Home » Nonfiction » Henry Thomas Buckle » History of Civilization in England, Vol. 3 of 3

September 30 , 2008

History of Civilization in England, Vol. 3 of 3


In the preceding view of the rise and decay of Spain, I have sought to exhibit the successive steps by which what was formerly one of the greatest nations of the earth, was broken, and cast down from its high estate. As we look back on that scene, the picture is, indeed, striking. A country rich in all natural productions, inhabited by a brave, a loyal, and a religious people, removed, too, by its geographical position from the hazards of European revolutions, did, by the operation of those general causes which I have indicated, suddenly rise to unparalleled grandeur; and then, without the occurrence of any new combination, but by a mere continuance of the same causes, fall with an equal velocity. Yet, these vicissitudes, strange and startling as they appear, were perfectly regular. They were the legitimate consequence of a state of society, in which the spirit of protection had reached its highest point, and in which, every thing being done for the people, nothing was done by the people. Whenever this happens, there may be great political progress, but there can be no really national progress. There may be accessions of territory, and vast increase of fame and of power.[2] There may be improvements in the practice of administration, in the management of finances, in the organization of armies, in the art and theory of war, in the tricks of diplomacy, and in those various contrivances by which one nation is able to outwit and insult another. So far, however, from this benefiting the people, it will injure them in two different ways. In the first place, by increasing the reputation of the ruling classes, it encourages that blind and servile respect which men are too apt to feel for those who are above them, and which, wherever it has been generally practised, has been found fatal to the highest qualities of the citizen, and therefore to the permanent grandeur of the nation. And, in the second place, it multiplies the resources of the executive government, and thus renders the country unable, as well as unwilling, to correct the errors of those who are at the head of affairs. Hence, in Spain, as in all countries similarly circumstanced, it was at the very moment when things were most prosperous at the surface, that they were most rotten at the foundation. In presence of the most splendid political success, the nation hastened to its downfall, and the crisis was fast approaching, in which, the whole edifice being overturned, nothing would be left, except a memorable warning of the consequences which must ensue, when the people, giving themselves up to the passions of superstition and loyalty, abdicate their own proper functions, forego their own responsibility, renounce their highest duties, and degrade themselves into passive instruments to serve the will of the Church and the throne.

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Here's another book of funcouragement from Barbara Johnson as she continues to help her loyal fans find joy in the midst of pain. Barbara shares her own experiences and those of others who have tripped over life's hurdles and landed in the arms of God. She shows that laughing in the face of adversity is not proof of insanity but a form of healing.

Such is the great lesson taught by the history of Spain. From the history of Scotland, we may gather another lesson, of a different, and yet of a similar, kind. In Scotland, the progress of the nation has been very slow, but, on the whole, very sure. The country is extremely barren; the executive government has, with rare exceptions, been always weak; and the people have never been burdened with those feelings of loyalty which circumstances had forced upon the Spaniards. Certainly, the last charge that will be brought against the Scotch,[3] is that of superstitious attachment to their princes.[1] We, in England, have not always been very tender of the persons of our sovereigns, and we have occasionally punished them with what some consider excessive severity. With this, we have been frequently taunted by the more loyal nations of the Continent; and, in Spain in particular, our conduct has excited the greatest abhorrence. But, if we compare our history with that of our northern neighbours, we must pronounce ourselves a meek and submissive people.[2] There have been more rebellions in Scotland than in any other country; and the rebellions have been very sanguinary, as well as very numerous. The Scotch have made war upon most of their kings, and put to death many. To mention their treatment of a single dynasty, they murdered James I. and James III. They rebelled against James II. and James VII. They laid hold of James V.,[4] and placed him in confinement. Mary, they immured in a castle, and afterwards deposed. Her successor, James VI., they imprisoned; they led him captive about the country, and on one occasion attempted his life. Towards Charles I., they showed the greatest animosity, and they were the first to restrain his mad career. Three years before the English ventured to rise against that despotic prince, the Scotch boldly took up arms, and made war on him. The service which they then rendered to the cause of liberty it would be hard to overrate; but the singular part of the transaction was, that having afterwards got possession of the person of Charles, they sold him to the English for a large sum of money, of which they, being very poor, had pressing need. Such a sale is unparalleled in history; and although the Scotch might have plausibly alleged that this was the only gain they had derived, or ever could derive, from the existence of their hereditary prince, still the event is one which stands alone; it was unprecedented; it has never been imitated; and its occurrence is a striking symptom of the state of public opinion, and of the feelings of the country in which it was permitted.

While, however, in regard to loyalty, the opposition between Scotland and Spain is complete, there is, strange to say, the most striking similarity between those countries in regard to superstition. Both nations have allowed their clergy to exercise immense sway, and both have submitted their actions, as well as their consciences, to the authority of the Church. As a natural consequence, in both countries, intolerance has been, and still is, a crying evil; and in matters of religion, a bigotry is habitually displayed, discreditable indeed to Spain, but far more discreditable to Scotland, which has produced many philosophers of the highest eminence, who would willingly have taught the people better things, but who have vainly attempted to remove from the national mind that serious blemish which mars its beauty, and tends to neutralize its many other admirable qualities.

