sharing among the laity the spoils of the English monasteries; the Scotch Lords saw in a similar process the probability of a welcome addition to their own scanty incomes. Mary of Guise and the French stood by the Church, and the Church stood by them; and so it came about that the great families--even those who, like the Hamiltons, were most closely connected with France--were tempted over by the bait to the other side. They did not want reformed doctrines, but they wanted the Church lands; and so they came to patronise, or endure, the Reformers, because the Church hated them, and because they weakened the Church; and thus for a time, and especially as long as Mary Stuart was Queen of France, all classes in Scotland, high and low, seemed to fraternise in favour of the revolution.

And it seemed as if the union of the realms could be effected at last, at the same juncture, and in connexion with the same movement. Next in succession to the Scotch crown, after Mary Stuart, was the house of Hamilton. Elizabeth, who had just come to the English throne, was supposed to be in want of a husband. The heir of the Hamiltons was of her own age, and in years past had been thought of for her by her father. What could be more fit than to make a match between those two? Send a Scot south to be King of England, find or make some pretext to shake off Mary Stuart, who had forsaken her native country, and so join the crowns, the 'lass' and the 'lad' being now in the right relative position. Scotland would thus annex her old oppressor, and give her a new dynasty.

I seem to be straying from the point; but these political schemes had so much to do with the actions of the leading men at that time, that the story of the Reformation cannot be understood without them. It was thus, and with these incongruous objects, that the combination was formed which overturned the old Church of Scotland in 1559-60, confiscated its possessions, destroyed its religious houses, and changed its creed. The French were driven away from Leith by Elizabeth's troops; the Reformers took possession of the churches; and the Parliament of 1560 met with a clear stage to determine for themselves the future fate of the country. Now, I think it certain that, if the Scotch nobility, having once accepted the Reformation, had continued loyal to it--especially if Elizabeth had met their wishes in the important point of the marriage--the form of the Scotch Kirk would have been something extremely different from what it in fact became. The people were perfectly well inclined to follow their natural leaders if the matters on which their hearts were set had received tolerable consideration from them, and the democratic form of the ecclesiastical constitution would have been inevitably modified. One of the conditions of the proposed compact with England was the introduction of the English Liturgy and the English Church constitution. This too, at the outset, and with fair dealing, would not have been found impossible. But it soon became clear that the religious interests of Scotland were the very last thing which would receive consideration from any of the high political personages concerned. John Knox had dreamt of a constitution like that which he had seen working under Calvin at Geneva--a constitution in which the clergy as ministers of God should rule all things--rule politically at the council board, and rule in private at the fireside. It was soon made plain to Knox that Scotland was not Geneva. 'Eh, mon,' said the younger Maitland to him, 'then we may all bear the barrow now to build the House of the Lord.' Not exactly. The churches were left to the ministers; the worldly good things and worldly power remained with the laity; and as to religion, circumstances would decide what they would do about that. Again, I am not speaking of all the great men of those times. Glencairn, Ruthven, young Argyll--above all, the Earl of Moray--really did in some degree interest themselves in the Kirk. But what most of them felt was perhaps rather broadly expressed by Maitland when he called religion 'a bogle of the nursery.' That was the expression which a Scotch statesman of those days actually ventured to use. Had Elizabeth been conformable, no doubt they would in some sense or other have remained on the side of the Reformation. But here, too, there was a serious hitch. Elizabeth would not marry Arran. Elizabeth would be no party to any of their intrigues. She detested Knox. She detested Protestantism entirely, in all shapes in which Knox approved of it. She affronted the nobles on one side, she affronted the people on another; and all idea of uniting the two crowns after the fashion proposed by the Scotch Parliament she utterly and entirely repudiated. She was right enough, perhaps, so far as this was concerned; but she left the ruling families extremely perplexed as to the course which they would follow. They had allowed the country to be revolutionised in the teeth of their own sovereign, and what to do next they did not very well know.

