Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 12

I FEAR, my dear Hugh, that this will be rather a dull Chapter, and somewhat difficult to be understood; but if you do not quite comprehend it at the first reading, you may perhaps do so upon a second trial, and I will strive to be as plain and distinct as I can.

As Scotland was never so great nor so powerful as during the reign of Robert Bruce, it is a fit time to tell you the sort of laws by which the people were governed, and lived in society together.

And first you must observe, that there are two kinds of government; one called despotic or absolute, in which the king can do whatever he pleases with his subjects — seize upon their property, or deprive them of their lives at pleasure. This is the case of almost all the kingdoms of the East, where the kings, emperors, sultans, or whatever other name they bear, may do whatever they like to their subjects, without being controlled by any one. It is very unfortunate for the people who live under such a government, and the subjects can be considered as no better than slaves, having no life nor property safe as soon as the king chooses to take it. Some kings, it is true, are good men, and use the power which is put into their hands, only to do good to the people. But then others are thoughtless; and cunning and wicked persons contrive to get their confidence, by flattery and other base means, and lead them to do injustice, even when perhaps they themselves do not think of it. And, besides, there are bad kings, who, if they have the uncontrolled power of taking the money and the goods of their subjects, of throwing them into prison, or putting them to death at their pleasure, are apt to indulge their cruelty and their greediness at the expense of the people, and are called by the hateful name of Tyrants, Those states are therefore a thousand times more happy which have what is called a free government; that is, where the king himself is subject to the laws, and cannot rule otherwise than by means of them. In such governments, the king is controlled and directed by the laws, and can neither put a man to death, unless he has been found guilty of some crime for which the law condemns him to die, nor force him to pay any money beyond what the laws give the sovereign a right to collect for the general expenses of the state. Almost all the nations of modern Europe have been originally free governments; but, in several of them, the kings have acquired a great deal too much power, although not to such an unbounded degree as we find in the Eastern countries. But few countries, like that of Great Britain, have had the good fortune to retain a free constitution, which protects and preserves those who live under it from all oppression, or arbitrary power. We owe this blessing to our brave ancestors, who were at all times ready to defend these privileges with their lives; and we are, on our part, bound to hand them down, in as ample form as we received them, to the posterity who shall come after us. In Scotland, and through most countries of Europe, the principles of freedom were protected by the feudal system, which was now universally introduced. You recollect that the king, according to that system, bestowed large estates upon the nobles and great barons, who were called vassals for the fiefs, or possessions, which they thus received from the king, and were obliged to follow him when he summoned them to battle, and to attend upon his Great Council, in which all matters concerning the affairs of the kingdom were considered, and resolved upon. It was in this great council, now called a Parliament, that the laws of the kingdom were resolved upon, or altered, at the pleasure, not of the king alone, nor of the council alone, but as both the king and council should agree together. I must now tell you particularly how this great council was composed, and who had the privilege of sitting there.

At first, there is no doubt that every vassal who held lands directly of the crown had this privilege; and a baron, or royal vassal, not only had the right, but was obliged, to attend the great council of the kingdom. Accordingly, all the great nobility usually came on the king’s summons; but then it was very inconvenient and expensive for men of smaller estates to he making long journeys to the Parliament, and remaining, perhaps, for many days, or weeks, absent from their own families, and their own business. Besides, if all the royal vassals, or freeholders, as they began to be called, had chosen to attend, the number of the assembly would have been far too great for any purpose of deliberation-it would not have been possible to find a room large enough to hold such a meeting, nor could any one have spoken so as to have made himself understood by such an immense multitude. From this it happened, that, instead of attending all of them in their own persons, the lesser barons (as the smaller freeholders were called, to distinguish them from the great nobles) assembled in their different districts, or shires, as the divisions of the country are termed, and there made choice of one or two of the wisest and most experienced of their number to attend the Parliament, or great council, in the name, and to take care of the interest, of the whole body. Thus, the crown vassals who attended upon and composed the Parliament, or the National Council of Scotland, came to consist of two different bodies; namely, the peers, or great nobility, whom the king especially summoned, and such of the lesser barons as were sent to represent the crown vassals in the different shires or counties of Scotland. But besides these two different classes, the great council also contained the representatives of the clergy, and of the boroughs, or considerable towns.

In the times of the Roman Catholic religion, the churchmen exercised very great power and authority in every kingdom of Europe, and omitted no opportunity by which their importance could be magnified. It is therefore not wonderful, that the chief men of the clergy, such as the bishops, and those abbots of the great abbeys who were called mitred abbots, from their being entitled to wear mitres, like bishops, should have obtained seats in Parliament. They were admitted there for the purpose of looking after the affairs of the church, and ranked along with the peers or nobles having titles.

