Introduction to the
Scottish Reformation – ca 1525- 1690.

From the time of James I
(reign 1406-1437) the succession of the House of Stuart
had gone to the very young—James II was six years old,
James III was eight, James IV was fifteen, James V was
two, Mary Queen of Scots, but one week old, and James VI one year old—when
they came to the throne. This meant that Scotland had some
two hundred years of disjointed rule, a major part of
which was by regents who had to fend off the rapacious
feudal nobles who often came to Court surrounded by their
retainers to influence decisions in their favour. Later,
the Queen Regent, Mary of Guise, mother of Mary Queen of
Scots, brought French troops to Scotland to assist her
attempts to enforce Catholicism on the country. James VI
became the first Stuart king to live through a full

The growth of
Protestantism and the endorsement of Presbyterianism by
the people of Scotland takes us through the Regency of the
infant Mary, Queen of Scots, to her abdication in favour
of her infant son, James VI, on 24 July 1567. 
The early reign of James VI of Scotland saw the
machinations of the regents until his majority, and
eventually the exercise of ‘kingcraft’ that was variously
insidious, blatantly biased, clever, cunning, and
Although his reign was reasonably bloodless, the
chicanery left a complicated legacy to unravel. 
The accession of James to the crown of England in
1603 introduced new factors into the Reformation. The
subsequent story through the rest of the reign of James
VI/I, the reigns of Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, Charles
II, James VII/II, and the struggles against Episcopacy and
Erastianism, is told elsewhere on this site.

censure was ever appropriate for the misconduct that
occurred during the Scottish Reformation (1525-1690), it
surely lies upon the puppet politicians of the day and the
power seeking individuals, from the King down, who went to
extremes to get their way. There were many underlying
reasons that might be attributed for the need to have
stringent and oppressive laws—excuses if you like—not
least of which were fears of war with France, Spain, and
Holland. There was also the interminable struggle for
religious dominance with the Papists that had roots in the
influence that Catholic France had exerted in Scotland for
centuries. In later years  it was a matter of mutual
intolerance and contention with supporters of Protestant
Episcopacy. Amongst the nobility, which was still feudal
in its outlook, there were struggles for land, position,
and power with some, such as the Marquis of Argyll having
his own agenda as he sought to consolidate his claim to be
the Lord of the Isles.

The Rev.Thomas McCrie in
Sketches of Church History 

makes the important point that the Scottish and
English Reformations were strikingly different. 
In Scotland the people were converted to a
Protestant faith


the civil authorities had even started in that direction.
When the time was ripe, all the legislature had to do was
ratify the faith that the majority of the nation had
adopted. In fact,

there was an
approved religion in Scotland before there was an official

The consequence of the rule of the Kirk by the people –
according to the Scriptures, is that in Scotland there
have been various reforms, improvements of standards and
changes of testimony that have discarded everything, even
by implication, that hinted at the church of Rome. 
In England the people followed the royal actions
and never sought to advance their position beyond the
limits that Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I had set by
law. The nonconformists in England (loosely called
Puritans) sought to remove the ceremony and quasi Catholic
practices such as images, from the church. But, unlike the
Presbyterians, they accepted the King as Supreme Governor
of the Protestant Episcopal Church of England.
From these differences, perhaps, has grown the
distorted view of Presbyterianism as a stern and austere
religion and its adherents as of a grave demeanour. But
that is what it was all about: – freedom to worship as the
people felt was right with the focus on the Scriptures;
Christ as the sole Head of the church, and recognition of
God’s rights in the civil rule.

It is essential to take a
balanced view of what occurred between three and four
hundred and fifty years ago, and endeavour to consider
issues in the context of those turbulent times. It was not
a time of democratic sweetness and light, and we should
not judge by the standards and moralities of a
twenty-first century strangled with political correctness.
It was the age of belief in witchcraft 
with over a thousand people, mostly women, burnt at
the stake during the seventeenth century. Yet only some
twenty-five or so protestant heretics met that fate in
Scotland during the whole Reformation, and three Roman Catholic priests or
monks were martyred.

The apparent lack
of concern for human life is sometimes shocking, but class
structures were well defined in a near feudal kingdom in which
the common man was not much more than a slave. Indeed,
white slavery actually existed in Scotland with prisoners
sentenced to be house and farm slaves, 
as well as 
thousands transported as slaves to America and the
sugar plantations in the West Indies. Power locally lay
with the nobility, the landed gentry, and increasingly with the Town Councils, while successive
governments were racked with malfeasance and the self
aggrandisement of its officers.

 It should also be
remembered that English, Irish and Welsh non conformists
were subject to persecution, although perhaps not so consistently or as
bloodily as in Scotland. Thus there was religious
discontent throughout Great Britain, and indeed much of
Europe, during most of the 
seventeenth century. From it arose a unity of
purpose that culminated in the replacement of 
James II by the constitutional monarchy of William
and Mary 
at the `Glorious Revolution` in 1688. 

Next: An Overview