The Church of Scotland is a Protestant Christian denomination based in Scotland. The Kirk, as it is often known ("kirk" is Scots for "church"), was created in 1560 to be the official church of the then-independent Scottish nation; its founders included theologian John Knox, and it was strongly influenced by the teachings of Martin Luther and especially John Calvin.

As the established national church in Scotland, for most of its life the Kirk has been regulated by parliament. This means that it was often a plaything of monarchs, a tool of social control and an instrument of patronage; as a result the Kirk's history is full of argument, conflict, and occasionally war. For hundreds of years it controlled the nation's schools and tended to the poor and needy. More recently the church's independence from the state has been enshrined in law, though it continues to play an important role in the cultural and political life of Scotland.

This article describes first the organisation of the church, which is necessary to understand the second topic, its history, which is in large measure the history of Scotland. This is followed by shorter sections on church doctrine and the treatment of the church in literature.


The Church of Scotland's administration has changed a number of times over its history. Despite that, it largely retains the presbyterian structure envisaged by its 16th century founders: rather than giving any individual person control over any part of the church, the presbyterian system is based on government by courts, which are committees are made up of clergy and lay members.

The Kirk is largely financed from voluntary donations by parishioners; these pay the salaries of ministers and deacons, as well as other staff (youth workers, administration, etc - in 2004 there were around two thousand of these non-ordained workers), and the costs of running church buildings and other activities.

There are three layers of organisation responsible for discipline and governance: at the bottom closest to the worshippers is the parish, with its elders and minister; above that is the presbytery; and the highest governing body is the General Assembly. Below the historical and present roles of each of these are explained.


All of Scotland is divided up geographically into parishes; the court (governing body) at the level of the parish is the kirk session, which comprises kirk elders chaired by the minister (some parishes instead of a kirk session have a deacon's court, which is similar). Elders are laypeople selected from the congregation by their parish church; the position is currently a lifelong appointment, although in the early years of the Church, elders were elected yearly after Calvin's model, and there may be moves to change the system again.

The elders choose a minister, who is paid a stipend (salary) by the Church of Scotland and often receives the use of a manse, a house to live in while minister; formerly the minister also received a glebe, land around the manse which could either be farmed by the minister or let out. The duties of the minister include performing weddings, baptisms and funerals; preaching; pastoral visits; and commonly other tasks for the community. There were around 1400 ministers in 2004 and 1600 parishes (some of which shared a minister).

A minister may be assisted by a deacon or deaconess; these are ordained assistants who collectively make up the diaconate. They help organise the parish and together with the elders assist the minister in their pastoral duties.


At a district level, the unit of organisation is the presbytery. The members of the presbytery are known as presbyters, and comprise all the ministers of the area plus an equal number of lay members selected from the kirk elders. Presbyteries meet a few times a year, and have a moderator (chairperson) and clerk selected annually. The presbytery selects who will attend the General Assembly. Members from the presbytery visit each parish every five years, this is called a quinquennial visitation or more commonly now a presbytery visit.

Presbyteries have the duty to oversee the practice of religion in their areas, ensuring proper administration, due performance of the sacraments, and doctrinal purity. The other role of the presbytery is as a court of appeal from the kirk session; in the past the church took an active role in imposing morality on the population, when people faced charges of working on the Sabbath, not attending church, or other more serious behaviour.

As of 2004 there were 48 presbyteries; the majority are in Scotland, but there are also individual presbyteries covering continental Europe, England, and Jerusalem.

The General Assembly

The highest decision-making body is the General Assembly, which comprises around 850 representatives from all over Scotland, including approximately equal numbers of ministers, deacons and lay people. It meets once a year, usually for one week in May, with the conference held in Edinburgh in the Assembly Hall on the Mound. It passes laws determining the operation of the Kirk and also acts as the highest court in the church. There are also visitors from other Christian denominations and guest speakers, most famously Margaret Thatcher who gave her so-called "Sermon on the Mound" in 1988.

The General Assembly also organises many boards and committees which govern various aspects of the Kirk; each year these bodies present their recommendations compiled into a publication known as the Blue Book, for the General Assembly to vote upon or amend. These boards include the Church and Nation Committee, which focuses on social issues, and committees on ecumenical relations, chaplains and education, plus the General Trustees who control the Kirk's property.

