Chapter VIII; Condition of the Country During the Fourteenth and Beginning of the Fifteenth Century, pp.62-68.

[History of Scotland Contents]

    1.  The appearance of the country and the social condition of its inhabitants greatly changed during the eventful period, of about 150 years, that elapsed between the death of Alexander III. and the murder of James I. During the war of independence waged by Wallace and Bruce, the exile and captivity of David II., the feeble rule of Robert II., the weak administration of Robert III., and the selfish regency of the ambitious Albany, the royal authority had been weakened, the power of the nobles had increased, and the oppression and poverty of the people had been intensified. Many of the vast forests, that at one time covered a large portion of the country, had been cut down, burned, and otherwise destroyed. These clearances were not made and allowed to remain for the sake of agriculture, but were often the result of war, wanton mischief, and neglect. Æneas Sylvius, who visited Scotland in the reign of James I., says, that coals were given to the poor at church doors by way of alms, the country being denuded of wood. An enactment of James I. is directed against “those defaulters who steal green wood or strip the trees of their bark under cover of night. 

    2.  Of the great castles in which the English invaders fortified themselves during the war of independence Bruce had, within six years after the death of Edward I., destroyed 137. But the greater and lesser barons afterwards built for themselves castles or strong battlemented peel-towers of various sizes, on precipices, on the banks of torrents, or in the midst of morasses. The walls of these towers were generally from six to ten feet thick. As they were often protected by a moat filled with water, and access to their iron gates was only obtained by crossing a drawbridge and passing under a portcullis, and as the rooms were vaulted and each story reached by a narrow staircase, they were capable of making a good defence. 

    3.  The barons, in these castles and peel-towers, frequently acted as independent kings. They often had, clustered around their strongholds, the cottages of their vassals and dependants, over whom they had the power of life and death, and to whom their will was law. Here and there on their estates there were hamlets and villages, over whose inhabitants their authority was equally absolute. Theoretically, the barons owed duty and obedience to the king and his parliament, but practically, they generally did what seemed good to themselves. They made war upon each other at their pleasure. The followers of a great lord could scarcely ever be brought to justice for wrong-doing, and bad men often assumed the badge of Douglas of Thrieve, or Lindsay of Finhaven, in order to rob, maltreat, and even murder, with impunity. 

    4.  Though the vassals were held in thrall, and were often sold with the lands on which they lived, as if they were goods and chattels, yet they were generally faithful to their chief, and followed his banner in war, because they looked to him for support in their quarrels, and for protection against their powerful neighbours. In their stone-vaulted halls the barons exercised a rude but abundant hospitality, and their kinsmen and vassals were generally welcome to be fed at their tables. 

    5.  Great nobles, like the Douglases, lived in a style of almost regal magnificence. Their banquets were enlivened by the sounding of trumpets, the lays of minstrels, the feats of tumblers and jugglers, and the jests of fools. Hunting and hawking, tilts and tournaments, formed their chief outdoor amusements in time of peace. Their evenings were spent in playing at chess, reading romans, piping and harping, “and other honest solace.” When the earl or knight left his castle for business or for war, his wife was invested with full authority to rule his vassals, conduct his affairs, and defend his stronghold. 

    6.  The dwellings of the common people were generally worse than the meanest huts that may still be seen in the remotest glens of the Highlands. According to Froissart, the French auxiliaries, who came to help the Scots in 1385, shuddered at the poverty and barbarism of the country. The city of Edinburgh then consisted of about 4000 houses, built of wood, and covered with straw, which their owners readily set on fire and left on the approach of an enemy whom they were unable to resist. The same author tells us that the houses of the Borderers consisted of turf walls supported by four or five poles and covered with a roof of boughs, so that a man could erect a house of this kind in three days. When the English appeared in great force, the inhabitants unroofed their huts, and, carrying with them their household stuffs, drove their flocks and herds to the mountains and the recesses of the forests, where they remained till starvation compelled the enemy to withdraw. They then came forth from their retreats, and with a few stakes and green boughs restored their roofless houses. Our narrative of events shows that this was a common practice. Æneas Sylvius tells us that in the reign of James I. the houses of the Scottish towns, when they were of stone at all, were built without lime, and that in the villages the walls were of turf, while a cowhide supplied the place of a door. 

   7.  Alongside of these wretched hovels of the poor were often to be seen the bishop’s palace, the stately cathedral, or the great wealth and enjoyed many privileges. They were exempt from tribute and war; and religious scruples or perhaps superstitious dread protected their property from the rapacity of the barons. The sees and abbeys were generally surrounded by rich lands, cultivated by the monks and the vassals of the church. The church lands enjoyed greater security, and were better cultivated than the rest of the country. The monasteries gave hospitality to all comers, but the monks sometimes found their guests more numerous and troublesome than they desired.

     8.  The food of the common people was of the plainest description. Fish, flesh, and milk were generally abundant. The bread was made of barley or oats, and pease-bannocks were a dainty little inferior to wheaten bread. Salmon abounded the rivers, and formed the chief article of export. Wine was costly, and the ale was weak ad thin. The want of fresh vegetables caused skin diseases to be prevalent, a common form of which was leprosy. For people afflicted with this disease hospitals were common in all parts of the country.

    9.  A doublet, a cloak, and a kind of short trews formed the dress of the common people. A hat of basket-work or a flat woollen bonnet covered the head. They all went barefooted except in war, when the men wore shoes or brogues of untanned hides, whence they were called rough-footed Scots. The male and female costume of the nobility was much more costly, and it varied, as it does still, with the change of fashion. 