It was at this crisis that circumstances came in to their help. Francis the Second died. Mary Stuart was left a childless widow. Her connexion with the Crown of France was at an end, and all danger on that side to the liberties of Scotland at an end also. The Arran scheme having failed, she would be a second card as good as the first to play for the English Crown--as good as he, or better, for she would have the English Catholics on her side. So, careless how it would affect religion, and making no condition at all about that, the same men who a year before were ready to whistle Mary Stuart down the wind, now invited her back to Scotland; the same men who had been the loudest friends of Elizabeth now encouraged Mary Stuart to persist in the pretension to the Crown of England, which had led to all the past trouble. While in France, she had assumed the title of Queen of England. She had promised to abandon it, but, finding her own people ready to support her in withdrawing her promise, she stood out, insisting that at all events the English Parliament should declare her next in the succession; and it was well known that, as soon as the succession was made sure in her favour, some rascal would be found to put a knife or a bullet into Elizabeth. The object of the Scotch nobles was political, national, patriotic. For religion it was no great matter either way; and as they had before acted with the Protestants, so now they were ready to turn about, and openly or tacitly act with the Catholics. Mary Stuart's friends in England and on the Continent were Catholics, and therefore it would not do to offend them. First, she was allowed to have mass at Holyrood; then there was a move for a broader toleration. That one mass, Knox said, was more terrible to him than ten thousand armed men landed in the country--and he had perfectly good reason for saying so. He thoroughly understood that it was the first step towards a counter-revolution which in time would cover all Scotland and England, and carry them back to Popery. Yet he preached to deaf ears. Even Murray was so bewitched with the notion of the English succession, that for a year and a half he ceased to speak to Knox; and as it was with Murray, so it was far more with all the rest--their zeal for religion was gone no one knew where. Of course Elizabeth would not give way. She might as well, she said, herself prepare her shroud; and then conspiracies came, and under-ground intrigues with the Romanist English noblemen. France and Spain were to invade England, Scotland was to open its ports to their fleets, and its soil to their armies, giving them a safe base from which to act, and a dry road over the Marches to London. And if Scotland had remained unchanged from what it had been--had the direction of its fortunes remained with the prince and with the nobles, sooner or later it would have come to this. But suddenly it appeared that there was a new power in this country which no one suspected till it was felt.

The commons of Scotland had hitherto been the creatures of the nobles. They had neither will nor opinion of their own. They thought and acted in the spirit of their immediate allegiance. No one seems to have dreamt that there would be any difficulty in dealing with them if once the great families agreed upon a common course. Yet it appeared, when the pressure came, that religion, which was the play-thing of the nobles, was to the people a clear matter of life and death. They might love their country: they might be proud of anything which would add lustre to its crown; but if it was to bring back the Pope and Popery--if it threatened to bring them back--if it looked that way--they would have nothing to do with it; nor would they allow it to be done. Allegiance was well enough; but there was a higher allegiance suddenly discovered which superseded all earthly considerations. I know nothing finer in Scottish history than the way in which the commons of the Lowlands took their places by the side of Knox in the great convulsions which followed. If all others forsook him, they at least would never forsake him while tongue remained to speak and hand remained to strike. Broken they might have been, trampled out as the Huguenots at last were trampled out in France, had Mary Stuart been less than the most imprudent or the most unlucky of sovereigns. But Providence, or the folly of those with whom they had to deal, fought for them. I need not follow the wild story of the crimes and catastrophes in which Mary Stuart's short reign in Scotland closed. Neither is her own share, be it great or small, or none at all, in those crimes of any moment to us here. It is enough that, both before that strange business and after it, when at Holyrood or across the Border, in Sheffield or Tutbury, her ever favourite dream was still the English throne. Her road towards it was through a Catholic revolution and the murder of Elizabeth. It is enough that, both before and after, the aristocracy of Scotland, even those among them who had seemed most zealous for the Reformation, were eager to support her. John Knox alone, and the commons, whom Knox had raised into a political power, remained true.

