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The Medievalist

History of Scotland 1603 - 1746

The calamitous and war-torn years of 17th and 18th century Scottish history can be divided into two broad movements: the religious wars between the Covenanters and the English crown (1638-1689) and the Jacobite risings to restore the Stuart dynasty (1690-1746) which culminated in the tragic battle of Culloden.

One of the major results of these years was the mass emigration of lowland Scots to Ulster and then on to America, where their religion, character, and political thought exerted a profound influence on the independence movement in the Thirteen Colonies. For the vast majority of Scots themselves, the most significant result was the Act of Union of 1707, creating "Great Britain" and revolutionizing the economics and class structure of Scotland. For the Catholic Highlanders, Culloden marked the end of the great clan system and initiated their own years of emigration to the New World.

The Scottish Religious Wars - Reformation Scotland

The imperative of historical understanding is to recognize and respect the fact that in 16th and 17th century Europe politics and religion were one. The "Reformation" began with Luther's desire to reform the Catholic Church. But once freedom of thought became an accepted notion, people were led to question traditional ideas about the relationship between monarchy (government) and the church.

Henry VIII sought freedom from the pope, and his version of Protestantism, called Anglicanism, retained much of the Catholic form and thought, while making Henry head of the English church, severing ties with Rome. Under Elizabeth I, Anglicanism became slightly more Protestant in nature, but retained the basic episcopal structure - the monarch ruled the church, and the church was ruled by cardinals, archbishops and bishops, all appointed by the crown or by local nobility.

Following Knox's death, Scottish Presbyterianism became more radicalized, politically and religiously, under Andrew Melville and his followers, for a while embodying what we might consider the worst in self-righteousness and puritan conformity. This process slowly narrowed the group of "hard-core" Covenanters (a fanatical group is always small), but the end result was a Presbyterian Scotland, markedly different in character from Anglican England.

Presbyterianism is based on democracy and self-rule. Each church is ruled by is own elected elders (including the pastor), which in turn make up groups of churches (presbyters), meeting in local synods, and at National Assemblies where important church doctrine is decided and enforced. It's structure is directly opposite Anglican top-down structure.

In addition, as in most Protestant denominations, Presbyterians advocated Bible-reading, and therefore, education. As devout Scots read their Bibles, discussed theology, and railed against the English king, they came to realize that church structure ought to be paralleled in government structure. In other words, they ought to rule the king, rather than the king rule them. Scots pamphlets and political diatribes of this period sound amazingly familiar to Americans: a king is a tyrant when he oppresses his people, a king is a tyrant when he sets himself against the laws of God. Should it surprise us that half the signers of the American Declaration of Independence were of Scottish descent?

A Very Brief History of 17th Century Scotland

Keep in mind that when James VI became James I of England in 1603, England and Scotland were not united. James simply gained another territory - larger, richer, and much better suited to his view of himself. The Scots government and national boundaries remained intact, though ruled by James' appointees.

James I viewed himself as a "Divine Right" king; ie, God Himself had placed James on the throne and he should decide the religious beliefs and practices of his people. He was acutely aware of the dangers of an independent church. As he succinctly put it, "No bishop, no king." At the same time, he was savvy as to Scots character and temperament, moving slowly and cautiously in his quest to unite his kingdom in the Anglican faith.

Unfortunately, Charles I (1625-1649), very "high church" and married to a Roman Catholic, had no understanding of the Scots, nor of the English, nor, apparently, of anything except his own desires. People like that often lose their heads, and he was no exception.

In a nutshell, Charles I tried to force an Anglican prayer book and the hated bishops on the Scots. They were having none of it. In 1638, an astonishingly large number of Scots, both common people and nobility, signed a National Covenant swearing to uphold their Presbyterian religion, by force of arms if necessary. They felt it was.

In 1640, the Scots army marched into England, occupying Newcastle. To raise money to oppose them, Charles I was forced to call Parliament, which promptly presented him with the "Grand Remonstrance" detailing the ways in which he had offended the English. By January 1642, Charles had fled London and the English Civil War was underway.

