The monasteries and the

 The church organisation
that prevailed in Scotland until the Reformation was essentially a
monastic one. By virtue of their wealth, territorial possessions and their
real or presumed sanctity, the monasteries exercised a predominating
influence on the people. The system replaced the simple and selfless
Celtic church of St Columba  with  stately buildings and its
throng of men and women devoted to the service of God. Theology and
religious differences aside, the mix of secular ( who worked among the
people) and regular ( who were in monasteries etc)  clergy
and the practices that it produced, had a direct and generally beneficial
impact on the common man and women as Scotland emerged from the Middle
Ages. Later, the wealth of the church would be at the heart of Scotland`s
politics as greed overcame conscience and the exercise of praemunire – the
assertion of the royal supremacy and submission of the clergy.

The particular beneficial
contribution of the monasteries was in economic growth –  they
deserve much credit for being the progenitors of an economic revolution in
the Lowlands with many new techniques in agriculture. Foreign trade in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was almost primitive with quantities of wool hides and skins being exchanged for necessities. As such trade was limited to the near shores of Ireland and to Flemish towns who provided many of the tradesmen who settled in England and Scotland. Until they and new ideas were brought in the people still worked a family system, working only for the benefit of the immediate family. Improved techniques, such as in the ancient skills of leather tanning, led to improved skills and quality goods that could be better traded. The emerging crafts were themselves subject of management by the king, thus Malcolm IV  granted the Abbey of Scone  the privileges of having a smith, a skinner and a souter (shoemaker) in 1146.  In 1222  Alexander II granted Aberdeen permission to have a merchant guild which excluded the crafts of fullers and weavers. The development of the craft guilds and the merchant guilds was a natural consequence. Their development was slow but their control of quality. price of goods and trade with the Continent meant that in time, they became the economic engine of Scotland.

The Border abbeys
were especially successful in sheep farming and rearing of horses; at Newbattle the monks were engaged in coal and lead mining; and in Coupar,
Fife there was development of arable farming.  The monks of
Clydesdale and at  Lindores are credited with developing horticulture
including pears and grapes, of beekeeping and the erection of the first 
mills to grind corn. Further north, Arbroath was developed into a thriving
fishing port and the harbour was maintained by the Abbey at its own
expense. One of the most highly valued privileges at Arbroath and in
common with her sister Abbeys, was to hold their lands as a regality, free
from external judges and courts, and able to administer their own justice. This delegated enormous power, that of life and death included, to the Abbots and Priors and of course raised their status in the community ( and made many of the nobility jealous).

As improving and
progressive landlords the monasteries encouraged the modern system of
cultivation under lease. Their tenants were generally better treated than
the vassals of the nobility and were not subject to military service thus
enabling other, peaceable, pursuits. Beneath the walls of the Abbeys grew
up prosperous villages of agriculturists tilling small crofts of their
own, with common pasturage and woodlands nearby. The `steelbow`
arrangements as they were called, enabled the poor occupier of land who
could not afford to stock it, to lease land,  cattle, seed and stock
necessary to cultivate it. In time and given modest success, such crofters
commuted the loan to a monetary payment. Other skills and trades developed
in this environment, particularly those in what we would call the arts.
The monks were the repository for learning and with it the transcription
of the Holy Word ( in Latin); but ornaments and the like were required for
the monasteries and satellite churches which created demand for metal
working skills, engraving; woodworking, carving, leather working, weaving
fine cloth, and so forth. The development of the trades led  in turn
to the townships and burghs of later years with its burgher merchants and
the trade Guilds.  Ironically the growth of the towns was a magnet
for poor unemployed labourers as well as the itinerant beggars and
vagabonds,  which emphasised the feudal class system.

In many towns the church,
with its numerous officials  and costly apparatus, had to be
maintained at the public expense and was especially resented by the
crafts. On each of them lay the obligation to keep an altar and a priest
in the parish church, to provide lights and other needs for ceremonials
and produce at some cost, an annual play in honour of their patron saint.
For all classes the first and all important need was to pay the annual
rent to their respective superior and this determined to a large extent 
the organisation and government of the town. The merchant burgesses
resented the demands of the church whom they saw as parasites, no longer (
as in earlier times) making a material input to the economy, but clinging
to the means of wealth developed from the labour of subject people.
Meanwhile their status also had obligations in warding (policing) the
town, contributing to the cost of maintaining walls and dykes, appearing
properly geared at wappinschaws ( arms musters) and service to the town militia in the
event of raids or disturbances. By the time of the Reformation the
monasteries had moved from being a beneficent economic organisation to an
anachronism without the power, or the will, to adjust itself to the new
social order. Against this background the towns, rather  than the
country dwellers, were the focus of discord and the drivers for change
when they were faced with the national debate on religion.