   10.  Amid their oppression and poverty the people were not without sources of amusement and times of enjoyment. They had meetings for the practice of martial exercises. They had also their local fairs on Sundays and saints’ days, when they loved to engage in games of football and golf, running and leaping, wrestling and fencing, throwing the hammer and “putting the stane.” In the pageantries, processions, and pilgrimages practised and commanded by the church, the people combined what they believed to be religious duty with the pursuit of pleasure. Parties were frequently formed, like Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, to make pilgrimages to the shrines of saints to see their bones and other sacred relics. They went long distances to visit such shrines as that of St. Duthac in Ross, St. Ninian at Whithorn, and Our Lady at Whitekirk in East Lothian. To these places, we are told by a contemporary, they went for the health of their bodies more than of their souls, and had often with them singers and bagpipers making more noise as they passed through towns and villages “than if the king came there with all his clarions and many other minstrels.”

    11.  When law and order so little prevailed, the country swarmed with beggars and sorners. Troops of able-bodied mendicants roamed about extorting alms from all who were not strong enough to refuse them, and obtaining free quarters at the granges of farmers and at abbeys. James I. passed laws against “sorning and masterful beggary;” but it is doubtful if they were effectively put in practice. 

    12.  The love of national independence was a sentiment that animated almost all Scotsmen. They might fight and quarrel among themselves; but at the report of an English invasion they laid aside their feuds and suppressed their enmities till the Southern was compelled, by force of arms or starvation, to cross the Border. 

    13.  It is wonderful that, amid so much “sturt and strife,” literature was able to flourish at all. In the reign of David II., however, Barbour wrote his great poem The Bruce, and, about 1420, Wynton composed his Cronykil of Scotland. Fordun wrote his Scotichronicon about 1380, and it was continued by Walter Bower in the beginning of the next century. James I. composed the “King’s Quhair,” “Christ’s Kirk on the Green,” and “Peblis to the Play,” works which abound in pathos and humour. The “Testament of Creseide,” “Robin and Makyne,” and other poems of great merit, were written by Robert Henrysoun, schoolmaster of Dunfermline. There were also many songs among the people, with which they lightened their labour and cheered their lowly lot; and ballads containing tales of love and war, whose words, transmitted by tradition, still thrill the heart with deepest emotion, but whose authors are unknown.

   Questions:- Mention some changes that had taken place between the reigns of Alexander III. and James I., and the causes of them. Give a description of the castle in which the barons lived, – the power of the barons, – their relation to their vassals, – to their sovereign, – and their manner of life. Describe the dwellings of the common people. What can you tell about the cathedrals, the abbeys, and the monasteries? Give an account of the food, the dress, and the amusements of the people. What is said about beggars? How did the love of independence show itself? Mention the chief literary works of the period.
so’-cial, relating to living in society.  ro-mans’, novels, tales. 
e-lapsed’, passed by.  so’-lace, comfort. 
am-bi’-tious, desirous of power.  in-vest’-ed, intrusted. 
pov’-er-ty, want, need.  aux-il’-i-ar-ies, helpers, foreign troops helping or aiding in a war. 
in-ten’-sified, made greater.  nar’-ra-tive, relation, account of. 
ag-ricul’-ture, farming.   
want’-ton, wilful.  ex-empt’, free from. 
de-nud’-ed, stript, made bare.  tribute, tax. 
de-fault’-ers, wrongdoers.  scru’-ples, doubts. 
bat’-tlement-ed, having a protection-wall on the top with openings to shoot from.  su-per-sti’-tious, unreasoning religious fear. 
peel’-towers, small square-shaped castles.  ra-pac’-i-ty, greedy violence. 
moat, a deep trench.  de=scrip’-tion, kind, nature, sort. 
draw’-bridge, a bridge that can be let up or down at pleasure.  ex’-port, sent out of the country. 
port-cul’-lis, a sliding-gate hung over the entrance to a castle to be let down in case of an attack.  prev’-a’lent, common. 
clus’-tered, gathered closely.  doub’-let, a wadded inner garment, a kind of waistcoat. 
ab’-sol-ute, without appeal, supreme.  wrest’-ling, striving to throw. 
the-o-ret’-ical-ly, in opinion, but not in reality.  pa’-geantries, grand shows. 
badge, mark of distinction.  en’-mi-ties, hatreds. 
mal-treat’, to use badly.  pa’-thos, feeling. 
impu’-ni-ty, freedom from punishment.  tra-di’-tion, what is handed down orally or by word of mouth from one to another. 
thrall, bondage.  pil’grim-ages, journeys to sacred places. 
chat’-tels, cattle, beasts of burden, any property not freehold.  shrines, tombs, altars. 
hos-pi-tal’-i-ty, kindness to guests.  con-tem’-po-rar-y, one who lived at the same time. 
kins’-men, blood relations.  sor’-ners, person who take meat or drink by force or threats without paying for it. 
ban’-quets, feasts.  men’-di-cants, beggars. 
en-liv’-ened, made cheerful.  ex-tort’-ing, forcing from. 
lays, songs.  grān-ges, farm dwellings. 
min’-strels, singers, bards.  sen’-ti-ment, feeling. 
feats, clever performace4s.  an’-i-mat-ed, inspirit4ed. 
jug’-glers, performers of tricks.  lit’-er-a-ture, the writing of books. 
hawk’-ing, the sport of catching wild fowls by means of trained hawks.  trans-mit’-ted, handed down. 
tour’-na-ments, mock fights in which knights on horseback showed their skill in arms.   

Thrieve, a castle on an island in the river Dee near Castle Douglas in Kirkcudbrightshire. 

Finha’ven, a castle on the Lemnoburn, a tributary of the South Esk, in the centre of Forfarshire. 

Whit’horn, a small town on the south coast of Wigtonshire.

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