Much, indeed, is to be said for the Scotch nobles. In the first shock of the business at Kirk-o'-Field, they forgot their politics in a sense of national disgrace. They sent the queen to Loch Leven. They intended to bring her to trial, and, if she was proved guilty, to expose and perhaps punish her. All parties for a time agreed in this--even the Hamiltons themselves; and had they been left alone they would have done it. But they had a perverse neighbour in England, to whom crowned heads were sacred. Elizabeth, it might have been thought, would have had no particular objection; but Elizabeth had aims of her own which baffled calculation. Elizabeth, the representative of revolution, yet detested revolutionists. The Reformers in Scotland, the Huguenots in France, the insurgents in the United Provinces, were the only friends she had in Europe. For her own safety she was obliged to encourage them; yet she hated them all, and would at any moment have abandoned them all, if, in any other way, she could have secured herself. She might have conquered her personal objection to Knox--she could not conquer her aversion to a Church which rose out of revolt against authority, which was democratic in constitution and republican in politics. When driven into alliance with the Scotch Protestants, she angrily and passionately disclaimed any community of creed with them; and for subjects to sit in judgment on their prince was a precedent which she would not tolerate. Thus she flung her mantle over Mary Stuart. She told the Scotch Council here in Edinburgh that, if they hurt a hair of her head, she would harry their country, and hang them all on the trees round the town, if she could find any trees there for that purpose. She tempted the queen to England with her fair promises after the battle of Langside, and then, to her astonishment, imprisoned her. Yet she still shielded her reputation, still fostered her party in Scotland, still incessantly threatened and incessantly endeavoured to restore her. She kept her safe, because, in her lucid intervals, her ministers showed her the madness of acting otherwise. Yet for three years she kept her own people in a fever of apprehension. She made a settled Government in Scotland impossible; till, distracted and perplexed, the Scottish statesmen went back to their first schemes. They assured themselves that in one way or other the Queen of Scots would sooner or later come again among them. They, and others besides them, believed that Elizabeth was cutting her own throat, and that the best that they could do was to recover their own queen's favour, and make the most of her and her titles; and so they lent themselves again to the English Catholic conspiracies.

The Earl of Moray--the one supremely noble man then living in the country--was put out of the way by an assassin. French and Spanish money poured in, and French and Spanish armies were to be again invited over to Scotland. This is the form in which the drama unfolds itself in the correspondence of the time. Maitland, the soul and spirit of it all, said, in scorn, that 'he would make the Queen of England sit upon her tail and whine like a whipped dog.' The only powerful noblemen who remained on the Protestant side were Lennox, Morton, and Mar. Lord Lennox was a poor creature, and was soon dispatched; Mar was old and weak; and Morton was an unprincipled scoundrel, who used the Reformation only as a stalking-horse to cover the spoils which he had clutched in the confusion, and was ready to desert the cause at any moment if the balance of advantage shifted. Even the ministers of the Kirk were fooled and flattered over. Maitland told Mary Stuart that he had gained them all except one.

