Scotland in the 16th century.
It is relevant to understanding what was happening in Scotland in the years leading up to the Reformation, to have an idea of the environment in which the common people lived, and eked out a precarious existence. Of particular importance was the change taking place in the towns or burghs where the was a clear divide between the freemen or burgesses and others. But change was occurring amongst the freemen as the craftsmen united in trade societies, and demanded a voice on the Town Councils. Part and parcel of the demands was a sea change in basic economic thinking – that making a profit was no bad thing. These changes were almost as important as the religious reformation which had a dependency on the support of the towns.
To begin with, the very land of Scotland in the 16th century was considerably different to what we can see today. It was a landscape in which there were many mosses, lochs and lochans fed by run off water, which have long since disappeared. It was the presence of much relatively low lying wetland and peat bogs that drove Scottish agriculture towards the slopes and hills – much to the astonishment of English visitors of the day. There had been encouragement from the time of King David I to improve agriculture but it mainly fell to the monasteries to lead the way. On the land there were moves to be environmentally friendly ( although economics was the main cause for the decision) as early as 1535 when a law was passed requiring every person, spiritual and temporal, possessed of one hundred pound lands, to plant orchards for three acres round their residences. Tenants were obliged to plant one tree for every merk-land which they rented. The same parliament decreed penalties for persons convicted of doing injury to green woods: first offence fine of ten pounds Scots; second offence twenty pounds; third offence – death. At a later date export of oak wood from Denmark was prohibited which put a severe strain on timber for house building in Scotland. In James Vi reign he suggested to the Privy Council that they prohibit export of Scottish timber; but was reminded of how hard that would be if there was a similar retaliatory policy by other countries. Although Scotland did not have a navy, it had many small fishing villages and local timber, especially oak, was soon used up for building ships. An average trading vessel would take up to 600 mature trees to build, fishing vessels of course took less. The dearth of building materials generally explains why virtually all stone from demolished buildings was reused and often carted long distances at considerable expense. There were forests but these were being culled at an alarming rate; and wood could be supplied from the Highlands. But already man was making his impact on the countryside and not necessarily for his own advantage.
The method of renting land and farming was at the heart of the social and economic problems which in turn contributed to an absence of drive or initiative for change. In a word – stagnation. Basically all land was the property of the Crown and was feud ( let in perpetuity) to an individual who could sub let, or to a group of persons – burghers (freemen) in the case of a town. In return an agreed sum was paid and an annual rent or duty was due. The collection of rents from sub tenants in the towns was usually `farmed` to someone in return for a fixed gross sum which enabled payment of the annual feu to the King. There was little continuity of tenure on farmlands most of which was not let in feu; sub lettings were usually for four or five years at the pleasure of the landlord. As a result tenants could and did easily slide into a `why bother` frame of mind. They did not build good houses even where good stone was available, did not plant trees, hedges or orchards, nor dung the land. The priorities were survival of the family and scraping together sufficient money to pay the rent when due. This absence of care and forethought had inevitable consequences in the short term – with poor methods came poor yields of produce exacerbated by frequent crop failures and the `pest` – epidemics of malaria, typhus, smallpox, and sometimes visitation of the plague. That was aside from any local and Border skirmishes, or war with the English.
Over the years there had been pressure to let lands `in feu ` – that is hereditary lands purchased by a lump sum (the grassum) and payment of an annual feu duty. By the 18th century those who could afford it, usually the growing merchant class, purchased the lands (often former church land) and sought an economic return on their investment by asking for higher rents and requiring large `grassum` payments when land changed hands. This and the almost negative attitude of old style tenants contributed to the introduction of enclosures beginning in the Lothians, and higher rents. Notably one of the arguements for enclosures was that
“If an acre of land be worth sixpence or (before) it be enclosed it will be worth eightpence when it is enclosed by reason of the composting and dunging of the cattle that shall go and lie upon it both day and night.”
For all this, the Lowlands particularly towards the Borders – the Merse, and some coastal areas, were still able to produce grain crops, barley and oats with the straw fed to the cattle. Peas and beans were also grown but little wheat, Pasture land was plentiful and rearing of beef cattle with associated cottage industries (tanning of hides etc) was important, although hay as a commodity, did not exist – the Scots practice being to sell grass as was grown. In the south west and the Borders the major cash `crop` was sheep, also with associated industries of preparing wool, spinning and weaving. On the east coast there was a thriving salt industry with their associated salt pans close by the Fife coal field. Another crop was hemp which gained in importance over the years and was a major product in the 17th century.
The villages were described by a foreign visitor as
“they look very poor, the houses having stone walls not as high as a man upon which the roofs are erected and covered with sod.”
An Englishman described them :
“The vulgar houses and what are seen in the villages, are low and feeble. Their walls are made of a few stones jumbled together with mortar to cement them, on which they set up pieces of wood meeting at the top, ridge fashion, but so ordered that there is neither sightliness nor strength; and it does not cost much more time to erect such a cottage than to pull it down. They cover these houses with turf an inch thick and in the shape of larger tiles which they fashion with wooden pins, and renew as often as there is occasion; and that is very frequently. It is rare to find chimneys in these places, a small rent in the roof sufficing to convey the smoke away.”
The house was frequently also used for livestock and where flat roofs permitted, sheep might graze on the grass roof. Thus a huddle of these buildings, each with its refuse heap or midden at the door ( sometimes consisting of hanging animal hides ) made up a village, often set among knee deep mud for the greater part of the year.