It remains to mention the boroughs. You must know, that in order to increase the commerce and industry of the country, and also to establish some balance against the immense power of the great lords, the kings of Scotland, from an early period, had been in the use of granting considerable privileges to many of the towns in their dominions, which, in consequence of the charters which they obtained from the crown, were termed royal boroughs. The citizens of these boroughs had the privilege of electing their own magistrates, and had considerable revenues, some from lands conferred on them by the king, others from tolls and taxes upon commodities brought into the town. These revenues were laid out by the magistrates (usually called the provost and bailies), for the use of the town. The same magistrates, in those warlike days, led out the burghers, or townsmen, to battle, either in defence of the town’s lands and privileges, which were often attacked by the great lords and barons in their neighbourhood, or for the purpose of fighting against the English. The burghers were all well trained to arms, and were obliged to attend the king’s army, or host, whenever they were summoned to do so. They were also bound to defend the town itself, which had in most cases walls and gates. This was called keeping watch and ward. Besides other privileges, the boroughs had the very important right of sending representatives or commissioners, who sat in Parliament, to look after the interests of the towns which they represented, as well as to assist in the general affairs of the nation.

You may here remark, that, so far as we have gone, the Scottish Parliament entirely resembled the English in the nature of its constitution. But there was this very material difference in the mode of transacting business, that in England, the peers, or great nobility, with the bishops and great abbots, sat, deliberated, and voted, in a body by themselves, which was called the House of Lords, or of Peers, and the representatives of the counties, or shires, together with those of the boroughs, occupied a different place of meeting, and were called the Lower House, or House of Commons. In Scotland, on the contrary, the nobles, prelates, representatives for the shires, and delegates for the boroughs, all sat in the same apartment, and debated and voted as members of the same assembly. Since the union of the kingdoms of England and Scotland, the Parliament, which represents both countries, sits and votes in two distinct bodies, called the two Houses of Parliament, and there are many advantages attending that form of conducting the national business.

You now have some idea of the nature of the Parliament, or grand council of the nation, and of the various classes of persons who had a right to sit there. I am next to tell you, that they were summoned together and dismissed by the king’s orders; and that all business belonging to the nation was transacted by their advice and opinion. Whatever measures they proposed passed into laws, on receiving the consent of the king, which was intimated by touching with the sceptre the bills that were passed by the Parliament. Thus you see that the laws by which the country was governed were, in a great measure, of the people’s own making, being agreed to by their representatives in Parliament. When, in particular, it was necessary to raise money for any public purpose, there was a necessity for obtaining the consent of Parliament, both as to the amount of the sum, and the manner in which it was to be collected; so that the king could not raise any money from the subjects, without the approbation of his grand council. It may he said, in general, of the Scotch laws, that they were as wisely adapted for the purpose of government as those of any state in Europe, at that early period; nay, more, that they exhibit the strongest marks of foresight and sagacity. But it was the great misfortune of Scotland, that the good laws which the kings and Parliaments agreed upon, were not carried steadily into execution; but, on the contrary, were broken through and neglected, just as if they had not existed at all. I will endeavour to explain some of the causes of this negligence. The principal evil was the great power of the nobility, which was such as to place them almost beyond the control of the king’s authority. The chief noblemen had obtained the right of administering justice each upon his own estate; and therefore the whole power of detecting, trying, and punishing crimes, rested in the first place with those great men. Now, most of those great lords were much more interested in maintaining their own authority, and extending their own power, within the provinces which they occupied, than in promoting general good order and tranquillity throughout the country at large. They were almost constantly engaged in quarrels with each other, and often with the king himself. Sometimes they fought amongst themselves, sometimes they united together against the sovereign. On all occasions they were disposed for war, rather than peace, and therefore took little care to punish the criminals who offended against public order. Instead of bringing to trial the persons who committed murder, robbery, and other violent actions, they often protected them, and enlisted them in their own immediate service; and frequently, from revenge or ambition, were actually the private encouragers of the mischief which these men perpetrated. The judges named by the king, and acting under his authority, had a right indeed to apprehend and to punish such offenders against the public peace when they could get hold of them; but then it was very difficult to seize upon the persons accused of such acts of violence, when the powerful lords in whose territory they lived were disposed to assist them in concealing themselves, or making their escape. And even when the king’s courts were able to seize such culprits, there was a law which permitted the lord on whose territory the crime had been committed, to demand that the accused persons should be delivered up to him, to be tried in his own court. A nobleman or baron making such a demand, was, indeed, obliged to give security that he would execute justice on the persons within a certain reasonable time. But such was the weakness of the royal government, and such the great power of the nobility, and the barons of high rank, that if they once got the person accused into their own hand, they might easily contrive either to let him escape, or to have him acquitted after a mock trial. Thus, it was always difficult, and often impossible, to put in execution the good laws which were made in the Scottish Parliament, on account of the great power possessed by the nobles, who, in order to preserve and extend their own authority, threw all manner of interruption in the way of public justice. Each of these nobles within the country which was subject to him, more resembled a king himself than a subject of the monarch of Scotland: and, in one or two instances, we shall see that some of them became so powerful as to threaten to dispossess the king of his throne and dominions. The very smallest of them often made war on each other without the king’s consent, and thus there was a universal scene of disorder and bloodshed through the whole country. These disorders seemed to be rendered perpetual, by a custom which was called by the name of deadly feud. When two men of different families quarrelled, and the one injured or slew the other, the relatives of the deceased, or wronged person, knowing that the laws could afford them no redress, set about obtaining revenge, by putting to death some relation of the individual who had done the injury, without regarding how innocent the subject of their vengeance might have been of the original cause of offence. Then the others, in their turn, endeavoured to execute a similar revenge upon some one of the family who had first received the injury; and thus the quarrel was carried on from father to son, and often lasted betwixt families that were neighbours and ought to have been good friends, for several generations, during which time they were said to be at deadly feud with each other.