Herein lies the apparent paradox, and the real difficulty, of Scotch history. That knowledge should not[5] have produced the effects which have elsewhere followed it; that a bold and inquisitive literature should be found in a grossly superstitious country, without diminishing its superstition; that the people should constantly withstand their kings, and as constantly succumb to their clergy; that while they are liberal in politics, they should be illiberal in religion; and that, as a natural consequence of all this, men who, in the visible and external department of facts and of practical life, display a shrewdness and a boldness rarely equalled, should nevertheless, in speculative life, and in matters of theory, tremble like sheep before their pastors, and yield assent to every absurdity they hear, provided their Church has sanctioned it; that these discrepancies should coexist, seems at first sight a strange contradiction, and is surely a phenomenon worthy of our careful study. To indicate the causes of this anomaly, and to trace the results to which the anomaly has led, will be the business of the remaining part of this volume; and although the investigation will be somewhat lengthy, it will not, I hope, be considered prolix, by those who recognise the importance of the inquiry, and are aware how completely it has been neglected, even by those who have written most fully on the history of the Scottish nation.

In Scotland, as elsewhere, the course of events has been influenced by its physical geography; and by this I mean, not only its own immediate peculiarities, but also its relation to adjoining countries. It is close to Ireland; it touches England; and by the contiguity of the Orkney and Shetland Isles, it was eminently exposed to the attacks of that great nation of pirates, which for centuries inhabited the Scandinavian peninsula. Considered merely by itself, it is mountainous and sterile; nature has interposed such obstacles, that it was long impossible to open regular communications between its different parts, which, indeed, in regard to the Highlands, was not effected till after the middle of the eighteenth century.[3] Finally, and this, as we shall[6] presently see, was a matter of great importance, the most fertile land in Scotland is in the south, and was,[7] therefore, constantly ravaged by the English borderers. Hence, the accumulation of wealth was hindered; the growth of towns was discouraged, by the serious hazards to which they were liable; and it was impossible to develop that municipal spirit, which might have existed, if the districts most favoured by nature had been situated in the north of Scotland, instead of in the south. If the actual state of things had been reversed, so that the Highlands were in the south,[4] and the Lowlands in the north, it can hardly be doubted, that, after the cessation in the thirteenth century of the great Scandinavian invasions, the most fertile parts of Scotland, being comparatively secure, would have been the seat of towns, which the active spirit of the people would have caused to prosper, and the prosperity of which would have introduced a new element into Scotch affairs, and changed the course of Scotch history. This, however, was not to be; and, as we have to deal with events as they actually are, I will now endeavour to trace the consequences of the physical peculiarities which have just been noticed; and by coördinating their results, I will, so far as I am able, show their general meaning, and the way in which they have shaped the national character.

The earliest fact with which we are acquainted respecting the history of Scotland, is the Roman invasion under Agricola, late in the first century. But[8] neither his conquests, nor those of his successors, made any permanent impression. The country was never really subjugated, and nothing was effected except a military occupation, which, in spite of the erection of numerous forts, walls, and ramparts, left the spirit of the inhabitants unbroken. Even Severus, who, in the year 209, undertook the last and most important expedition against Scotland, does not appear to have penetrated beyond the Firth of Moray;[5] and directly he retired, the natives were again in arms, and again independent. After this, nothing was attempted upon a scale large enough to give a chance of success. Indeed, the Romans, far from being equal to such an effort, were themselves deteriorating. In their best days, their virtues were the virtues of barbarians, and even those they were now about to lose. From the beginning, their scheme of life was so one-sided and imperfect, that the increase of wealth, which improves the civilization of really civilized countries, was to the Romans an irreparable mischief; and they were corrupted by luxury, instead of being refined by it. In our time, if we compare the different nations of Europe, we find that the richest are also the most powerful, the most humane, and the most happy. We live in that advanced state of society, in which wealth is both the cause and the effect of progress, while poverty is the fruitful parent of weakness, of misery, and of crime. But the Romans, when they ceased to be poor, began to[9] be vicious. So unstable was the foundation of their greatness, that the very results which their power produced, were fatal to the power itself. Their empire gave them wealth, and their wealth overthrew their empire. Their national character, notwithstanding its apparent strength, was in truth of so frail a texture, that it was ruined by its own development. As it grew, it dwarfed. Hence it was, that, in the third and fourth centuries, their hold on mankind visibly slackened. Their authority being undermined, other nations, of course, stepped in; so that the inroads of those strange tribes which came pouring from the north, and to whose appearance the final catastrophe is often ascribed, were at best the occasion, but by no means the cause, of the fall of the Roman Empire. Towards that great and salutary event, every thing had long been pointing. The scourgers and oppressors of the world, whom a false and ignorant sympathy has invested with noble qualities which they never possessed, had now to look to themselves; and when, after receding on all sides, they, in the middle of the fifth century, withdrew their forces from the whole of Britain, they merely executed a movement, which a train of circumstances, continued through several generations, had made inevitable.

