Fuel shortages, credit crunch and binge drinking: Scotland in 1408
FUEL shortages dog the country and MSPs face scandals over expenses and falling standards.
Tolls over the Firth of Forth are a major issue and worries over health, education and the environment get a constant airing. Money concerns beset the electorate and politicians are urged to act. Excessive intake of alcohol is a rising cause for concern.
Welcome to the Scottish Parliament – hundreds of years ago.
The first ever complete online archive of Scotland's Parliamentary activities between the 13th and 18th centuries will be published this week and it reveals that little has changed in the nation's affairs over the past 300 years. A small army of researchers, led by Keith Brown, professor of Scottish history at St Andrews University, has spent the past 11 years turning 16.5 million words covering meetings, minutes and legislative acts discussed by the old Scottish parliaments into an easily-accessible online archive.
They found that Mary, Queen of Scots was so concerned about the kind of fuel shortages that threatened Scotland's economy just two weeks ago that in 1563 she outlawed the export of coal.
To reduce the physical risk of injury when heated debates broke out in the Parliamentary chamber, the only weapon that MSPs were allowed to take into the building was a sword, the documents record.
To curb excessive drinking, those found in public houses after 10pm could be subjected to corporal punishment or fined, according to a 1617 law.
The 1m project was sanctioned by the then Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Forsyth, as one of his last acts in office, with the aim of producing a new version of the obsolete 19th century printed edition of pre-Union Parliamentary proceedings in Scotland.
The work, The Records of the Parliaments of Scotland, which will be launched by deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon this week, provides a fascinating glimpse of life in Scotland and also shows that many of the issues concerning the 2008 Holyrood Government are not exclusive to the 21st century.
Brown said: "Arguably, human nature doesn't change that much and neither do institutions. The make up of the chamber may have been very different, with all wealthy men, no women and no ethnic minorities, but many of the preoccupations were not that much different to those of today."
Scholars attempted a similar exercise in the 19th century in a project that produced a series of bound volumes between 1814 and 1875. But the new version has added records of meetings in a missing 60-year stretch in the 16th century as well as Parliamentary and committee minutes not previously published.
Brown said: "When you think the last version took more than half a century and ours 11 years then we didn't do badly but, of course, they did not have access to modern technology."
There were hurdles to overcome, including translating documents from Latin, French and Old Scots to modern English and running out of funds.
"We started under the Conservatives, got more support from Labour and finished the work under the Scottish National Party," Brown said. "That shows what all-round support there has been for a project that will help students and the public to understand our nation for many years to come."
Debates in Parliament could often become heated, as opposing parties engaged in arguments and squabbles that would be familiar to today's MSPs. In response to what was thought to be a decline in standards, Parliament passed a series of acts setting out appropriate behaviour. One article decreed that the only weapons allowed within the chamber were to be members' swords. To curb verbal personal attacks, and for "eschewing of contest and hate", speakers were ordered to direct their comments to be members' swords. To president of Parliament or lord chancellor (equivalent to today's Presiding Officer or Speaker) rather than individual members.
The state of the highways was a constant concern, given these were vital for trade and general travelling throughout the country. In 1669, the repair of the country's roads was contracted out to parishioners themselves, who were to meet after church on Sunday suitably equipped with picks and shovels. Each parishioner was to work on the roads no more than six days per year, always outwith sowing and harvest time when manual labour was at a premium.
DISEASE was often rampant in Scotland's major towns. Plague was the most feared, and Parliament itself was forced in 1645 to decant to St Andrews because of an outbreak in its traditional home of Edinburgh.
Bo'ness was effectively locked down in 1645 due to the danger of the disease spreading beyond its bounds, and any infected person who attempted to leave was ordered to be shot and killed.
Basic environmental health legislation was passed by Parliament to stop the spread of disease.
Edinburgh was described as "a puddle of filth and filthiness" in 1621 due to candle-makers openly burning their tallow and "corrupting the air" and by butchers disposing of refuse in the public highway.
Excessive drinkers and "haunters of taverns" were legislated against by a series of 17th century acts. Those found in public houses after 10pm were to be subject to corporal punishment or imprisonment.