The theological issues,
along with the conduct and excesses of the Pope and his representatives,
were highly visible factors in the Reformation and the issues were
expounded on by the Reforming leaders such as Martin Luther, John Calvin
and in Scotland by John Knox and Andrew Melville. The worldliness and
debauchery of the Catholic church which had gained ground in the fifteenth
and early sixteenth centuries was deeply offensive to the Protestants ( Calvinists) who
preferred the simplicity and literal application of the Scriptures.
In this the people encountered the down side of monastical rule. The
monasteries had been fostered in every conceivable way by kings and
nobility but at the expense of the modest parochial church. This wedge
between the `haves` and the `have nots ` festered as the worldly minded
local parish priest eked out an existence on a petty wage of probably no
more than ten marks a year (roughly seven pounds). The
consequence was that the parochial clergy were not necessarily the most
learned or dedicated, many preached and catechised infrequently – if at
all, and were held in low esteem by the people. When the storm of the
Reformation developed the rich religious houses paid the penalty for the
injustice  and neglect of the parishes  – all were swept away.

The common man`s experience
was inevitably with priests, monks  and the Friars that proliferated at that time. The
cleric and historian Rev.Thomas McCrie in Sketches of Church History, 
describes the situation in the sixteenth century thus :

Swarms of priests and
confessors infested every country – penetrating, like the plague of frogs
of Egypt, into the recesses of every family, from the chamber of the king
down to the hut of the meanest cottager, and polluting everything they

The once lowly monks had
drifted away from their isolated cells, their teaching and helping the
poor, and had taken to worldly ways. Even the very poor who existed on alms were aggrieved that the mendicant friars were taking the alms from their mouths, which generated “The Beggars Warning” of January 1558, demanding that the friars remove themselves from the realm. This was frequently compounded by
either the absence of a parish priest – the living having been given away;
and the lack of supervision by the bishops. The income from monastery
lands encouraged the Abbots and monks to take up the role and trappings of
wealth . It also rubbed salt into the wounds of the common people who were
hard pressed to pay rents and tithes from their meagre production of
barley, oats, livestock, eggs, milk, cheese. Even death meant that tribute
or payment was taken by the Church who would usually take the most
valuable animal and the best of the deceased’s clothing The priests were
much employed in making money from the practice of cursing eg the public
denunciation of a thief for his act. This encouraged the belief that a
wrong might be corrected by imprecation which would be done, at a price,
through writing letters or by declaration from the pulpit. The system of
buying Indulgences was another increasing burden that Luther had
highlighted in his famous Theses.

At the other end of the
spectrum greed became a major factor in relations with the church which by
the late fifteenth century owned over half of Scotland`s wealth, mainly in
the form of land.  James III (r 1460-88) was the first monarch who
studiously crushed  the liberties of the church and deprived
Cathedrals and Abbacies of the right to elect their head. In this a new
field of corruption, barter and simony became the rule and the royal
exchequer benefited. The King and nobility were still generous with
endowments, perhaps driven by conscience and fears of the afterlife, 
but also they began to covet the vast lands that the monasteries had
accumulated. Through the use of  the system of patronage they placed
family and friends into vacancies and diverted the revenues associated
with the post to their own use. The King was as bad as any in this
practice and systematically  gave or sold to laymen Abbacies,
Priories and Parochial livings. 

Neither was it helped by
the practice of the kings having their sons appointed to benefices –
Alexander Stewart natural son of James IV, held the abbey of Dunfermline
and priory of Coldingham , and made Archbishop of St Andrews when aged
twelve. James V was no better with his elder son James appointed Abbot of
Kelso aged five and Melrose when aged fourteen. His younger brother, also
James (Regent Moray) was Prior of St Andrews aged five; Robert was Abbot
of Holyrood  at five; John Prior of Coldingham aged ten. Adam another
natural son, was made Prior of Charterhouse, Perth. Worst was perhaps
George Wishart, Chancellor of Scotland, Archbishop of St Andrews, and
rector or prebendary  of twenty two churches. With examples like this
the divide between the hierarchy and the local clerics (none of whom were
allowed to get married) widened such that by 1549 church councils were
enforcing strict rules of conduct and discipline. But too late.