From the want of due exercise of the laws, and from the revengeful disposition which led to such long and fatal quarrels, the greatest distresses ensued to the country. When, for example, the Kings of Scotland assembled their armies, in order to fight against the English, who were then the public enemy, they could bring together indeed a number of brave nobles, with their followers, but there always was great difficulty, and sometimes an absolute impossibility, of making them act together; each chief being jealous of his own authority, and many of them engaged in personal quarrels, either of their own making, or such as existed in consequence of this fatal and cruel custom of deadly feud, which, having been originally perhaps some quarrel of little importance, had become inveterate by the cruelties and crimes which had been committed on both sides, and was handed down from father to son. It is true, that under a wise and vigorous prince, like Robert the Bruce, those powerful barons were overawed by his wisdom and authority; but we shall see too often, that when kings and generals of inferior capacity were at their head, their quarrels amongst themselves often subjected them to defeat and to disgrace. And this accounts for a fact which we shall often have occasion to notice, that when the Scots engaged in great battles with large armies, in which, of course, many of those proud independent nobles were assembled, they were frequently defeated by the English; whereas, when they fought in smaller bodies with the same enemy, they were much more often victorious over them; because at such times the Scots were agreed among themselves, and obeyed the commands of one leader, without pretending to dispute his authority.

These causes of private crimes and public defeat, subsisted even in the midland counties of Scotland, such as the three Lothians, Fifeshire, and other provinces, where the king generally resided, and where he necessarily possessed most power to maintain his own authority, and enforce the execution of the laws. But there were two great divisions of the country, the Highlands namely, and the Borders, which were so much wilder and more barbarous than the others, that they might be said to be altogether without law; and although they were nominally subjected to the King of Scotland, yet when he desired to execute any justice in either of those great districts, he could not do so otherwise than by marching there in person, at the head of a strong body of forces, and seizing upon the offenders, and putting them to death with little or no form of trial. Such a rough course of justice, perhaps, made these disorderly countries quiet for a short time, but it rendered them still more averse to the royal government in their hearts, and disposed on the slightest occasion to break out, either into disorders amongst themselves, or into open rebellion. I must give you some more particular account of these wild and uncivilized districts of Scotland, and of the particular sort of people who were their inhabitants, that you may know what I mean when I speak of Highlanders and Borderers. The highlands of Scotland, so called from the rocky and mountainous character of the country, consist of a very large proportion of the northern parts of that kingdom. It was into these pathless wildernesses that the Romans drove the ancient inhabitants of Great Britain; and it was from these that they afterwards sallied to invade and distress that part of Britain which the Romans had conquered, and in some degree civilized. The inhabitants of the Highlands spoke, and still speak, a language totally different from the Lowland Scots. That last language does not greatly differ from English, and the inhabitants of both countries easily understand each other, though neither of them comprehend the Gaelic, which is the language of the Highlanders. The dress of these mountaineers was also different from that of the Lowlanders. They wore a plaid, or mantle of frieze, or of a striped stuff called tartan, one end of which being wrapt round the waist, formed a short petticoat, which descended to the knee, while the rest was folded round them like a sort of cloak. They had buskins made of raw hide; and those who could get a bonnet, had that covering for their heads, though many never wore one during their whole lives, but had only their own shaggy hair tied back by a leathern strap. They went always armed, carrying bows and arrows, large swords, which they wielded with both hands, called claymores, poleaxes, and daggers for close fight. For defence, they had a round wooden shield, or target, stuck full of nails; and their great men had shirts of mail, not unlike to the flannel shirts now worn, only composed of links of iron instead of threads of worsted; but the common men were so far from desiring armour, that they sometimes threw their plaids away, and fought in their shirts, which they wore very long and large, after the Irish fashion. This part of the Scottish nation was divided into clans, that is, tribes. The persons composing each of these clans believed themselves all to be descended, at some distant period, from the same common ancestor, whose name they usually bore. Thus, one tribe was called MacDonald, which signifies the sons of Donald; another MacGregor, or the sons