Parliament had important judicial functions, especially before the Court of Session was founded in 1532.
The gathered estates could pronounce judgment on the most minor cases of theft right up to treason, for which it had particular responsibility.
It was a court like the House of Lords today and corporal punishment was often favoured, even for seemingly trifling transgressions.
Blasphemers, for example, could face a spell in the stocks or the 'jougs' – a hinged collar attached to the neck and chained to a post, often situated in a busy public thoroughfare for maximum humiliation. The wearing of sackcloth was also ordered in 1695 as a public display of penitence for those who transgressed strict church laws. Beggars, especially, could face particularly harsh punishment if they were found wandering unlawfully from parish to parish.
The penalty for those apprehended included that their "ears be nailed to the tron or to another tree and their ears cut off and banished from the country".
THE first education act, which was passed in 1496, allowed the sons of wealthy landowners to be educated from the age of eight. The quality of teachers was addressed in 1567, with each to be assessed for competence by the Kirk. In the mid-17th century, parliament legislated for the founding of a school in every parish, with parishioners supplying the cost of the schoolhouse and the teacher's salary. A primitive kind of PTA/school board was to be set up to ensure that this was done.
Monetary worries afflicted 16th-century consumers as much as those of today. In the late 16th century, Parliament acted to limit the interest on the lending of money to 10%, since "exorbitant and immoderate interest" had been "the cause of the ruin and decay of many".
Profiting at a rate higher than this was decreed to be an actual sin "not tolerable in a reformed and Christian commonwealth".
Environmental concerns were frequently addressed by parliament, even if the impetus behind such acts was preserving species for hunting and food. Many acts were made forbidding destruction of habitats, including burning of moorland, felling of young trees and cropping of broom. Legislation was also passed against the poaching of rabbits, bees and their hives, pigeons and fish from others' land.
An act passed by parliament in the reign of Mary Queen of Scots (1563) records a "most exorbitant dearth and scantness of fuel" within Scotland, because coal was commonly used in empty ships for ballast. The act outlawed any export of coal beyond that to be used for fire in the ship's voyage. It was, however, ineffectual. In 1609, James VI reissued the earlier act passed in his mother's reign, stating that through excessive exports coal had risen to "an extraordinary dearth and price and by all appearance the whole coal within this kingdom shall in a very short time be wanted and consumed, to the great hurt and prejudice of the whole estate".
Parliamentary representatives prior to 1707 were, like their equivalent today, entitled to claim expenses for any outlay incurred while attending a session.
An act of 1428 ordered commissioners' expenses to be paid by the shires that sent them. The cost of ceremonial dress (specifically foot-mantles of velvet, a kind of long cloak worn while mounted on horseback) for the riding of Parliament procession was also to be met by constituents.
In 1633, after complaints that constituents weren't paying up because they were unsure of a reasonable amount, the Scottish privy council ordered that, for the forthcoming Parliament, each commissioner should have a lump sum of 300 merks, the equivalent of 16.67, roughly 2,170 in today's money, for general expenses.
A NEW PARLIAMENT
Before the early 17th century, Parliament traditionally met in the Old Tolbooth, which stood near the north-west corner of Parliament Square in Edinburgh. But the increase in numbers called out for a purpose-built venue, and in 1632 Charles I ordered the city to build a new chamber. Similar to its modern counterpart, this Parliament House (located near St Giles' Cathedral) was over-budget and behind schedule when it held its first meeting in 1639.
TOLLS OVER RIVERS FORTH AND TAY
The issue of tolls over the rivers Forth and Tay was controversial, although it was rates for ferries rather than bridges that parliament investigated. Profiteering was a problem even in the 15th century. An act of James III (1474) decreed the individual personal fare could be no more than two pennies for people and six pennies for animals.
A later act of Mary Queen of Scots (1552) stated that the excessive tolls imposed by the ferrymen of Queensferry, Kinghorn and Dundee were a 'great and heavy oppression' on the country. Tolls were therefore to be reduced.
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Tuesday 18 June 2013
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