In seeking religious freedom, the Scots threw in with the English parlementarians, fighting well in several bloody battles and eventually capturing the king. However, they did not approve of killing kings and their present fight was not against the monarchy, only a quest for religious freedom. When they had captured Charles and agreed to turn him over to the English, they were appalled at his execution, and immediately proclaimed Charles II as king (1649).

So, now the poor Scots had Cromwell against them. They were defeated in battle and many were expelled to the plantations in Ulster. Throughout Cromwell's reign, the Covenanters were persecuted and many voluntarily fled to Ulster or America. The restoration of the monarcy under Charles II in 1660 didn't help at all - he exacted revenge on the Presbyterians, enacted bills for burning the Covenant, and reinstituted the Book of Common Prayer and the episcopacy in Scotland.

Throughout the reigns of Charles II and James II, the Covenanters were severely persecuted. Most Scots accepted the moderate, episcopal form of Presbyterianism tolerated by the government. Many thousands emigrated. The die-hards took to worship in open air "conventicles" hiding their pastors (unlicensed by the crown) from the soldiers. Hundreds lost their lives in these "Killing Times." /p>

One of the boldest of the Covenanter extremists was a young pastor, Richard Cameron. Martyred in 1680, he had spoken out directly against Charles Stuart and declared war against his tyranny. His military followers continued with their guerilla tactics against the crown soldiers. Ironically, in later years the "Cameronian" regiment became a respected fighting force in Great Britain, not being disbanded until 1968.

The leader of the government military operations in Scotland during the "Killing Times" was James, Duke of York and Albany, heir to Charles II and a Catholic convert. Needless to say, his reputation preceded him when he attained the throne.

William and Mary, Seeds of Jacobitism

James II's (1685-1689) Catholicism pleased the English no more than the Scots. When an unexpected male heir was born, the English ousted James II and brought William and Mary to the throne. William of Orange ruled Holland; his wife was James II's eldest daughter. This "usurpation" was, at the least, a change of dynasty, as William ruled in his own right.

Now recall that England and Scotland were separate countries. The Scots were not bound by law to recognize William and Mary as Scottish sovereigns. Meeting in a "Convention of Estates" in Edinburgh, the Scots considered three choices: stick with James (whom the lowland, Protestant Scots hated), accept William and Mary, or try to form a republic. Seeing the barriers to forming a republic as too formidable at that time, they opted to accept William and Mary provided they were guaranteed religious freedom. This they gained and the religious wars in Scotland ended.

John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, a Catholic, had been the commander of the forces arrayed against the extremist Covenanters. He was not alone in supporting James II, as there were many Anglican and Catholic Scots, paticularly in the Highlands and the northeast.

When the vote went against James II, Dundee fled north from Edinburgh to raise an army. Thus was the Jacobite (Jacobus is James in latin) movement born. Dundee's army defeated the government under MacKay, though Dundee died. The Scots were at a loss to find an army to defeat the Jacobites, until the Cameronians under Colonel William Clelland took up the challenge. A pitched battle was fought, house to house, street to street, Scot to Scot, in the ancient town of Dunkeld. The Cameronians held and the first Jacobite rising ended. (James II had chosen Ireland as his battleground, losing to William's forces at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.)

Twice in one century, first under Montrose (when the Covenanters first joined forces with Cromwell) and now under Dundee, Highlanders had arisen and proven themselves able and dangerous warriors. To spite them for this first Jacobite rising, Scotland punished the Highlanders and sought to provoke them to more rebellion so that "fire and sword" might be brought to bear and the threat extinguished. When provocation did not work, an example was made nonetheless - the Massacre of Glencoe (see the MacDonalds and Campbells page for more detail). The Highlanders retreated to nurse their wounds and all was quiet for some little time.

Scotland now turned to the business of peace, greeting a new century, later dubbed the "Age of Enlightenment" with enthusiasm and hope.