There is no person who is head of the Church of Scotland (except Jesus), but the General Assembly elects an individual to be the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. The Moderator presides over the debates in the role of speaker, and increasingly acts as an ambassador for the Kirk, making visits at home and abroad. A candidate is selected in October by a committee of the Assembly, then confirmed by the full Assembly to serve for the following year.

The Lord High Commissioner is the monarch's representative at the General Assembly. Because the monarch is not the head of the Church of Scotland, the Lord High Commissioner has no formal power and only a customary role, which includes addressing the Assembly at its beginning and end. The Commissioner also typically invites guests to the Assembly and holds formal receptions.


Early Christianity in Scotland

Like all of Western Europe, Scotland was Roman Catholic until the late middle ages. Christianity first came to southern Scotland in the Romano-British era, probably brought by Roman troops, and then around 400 AD thanks to the efforts of the Celtic Church, founded by Saint Patrick in Ireland. The first famous missionary to Scotland was Saint Ninian (c. 430). However the Christian faith does not seem to have caught as strongly in Scotland (the east of which was being constantly invaded by pagan Germanic tribes) as in Ireland. With Scotland falling back into paganism, monks from nearby Ireland made many visits in the sixth century AD; the most famous missionary of those was Saint Columba (521-597), who founded the monastery of Iona in 563 and converted King Bride and the Picts (the inhabitants of northern Scotland). Despite the occasional invasions of pagan Vikings, Scotland was therefore Christian by about 700 AD.

In the 11th century the Scottish church's relationship with Rome was formalised thanks to King Malcolm Canmore and his English and Roman Catholic wife Saint Margaret; thanks to her influence the Church came under the direct control of the Pope. The Roman Catholic clergy also became great landlords, owning half of Scotland. By the late medieval period, Scotland was able to play an important role in the intellectual life of Christendom, through such figures as John Duns Scotus (c.1265-1308), who travelled widely and lectured in Europe. These connections between Scottish and Continental thought were to remain important during the Reformation and long afterwards.

The Reformation

By the 16th Century, corruption was a significant problem in the Roman Catholic church in Scotland and elsewhere, due to the church's wealth and temporal power coupled with the human weakness of its officials. The clergy were often ill-educated with little knowledge of the Bible, and it seems that preaching the gospel was not a priority for them.

Lollards, followers of the Englishman John Wyclif, preached in Scotland in the 14th century, but they were viewed as heretics and brutally oppressed. Other reformers, such as Dr Paul Craw (a follower of John Huss), Patrick Hamilton (converted by Luther's teachings), and George Wishart (who taught New Testament Greek) were also burnt alive, while William Tyndall's bible translation circulated in secret.

The most important figure in the Reformation was John Knox. A former priest, he had studied St Augustine and read the scriptures in their original languages, leading him to turn against the Catholic Church. Involved in a rebellion in St. Andrews in 1546, he was captured by Scotland's Catholic regent Mary of Guise and forced to serve as a rowing slave for 18 months. He sought refuge in England, before ending up in Calvin's Geneva.

Meanwhile, the Catholic church in Scotland was effectively dissolved in 1557 when Protestant nobles signed the first Covenant. Two years later, the signatories sent for Knox in Switzerland, while with the aid of Elizabeth of England the Scottish Protestants fought off their Catholic countrypeople and the French. A reformed church could now be established in Scotland.

In 1560, Knox and his colleagues, who included John Willock, John Winram, John Spottiswood, John Row and John Douglas, collectively the "Six Johns", produced the Scots Confession, a basic statement of faith, and the First Book of Discipline, which prescribed the new church's organisation. The latter proposed that in every parish a church and a school should be established, together with a system of poor relief, all funded by the assets of the old Catholic church; however many of the assets were already in the possession of noblemen while other monies used to pension off the Catholic clergy; unlike the Confession the First Book of Discipline was never ratified by parliament.

Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic, ascended to the throne in 1561. Although she did not try to enforce her religion on the nation, her faith was still troublesome, as was her belief that the monarch should be above the law. Following many intrigues, the population revolted and she was imprisoned and forced to renounce the throne; her son James VI took over. However, even without a Catholic on the throne, the fighting continued.