It is at this point that we begin to discern the operation of those physical and geographical peculiarities which I have mentioned as influencing the fortunes of Scotland. The Romans, gradually losing ground, the proximity of Ireland caused repeated attacks from that fertile island, whose rich soil and great natural advantages gave rise to an exuberant, and therefore a restless, population. An overflow, which, in civilized times, is an emigration, is, in barbarous times, an invasion. Hence the Irish, or Scotti as they were termed, established themselves by force of arms in the west of Scotland, and came into collision with the Picts, who occupied the eastern part. A deadly struggle ensued, which lasted four centuries after the withdrawal of the Romans, and plunged the country into the greatest confusion. At length, in the middle of the ninth[10] century, Kenneth M'Alpine, king of the Scotti, gained the upper hand, and reduced the Picts to complete submission.[6] The country was now united under one rule; and the conquerors, slowly absorbing the conquered, gave their name to the whole, which, in the tenth century, received the appellation of Scotland.[7]

But the kingdom was to have no rest. For, in the mean time, circumstances, which it would be tedious to relate, had raised the inhabitants of Norway to be the greatest maritime power in Europe. The use which that nation of pirates made of their strength, forms another and a very important link in the history of Scotland, and moreover illustrates the immense weight, which, in an early period of society, should be assigned to mere geographical considerations. The nearest land to the centre of the long coast of Norway is the Shetland Isles, whence it is an easy sail to the Orkneys. The northern pirates naturally seized these small, but, to them, most useful islands, and, as naturally, made[11] them intermediate stations, from which they could conveniently pillage the coasts of Scotland. Being constantly reinforced from Norway, they, in the ninth and tenth centuries, advanced from the Orkneys, made permanent settlements in Scotland itself, and occupied not only Caithness, but also great part of Sutherland. Another body of them got possession of the Western Islands; and as Skye is only separated from the mainland by a very narrow channel, these pirates easily crossed over, and fixed themselves in Western Ross.[8] From their new abodes, they waged incessant and destructive war against every district within their reach; and, keeping a large part of Scotland in constant alarm, they, for about three centuries, prevented the possibility of its social improvement. Indeed, that unhappy country was never free from the dangers of Norwegian invasion, until the failure of the last great attack, in 1263, when Haco left Norway with a prodigious armament, which he further strengthened by reinforcements from the Orkneys and Hebrides. Scotland could offer but little resistance. Haco, with his allies, sailed along the western coast to the Mull of Kentire, wasted the country with fire and sword, took Arran and Bute, entered the Firth of Clyde, suddenly fell upon Loch Lomond, destroyed all the property on its shores and on its islands, ravaged the whole county of Stirling, and threatened to descend with all his force upon Ayrshire. Fortunately, the inclemency of the weather broke up this great expedition, and scattered or destroyed the entire fleet.[9] After its dispersal, the course of affairs in Norway prevented the attempt from being renewed; and danger from that quarter being[12] over, it might have been hoped that Scotland would now enjoy peace, and would have leisure to develop the natural resources which she possessed, particularly those in the southern and more favoured districts.

This, however, was not to be. For, scarcely were the attacks from Norway at an end, when those from England began. Early in the thirteenth century, the lines of demarcation which separated Normans from Saxons, were, in our country, becoming so obliterated, that in many cases it was impossible to distinguish them.[10] By the middle of the same century, the two races were fused into one powerful nation; and, as that nation had a comparatively feeble neighbour, it was certain that the stronger people would try to oppress the weaker.[11] In an ignorant and barbarous age, military success is preferred to all other kinds of fame; and the English, greedy for conquest, set their eyes upon Scotland, which they were sure to invade at the first opportunity. That Scotland was near, made it tempting; that it was believed to be defenceless, made the temptation irresistible. In 1290, Edward I. determined to avail himself of the confusion into which Scotland was thrown by disputes respecting the succession of the crown. The intrigues which followed, need not be related; it is enough to say, that, in 1296, the sword was drawn, and Edward invaded a country which he had long desired to conquer. But he little recked of the millions of treasure, and the hundreds of thousands of lives, which were to be squandered, before[13] that war was over.[12] The contest that ensued was of unexampled length and severity; and in its sad course, the Scotch, notwithstanding their heroic resistance, and the victories they occasionally gained, had to endure every evil which could be inflicted by their proud and insolent neighbour. The darling object of the English, was to subjugate the Scotch; and if anything could increase the disgrace of so base an enterprise, it would be that, having undertaken it, they ignominiously failed.[13] The suffering, however, was incalculable, and was aggravated by the important fact, that it was precisely the most fertile part of Scotland which was most exposed to the English ravages. This, as we shall presently see, produced some very curious results on the national character; and for that reason, I will, without entering into many details, give a slight summary of the more immediate consequences of this long and sanguinary struggle.