John Knox alone defied both his threats and his persuasions. Good reason has Scotland to be proud of Knox. He only, in this wild crisis, saved the Kirk which he had founded, and saved with it Scottish and English freedom. But for Knox, and what he was able still to do, it is almost certain that the Duke of Alva's army would have been landed on the eastern coast. The conditions were drawn out and agreed upon for the reception, the support, and the stay of the Spanish troops. Two-thirds of the English peerage had bound themselves to rise against Elizabeth, and Alva waited only till Scotland itself was quiet. Only that quiet would not be. Instead of quiet came three dreadful years of civil war. Scotland was split into factions, to which the mother and son gave names. The queen's lords, as they were called, with unlimited money from France and Flanders, held Edinburgh and Glasgow; all the border line was theirs, and all the north and west. Elizabeth's Council, wiser than their mistress, barely squeezed out of her reluctant parsimony enough to keep Mar and Morton from making terms with the rest; but there her assistance ended. She would still say nothing, promise nothing, bind herself to nothing, and, so far as she was concerned, the war would have been soon enough brought to a close. But away at St. Andrews, John Knox, broken in body, and scarcely able to stagger up the pulpit stairs, still thundered in the parish church; and his voice, it was said, was like ten thousand trumpets braying in the ear of Scottish Protestantism. All the Lowlands answered to his call. Our English Cromwell found in the man of religion a match for the man of honour. Before Cromwell, all over the Lothians, and across from St. Andrews to Stirling and Glasgow--through farm, and town, and village--the words of Knox had struck the inmost chords of the Scottish commons' hearts. Passing over knight and noble, he had touched the farmer, the peasant, the petty tradesman, and the artisan, and turned the men of clay into men of steel. The village preacher, when he left his pulpit, doffed cap and cassock, and donned morion and steel-coat. The Lothian yeoman's household became for the nonce a band of troopers, who would cross swords with the night riders of Buccleuch. It was a terrible time, a time rather of anarchy than of defined war, for it was without form or shape. Yet the horror of it was everywhere. Houses and villages were burned, and women and children tossed on pike-point into the flames. Strings of poor men were dangled day after day from the walls of Edinburgh Castle. A word any way from Elizabeth would have ended it, but that word Elizabeth would never speak; and, maddened with suffering, the people half believed that she was feeding the fire for her own bad purposes, when it was only that she would not make up her mind to allow a crowned princess to be dethroned. No earthly influence could have held men true in such a trial. The noble lords--the Earl of Morton and such-like--would have made their own conditions, and gone with the rest; but the vital force of the Scotch nation, showing itself where it was least looked for, would not have it so.

A very remarkable account of the state of the Scotch commons at this time is to be found in a letter of an English emissary, who had been sent by Lord Burleigh to see how things were going there. It was not merely a new creed that they had got; it was a new vital power. 'You would be astonished to see how men are changed here,' this writer said. '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, independent. The farms are better cultivated; the farmers are growing rich. The merchants at Leith are thriving, and, notwithstanding the pirates, they are increasing their ships and opening a brisk trade with France.'

All this while civil war was raging, and the flag of Queen Mary was still floating over Edinburgh Castle. It surprised the English; still more it surprised the politicians. It was the one thing which disconcerted, baffled, and finally ruined the schemes and the dreams of Maitland. When he had gained the aristocracy, he thought that he had gained everybody, and, as it turned out, he had all his work still to do. The Spaniards did not come. The prudent Alva would not risk invasion till Scotland at least was assured. As time passed on, the English conspiracies were discovered and broken up. The Duke of Norfolk lost his head; the Queen of Scots was found to have been mixed up with the plots to murder Elizabeth; and Elizabeth at last took courage and recognised James. Supplies of money ceased to come from abroad, and gradually the tide turned. The Protestant cause once more grew towards the ascendant. The great families one by one came round again; and, as the backward movement began, the Massacre of St. Bartholomew gave it a fresh and tremendous impulse. Even the avowed Catholics--the Hamiltons, the Gordons, the Scotts, the Kers, the Maxwells--quailed before the wail of rage and sorrow which at that great horror rose over their country. The Queen's party dwindled away to a handful of desperate politicians, who still clung to Edinburgh Castle. But Elizabeth's 'peace-makers,' as the big English cannon were called, came round, at the Regent's request, from Berwick; David's tower, as Knox had long ago foretold, 'ran down over the cliff like a sandy brae;' and the cause of Mary Stuart in Scotland was extinguished for ever. Poor Grange, who deserved a better end, was hanged at the Market Cross. Secretary Maitland, the cause of all the mischief--the cleverest man, as far as intellect went, in all Britain--died (so later rumour said) by his own hand. A nobler version of his end is probably a truer one: He had been long ill--so ill that when the Castle cannon were fired, he had been carried into the cellars as unable to bear the sound. The breaking down of his hopes finished him. 'The secretary,' wrote some one from the spot to Cecil, 'is dead of grief, being unable to endure the great hatred which all this people bears towards him.' It would be well if some competent man would write a life of Maitland, or at least edit his papers. They contain by far the clearest account of the inward movements of the time; and he himself is one of the most tragically interesting characters in the cycle of the Reformation history.