Covenanters and Stuart Kings

Whilst Scotland remained Protestant from then on, there continued a debate over Church organisation which would lead to bloody battles. The question was whether the Church should be organised like the Church of England, with an episcopal structure (controlled by bishops and archbishops), or based on a Calvinist presbyterian system with ministers chosen by their congregations and the church administered by gatherings of ministers. This was more than just a matter of organisation, because it was also related to the question of the separation of church and state, with the episcopal model lending itself to central control and the presbyterian structure offering independence.

James VI of Scotland was raised a strict Protestant. However, he was also a great believer in his own right to control the country, and to that end he wanted to impose bishops on Scotland; many Scottish nobles saw episcopacy as a method of getting their hands on the property of the former Catholic bishops. Despite this, in 1592 the Scottish Parliament recognised presbyterianism as the organisational principle of the Scottish church, as set out in the Second Book of Discipline. One of the main figures behind this was Andrew Melville; Melville went on to provoke James's anger by telling the king that he was not the head of the church but only a member. James retaliated and by stealth built up a system of bishops: initially individuals were chosen as commissioners of the church with the power to confer with the king, but they were gradually given greater power and the title of bishop.

Once James became king of England as well as Scotland in 1603, he could use the military might of his new kingdom to stamp out his Scottish enemies. He decreed that the Assembly could not meet without his permission and exiled many of the church's leaders. James also imposed the structures and doctrines of the Church of England on the Scottish Church (communion was received kneeling, children were confirmed, Christmas and Easter were both observed).

James was succeeded by Charles I. A devout Anglican, he was equally interested in controlling the Scottish Church, but less diplomatic about it. He used a royal decree to introduce a new Service Book, while his father had seen his will enacted by pressurising or packing the General Assembly. The new book, which was based on the Roman Catholic Missal, caused a riot when it was imposed; legend has it that one worshiper, Jennie Geddes, threw her stool at the Dean of St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh with the cry "Daur ye say Mass in my lug?"

Opposition to the king grew, and the defenders of the presbyterian church signed a formal declaration, the National Covenant, in Greyfriars' churchyard, Edinburgh. The signatories and their supporters became known as Covenanters. In 1638 the General Assembly met without royal permission, its moderator Alexander Henderson, and they voted to reject Charles I's religious texts, abolish the episcopacy, excommunicate the bishops, and restore government by presbytery. In response Charles I fought the two Bishops' Wars against the Scots in 1639-1940, losing both.

Soon after that, Civil War broke out in England, with the puritan parliamentarians fighting Charles I. Initially the Scots worked with the English parliamentarians in organising a new reformed church, producing the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1643. However, this turned to war after Charles I's execution when the Scots wanted Charles's son as their king but Cromwell wanted to rule himself; the Scottish army was defeated at Dunbar and Scots and English royalists lost at Worcester.

Like his father, Charles II opposed presbyterianism in Scotland; he had the Scottish Parliament repeal all legislation since 1637, including the Westminster Confession. Charles also reimposed bishops and forced ministers to swear opposition to the Covenant. Around 400 ministers refused, and were thrown out of office; these Covenanters were brutally oppressed by the government. There were even open rebellions, such as Bothwell Brig where Charles's forces under Claverhouse were defeated.

Pressure eased when James II came to the throne. As a Roman Catholic he gave general dispensation for freedom of religion, though there were still restrictions on the Covenanters. It was by only the removal of James II and his replacement by the Calvinists William III and Mary II that presbyterian organisation and autonomy were granted to the Scottish Kirk. The Act of Settlement of 1690 abolished the position of bishop, restored the system of presbyteries legislated in 1592 and made the Westminster Confession the basis of church doctrine, It also abolished patronage, the practice whereby landowners had a say in the selection ministers.

However as a compromise many of the existing episcopalian-minded ministers and bishops were allowed to stay in the church. The Covenanters under Richard Cameron rejected this settlement, and stayed outside the church, going on to form the Reformed Presbyterian Church. Most of Scotland was happy with the new church, and the remnant of the episcopalians were weakened by their association with Jacobitism (though they have lasted to the present as the Scottish Episcopal Church). Thus the 1690 act largely set the pattern for the Kirk as it is today.