The Act of Union 1707

William and Mary had no heirs. The throne passed to Queen Anne, Mary's sister and last of the direct line of Stuarts. Anne had no surviving children, so the English had sought, even before her reign, to negotiate a smooth succession after her death. They debarred any Catholic claimant by law (applicable to the Stuarts) and settled upon Sophia of Hanover, a granddaughter of James I through her mother. In due couse, her son, George, would become the first of the Hanoverian kings of Great Britain.

Once again, Scotland had the opportunity to go along with the English decision or not, as they chose. But religion was no longer the issue, and economic considerations prevailed in Scotland's 18th century diplomacy. England had been like an evil stepmother to the Scots - they were barred from the colonial trade that was making England rich. They themselves had few resources for colonial ventures; their one attempt in Panama having failed.

So Scotland threatened to keep the Stuart dynasty unless the English agreed to open colonial trade to the Scots. The English had no fear. They responded with the threats of confiscating all Scottish-owned land held in England (the nobles are quaking in their boots) and dropping all trade with Scotland (the Scots farmers and merchants are quaking in their boots). Stymied, but stubborn, the Scots stewed.

Eventually, England offered open trade on condition of political union. The Scottish parliament would cease to exist and Scots would get proportional seats in the English government. The Scots wrangled in debate, while the English applied judicious bribes of money and preferment. The final vote was for union with England, and in 1707 Great Britain was created out of England, Scotland and Wales.

The Scots had sold their souls for access to the British empire.

The Jacobite Risings and the Battle of Culloden

The vote for union had been close, especially if one discounts the votes of self-seeking nobles (such as Argyll, it must be said), even though the economic benefits of union were to prove beneficial for Scotland overall.

The Scots loved their country. But why would they support the Stuarts, who had been so cruel to them? Most of them didn't. Truthfully, whether they were happy with the union or not, there was no love lost between protestant Scotland and the Stuart dynasty.

The highlands were a different story. Here, many of the clans were still Catholic and supported a Catholic dynasty, particularly one with its roots in Scotland. Another factor was the highland loathing for the Campbells. Staunchly Protestant from the beginning, the Campbells, for many reasons, were extremely unpopular in the highlands. The chiefs' tendencies were always to oppose the Campbells, in whatever way they could.

Even so, only about half the Highland clans participated in the risings. They would have been no threat at all, had the Highlanders not been such feared and fearsome warriors. In any case, the Highlands were always seen as the best "jumping off" point in any affort to restore the Stuart dynasty.

The first rising, in 1715, was poorly planned and executed and failed very quickly. James Francis Edward Stuart seemed himself rather ambivalent about the throne, not ill content in exile. This rising had no French backing and, therefore, no money. James turned around and left practically on the heels of his arrival. Argyll defeated the Jacobite troops under Mar at Sheriffmuir on November 13 and that was about it. James retired from Scotland and continued his life on the continent.

The '45 Rising was instigated by James' son, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the young Pretender. He was much more brash and ambitious than his father, arriving on the west coast with seven men and refusing to leave. Finally, Cameron of Lochiel was persuaded to back him and quickly other clans followed suit.

Initially, this attempt had great success, with a defeat of General Cope at Prestonpans. Pressing on into England was a mistake, and the army ended up in a slow retreat back to the north of Scotland, though meeting attack with victory along the way (Falkirk). Nevertheless, the lengthy retreat, with no money and little food, sapped their strength. Half-starved and weary men were forced to battle at Culloden, falling in droves to Cumberland's artillery.

After a year of playing hide-n-seek with the Brits, Bonnie Prince Charlies made his escape and returned to exile. He was fortunate. Cumberland "the Butcher" pursued and killed the highlanders without mercy. Worse, the government in London, having come near to panic when Charles first entered England, now passed a series of extreme measures bent on destroying the clan system and the highland way of life. Bagpipes and tartans were outlawed. Guns were outlawed. The military bonds between tenants and clan chiefs were outlawed. All powers were stripped from the chiefs over their tenants. Missionaries came to force Presbyterianism, roads was pushed through the glens and mountains, the entire area was policed.