With the fall of the Castle, then, but not till then, it became clear to all men that the Reformation would hold its ground. It was the final trampling out of the fire which for five years had threatened both England and Scotland with flames and ruin. For five years--as late certainly as the massacre of St. Bartholomew--those who understood best the true state of things, felt the keenest misgivings how the event would turn. That things ended as they did was due to the spirit of the Scotch commons. There was a moment when, if they had given way, all would have gone, perhaps even to Elizabeth's throne. They had passed for nothing; they had proved to be everything; had proved--the ultimate test in human things--to be the power which could hit the hardest blows, and they took rank accordingly. The creed began now in good earnest to make its way into hall and castle; but it kept the form which it assumed in the first hours of its danger and trial, and never after lost it. Had the aristocracy dealt sincerely with things in the earlier stages of the business, again I say the democratic element in the Kirk might have been softened or modified. But the Protestants had been trifled with by their own natural leaders. Used and abused by Elizabeth, despised by the worldly intelligence and power of the times--they triumphed after all, and, as a natural consequence, they set their own mark and stamp upon the fruits of the victory.

The question now is, what has the Kirk so established done for Scotland? Has it justified its own existence? Briefly, we might say, it has continued its first function as the guardian of Scottish freedom. But that is a vague phrase, and there are special accusations against the Kirk and its doctrines which imply that it has cared for other things than freedom. Narrow, fanatical, dictatorial, intrusive, superstitious, a spiritual despotism, the old priesthood over again with a new face--these and other such epithets and expressions we have heard often enough applied to it at more than one stage of its history. Well, I suppose that neither the Kirk nor anything else of man's making is altogether perfect. But let us look at the work which lay before it when it had got over its first perils. Scotch patriotism succeeded at last in the object it had so passionately set its heart upon. It sent a king at last of the Scotch blood to England, and a new dynasty; and it never knew peace or quiet after. The Kirk had stood between James Stuart and his kingcraft. He hated it as heartily as did his mother; and, when he got to England, he found people there who told him it would be easy to destroy it, and he found the strength of a fresh empire to back him in trying to do it. To have forced prelacy upon Scotland would have been to destroy the life out of Scotland. Thrust upon them by force, it would have been no more endurable than Popery. They would as soon, perhaps sooner, have had what the Irish call the 'rale thing' back again. The political freedom of the country was now wrapped up in the Kirk; and the Stuarts were perfectly well aware of that, and for that very reason began their crusade against it.

And now, suppose the Kirk had been the broad, liberal, philosophical, intellectual thing which some people think it ought to have been, how would it have fared in that crusade; how altogether would it have encountered those surplices of Archbishop Laud or those dragoons of Claverhouse? It is hard to lose one's life for a 'perhaps,' and philosophical belief at the bottom means a 'perhaps' and nothing more. For more than half the seventeenth century, the battle had to be fought out in Scotland, which in reality was the battle between liberty and despotism; and where, except in an intense, burning conviction that they were maintaining God's cause against the devil, could the poor Scotch people have found the strength for the unequal struggle which was forced upon them? Toleration is a good thing in its place; but you cannot tolerate what will not tolerate you, and is trying to cut your throat. Enlightenment you cannot have enough of, but it must be true enlightenment, which sees a thing in all its bearings. In these matters the vital questions are not always those which appear on the surface; and in the passion and resolution of brave and noble men there is often an inarticulate intelligence deeper than what can be expressed in words. Action sometimes will hit the mark, when the spoken word either misses it or is but half the truth. On such subjects, and with common men, latitude of mind means weakness of mind. There is but a certain quantity of spiritual force in any man. Spread it over a broad surface, the stream is shallow and languid; narrow the channel, and it becomes a driving force. Each may be well at its own time. The mill-race which drives the water-wheel is dispersed in rivulets over the meadow at its foot. The Covenanters fought the fight and won the victory, and then, and not till then, came the David Humes with their essays on miracles, and the Adam Smiths with their political economies, and steam-engines, and railroads, and philosophical institutions, and all the other blessed or unblessed fruits of liberty.