of Gregor; MacNeil, the sons of Neil, and so on. Every one of these tribes had its own separate chief, or commander, whom they supposed to be the immediate representative of the great father of the tribe from whom they were all descended. To this chief they paid the most unlimited obedience, and willingly followed his commands in peace or war; not caring although, in doing so, they transgressed the laws of the King, or went into rebellion against the king himself. Each tribe lived in a valley, or district of the mountains, separated from the others; and they often made war upon, and fought desperately with each other. But with Lowlanders they were always at war. They differed from them in language, in dress, and in manners; and they believed that the richer grounds of the low country had formerly belonged to their ancestors, and therefore they made incursions upon it, and plundered it without mercy. The Lowlanders, on the other hand, equal in courage and superior in discipline, gave many severe checks to the Highlanders; and thus there was almost constant war or discord between them, though natives of the same country. Some of the most powerful of the Highland chiefs set themselves up as independent sovereigns. Such were the famous Lords of the Isles, called MacDonald, to whom the islands called the Hebrides, lying on the north-west of Scotland, might be said to belong in property. These petty sovereigns made alliances with the English in their own name. They took the part of Robert the Bruce in the wars, and joined him with their forces. We shall find, that after his time, they gave great disturbance to Scotland. The Lords of Lorn, Mac–Dougals by name, were also extremely powerful; and you have seen that they were able to give battle to Bruce, and to defeat him, and place him in the greatest jeopardy. He revenged himself afterwards by driving John of Lorn out of the country, and by giving great part of his possessions to his own nephew Sir Colin Campbell, who became the first of the great family of Argyll, which afterwards enjoyed such power in the Highlands. Upon the whole, you can easily understand, that these Highland clans, living among such high and inaccessible mountains, and paying obedience to no one save their own chiefs, should have been very instrumental in disturbing the tranquillity of the kingdom of Scotland. They had many virtues, being a kind, brave, and hospitable people, and remarkable for their fidelity to their chiefs; but they were restless, revengeful, fond of plunder, and delighting rather in war than in peace, in disorder than in repose.

The Border counties were in a state little more favourable to a quiet or peaceful government. In some respects the inhabitants of the counties of Scotland lying opposite to England, greatly resembled the Highlanders, and particularly in their being, like them, divided into clans, and having chiefs, whom they obeyed in preference to the King, or the officers whom he placed among them. How clanship came to prevail in the Highlands and Borders, and not in the provinces which separated them from each other, it is not easy to conjecture, but the fact was so. The Borders are not, indeed, so mountainous and inaccessible a country as the Highlands; but they also are full of hills, especially on the more western part of the frontier, and were in early times covered with forests, and divided by small rivers and morasses into dales and valleys, where the different clans lived, making war sometimes on the English, sometimes on each other, and sometimes on the more civilized country which lay behind them.

But though the Borderers resembled the Highlanders in their mode of government and habits of plundering, and, as it may be truly added, in their disobedience to the general government of Scotland, yet they differed in many particulars. The Highlanders fought always on foot, the Borderers were all horsemen. The Borderers spoke the same language with the Lowlanders, wore the same sort of dress, and carried the same arms. Being accustomed to fight against the English, they were also much better disciplined than the Highlanders. But in point of obedience to the Scottish government, they were not much different from the clans of the north.

Military officers, called Wardens, were appointed along the Borders, to keep these unruly people in order; but as these wardens were generally themselves chiefs of clans, they did not do much to mend the evil. Robert the Bruce committed great part of the charge of the Borders to the good Lord James of Douglas, who fulfilled his trust with great fidelity. But the power which the family of Douglas thus acquired, proved afterwards, in the hands of his successors, very dangerous to the crown of Scotland.

Thus you see how much the poor country of Scotland was torn to pieces by the quarrels of the nobles, the weakness of the laws, the disorders of the Highlands, and the restless incursions of the Borderers. If Robert the Bruce had lived, and preserved his health, he would have done much to bring the country to a more orderly state. But Providence had decreed, that in the time of his son and successor, Scotland was to fall back into a state almost as miserable as that from which this great prince rescued it.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00