In 1296, the English entered Berwick, the richest town Scotland possessed, and not only destroyed all the property, but slew nearly all the inhabitants.[14] They[14]then marched on to Aberdeen and Elgin; and so completely desolated the country, that the Scotch, flying to the mountains, and stripped of their all, had no resource left but to wage from their native fastnesses a war similar to that which their savage ancestors, twelve centuries earlier, had conducted against the Romans.[15] In 1298, the English again broke in, burnt Perth and St. Andrews, and ravaged the whole territory south and west.[16] In 1310, they invaded Scotland by the eastern march, and carrying off such provisions as were left, caused so terrible a dearth, that the people were forced to feed on horses and other carrion.[17] All over southern Scotland, both east and west, the inhabitants were now reduced to a horrible condition, being[15] for the most part houseless and starved. In 1314, made desperate by their state, they rallied for a moment, and, in the battle of Bannockburn, gloriously defeated their oppressors. But their unrelenting enemy was at hand, and pressed them so hard, that, in 1322, Bruce, in order to baffle an English invasion, was obliged to lay waste all the districts south of the Firth of Forth; the people taking refuge, as before, in the mountains.[18] This time, therefore, when Edward II. reached Edinburgh, he plundered nothing, because, the country being a desert, there was nothing to plunder; but, on his return, he did what he could, and meeting with some convents, which were the only signs of life that he encountered, he fell upon them, robbed the monasteries of Melrose and Holyrood, burnt the abbey of Dryburgh, and slew those monks who, from age or disease, were unable to escape.[19] In 1336, the next king, Edward III., equipped a numerous army, devastated the Lowlands,[16] and great part of the Highlands, and destroyed every thing he could find, as far as Inverness.[20] In 1346, the English overran the districts of Tweeddale, the Merse, Ettrick, Annandale, and Galloway;[21] and in 1355, Edward, in a still more barbarous inroad, burnt every church, every village, and every town he approached.[22] And scarcely were these frightful losses somewhat repaired, when another storm burst upon the devoted land. In 1385, Richard II. traversed the southern counties to Aberdeen, scattering destruction on every side, and reducing to ashes the cities of Edinburgh, Dunfermline, Perth, and Dundee.[23]

By these disasters, the practice of agriculture was every where interrupted, and in many places ceased for several generations.[24] The labourers either fled, or[17] were murdered; and there being no one to till the ground, some of the fairest parts of Scotland were turned into a wilderness, overgrown with briers and thickets. Between the invasions, a few of the inhabitants, taking courage, issued from the mountains, and raised wretched huts in the place of their former abodes. But, even then, they were pursued to their very doors by wolves, searching for food, and maddened with hunger. If they escaped from these famished and ferocious animals, they and their families were exposed to a danger still more horrible. For, in those terrible days, when famine stalked abroad, despair perverted the souls of men, and drove them to new crime. There were cannibals in the land; and we have it on contemporary authority, that a man and his wife, who were at length brought to justice, subsisted during a considerable period on the bodies of children, whom they caught alive in traps, devouring their flesh, and drinking their blood.[25]

Thus the fourteenth century passed away. In the fifteenth century, the devastations of the English[18] became comparatively rare; and although the borders were the scene of constant hostilities,[26] there is no instance, since the year 1400, of any of our kings invading Scotland.[27] An end being put to those murderous expeditions, which reduced the country to a desert, Scotland drew breath, and began to recover her strength.[28] But, though the material losses were gradually repaired; though the fields were again cultivated, and the towns rebuilt, there were other consequences, which were less easy to remedy, and from whose effects the people long smarted. These were inordinate power of the nobles, and the absence of the municipal spirit. The strength of the nobles, and the weakness of the citizens, are the most important peculiarities of Scotland during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; and they, as I am about to show, were directly encouraged by the ravages committed by the English troops. We shall, moreover, see that this combination of events increased the authority of the clergy, weakened the influence of the intellectual classes, and made superstition more prevalent than it[19] would otherwise have been. It is in this way, that in Scotland, as in all other countries, every thing is linked together; nothing is casual or accidental; and the whole march of affairs is governed by general causes, which, owing to their largeness and remoteness, often escape attention, but which, when once recognized, are found to be marked by a simplicity and uniformity, which are the invariable characteristics of the highest truths that the mind of man has reached.