The 1733 and 1761 Secessions

Following the 1689 revolution, the Church gradually divided into two camps, Moderates and Evangelicals. The Evangelicals (also called Populars) followed John Calvin and Martin Luther's doctrines that human beings were vile, base, and undeserving of salvation; they were fierce moralists. The Moderates held more liberal and humanistic views, close to the heart of the Scottish Enlightenment: they believed in reason and that people were essentially good; they also favoured centralised control and greater restriction on the freedom of ministers, while there were accusations that they permitted lax moral behaviour. The conflict between these two worldviews would shape the history of the Church for the next two centuries, but the battleground where this would primarily be fought was the same issues that had stirred the Covenanters, the appointment of ministers and the relation between Church and State.

The Act of Toleration in 1712 re-introduced patronage, which meant that ministers had to be approved by a local landowner or other wealthy figure. As a consequence ministers were often chosen for their sycophany rather than their abilities or devoutness, and it was unpopular with many congregations. Though the Moderates supported patronage, others in the Kirk were strongly opposed, and it led to the Original Secession, the first main split in the Church.

Ebenezer Erskine became leader of the Seceders (or Secessionists) when parishioners in Kinross wished to appoint him as a minister but the local patron refused. In 1732, the General Assembly ruled against Erskine's claim, Erskine protested, and the following year he was reprimanded by the Assembly for arguing with its decision. Erskine and three supporters quit and founded the Associate Presbytery, after 1740 called the Original Secession Church.

In 1747 the Original Secession Church split in two following a debate over the Burgess Oath, an oath of allegiance required of burgess (town officials) in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Perth professing loyalty to the "true religion". Although this was primarily an anti-Catholic measure, some of the Secessionists considered it an attack on their religious freedom. As a result the Original Secession Church was divided into two parties, the Associate Synod (or Burghers) and General Associate Synod (Anti-Burghers).

A similar crisis to that of 1733 took place in 1751 over the appointment of Andrew Richardson, who was expelled from the Church of Scotland in much the same circumstances as Erskine. Richardson founded the Presbytery of Relief (Relief Church) in 1761.

Around 1800 the Burghers (1799) and Anti-Burghers (1806) each split into Auld Licht ("licht"="light") and New Licht factions, and members from each formed the United Secession Church (from the New Lichts) and the Original Seceders (the Auld Lichts) in the early 19th century. The Relief Church merged with the United Secession Church in 1847 to form the United Presbyterian Church.

The Disruption and the Free Church

The most famous schism in the Church of Scotland came in 1843. Once again, patronage was a major issue; more generally the separation of church and state was causing dissent when the Court of Session, Scotland's highest civil court, overruled the General Assembly on a number of cases. Evangelism had been on the rise for many years thanks to men such as Robert and James Haldane and Andrew Thompson, and the period from 1833-1843 is known as the Ten Years Conflict due to the religious disputes of the time.

The Evangelical wing of the Kirk, under the leadership of Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), produced the Claim of Right in 1842, demanding the Kirk's complete independence from secular authorities; this was discussed and rejected in Parliament and caused controversy in the church. The Moderates were politically and religiously more conservative and saw secular intervention in the Kirk as a useful means to control what they saw as the fanatical extremism of some of the Evangelicals. (It should be noted that the state did fund church-building in the Highlands and paid the wages of some ministers in poorer parishes.)

Matters reached their breaking point at the 1843 Assembly when Chalmers called for a disruption between church and state. Chalmers was not a radical outside mainstream opinion; he had been a minister in Glasgow noted for his philanthropy, and then professor of moral philosophy at St. Andrews and professor of theology at Edinburgh University. However, when the General Assembly refused to support him, he led a walkout from its meeting at St. Andrew's Church, Edinburgh, and he was ultimately joined by 470 ministers, one third of the church.

From this group, Chalmers formed the Free Church of Scotland and became its first moderator. In some of the earliest photographs taken in Scotland, David Octavius Hill captured the men who walked out of the established church. You can still see their faces, fiercely intelligent with burning eyes, far from the stereotype of the dour elderly Free Kirk clergyman. The new church would be fiercely evangelical in spreading the gospel, as well as morally uncompromising and professing Biblical literalism.

Without Chalmers, change in the relationship between the Church of Scotland and the government happened slowly. The Patronage Act was finally repealed in 1874, allowing congregations to choose their own ministers.

