Home Scottish History CSYS Scottish Links  Music Books Scottish Literature Current Affairs Blog

Did the 1603 Union make a difference to the way Scotland was governed?

Ewan J. Innes, MA(Hons Scot. Hist.) FSA Scot


Synopsis:  This essay describes the changes in the way that Scotland was governed after the Union of the Crowns in 1603.

Please see my copyright policy if you wish to cite any part of this essay.

The nature of Kingship underwent a great change as a result of the reformation. There was now an emphasis on the divine right of kings which led to the claim by the king to be answerable only to God and not to any of his subjects. There was also the problem that until the birth of Henry in 1594 only James stood between Scotland and a civil war over the succession. James's succession to the English throne gave him personal security from any attempted noble coup d'etat, which meant that he could safely deal with many problems he had been unable to deal with during his reign in Scotland.

One of the reasons for James's obsession with order was the simple matter that revenues could be collected much more easily in an ordered country. Consequently the money levied in fines came as a great boost to the exchequer.

The art of governing Scotland involved the use of patronage in order to defeat the opposition. In order to influence the opinion of the general public James made extensive use of proclamations and declarations explaining his policy.

In order to use patronage effectively the king had to be able to grant lands and titles freely. In 1587 James began the process of erecting ecclesiastical properties into hereditary lordships, however this process had reached its peak in 1606 when along with the restitution of bishops the king undertook to impugn erections of abbeys and priories. By 1625 21 of the 30 Scottish abbeys had become lordships. These new lords had a vested interest in the maintenance of the king's government because they knew that the king could demote them as easily as he had created them.

Nearly all of James's leading officials were lords of erection. These men, holding their peerage through church lands, played more of a part in political matters than the peers who had been created in the past. James also diluted peerages through through his policy of promoting families who had previously been lairds and the promotion of long standing peers to a higher rank.

James's policy towards the nobles was not just to further aggrandise the monarchy but also to establish and order and a respect for the law which would benefit the whole country. To this end he aimed to eradicate the bloodfeud by binding the feuding families to keep the peace under the threat of massive penalties. The retinues of lords were restricted in order to prevent the terrorisation of the courts in cases involving the lords.

James made many attempts to solve the problems in the administration of criminal justice. Because the court of session in Edinburgh was insufficient for the needs of the country and as justice-ayres were intermittent there had been to much reliance on appointing commissioners of justiciary more often than not magnates who had their own personal interests to serve. James struck financial difficulties in his attempts to deal with the problem. In 1587 he proposed that two justices were to be appointed to deal with matters not great enough to come before the central Edinburgh court. Each would deal with a quarter of the country and hold biannual ayres. The problem was eventually solved when senators of the college of justice were appointed as commissioners of justiciary these men were already salaried judges and so no little extra finance was needed.

The new justices were not really effective due to their inability to compete with the existing jurisdictions, because the country was already well provided with sheriff courts, regality courts, baron courts and burgh courts, many already dealing with the matters assigned to the new justices. Baron, regality and sheriff courts were a source of profit for the nobles who were therefore determined to defend them. James tried to attack the heritable jurisdictions of the clan chiefs however these were so well entrenched that it was to be 1747 before they were finally abolished.

The most important curbs however were administered not by the courts but by the kirk session. They were not only interested in the upholding of moral standards and attacking sexual irregularities, they also dealt with slander- this was often the cause of much of the serious trouble-, minor assault, and petty theft. They were one of the vital factors in the creation of order in Scotland.

The extension of law and order and the power of central government to certain ares of the country such as the western and northern isles, the Highlands and the Borders was part of James's government policy for the construction of a single kingdom. In order to do this cooperation was required between the English, Scottish and Irish governments, the amity which had been growing between Scotland and England made tackling the the Border problem easier and in contrast to the attempts of earlier kings he succeeded. In 1588 James borrowed guns and gunners from Carlisle in order to deal with Lord Maxwell and in 1597 both governments appointed a joint commission on the Borders and made a treaty for the better administration of justice. In 1605 a body of officers was created which was to lead to the solving of the Border problem- William Cranston's twenty five mounted police dealt with the thieving problem in one year when "above 140 of the nimblest and most powerful thieves in all the Borders went to the gallows"1 By 1621 James seemed to believe that the Border problem was solved and the Border guard was disbanded because it was no longer needed.