And so passed the end of an age. From the landing of the Dalriada Scots in 501 AD, the clan chiefs had led, succored, and guided their people. Now, few could even afford to keep their lands. The years following would produce the horrifying Highland Clearances, forcing thousands of highlanders to emigrate or move to lowland cities. Thousands of men, unable to wear their clan tartans, would chose to wear the tartans of the Scots regiments, where at least they could enter battle under the prompting of the pipes.

The moor of Culloden is littered with large stone markers, each engraved simply with the name of the clan whose men lie in mass graves beneath. Legend says they come out and fight on the anniversary of the great battle. Perhaps they rest a little easier now that the Stone of Destiny has resumed its proper place.

Clans who fought for the prince at Culloden: Cameron, Campbell of Glenlyon (not Argyll), Chisholm, Drummond, Farquarson, Forbes of Pitsligo, Fraser, Gordon, Grant, MacBean, MacDonald, MacGillivray, MacGregor, MacIntosh, MacKenzie, MacLachlan, MacLaren, MacLean, MacLeod, MacNeil, MacPherson, Menzies, Murray, Ogilvie, Robertson, Stuart. And many smaller clans and septs.

Move on to History of Scotland 1746 - present
Visit MacDonalds and Campbells for more on Glencoe
Visit The MacGregors and Rob Roy MacGregor

Additional Resources: Scottish History Books




New Penguin History of Scotland
The New Penguin History of Scotland


A must-have for any student of Scottish history. From prehistoric times through the present, each chapter is written by an expert in the field.

Scotland: The Story of a Nation
Scotland: The Story of a Nation

by Magnus Magnusson

An engaging, lively history of Scotland - heavy on the swashbuckling. A great read.

Scotland: An Intimate Portrait
Scotland : An Intimate Portrait

by Geddes MacGregor

Mr. MacGregor sheds light on the origin of Scotland's cultural distinctions - kilts, bagpipes, etc., in the context of the history of Scotland. A lovely book.

The Stuarts
The Stuarts (A Royal History of England)

Edited by Antonia Fraser

The Stuarts reigned over Scotland and England from 1603 through 1714. There is an error in the book's description - James VI's mother was Mary, Queen of Scots, not Margaret Tudor.

Damn Rebel Bitches
Damn Rebel Bitches

By Maggie Craig

What a title! Entertaining history of women active during the '45 rising (Flora MacDonald wasn't the only one!). Recommended.

The People with No Name: Ireland's Ulster Scots, America's Scots Irish, and the Creation of a British Atlantic World, 1689-1764
The People with No Name: Ireland's Ulster Scots, America's Scots Irish, and the Creation of a British Atlantic World, 1689-1764

By Patrick Griffin

From Scotland to Ireland to America, the Presbyterians fled persecution and economic failure.

The Highland Scots of North Carolina
The Highland Scots of North Carolina 1732 - 1776


The Highland diaspora began later than the Lowland, during the Jacobite era. This history begins with their lives in the Highlands and follows their emigration to North Carolina. Fascinating reading, especially if you contrast their views with the Scotch-Irish.

Heritage of Scotland
Heritage of Scotland : A Cultural History of Scotland and Its People


Beautifully illustrated, engagingly written, each chapter focuses on a different aspect of Scottish culture and history.


Everything you need or want to know about Scotland and the Scottish people through history - legends and myths, traditions and customs, tartans and clans, biographies of famous Scots and Scots authors, books about Scotland, Scottish holidays, including Samhain and the celtic history of Halloween, Christmas in Scotland and Hogmanay (New Year's celebration), celtic music, traditional folk and Scottish bagpipe music, bagpipe and celtic sheet music, Celtic Christmas music, documentary videos and movies about Scotland, Scottish history articles, Celtic Christianity, Celtic mythology and religion, books, Scottish cooking, beautiful scenic Scotland calendars, Scottish and Celtic crafts, Scottish pets and Scottish dog breeds, and more on Scottish culture, ancient and historical.