While the Kirk was reforming, its splinter groups were also undergoing further splits and mergers. Shortly after its formation the Free Church absorbed some of the earlier dissident groups such as the Reformed Presbyterians (Cameronians). Then in 1893 the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland split off from the Free Church. In 1900 the Free Church and United Presbyterian Churches (made up of the combined New Lichts and the Relief Church) merged to form the United Free Church, but some of the Free Church ministers rejected the union and remained under their original name, forming what is today the Free Church of Scotland (sometimes called the "Wee Frees"). A few of the United Presbyterians also remained separate.

The United Free Church rejoined the Church of Scotland in 1929 (without the congregations that form the body still known as the Free Church of Scotland), and the Original Seceders joined the Church of Scotland in 1956. Divisions continue with a schism in the Free Presbyterian Church in 1989, caused by a dispute over a member attending two Catholic requiem masses, leading to the formation of the Associated Presbyterian Church, while the Free Church Continuing split from the Free Church in 2000.

Missionary work

In the nineteenth century, the Scottish churches were very active in missionary activities overseas, often with a positive influence in promoting education and opposing the brutality of colonialists. In the 18th century missionary work had concentrated on converting Roman Catholic highlanders, which was a political as well as religious imperative if Jacobitism was to be stifled. Once that task was largely done, spreading Christian teachings through Britain's new empire became a topic of heated debate in late-18th-century religious circles.

Missionary societies were established in Edinburgh and Glasgow in 1796 with the involvement of both the Church of Scotland and the Secessionist Church, but the Kirk resisted calls for foreign missionary work until the 1820s. Rev Alexander Duff was the first missionary to be sent by the Church of Scotland, to India in 1827. From the earliest missions to India, the church saw education as an important tool in combatting native religion, and its curriculums proved influential not only abroad but also in Scottish schools.

The Disruption reduced missionary activity from the 1840s, although other denominations remained active - most of the missionaries joined the Free Church. The great David Livingston (1813-1873), who worked tirelessly for the London Missionary Society in Africa from 1840, was a Congregationalist. Hope M. Waddell of the Scottish Missionary Society and United Secession Church, landed in Nigeria in 1847. The Free Church founded The Ladies' Society for Female Education in Africa and India, active in the late 19th century, which often came into conflict with the expansionist policies of Cecil Rhodes in southern Africa.

However, the Kirk renewed its efforts in the 1870s, sending preachers to India, China and south and east Africa. Scottish missionaries were active in educating many future nationalist leaders, and while suppressing native religions campaigned against practices such as female circumcision. Following the independence of Britain's imperial territories after World War II, the missions were disbanded or converted into local presbyterian churches.

Separation of church and state

While the settlement of 1690 said the government could not appoint ministers or other church officials, until the early 20th Century public bodies still had some power over the Kirk. This civil oversight was perhaps fitting in an age when the Kirk controlled the schools and poor relief and the state helped fund the Kirk, but through the 19th century the political role of the church was gradually weakened: the 1845 Poor Laws Act handed over the care of the poor from the kirk sessions to ratepayer-funded parish boards, and the 1872 Education Act took schools out of church control.

The independence of the Kirk was finally recognised by parliament in the Church of Scotland Act, 1921. This gave the Church of Scotland the "right and power to adjudicate finally in all matters of doctrine, worship and government and discipline in the Church, including the right to determine all questions concerning membership of its Courts and the mode of election of its office bearers". The Articles Declaratory, attached to the Church of Scotland Act, spelt out the doctrines of the Kirk.

The Iona Community

One of the most important events in the Kirk in the last century was the reestablishment of a religious presence on Iona. This tiny island had been central for early Christianity in Scotland, both as a bridge to Ireland and for its monastery established by Saint Columba. By the 19th century the popularity of medievalism had made it a tourist destination bustling with daytrippers.

An ecumenical community was founded on the island in 1936 by Rev. George MacLeod, then a minister in Glasgow. The Iona Community operates according to a program of daily prayer and bible reading, mutual accountability for the use of time and money, regular meetings, and time for reflection. It also campaigns for peace, justice, environmentalism, and "the integrity of creation". It was important for the founders that the new community on the island would not mirror the cloistered life of a Catholic monastery: rather than a place for people to hide away from the world, it would be a site to re-energise people for a new contact with the world.