But we may go further. Institutions exist for men, not men for institutions; and the ultimate test of any system of politics, or body of opinions, or form of belief, is the effect produced on the conduct and condition of the people who live and die under them. Now, I am not here to speak of Scotland of the present day. That, happily, is no business of mine. We have to do here with Scotland before the march of intellect; with Scotland of the last two centuries; with the three or four hundred thousand families, who for half-a-score of generations believed simply and firmly in the principles of the Reformation, and walked in the ways of it.

Looked at broadly, one would say they had been an eminently pious people. It is part of the complaint of modern philosophers about them, that religion, or superstition, or whatever they please to call it, had too much to do with their daily lives. So far as one can look into that commonplace round of things which historians never tell us about, there have rarely been seen in this world a set of people who have thought more about right and wrong, and the judgment about them of the upper powers. Long-headed, thrifty industry,--a sound hatred of waste, imprudence, idleness, extravagance,--the feet planted firmly upon the earth,--a conscientious sense that the worldly virtues are, nevertheless, very necessary virtues, that without these, honesty for one thing is not possible, and that without honesty no other excellence, religious or moral, is worth anything at all--this is the stuff of which Scotch life was made, and very good stuff it is. It has been called gloomy, austere, harsh, and such other epithets. A gifted modern writer has favoured us lately with long strings of extracts from the sermons of Scotch divines of the last century, taking hard views of human shortcomings and their probable consequences, and passing hard censures upon the world and its amusements. Well, no doubt amusement is a very good thing; but I should rather infer from the vehemence and frequency of these denunciations that the people had not been in the habit of denying themselves too immoderately; and, after all, it is no very hard charge against those teachers that they thought more of duty than of pleasure. Sermons always exaggerate the theoretic side of things; and the most austere preacher, when he is out of the pulpit, and you meet him at the dinner-table, becomes singularly like other people. We may take courage, I think, we may believe safely that in those minister-ridden days, men were not altogether so miserable; we may hope that no large body of human beings have for any length of time been too dangerously afraid of enjoyment. Among other good qualities, the Scots have been distinguished for humour--not for venomous wit, but for kindly, genial humour, which half loves what it laughs at--and this alone shows clearly enough that those to whom it belongs have not looked too exclusively on the gloomy side of the world. I should rather say that the Scots had been an unusually happy people. Intelligent industry, the honest doing of daily work, with a sense that it must be done well, under penalties; the necessaries of life moderately provided for; and a sensible content with the situation of life in which men are born--this through the week, and at the end of it the 'Cottar's Saturday Night'--the homely family, gathered reverently and peacefully together, and irradiated with a sacred presence.--Happiness! such happiness as we human creatures are likely to know upon this world, will be found there, if anywhere.

The author of the 'History of Civilisation' makes a na´ve remark in connexion with this subject. Speaking of the other country, which he censures equally with Scotland for its slavery to superstition, he says of the Spaniards that they are a well-natured, truthful, industrious, temperate, pious people, innocent in their habits, affectionate in their families, full of humour, vivacity, and shrewdness, yet that all this 'has availed them nothing'--'has availed them nothing,' that is his expression--because they are loyal, because they are credulous, because they are contented, because they have not apprehended the first commandment of the new covenant: 'Thou shalt get on and make money, and better thy condition in life;' because, therefore, they have added nothing to the scientific knowledge, the wealth, and the progress of mankind. Without these, it seems, the old-fashioned virtues avail nothing. They avail a great deal to human happiness. Applied science, and steam, and railroads, and machinery, enable an ever-increasing number of people to live upon the earth; but the happiness of those people remains, so far as I know, dependent very much on the old conditions. I should be glad to believe that the new views of things will produce effects upon the character in the long run half so beautiful.