The first circumstance favourable to the authority of the nobles, was the structure of the country. Mountains, fens, lakes, and morasses, which even the resources of modern art have only recently made accessible supplied the great Scottish chieftains with retreats, in which they could with impunity defy the power of the crown.[29]The poverty of the soil also, made it difficult for armies to find means of subsistence; and from this cause alone, the royal troops were often unable to pursue the lawless and refractory barons.[30] During the fourteenth century, Scotland was constantly ravaged by the English; and in the intervals of[20] their absence, it would have been a hopeless undertaking for any king to try to repress such powerful subjects, since he would have had to march through districts so devastated by the enemy, that they no longer yielded the common necessaries of life. Besides this, the war with the English lessened the authority of the crown, absolutely as well as relatively. Its patrimony, lying in the south, was incessantly wasted by the borderers, and before the middle of the fourteenth century, greatly deteriorated in value.[31] In 1346, David II. fell into the hands of the English, and during his captivity of eleven years, the nobles carried all before them, and affected, says an historian, the style and title of princes.[32] The longer the war with England continued, the more these consequences were felt; so that before the close of the fourteenth century, a few of the leading Scotch families had raised themselves to such preëminence, that it was evident, either that a deadly struggle must ensue between them and the crown, or else that the executive government would have to abdicate its most essential functions, and leave the country a prey to these headstrong and ferocious chiefs.[33]

At this crisis, the natural allies of the throne would have been the citizens and free burgesses, who in most European countries were the eager and resolute opponents of the nobles, whose licentious habits interfered not only with their trade and manufactures, but also with their personal liberty. Here again, however, the long war with England was favourable to the aristocracy[21] of Scotland. For, as the invaders ravaged the southern parts of Scotland, which were also the only tolerably fertile parts, it was impossible that towns should flourish in the places which nature had appointed for them. There being no large cities, there was no asylum for the citizens, and there could be no municipal spirit. There being no municipal spirit, the crown was deprived of that great resource, which enabled the English kings to curtail the power of the nobles, and to punish a lawlessness which long impeded the progress of society.

During the middle ages, the Scotch towns were so utterly insignificant, that but few notices have been preserved of them; contemporary writers concentrating their attention upon the proceedings of the nobles and clergy. Respecting the people, who found shelter in such miserable cities as then existed, our best accounts are very imperfect; it is, however, certain that, during the long English wars, the inhabitants usually fled at the approach of the invaders, and the wretched hovels in which they lived were burned to the ground.[34] Hence the population acquired a fluctuating and vagabond character, which prevented the formation of settled habits of industry, and thus took away one reason which men have for congregating together. This applied more especially to the southern Lowlands; for the north, there were other evils equally threatening. The ferocious Highlanders, who lived entirely by plunder, were constantly at hand; and to them were not unfrequently added the freebooters of the Western Isles. Any thing which bore even the semblance of wealth, was an irresistible excitement to their cupidity. They could not know that a man had property, without longing to steal it; and, next[22] to stealing, their greatest pleasure was to destroy.[35] Aberdeen and Inverness were particularly exposed to their assaults; and twice during the fifteenth century, Inverness was totally consumed by fire, besides having to pay at other times a heavy ransom, to save itself from a similar fate.[36]


Such insecurity[37] both on the north and on the south, made peaceful industry impossible in any part of Scotland. No where could a town be built, without being in danger of immediate destruction. The consequence was, that, during many centuries, there were no manufactures; there was hardly any trade; and nearly all business was conducted by barter.[38] Some of the commonest arts were unknown. The Scotch were unable to make even the arms with which they fought. This, among such a warlike people, would have been a very profitable labour; but they were so ignorant of it, that, early in the fifteenth century, most of the armour which they wore was manufactured abroad, as also were their spears, and even their bows and arrows; and the heads of these weapons were entirely imported from[24]Flanders.[39] Indeed, the Flemish artizans supplied the Scotch with ordinary farming implements, such as cart-wheels and wheel-barrows, which, about the year 1475, used to be regularly shipped from the Low Countries.[40] As to the arts which indicate a certain degree of refinement, they were then, and long afterwards, quite out of the question.[41] Until the seventeenth century, no glass was manufactured in Scotland,[42] neither was any soap made there.[43] Even the higher class of citizens would have deemed windows absurd in their[25] wretched abodes;[44] and as they were alike filthy in their persons as in their houses, the demand for soap was too small to induce any one to attempt its manufacture.[45] Other branches of industry were equally backward. In 1620, the art of tanning leather was for the first time introduced into Scotland;[46] and it is stated, on apparently good authority, that no paper was[26] made there until about the middle of the eighteenth century.[47]

In the midst of such general stagnation, the most flourishing towns were, as may be easily supposed, very thinly peopled. Indeed, men had so little to do, that if they had collected in large numbers, they must have starved. Glasgow is one of the oldest cities in Scotland, and is said to have been founded about the sixth century.[48] At all events, in the twelfth century, it was, according to the measure of that age, a rich and prosperous place, enjoying the privilege of holding both a market and a fair.[49] It had also a municipal organization, and was governed by its own provosts and baillies.[50][27] Yet, even this famous town had no kind of trade before the fifteenth century, when the inhabitants began to cure salmon, and export it.[51] That was the only branch of industry with which Glasgow was acquainted. We need not, therefore, be surprised at hearing, that so late as the middle of the fifteenth century, the entire population did not exceed fifteen hundred persons, whose wealth consisted of some small cattle, and a few acres of ill-cultivated land.[52]