A French doctor in 1551 commented on the contrast of a poor country yet its people were seemingly living well:
“The country is but poor in gold and silver, but plentiful in provisions, which are as cheap as in any part of the world. They have plenty of corn and calves, on which account their flesh is cheap; and in my time bread was tolerably cheap.”
He hit the nail on the head with his observation that
” nothing is scarce here but money.”
Opinions of towns were generally better with particular comment that few were fortified or had large walls. It was not until the 16th century that action was taken to improve the situation, albeit maintenance once a danger was past, was spasmodic. Tradition would have it that the absence of walls was because of the `strong right hands` of Scots who preferred to be able to get to grips with aggressors the quicker without walls. The hard fact was the erection and maintenance of dykes and walls was beyond the very limited resources of even the most flourishing town. Within the towns themselves there tended to be more stone built houses but even into the 17th century there were still many that were wood covered or indeed made entirely of wood. The towns were invariably criss crossed with narrow alleys (vennels) which were both a means of access for intruders that were ordered to be stopped up when necessary, and dumps for everything from refuse to bodies. A major problem was the building of enclosures for livestock, especially pigs which were a mainstay of the diet; these were a frequent nuisance, breaking out of their pens and running loose. Crowded together in filth and squalor, disease was endemic. The wooden buildings and lack of care by cottage industries using open flames, contributed to frequent fires and the need for laws to control flammable products such as hemp, lint, straw, heather, broom etc. It was ordered that lighting had to be carried in a covered vessel or lantern because of the fire hazards, although it was often ignored with the inevitable consequences. The dearth of glazed windows continued until well into the 17th century, until then pierced wooden shutters admitted fresh air, and glazing was confined to the upper half of the window frame. The primary duties of a freeman in-dweller, was to pay his rent / taxes and be ready at all times to go to the defence of the town. In most towns of the period to be elected a burgess the person had to appear fully accoutred before the Council when his application or nomination was considered; and he had a duty to appear and fight when called.
The four leading towns measured by the amount of taxes they contributed, were Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen and Perth, then perhaps Haddington, Cupar, Montrose. Surprisingly, at a lower level of importance were Stirling, Ayr, Glasgow , Brechin. Dumfries, Inverness and Linlithgow. The west and Clydesdale would grow significantly in later years as raw materials (coal, iron ore, lead etc) were exploited and industry developed which turned 19th century Glasgow into one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Meanwhile, population movement was restricted by the absence of decent roads and bridges and meant travel by horse and foot in all weathers, and at physical risk both from the elements and robbers. Thus throughout the Lowlands the drovers routes, sometimes no more than muddy paths, were the main arteries along which limited commerce moved by pack horse. The alternatives were dangerous sea voyages at high cost and risk of piracy, or accept the limitations of local markets which were jealously protected by the burghs who rigorously enforced local petty customs and the `large` customs duties due to the Crown. Royal Burghs had the sole right of receiving imported goods and had a resident `custumar` or Customs official, who initially collected the dues on exported goods for the Crown. These dues were separate from the so called `petty customs or local taxes collected from persons entering a town to sell their wares. Interestingly Scotland did not have a duty on imported goods until 1597 although the taxes on exported goods ( allowed only to free holders) were rigidly imposed by the burghs. The products exported included: wheat, barley, malt, oats, flour, bread, beef and spirits. Hides of cattle, deer, sheep, lambs, goats, calves, roe deer, foxes, kids, otters and rabbits; also wool, feathers, butter, leaf, coal and fishery products, salmon, herring, fish oil. There were some thirteen manufacturing industries who exported – salt, cloth, plaiding, linen cloth, coarse cloth, linen yarn , knitted hose, dressed leather, gloves, leather points (shoes), sewed cushions, bed ticking, and general footware, The main destinations of the products at this time were Ireland, Bordeaux and the Baltic sea ports.
From the early feudal times there had been an obligation to maintain roads and where they existed carts might be used for transporting produce and peats for the hearths. But inland – the hilly areas of Galloway and the west Highlands, few decent roads existed until they were developed for military purposes. Another consequence of the lack of roads and poor bridges in a wet landscape was the many ferry services that operated – with scope to vary prices on demand. There were a few highways, mostly following the coastal plain from Berwick to Inverness, and from Galloway into Ayr, Kyle, Carrick and Cunningham, while roads into Edinburgh were reasonably good. But they were nevertheless rough, and required constant maintenance if they were to achieve the `counsel of perfection` of twenty feet wide and able to take horse and carts winter and summer. It would be the late 18C before standards improved when the Scotsman, John MacAdam (1756-1836) began experimenting with road surfaces on his estate at Sauchie, Ayrshire in 1783.
This lack of physical infrastructure had its impact on communications and attitudes. It sometimes took several days for events to come to notice, and a week for an `express` horseman to get to or from London. There was no `national news`, and travellers so few that there was almost no justification to have lodging houses and inns, save in a most rudimentary form. The common practice among the gentry was to pay social visits to friends and lodge with them overnight, before moving on elsewhere. This meant that the people tended to be insular, they viewed strangers as interlopers, and were concerned only with what effected them and their immediate locality. Despite the tales of derring do and the legends of William Wallace, The Bruce, etc, there was no strong national identity. This changed particularly with the focus on the religious arguements of the Reformation; the accession of James VI to the throne of England in 1603 ( when hopes of better trade terms were dashed); the civil wars (1639-1651) and the violent discrimination against religious dissenters that overtook the whole populace during the latter part of the 17th century.
Freemen and Burgesses: craftsmen and merchants
Taxation in the 17C.