There is much more to say on this subject, were there time to say it, but I will not trespass too far upon your patience; and I would gladly have ended here, had not the mention of Spain suggested one other topic, which I should not leave unnoticed. The Spain of Cervantes and Don Quixote was the Spain of the Inquisition. The Scotland of Knox and Melville was the Scotland of the witch trials and witch burnings. The belief in witches was common to all the world. The prosecution and punishment of the poor creatures was more conspicuous in Scotland when the Kirk was most powerful; in England and New England, when Puritan principles were also dominant there. It is easy to understand the reasons. Evil of all kinds was supposed to be the work of a personal devil; and in the general horror of evil, this particular form of it, in which the devil was thought especially active, excited the most passionate detestation. Thus, even the best men lent themselves unconsciously to the most detestable cruelty. Knox himself is not free from reproach. A poor woman was burned at St. Andrews when he was living there, and when a word from him would have saved her. It remains a lesson to all time, that goodness, though the indispensable adjunct to knowledge, is no substitute for it; that when conscience undertakes to dictate beyond its province, the result is only the more monstrous.

It is well that we should look this matter in the face; and as particular stories leave more impression than general statements, I will mention one, perfectly well authenticated, which I take from the official report of the proceedings:--Towards the end of 1593 there was trouble in the family of the Earl of Orkney. His brother laid a plot to murder him, and was said to have sought the help of a 'notorious witch' called Alison Balfour. When Alison Balfour's life was looked into, no evidence could be found connecting her either with the particular offence or with witchcraft in general; but it was enough in these matters to be accused. She swore she was innocent; but her guilt was only held to be aggravated by perjury. She was tortured again and again. Her legs were put in the caschilaws--an iron frame which was gradually heated till it burned into the flesh--but no confession could be wrung from her. The caschilaws failed utterly, and something else had to be tried. She had a husband, a son, and a daughter, a child seven years old. As her own sufferings did not work upon her, she might be touched, perhaps, by the sufferings of those who were dear to her. They were brought into court, and placed at her side; and the husband first was placed in the 'lang irons'--some accursed instrument; I know not what. Still the devil did not yield. She bore this; and her son was next operated on. The boy's legs were set in 'the boot,'--the iron boot you may have heard of. The wedges were driven in, which, when forced home, crushed the very bone and marrow. Fifty-seven mallet strokes were delivered upon the wedges. Yet this, too, failed. There was no confession yet. So, last of all, the little daughter was taken. There was a machine called the piniwinkies--a kind of thumbscrew, which brought blood from under the finger nails, with a pain successfully terrible. These things were applied to the poor child's hands, and the mother's constancy broke down, and she said she would admit anything they wished. She confessed her witchcraft--so tried, she would have confessed to the seven deadly sins--and then she was burned, recalling her confession, and with her last breath protesting her innocence.

It is due to the intelligence of the time to admit that after this her guilt was doubted, and such vicarious means of extorting confession do not seem to have been tried again. Yet the men who inflicted these tortures would have borne them all themselves sooner than have done any act which they consciously knew to be wrong. They did not know that the instincts of humanity were more sacred than the logic of theology, and in fighting against the devil they were themselves doing the devil's work. We should not attempt to apologise for these things, still less to forget them. No martyrs ever suffered to instil into mankind a more wholesome lesson--more wholesome, or one more hard to learn. The more conscientious men are, the more difficult it is for them to understand that in their most cherished convictions, when they pass beyond the limits where the wise and good of all sorts agree, they may be the victims of mere delusion. Yet, after all, and happily, such cases were but few, and affected but lightly the general condition of the people.

The student running over the records of other times finds certain salient things standing out in frightful prominence. He concludes that the substance of those times was made up of the matters most dwelt on by the annalist. He forgets that the things most noticed are not those of every-day experience, but the abnormal, the extraordinary, the monstrous. The exceptions are noted down, the common and usual is passed over in silence. The philosophic historian, studying hereafter this present age, in which we are ourselves living, may say that it was a time of unexampled prosperity, luxury, and wealth; but catching at certain horrible murders which have lately disgraced our civilisation, may call us a nation of assassins. It is to invert the pyramid and stand it on its point. The same system of belief which produced the tragedy which I have described, in its proper province as the guide of ordinary life, has been the immediate cause of all that is best and greatest in Scottish character.

Note that the copyright on this eBook has expired and it is free to copy.

Copyright ę Scotland from the Roadside 2016