Other cities, though bearing a celebrated name, were equally backward at a still more recent period. Dunfermline is associated with many historic reminiscences; it was a favourite residence of Scotch kings, and many Scotch parliaments have been held there.[53] Such events are supposed to confer distinction; but the illusion vanishes, when we inquire more minutely into the condition of the place where they happened. In spite of the pomp of princes and legislators, Dunfermline, which at the end of the fourteenth century was still a poor village, composed of wooden huts,[54] had, by the beginning of the seventeenth century, advanced so slowly that its[28]whole population, including that of its wretched suburbs, did not exceed one thousand persons.[55] For a Scotch town, that was a considerable number. About the same time, Greenock, we are assured, was a village consisting of a single row of cottages, tenanted by poor fishermen.[56] Kilmarnock, which is now a great emporium of industry and of wealth, contained, in 1668, between five and six hundred inhabitants.[57] And, to come down still lower, even Paisley itself, in the year 1700, possessed a population which, according to the highest estimate, did not amount to three thousand.[58]

Aberdeen, the metropolis of the north, was looked up to as one of the most influential of the Scotch towns, and was not a little envied during the Middle Ages, for its power and importance. These, however, like all other words, are relative, and mean different things at different periods. Certainly, we shall not be much struck by the magnitude of that city, when we learn, from calculations made from its tables of mortality, that so late as 1572, it could only boast of about two thousand nine hundred inhabitants.[59] Such a fact will dispel many a[29] dream respecting the old Scotch towns, particularly if we call to mind that it refers to a date, when the anarchy of the Middle Ages was passing away, and Aberdeen had for some time been improving. That city—if so miserable a collection of persons deserves to be termed a city—was, nevertheless, one of the most densely peopled places in Scotland. From the thirteenth century to the close of the sixteenth, no where else were so many Scotchmen assembled together, except in Perth, Edinburgh, and possibly in Saint Andrews.[60] Respecting Saint Andrews, I have been unable to meet with any precise information;[61] but of Perth and Edinburgh, some particulars are preserved. Perth was long the capital of Scotland, and after losing that preëminence, it was still reputed to be the second city in the kingdom.[62][30] Its wealth was supposed to be astonishing; and every good Scotchman was proud of it, as one of the chief ornaments of his country.[63] But, according to an estimate recently made by a considerable authority in these matters, its entire population, in the year 1585, was under nine thousand.[64] This will surprise many readers; though, considering the state of society at that time, the real wonder is, not that there were so few, but that there were so many. For, Edinburgh itself, notwithstanding the officials and numerous hangers-on, which the presence of a court always brings, did not contain, late in the fourteenth century, more than sixteen thousand persons.[65] Of their general condition, a contemporary observer has left us some account. Froissart, who visited Scotland, and records what he saw, as well as what he heard, gives a lamentable picture of the state of affairs. The houses in Edinburgh were mere huts, thatched with boughs; and were so slightly put together, that when one of them was destroyed, it only took three days to rebuild it. As to the people who inhabited these wretched hovels, Froissart, who was by no means given to exaggeration, assures us, that the French, unless they had seen them, could not have believed that such destitution existed, and that now, for the first time, they understood what poverty really was.[66]


After this period, there was, no doubt, considerable improvement; but it was very slow, and even late in the sixteenth century, skilled labour was hardly known, and honest industry was universally despised.[67][32] It is not, therefore, surprising, that the citizens, poor, miserable, and ignorant, should frequently purchase the protection of some powerful noble by yielding to him the little independence that they might have retained.[68] Few of the Scotch towns ventured to elect their chief magistrate from among their own people; but the usual course was, to choose a neighbouring[33] peer as provost or baillie.[69] Indeed, it often happened that his office became hereditary, and was looked upon as the vested right of some aristocratic family.[70] To the head of that family, every thing gave way. His authority was so incontestable, that an injury done even to one of his retainers was resented, as if it had been done to himself.[71] The burgesses who were sent to parliament, were completely dependent on the noble who ruled the town. Down to quite modern times, there was in Scotland no real popular representation. The so-called representatives were obliged to vote as they were ordered; they were, in fact, delegates of the aristocracy; and as they possessed no chamber of their own, they sat and deliberated in the midst of their powerful masters, by whom they were openly intimidated.[72]