Modern life

All Christian churches have faced a changing role in the latter part of the twentieth century, with falling church membership and vast changes in social behaviour and views of morality. Attendance figures suggest the Kirk has been in decline for some time: reduced by around half from the high of 1.2m communicant members in the 1950s. The Church estimated 600,000 members in 2004, and in 2000 counted more exactly: 607,714 communicants, plus around 200,000 more adults and children who regularly attend services but were not officially members of the Kirk. The Roman Catholic Church now claims to have overtaken the Church of Scotland to become Scotland's largest denomination, with 650,000 members.

There has been a great increase in ecumenical activities, i.e. in organisations that link members of different Christian denominations. In the 1960s there was debate about a possible union of the Church of Scotland with the Church of England, the Presbyterian Church of England, and the (Anglican) Episcopal Church of Scotland; however negotiations proved fruitless. Instead the Church of Scotland was involved in the formation of a number of interchurch bodies. These include Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI), and Action of Churches Together in Scotland (ACTS), whose members include Church of Scotland, Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists, and Quakers.

Ordination of women was another important issue: there had been women deacons since 1888, but a committee was established in the 1960s to ponder the role of women in the church. It led to the first women elders in 1966 and ministers in 1968. Alison Elliot became the first woman Moderator, appointed October 2003; she was also the first elder to be appointed to the position for over 400 years, chosen due to her service on church committees.

The establishment of the Scottish Parliament led to the founding of the Scottish Churches Parliamentary Office (SCPO), which includes ACTS, the Free Church, Baptists, and some other denominations; this meets with representatives of the Scottish Parliament and lobbies it on religious, moral and social issues.

The Kirk is currently (2004) debating various issues surrounding homosexuality. According to former moderator Iain Torrance, the general position is that homosexual clergy are not a problem as long as they remain celibate. The Kirk has also spoken out against victimisation of homosexuals, and many in the Kirk support same-sex civil unions, but most do not seem ready to accept same-sex marriage in church.


The Articles Declaratory, published in 1921, state the Kirk's present religious beliefs. The immutable principles in these documents are the belief in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and in the Trinity; they do not prescribe many further details of doctrine. Other statements in this document include: the Kirk is part of the Universal Church encompassing all Christians and should seek union with all other churches; the Westminster Confession is a subordinate standard for doctrine; the Kirk has a duty to minister to all the people of Scotland; the Kirk claims historical continuity from its reformation in 1560 to the present; and it is independent from secular authorities.

The Kirk lies towards the liberal end of the Christian spectrum. It accepts contraception, abortion, and divorce as well as married clergy and women priests, though not sexually-active gay clergy. The introduction of charitable payments from the National Lottery in Britain provoked passionate debate as to whether churches which desperately needed renovation could accept income from gambling, but eventually expediency won over principle. Although the Westminster Confession remains a part of the Kirk's body of doctrine, most ministers and worshippers do not subscribe to the more extreme tenets of Calvinism, such as predestination.

In its relation to the government and crown, the Church of Scotland is established but free. "Established" means it was formed by laws passed in parliament and is acknowledged by the government; it is the national church of Scotland as the Church of England is the national church of England. However it is "free" in the sense that it enjoys complete independence from the state in spiritual matters including the appointment of the clergy (this is different to the definition of a "free" church in England, where "free" means one not established).

The Church of Scotland has a very different relation to the state than that of the Church of England, whose high officials are appointed by the head of state and then appoint the rest of the clergy. Unlike most of the national Lutheran churches of northern Europe, which have an episcopal structure, the Church of Scotland is presbyterian: its only head is Jesus and all decisions about the running of the church are made in groups either directly at the parish level by ministers and elders, or by higher councils appointed by the parishes.

The ministers of the Kirk enjoy significant freedom in doctrine and forms of worship, ranging from High Church to evangelical. There is no fixed liturgy, but the Book of Common Order is used as a guide and updated regularly. Unlike some Scottish denominations, hymn singing and the playing of the organ or other instruments are usual in services; there is also normally a lengthy sermon. The Lord's Supper (Holy Communion) is generally celebrated quarterly or sometimes monthly, though a few churches do so weekly.

