Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 40

The Scottish people were soon made sensible, that if their courtiers and great men made fortunes by King James’s favour, the nation at large was not enriched by the union of the crowns. Edinburgh was no longer the residence of a court, whose expenditure, though very moderate, was diffused among her merchants and citizens, and was so far of importance. The sons of the gentry and better classes, who sole trade had been war and battle, were deprived of employment by the general peace with England, and the nation was likely to feel all the distress arising from an excess of population.

To remedy the last evil, the wars on the Continent afforded a resource peculiarly fitted to the genius of the Scots, who have always had a disposition for visiting foreign parts. The celebrated Thirty Years’ War, as it was called, was now raging in Germany, and a large national brigade of Scots was engaged in the service of Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden, one of the most successful generals of the age. Their total numbers may be guessed from those of the superior officers, which amounted to thirty-four colonels, and fifty lieutenant-colonels. The similarity of the religion of the Scots with that of the Swedes, and some congenial resemblances betwixt the two nations, as well as the high fame of Gustavus, made most of the Scots prefer the service of Sweden; but there were others who went into that of the Emperor of Austria, of France, of the Italian States, — in short, they were dispersed as soldiers throughout all Europe. It was not uncommon, when a party of Scots was mounting a breach, for them to hear some of the defenders call out in the Scottish language, “Come on, gentlemen; this is not like gallanting it at the Cross of Edinburgh!” and thus learn that they were opposed to some of their countrymen engaged on the opposite side. The taste for foreign service was so universal, that young gentlemen of family, who wished to see the world, used to travel on the Continent from place to place, and from state to state, and defray their expenses by engaging for a few weeks or months in military service in the garrison or guards of the state in which they made their temporary residence. It is but doing the Scots justice to say, that while thus acting as mercenary soldiers, they acquired a high character for courage, military skill, and a faithful adherence to their engagements. The Scots regiments in the Swedish service were the first troops who employed platoon firing, by which they contributed greatly to achieve the victory in the decisive battle of Lutzen.

Besides the many thousand Scottish emigrants who pursued the trade of war on the Continent, there was another numerous class who undertook the toilsome and precarious task of travelling merchants, or to speak plainly, of pedlars, and were employed in conducting the petty inland commerce, which gave the inhabitants of Germany, Poland, and the northern parts of Europe in general, opportunities of purchasing articles of domestic convenience. There were at that time few towns, and in these towns there were few shops regularly open. When an inhabitant of the country, of high or low degree, wished to purchase any article of dress or domestic convenience which he did not manufacture himself, he was obliged to attend at the next fair, to which the travelling merchants flocked, in order to expose their goods to sale. Or if the buyer did not choose to take that trouble, he must wait till some pedlar, who carried his goods on horseback, in a small wain, or perhaps in a pack upon his shoulders, made his wandering journey through the country. It has been made matter of ridicule against the Scots, that this traffic fell into their hands, as a frugal, patient, provident, and laborious people, possessing some share of education, which we shall presently see was now becoming general among them. But we cannot think that the business which required such attributes to succeed in it, could be dishonourable to those who pursued it; and we believe that those Scots who, in honest commerce, supplied foreigners with the goods they required, were at least as well employed as those who assisted them in killing each other.

While the Scots thus continued to improve their condition by enterprise abroad, they gradually sunk into peaceful habits at home. In the wars of Queen Mary’s time, and those of King James’s minority, we have the authority of a great lawyer, the first Earl of Haddington, generally known by the name of Tom of the Cowgate, to assure us, that “the whole country was so miserably distracted, not only by the accustomed barbarity of the Highlands and Borders, which was greatly increased, but by the cruel dissensions arising from public factions and private feuds, that men of every rank daily wore steel-jacks, knapscaps or head-pieces, plate-sleeves, and pistols and poniards, being as necessary parts of their apparel as their doublets and breeches.” Their disposition was, of course, as warlike as their dress; and the same authority informs us, that whatever was the cause of their assemblies or meetings, fights and affrays were the necessary consequence before they separated; and this not at parliaments, conventions, trysts, and markets only, but likewise in church-yards, churches, and places appointed for the exercise of religion.

This universal state of disorder was not owing to any want of laws against such enormities; on the contrary, the Scottish legislature was more severe than that of England, accounting as murder the killing of any one in a sudden quarrel, without previous malice, which offence the law of England rated under the milder denomination of manslaughter. And this severity was introduced into the law, expressly to restrain the peculiarly furious temper of the Scottish nation. It was not, therefore, laws which were awanting to restrain violence, but the regular and due execution of such as existed. An ancient Scottish statesman and judge, who was also a poet, has alluded to the means used to save the guilty from deserved punishment. “We are allowed some skill,” he says, “in making good laws, but God knows how ill they are kept and enforced; since a man accused of a crime will frequently appear at the bar of the court to which he is summoned, with such a company of armed friends at his back, as if it were his purpose to defy and intimidate both judge and jury.” The interest of great men, moreover, obtained often by bribes, interposed between a criminal and justice, and saved by court favour the life which was forfeited to the laws.