Under these circumstances, it would have been idle for the crown to have expected aid from a body of men who themselves had no influence, and whose scanty privileges existed only on sufferance. But there was another class, which was extremely powerful, and to which the Scotch kings naturally turned. That class was the clergy; and the interest which both parties had in weakening the nobles, caused a coalition between the church and the throne, against the aristocracy. During a long period, and indeed until the latter half of the sixteenth century, the kings almost invariably favoured the clergy, and increased their privileges in every way they could. The Reformation dissolved this alliance, and gave rise to new combinations, which[35] I shall presently indicate. But while the alliance lasted, it was of great use to the clergy, by imparting to their claims a legitimate sanction, and making them appear the supporters of order and of regular government. The result, however, clearly proved that the nobles were more than equal to the confederacy which opposed them. Indeed, looking at their enormous power, the only wonder is, that the clergy could have prolonged the contest as they did; since they were not actually overthrown until the year 1560. That the struggle should have been so arduous, and should have extended over so considerable a period, is what, on a superficial view, no one could have expected. The reason of this, I shall now endeavour to explain; and I shall, I trust, succeed in proving, that in Scotland there was a long train of general causes, which secured to the spiritual classes immense influence, and which enabled them, not only to do battle with the most powerful aristocracy in Europe, but to rise up, after what seemed their final defeat, fresh and vigorous as ever, and eventually to exercise, as Protestant preachers, an authority nowise inferior to that which they had wielded as Catholic priests.

Of all Protestant countries, Scotland is certainly the one where the course of affairs has for the longest period been most favourable to the interests of superstition. How these interests were encouraged during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, I shall hereafter relate. At present, I purpose to examine the causes of their early growth, and to show the way in which they were not only connected with the Reformation, but gave to that great event some peculiarities which are extremely remarkable, and are diametrically opposed to what happened in England.

If the reader will bear in mind what I have elsewhere stated,[73] he will remember that the two principal sources of superstition are ignorance and danger; ignorance keeping men unacquainted with natural causes, and danger making them recur to supernatural[36] ones. Or, to express the same proposition in other words, the feeling of veneration, which, under one of its aspects, takes the form of superstition, is a product of wonder and of fear;[74] and it is obvious that wonder is connected with ignorance, and that fear is connected with danger.[75] Hence it is, that whatever in any country increases the total amount of amazement, or whatever in any country increases the total amount of peril, has a direct tendency to increase the total amount of superstition, and therefore to strengthen the hands of the priesthood.

By applying these principles to Scotland, we shall be able to explain several facts in the history of that country. In the first place the features of its scenery offer a mark contrast to those of England, and are much more likely, among an ignorant people, to suggest effective and permanent superstitions. The storms and the mists, the darkened sky flashed by frequent lightning, the peals of thunder reverberating from mountain to mountain, and echoing on every side, the dangerous hurricanes, the gusts sweeping the innumerable lakes with which the country is studded, the rolling and impetuous torrent flooding the path of the traveller and stopping his progress, are strangely different to those safer and milder phenomena, among which the English people have developed their prosperity, and built up their mighty cities. Even the belief in witchcraft, one of the blackest superstitions which has ever defaced the human mind, has been affected by these peculiarities; and it has been well observed, that while, according to the old English[37] creed, the witch was a miserable and decrepit hag, the slave rather than the mistress of the demons which haunted her, she, in Scotland, rose to the dignity of a potent sorcerer, who mastered the evil spirit, and, forcing it to do her will, spread among the people a far deeper and more lasting terror.[76]


Similar results were produced by the incessant and sanguinary wars to which Scotland was exposed, and especially by the cruel ravages of the English in the fourteenth century. Whatever religion may be in the ascendant, the influence of its ministers is invariably strengthened by a long and dangerous war, the uncertainties of which perplex the minds of men, and induce them, when natural resources are failing, to call on the supernatural for help. On such occasions, the clergy rise in importance; the churches are more than usually filled; and the priest, putting himself forward as the exponent of the wishes of God, assumes the language of authority, and either comforts the people under their losses in a righteous cause, or else explains to them that those losses are sent as a visitation for their sins, and as a warning that they have not been sufficiently attentive to their religious duties; in other words, that they have neglected rites and ceremonies, in the performance of which the priest himself has a personal interest.

No wonder, therefore, that in the fourteenth century, when the sufferings of Scotland were at their height, the clergy flourished more than ever; so that as the country became poorer, the spiritual classes became richer in proportion to the rest of the nation. Even in the fifteenth, and first half of the sixteenth century, when industry began somewhat to advance, we are assured that notwithstanding the improvement in the position of laymen, the whole of their wealth put together, and including the possessions of all ranks, was barely equal to the wealth of the Church.[77] If the[39] hierarchy were so rapacious and so successful during a period of comparative security, it would be difficult to overrate the enormous harvest they must have reaped in those earlier days, when danger being much more imminent, hardly any one died without leaving something to them; all being anxious to testify their respect towards those who knew more than their fellows, and whose prayers could either avert present evil, or secure future happiness.[78]

Another consequence of these protracted wars was, that a more than ordinary proportion of the population embraced the ecclesiastical profession, because in it alone there was some chance of safety: and the monasteries in particular were crowded with persons who hoped, though frequently in vain, to escape from the burnings and slaughterings to which Scotland was exposed. When the country, in the fifteenth century, began to recover from the effects of these ravages, the[40] absence of manufactures and of commerce, made the Church the best avenue to wealth;[79] so that it was entered by peaceful men for the purpose of security, and by ambitious men as the surest means of achieving distinction.