The Kirk in literature

Because of its importance in Scottish cultural life, there have been many representations of religion and its practitioners in Scottish literature (even though many of the greatest Scottish writers from Thomas Carlyle to James Kelman have been atheists). It is not my place to speculate on the influence of religion on the Scottish character - whether it makes us thrifty, hard-working, rational, socially-concerned, well-educated, patient, and devout; or tight-fisted, fun-hating, emotionally-repressed, philistine hypocrites - but evidence either way can be found in this brief selection.

David Lyndsay

Lyndsay was an important figure at the court of James V, the time of the Renaissance's flowering in Catholic Scotland. Lyndsay's Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaits was first performed in 1540 but not published until 1602; it attacks the "three estates", the nobility, clergy, and burgesses (craftsmen) who made up the higher ranks of Scottish society of his time.

Robert Burns

Scotland's greatest poet repeatedly returned to themes of religious hypocrisy in poems such as "The Twa Dugs", "The Holy Fair" and his satirical masterpiece "Holy Willie's Prayer", an attack on Willie Fisher, an elder in Mauchline who attempted to have a parishioner of more moderate views charged with such grave offences as starting a journey on the Sabbath.

Walter Scott

Scott's Waverley (1814) and subsequent so-called Waverley Novels are largely notable for writing about a time of Scottish religious tension and political unrest, the Jacobite rebellions, whilst largely avoiding any discussion of religion or politics.

John Galt

Ringan Gilhaize (1823) is a historical novel covering the period from the Reformation to the Battle of Killiekrankie in 1689, which identifies strongly with the Covenanter cause.

James Hogg

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) is a gothic thriller and a satire on the Calvinist notion of predestination (the belief that salvation depends not on one's actions but simply on who God has preordained to be saved). A young man raised a Calvinist is tempted by a mysterious stranger to carry out dreadful deeds. This greatly influenced Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, though the later book lacks an overtly religious element to its story.

Thomas Carlyle

Sartor Resartus (1834) is a semi-autobiographical tale of spiritual development by an author whose beliefs ranged from eccentric to repulsive. Driven by a love of mathematics and rational thinking, he found himself in opposition to the faith of his parents. Admired by Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin and George Eliot, Carlyle was also profoundly racist and anti-democratic even by the standards of his day. His visionary qualities more recently made him a crucial influence on Alasdair Gray, and his place in Scottish literary and intellectual history is central, no matter what people might wish.

Lewis Grassic Gibbon (James Leslie Mitchell)

His Scots Quair trilogy (1932-1934) is a classic of Scottish social realism written by a committed communist. It portrays the role of religion in the rural and urban communities of northeast Scotland, both the harsh Calvinism preached in the village of Kinraddie and the misunderstood reforming zeal of Robert Colquhoun, a Christian Socialist minister.

Liz Lochhead

Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (1987) must be one of the most popular and most-studied works in Scottish theatre. The play presents the rivalry between Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I of England, viewing it as a conflict on a national, religious, and personal level. John Knox appears onstage to discuss religious tolerance with Mary.

Main sources:

  • Church of Scotland online. (viewed May 2004)
  • Andrew Denholm. "Female Moderator makes history". The Scotsman. October 29, 2003.
  • Dumbarton West Kirk website (viewed May 2004)
  • J. Ligon Duncan. Owning The Confession: Subscription in the Scottish Presbyterian Tradition Premise. 1995.
  • The Free Church of Scotland website. (viewed May 2004)
  • David Halgh. "Scotland's Churches after 1700". 2001.
  • Iona Community website. (viewed May 2004)
  • Marjorie J. Jodoin. "Historical Timeline for Scottish Genealogy". (viewed May 2004)
  • Edwin Lee. The History of the Scottish Church. (viewed May 2004)
  • Kirk Web. (viewed May 2004)
  • Paul O'Hare. "Moderator welcomes civil partnerships". The Scotsman. December 4, 2003.
  • Scottish Episcopal Church website. (viewed May 2004)
  • Iain Torrance. "Homosexual ministers: the moderator replies". The Scotsman. July 15, 2003. topics.cfm %3Ftid%3D337%26id%3D768742003+%22ordination+of+women%22+%22church+of+scotland%22 &hl=en&ie=UTF-8
  • Westminster Confession of Faith (1643). Free Church of Scotland Website.

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