Medieval Scotland

The middle-ages, particularly the five centuries before Knox should not be forgotten for its contribution to Scottish identity and the organisation of its Church and the development of education. It is of course a long period of time which saw cycles of renewal, change, and decline. It is not only a period in European church history dominated by crusades, church and state power struggles, and cathedral building, but an era that saw the development of a parish system as an alternative Christian presence to monasticism and wayside crosses, and the period that saw the formation of a national identity in Scotland. There is a useful overview on the Scottish Episcopal Church website.

It was not all dark, and both the Saints and their world and circumstances are sometimes more strongly drawn than is fair to the times. Still the contrasts could be dramatic. We may see parallels in struggles about sovereignty over land in New Zealand, the ambiguities of competitive church building, the dubious invocation of religious authority in military campaigns, the confusion of alternative forms of Christian expression, and the sense that amazing art, music, poetry and faith can transcend ages of violence and compromise.

These centuries are important in their own right and not simply as some sort of background to the coming of light and life in the 1500s. Even if we can only pay them limited attention in a survey course,  we will want to acknowledge some of the examples of faith and and renewal in this era. The dynamics are of course political as well as religious, particularly in relationship to England and to France. A theme that continues in Scottish history.

Reformers in the 16th century wanted to keep much of what they inherited and not simply try to start all over again. We cannot understand what Knox and others were doing without some understanding of the background and the options it provided to them.

Renewal and attitudes towards things English.

The Declaration of Arbroath of 1320 is a symbolic milestone in Scottish identity and a resounding call for freedom. The National Archives of Scotland holds an original, but no one has been able to find in Catholic archives in Rome the copy received by the Pope who was in Avignon, France from 1305-1378. It may well have got lost between Avignon and Rome.

St Margaret is still remembered, including in the naming of several New Zealand churches and one school - see St Margaret (Old Catholic Encyclopaedia) She was important for piety and reform, and influence through her sons, particularly David, but also tilted things in an English and Roman direction.

The association with English ideas and reform in Scotland is often in tension with Scottish nationalism. As the film  "Braveheart" commemorates, relationships south of the Border between England and Scotland were difficult, but then so were relationships within an often fractured, poor and diverse part of Britain. Till today antipathy towards things English is common, and it is also spiritually problematic. There is a sense in which the Scots need to forgive the English and move on in taking responsibility for their own lives.

The Reformation also had complex relationships between Scotland and England, as it represented a move towards England in terms of Protestant rather than Catholic Christianity, even though it looked to Swiss Protestantism as the ideal model. There was still a French connection in that Calvin was French, and some of the ideas taken from the Genevan church were worked out in France. A basis of differentiation of identity from England was still important for the Scots and is a factor in the development of Presbyterianism.


Duns Scotus (1265-1308) was a Franciscan philosopher from Duns in the South of Scotland. It is a bit unfair that the term "Dunce" is derived from his name - he as also called Dr Subtilis in honour of his ability to make fine distinctions.

High Schools were founded in Glasgow in 1124 and Dundee in 1239. In 1413 St Andrews University was founded and in 1451 the University of Glasgow. A move to making education compulsory for some classes at least began with an Education Act in 1496. In 1495 Bishop Elphinstone received the Papal Bull needed for the founding of the University of Aberdeen.

The University of Edinburgh was founded in 1583 - after the Reformation. It was a vision both of the old church and the Reformation church that Scotland's future depended on education.