Thus it was, that the want of great cities, and of that form of industry which belongs to them, made the spiritual classes more numerous than they would otherwise have been; and what is very observable is, that it not only increased their number, but also increased the disposition of the people to obey them. Agriculturists are naturally, and by the very circumstances of their daily life, more superstitious than manufacturers, because the events with which they deal are more mysterious, that is to say, more difficult to generalize and predict.[80] Hence it is, that, as a body, the inhabitants of agricultural districts pay greater respect to the teachings of their clergy than the inhabitants of manufacturing districts. The growth of cities has, therefore, been a main cause of the decline of ecclesiastical power; and the fact that, until the eighteenth century, Scotland had nothing worthy of being called a city, is one of many circumstances which explain the prevalence of Scotch superstition, and the inordinate influence of the Scotch clergy.

To this, we must add another consideration of great moment. Partly from the structure of the country, partly from the weakness of the Crown, and partly from the necessity of being constantly in arms to repel foreign invaders, the predatory habits incidental to an early state of society were encouraged, and consequently the reign of ignorance was prolonged. Little was studied, and nothing was known. Until the fifteenth century, there was not even an university in Scotland, the first having been founded at St. Andrews in 1412.[81] The nobles, when they were not making war upon the[41] enemy, occupied themselves in cutting each other's throats, and stealing each other's cattle.[82] Such was their ignorance, that, even late in the fourteenth century, there is said to be no instance of a Scotch baron being able to sign his own name.[83] And as nothing[42] approaching to a middle class had been yet formed, we may from this gain some idea of the amount of knowledge possessed by the people at large.[84] Their minds must have been immersed in a darkness which we can now barely conceive. No trades, or arts, being practised which required skill, or dexterity, there was nothing to exercise their intellects. They consequently remained so stupid and brutal, that an intelligent observer, who visited Scotland in the year 1360, likens them to savages, so much was he struck by their barbarism and their unsocial manners.[85] Another writer, early in the fifteenth century, uses the same expression; and classing them with the animals which they tended, he declares that Scotland is fuller of savages than of cattle.[86]

By this combination of events, and by this union of ignorance with danger, the clergy had, in the fifteenth century, obtained more influence in Scotland than in any other European country, Spain alone excepted. And as the power of the nobles had increased quite as rapidly, it was natural that the Crown, completely overshadowed by the great barons, should turn for aid to the Church. During the fifteenth century, and part of the sixteenth, this alliance was strictly preserved;[87]and the political history of Scotland is the history of a struggle by the kings and the clergy against the enormous authority of the nobles. The contest, after[43] lasting about a hundred and sixty years, was brought to a close in 1560, by the triumph of the aristocracy, and the overthrow of the Church. With such force, however, had the circumstance just narrated, engrained superstition into the Scotch character, that the spiritual classes quickly rallied, and, under their new name of Protestants, they became as formidable as under their old name of Catholics. Forty-three years after the establishment of the Reformation in Scotland, James VI. ascended the throne of England, and was able to array the force of the southern country against the refractory barons of the northern. From that moment the Scotch aristocracy began to decline; and the equipoise to the clergy being removed, the Church became so powerful, that, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was the most effectual obstacle to the progress of Scotland; and even now it exercises a sway which is incomprehensible to those who have not carefully studied the whole chain of its antecedents. To trace with minuteness the long course of affairs which has led to this unfortunate result, would be incompatible with the object of an Introduction, whose only aim it is to establish broad and general principles. But, to bring the question clearly before the mind of the reader, it will be necessary that I should give a slight sketch of the relation which the nobles bore to the clergy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and of the way in which their relative positions, and their implacable hatred of each other, brought about the Reformation. By this means, we shall perceive, that the great Protestant movement, which, in other countries, was democratic, was in Scotland aristocratic. We shall also see, that, in Scotland, the Reformation, not being the work of the people, has never produced the effects which might have been expected from it, and which it did produce in England. It is, indeed, but too evident, that, while in England Protestantism has diminished superstition, has weakened the clergy, has increased toleration, and, in a word, has secured the triumph of secular interests over ecclesiastical ones, its result in Scotland has been entirely different; and that, in that[44] country, the Church, changing its form, without altering its spirit, not only cherished its ancient pretensions, but unhappily retained its ancient power; and that, although that power is now dwindling away, the Scotch preachers still exhibit, whenever they dare, an insolent and domineering spirit, which shows how much real weakness there yet lurks in the nation, where such extravagant claims are not immediately silenced by the voice of loud and general ridicule.

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