James made great reformation in these particulars, as soon as his power, increased by the union of the two kingdoms, gave him the means of doing so. The laws, as we have seen in more cases than one, were enforced with greater severity; and the assistance of powerful friends, nay, the interposition of courtiers and favourites, was less successful in interfering with the course of justice, or obtaining remissions and pardons for condemned criminals. Thus the wholesome terror of justice gradually imposed a restraint on the general violence and disorder which had followed the civil wars of Scotland. Still, however, as the barons held, by means of their hereditary jurisdictions, the exclusive right to try and to punish such crimes as were committed on their own estates; and as they often did not choose to do so, either because the action had been committed by the baron’s own direction; or that the malefactor was a strong and active partisan, of whose service the lord might have need; or because the judge and criminal stood in some degree of relationship to each other; in all such cases, the culprit’s escape from justice was a necessary consequence. Nevertheless, viewing Scotland generally, the progress of public justice at the commencement of the seventeenth century was much purer, and less liable to interruption, than in former ages, and the disorders of the country were fewer in proportion.

The law and its terrors had its effect in preventing the frequency of crime; but it could not have been in the power of mere human laws, and the punishments which they enacted, to eradicate from the national feelings the proneness to violence, and the thirst of revenge, which had been so long a general characteristic of the Scottish people. The heathenish and accursed custom of deadly feud, or the duty, as it was thought, of exacting blood for blood, and perpetuating a chance quarrel, by handing it down to future generations, could only give place to those pure religious doctrines which teach men to practise, not the revenge, but the forgiveness in injuries, as the only means of acquiring the favour of Heaven.

The Presbyterian preachers, in throwing away the external pomp and ceremonial of religious worship, had inculcated, in its place, the most severe observation of morality. It was objected to them, indeed, that, as in their model of church government, the Scottish clergy claimed an undue influence over state affairs, so, in their professions of doctrine and practice, they verged towards an ascetic system, in which too much weight was laid on venial transgressing, and the opinions of other Christian churches were treated with too little liberality. But no one who considers their works, and their history, can deny to those respectable men the merit of practising, in most rigid extent, the strict doctrines of morality which they taught. They despised wealth, shunned even harmless pleasures, and acquired the love of their flocks, by attending to their temporal as well as spiritual diseases. They preached what they themselves seriously believed, and they were believed because they spoke with all the earnestness of conviction. They spared neither example nor precept to improve the more ignorant of their hearers, and often endangered their own lives in attempting to put a stop to the feuds and frays which daily occurred in their bounds. It is recorded of a worthy clergyman, whose parish was peculiarly distracted by the brawls of the quarrelsome inhabitants, that he used constantly to wear a stout steel head-piece, which bore an odd appearance contrasted with his clerical dress. The purpose was, that when he saw swords drawn in the street, which was almost daily, he might run between the combatants, and thus separate them, with less risk of being killed by a chance blow. So that his venturous and dauntless humanity was perpetually placing his life in danger.

The clergy of that day were frequently respectable from their birth and connexions, often from their learning, and at all times from their character. These qualities enabled them to interfere with effect, even in the feuds of the barons and gentry; and they often brought to milder and more peaceful thoughts, men who would not have listened to any other intercessors. There is no doubt, that these good men, and the Christianity which they taught, were one of the principal means of correcting the furious temper and revengeful habits of the Scottish nation, in whose eyes bloodshed and deadly vengeance had been till then a virtue.

Besides the precepts and examples of religion and morality, the encouragement of general information and knowledge is also an effectual mode of taming and subduing the wild habits of a military and barbarous people. For this also the Lowlands of Scotland were indebted to the Presbyterian ministers.

The Catholic clergy had been especially instrumental in the foundation of three universities in Scotland, namely, those of Glasgow, St Andrews and Aberdeen; but these places of education, from the very nature of their institutions, were only calculated for the education of students designed for the church, or of those youths from among the higher classes of the laity, whom their parents desired should receive such information as might qualify them for lawyers and statesmen. The more noble view of the Reformed Church, was to extend the blessings of knowledge to the lower, as well as the higher classes of society.