James's Highland policy was a continuation of the policy of successive Stewart kings namely to encourage certain chiefs and clans through the issue of commissions of fire and sword and special lieutenancies. The Campbells especially were used by James to carry out this task in the southern Highlands. A new method of dealing with the Highland problem was developed by bishop Andrew Knox. He was against the policy of Campbell aggrandisement and saw that the best way to deal with the problem was to recognise the clan as a unit with the chief responsible for the actions of each member of that clan. From this the Iona statutes were formed with the chiefs who formed the council of the Isles pledging to obey the king and his laws. In 1616, ten years after the Iona statutes were signed, a new proviso was added; namely that no-one could inherit land in the Isles unless he could read, write and speak English. This began to destroy the Highland system with the sons of chiefs now being forced, by legislation, to be educated in the south in English away from the influence of Gaelic.

When James went south in 1603 he left the government of Scotland in the hands of the Privy Council. It was the Privy council working on its own initiative or under orders which dealt with the problems in the Highlands and the Borders. However James was a consolidator and he tried to make sure that his orders did not clash with the claims of the powerful noble groups. Scotland during the reign of James became more aware of strong stable central government. Moreover this government could launch and implement long term policies at a distance and could make its power felt regularly. James was however determined upon the interaction of the crown, nobles and church in Scotland- his son Charles however had no experience of Scotland or the problems involved in governing it and he failed disastrously in this context.

James hurried south in 1603 because of the necessity of gaining political security in England and so gave out large numbers of knighthoods and honours in order to establish a party of Englishmen bound to him by favour. James tried in vain to get the Scots and the English to accept one another as brothers and to try to get the two countries to move towards a political union, he had to move slowly in this matter because of English fears of union.

One of the most vital aspects of James's government was the establishment of an efficient postal system, the post was the principal link between the Edinburgh and London Scots who ran the Scottish government. The Edinburgh council was mainly executive, handling everyday matters- such as the Borders- and submitting comments, questions and advice to James. Contrary to popular opinion the numbers of Scots who moved south with James was relatively small- indeed many who moved south came back again within a few years.

In conclusion, it is clear that the union of the crowns in 1603 made a lot of difference to the way in which Scotland was governed, simply because the king was now absent from his realm and relying on his Privy Council to carry out his orders.This Privy Council run by men such as Seton was the real driving force in Scottish politics after 1603. The main challenge to James power came not from the nobles but from the church with the clash between episcopacy and presbyterianism. The imposition of the Black and Golden acts in 1584 and 92 and the 5 articles of Perth in 1617/8 made many people unhappy in the church.

James had immense control over both the church and parliament. He could control parliament through his manipulation of the Lords of the Articles and his ability to rig the agenda. With the church James had control over the appointment of bishops and the calling of the General Assembly. He could also pack the Assembly with moderates in order to ensure things went his way.

It should be remembered that the Stewarts had a personal following in Scotland. The king of Scots was the only guarantor of Scotland's identity and with the accession of James to the English throne a reappraisal of the role of kingship began.

The contrasts between Scotland and England in the political, economic, legal and cultural fields made the government of both realms at once extremely difficult. In literature there was a movement from 1603 towards English as the principal medium without having gone through an intermediate Scots phase, James himself preferred English to Scots. There was now a growing self awareness within society of self identity- Lowlander vs. Highlander & Borderer.

The economy of Scotland was backward compared to that of England. It had a small economic base with its agriculture prone to famine. Trade was dominated by a band of elite merchants who made few overseas trips- indeed England was only 4th on the Scottish trade list. Scotland therefore was a poor country compared to England and James had to rely upon strong government to control the country with many areas being impenetrable to royal authority.

Ewan Innes, February 11 1991


  1. G Donaldson Scotland: James V-VII pp227


Mitchison R. Lordship to Patronage: Scotland 1603-1745
Ferguson W. Scotland's Relations with England: A survey to 1707
G Donaldson Scotland: James V-VII
Galloway B. The Union of Scotland and England 1603-1608
Lee M. Government by Pen: Scotland under James VI and I