Other objections were to
absent clerics, and endowment of monasteries by the bishops of the living
from a parish which diverted tithes to the monasteries. These customs and
practices underpinned the considerations of the new religion by many of
the nobles who  fought hard to retain patronage, and their hold on
estates previously acquired from the church by fair means and foul. 
The Sees of St Andrews , Elgin and Aberdeen  became almost hereditary
appendages of the families of Stuart,  Hepburn and Gordon

The consequence of this
mixed bag of discontent was that the Protestant Reformation gained support
from rich and poor alike, although for widely different, earthly, reasons.
The Church (of Rome)  itself recognised the problems but left it to
the local bishops to deal with. By the 16th century the middle class had
grievances against the church and the antiquated ecclesiastical courts
that still governed much of their lives. They treated the management of
the monasteries with contempt, and scoffed at the superstition of a
simpler past when the clergy were the  natural leaders of the
community.  As the Crown took greater charge of affairs the people
turned to the King and his  government, rude though it first was, to
satisfy their material needs and aspirations.  The church had not
been very successful  in keeping their religious aspirations alive.
It was not that men were opposed to the Church at this juncture, but they
considered its privileges to be excessive, its disciplinary courts were
vexatious, its officials too numerous, and the wealth was devoted to
purposes that had ceased to be of the greatest importance.

In England there was
significant change taking place much earlier than in Scotland; these
changes set the ground rules that Scotland would follow, particularly
after the Union of the Crowns in 1603. By the end of Edward I reign
(1272-1307) there were more than enough monasteries than were needed, and
the character of monasticism began to change. As  the State grew
stronger and Parliament emerged as a power, so many of the humanitarian
duties  delegated to and exercised by the church, passed to local
communities. `Ere long the benefactions for social purposes became devoted
to colleges, hospitals and schools.  Such benefits included the
founding of New College, Oxford by William of Wykeham who had bought land
from the monasteries for the purpose. In 1497 John Alcock, Bishop  of
Ely,  obtained permission to suppress the decrepit nunnery of St
Rhadegund in Cambridge and build Jesus College.  In 1515 Bishop Fox
of Winchester was prevailed upon to make the statutes of his Brasenose
College based on learning rather than theology.

 In parallel with the
awakening of the church to its problems, there was the development of a
national awareness and identity during the reign of Henry VII (1485-1509).
Social change under Henry VII saw the gradual depression of the barons and
a deliberate policy to spare the pockets of the people at large. The
people were willing to leave the government in the hands of the king so
long as he kept order and guarded their commercial interests. Thus Henry
VII soon found that he could do what he liked as long as he did not ask
for money; thus the nobles, the rich landowners and the wealthy merchants
were at the kings mercy. This led to a levelling of class privileges while
cautiously heeding the popular interests. As a result the royal power was
placed on a strong foundation with government through capable officials
who took orders from the king. By this means the power of the old nobility
in England passed silently away; the feudal lord was turned into a country
gentleman; and the opulent merchants became estate owners and subsequently
the financiers of  Parliament.

Attention was also turned
to outdated ecclesiastical law eg an Act of Parliament in 1511 did away with
sanctuary and the benefit of clergy for murderers. More generally,
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Chancellor to Henry VIII (1509-1547), obtained the
powers of Papal Legate and the approval of the Pope to close down small
monasteries and nunneries where there were less than seven 
residents. The displaced monks and nuns were transferred elsewhere and the
revenues from the close establishments was specifically allowed to be used
for improving education facilities. Wolsey sought to establish a College
at Ipswich and was the original founder of Cardinal College, Oxford, later
renamed Christs` College. Ironically the closing down of the monasteries and diversion of their incomes for education, set a precedent  that Henry VIII latched onto when he decided to close all such establishments for the benefit of the royal purse; the building of the Royal Navy; and, his war chest for battles with France and Spain.

This measure of
Wolsey`s made all the forest of religious foundations in England to shake,
justly fearing  that the king would fell the oaks when the cardinal
had begun to cut the underwood.”