Scotland and its Churches

The Very Revd Dr James A Whyte
Professor Emeritus of Practical Theology and Christian Ethics in the University of St Andrews

When the Romans left Britain in 410, some of the inhabitants of what is now Southern Scotland were already Christian. The unsubdued tribes beyond the Roman wall were known as Picts. Of them we know little except through their art, in the beautiful symbol stones which they left. Ninian, a British Christian, made his missionary base at Whithorn in south west Scotland in 397.

The original ‘Scots’ were Irish settlers who established a Kingdom in what is now mid-Argyll a hundred years before Columba came, in 563, with his base in Iona and his mission to the Picts. By a process of expansion, intermarriage and conversion to Christianity the Scots gradually assimilated the Picts and the two Kingdoms were united in the 9th century. The Celtic Christianity of Scotland came under pressure to conform to Roman ways, and Queen Margaret and her son David I (1194) completed this process by bringing monastic orders from France.

Since the revenues of parishes were assigned to the Abbeys and, from 1411, to the Universities in St Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen, their prosperity meant the impoverishment of many parishes. By the time of the Reformation in 1560, many parish churches were beyond repair. The neglect of the parishes was one of the causes of the Reformation.

Luther had some impact in Scotland, but Calvanism prevailed. Pockets of Catholicism remained in the north east, and the counter-Reformation regained some of the Western Isles. The Reformed Church briefly hovered between Presbyterianism and Episcopacy. The Presbyterian form of government was established (not without dissent in Aberdeen), and stubbornly defended against the efforts of James VI and his son Charles to bring the Scottish church into line with the English. The Covenanters knew the bitterness of religious persecution, especially after the restoration of the Stuarts in 1660. The Revolution Settlement (1690) recognised the Church of Scotland as Presbyterian.

After the Union of 1707, however, the Westminster Parliament began to interfere in Scottish church affairs. The episcopalian minority became the Scottish Episcopal Church, and patronage (the right of the patron, not the congregation, to choose a minister) was imposed on an unwilling Church of Scotland. Interference from Crown and Parliament was the prime cause of church division in Scotland, though the Scots habit of standing out on principle played its part. From 1733 on there were secessions from the National Church, mostly because the General Assembly upheld the law and supported the patrons against the people. The greatest rift came in the Disruption of 1843 when a large number of ministers and elders left to form the Free Church of Scotland.

There was reunion as well as division, however, and by 1929 the main elements were reunited in the Church of Scotland. Meantime Scottish Catholicism had increased in numbers and changed in character through the influx of Irish immigrants. The habit of wealthy Scots to send their children to English public schools increased the influence of the Scottish Episcopal Church, but it and the other Protestant churches (Congregational, Baptist, Methodist) together amount to less than a tenth of the size of the National Church.

The church buildings of Scotland today reflect its troubled history. Many have been changed and adapted through the years, to follow changing convictions and changing needs, and in a living church that process will doubtless continue.


Printed in ‘The Cathedrals Abbeys and Churches of Scotland’, 1995.