The preachers of the Reformation had appealed to the Scriptures as the rule of their doctrine, and it was their honourable and liberal wish, that the poorest, as well as the richest man, should have an opportunity of judging, by his own perusal of the sacred volume, whether they had interpreted the text truly and faithfully. The invention of printing had made the Scripture accessible to every one, and the clergy desired that the meanest peasant should be capable of reading them. John Knox, and other leaders of the Congregation, had, from the very era of the Reformation, pressed the duty of reserving from the confiscated revenues of the Romish Church the means of providing for the clergy with decency, and of establishing colleges and schools for the education of youth; but their wishes were for a long time disappointed by the avarice of the nobility and gentry, who were determined to retain for their own use the spoils of the Catholic establishment, and by the stormy complexion of the times, in which little was regarded save what belonged to politics and war.

At length the legislature, chiefly by the influence of the clergy, was induced to authorize the noble enactment, which appoints a school to be dept in every parish of Scotland, at a low rate of endowment indeed, but such as enables every poor man within the parish to procure for his children the knowledge of reading and writing; and affords an opportunity for those individuals who show a decided taste for learning, to obtain such progress in classical knowledge, as may fit them for college studies. There can be no doubt that the opportunity afforded of procuring instruction thus easily, tended, in the course of a generation, greatly to civilize and humanize the character of the Scottish nation; and it is equally certain, that this general access to useful knowledge has not only given rise to the success of many men of genius, who otherwise would never have aspired above the humble rank in which they were born, but has raised the common people of Scotland in general, in knowledge, sagacity, and intelligence, many degrees above those of most other countries.

The Highlands and Islands did not share the influence of religion and education, which so essentially benefited their Lowland countrymen, owing to their speaking a language different from the rest of Scotland, as well as to the difficulty, or rather at that time the impossibility, of establishing churches or schools in such a remote country, and amongst natives of such wild manners.

To the reign of James VI it is only necessary to add, that in 1617 he revisited his ancient kingdom of Scotland, for the same instinct, as his Majesty was pleased to express it, which induces salmon, after they have visited the sea, to return to the river in which they have been bred.

He was received with every appearance of affection by his Scottish subjects; and the only occasion of suspicious, doubt, or quarrel, betwixt the King and them, arose from the partiality he evinced to the form and ritual of the Church of England. The true Presbyterians groaned heavily at seeing choristers and singing boys arrayed in white surplices, and at hearing them chant the service of the Church of England; and they were in despair when they saw his Majesty’s private chapel adorned with pictures representing scriptural subjects. All this, and every thing like an established and prescribed form in prayer, in garb or decoration, was, in their idea, a greater or less approximation to the practices of the Church of Rome. This was, indeed, mere prejudice, but it was a prejudice of little consequence in itself, and James ought to have rather respected than combated feelings connected with much that was both moral and religious, and honoured the right which his Scottish subjects might justly claim to worship God after their own manner, and not according to the rules and ceremonies of a foreign country. His obstinacy on this point was, however, satisfied with carrying through the Articles of Perth, already mentioned, which were finally admitted in the year after his visit to Scotland. He left to his successor the task of endeavouring to accomplish a complete conformity, in ritual and doctrine, between the churches of South and North Britain — and very dear the attempt cost him.

James died at Theobalds on the 27th March, 1625, in the fifty-ninth year of his age, and the twenty-second after his accession to the throne of England. He was the least dignified and accomplished of all his family; but, at the same time, the most fortunate. Robert II, the first of the Stewart family, died, it is true, in peace; but Robert III had sunk under the family losses which he had sustained; James I was murdered; James II killed by the bursting of a cannon; James III (whom James VI chiefly resembled) was privately slain after the battle of Sauchie–Burn; James IV fell at Flodden; James V died of a broken heart; Henry Darnley, the father of James VI was treacherously murdered; and his mother, Queen Mary, was tyrannically beheaded. He himself alone, without courage, without sound sagacity, without that feeling of dignity which should restrain a prince from foolish indulgences became King of the great nation which had for ages threatened to subdue that of which he was born monarch; and the good fortune of the Stewart family, which seems to have existed in his person alone, declined and totally decayed in those of his successors.

James had lost his eldest son, Henry, a youth of extraordinary promise. His second, Charles I, succeeded him in the throne. He left also one daughter, Elizabeth, married to Frederick, the Elector Palatine of the German empire. He was an unfortunate prince, and with a view of obtaining the kingdom of Bohemia, engaged in a ruinous war with the Emperor, by which he lost his hereditary dominions. But the Elector’s evil fortune was redeemed in the person of his descendants, from whom sprung the royal family which now possess the British throne, in right of the Princess Elizabeth.


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