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Timeline of Scottish History

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Reformation in Scotland

The Start of the Reformation

Throughout the Middle Ages, Scotland had always been run by not one, but two rulers - the reigning monarch and the church.

It was the King who collected the taxes, called men to battle and laid down the law. But most ordinary people owed their true allegiance not to him, but to the Catholic faith.

Clerics such as bishops, abbots and even the Pope himself had always been a key part of Scottish society. They were often close to the king, and no monarch could rule without at least coming to an accommodation with his religious leaders.

By the end of the 15th century, the church had become massively influential and hugely wealthy. It had vast tracts of land, huge abbeys, and fine cathedrals. But it was also bloated and corrupt, and it had started to sew the seeds of its own destruction.

Despite its power and its influence, many ordinary Scottish people had simply stopped going to church by the year 1500. They were becoming fed up with some of its less reputable practices, such as the custom where indulgences promising someone a better life in the next world were sold for cash which then went to pay for the upkeep of the Pope and his cohorts in Rome.

All over Europe, dissatisfaction with the state of the Catholic church was breaking out. But there were particular grievances in Scotland. Parish churches, for instance, were having their wealth seized by the great abbeys and cathedrals.

The situation had become so bad that the bishops were living in splendour and Scottish cathedrals were some of the most glorious buildings in the country, while ordinary priests - often ill-trained and illiterate - were on the edge of poverty, and their churches were literally falling down through neglect.

There were other scandals, too. The rules of celibacy which clerics were supposed to adhere to were often not just ignored, but made a mockery of. Archbishop Beaton of St Andrews, for instance, had no less than eight illegitimate children, while Bishop Hepburn of Moray had nine. Monks kept women in their monasteries, and on Iona - the sacred isle which was the cradle of Christianity in Scotland - one of the nuns was the daughter of one of the monks.

Many ordinary priests did their best in difficult circumstances, but they were swimming against an impossible tide. By the 16th century, nearly half of all illegitimate children in Scotland were born to the clergy. King James V, who had come to the throne when his father James IV had been slain at the disastrous Battle of Flodden in 1513, ordered the church to reform itself, but he had nine illegitimate children of his own, so he was hardly in a position to set an example.

There was no doubt that things had to change. The historian and author Father Mark Dilworth, a former Keeper of the Scottish Catholic Archives and an authority on the Scottish Reformation, says that the Catholic church itself recognised this.

"They realised that it needed reforming and things needed to be straightened out", Dilworth adds. "But they wanted to leave the basic structures of the church intact. The reformers felt that everything needed to be tidied up. They wanted the whole basis of religious observance to be altered."

No-one at the time saw just how dramatic and important to Scotland's future history the coming Reformation would be. Disillusion with the Catholic church brought Protestantism to Europe, and when it arrived in Scotland, it changed the character of the country forever.

There are still many myths surrounding the Reformation north of the border. Many people believe, for instance, that Scotland was one of the earliest countries to be converted to the Protestant cause, and that the shake-up was particularly violent here.

Neither of these things are true. Scotland was actually one of the last countries in Europe to swing wholeheartedly away from Catholicism and behind the reformed church, and when the change came, it was much milder here than in many other countries.

The Reformation started in Europe with the teachings of the German monk and theologian Martin Luther, who in 1517 published his Ninety Five Theses attacking the sale of indulgences by the church. This sparked off protests against Catholicism right across Europe.

However, Luther's revolution occurred in the early days of printing, and Scotland did not have its own press at that time. As a result, his thoughts and writings had to be brought in from other countries, such as England and Holland.

As staunch Catholics, many of Scotland's nobility saw the threat that Protestantism caused, and they attempted to nip it in the bud. In 1525, the Scots parliament passed an act which banned the import of Lutheran books, but there was little they could do to stem a growing tide.

The ruling authorities of both church and state faced a new dilemma when the Abbot of Fearn in Ross-shire, Patrick Hamilton, who had been studying under Luther on the continent, arrived home in Scotland in 1527. Hamilton - a distant relation of the Scottish royal family - immediately began to preach the new faith, causing fury in the higher reaches of the Catholic church.

Hamilton was considered particularly dangerous because he wasn't just preaching against church scandals - he was challenging its very teachings. Archbishop Beaton decided to make an example of him. He arrested him and ordered him to recant.

Hamilton refused and, as a result, went the way of all heretics at the time - he was burned at the stake. Because it was raining when the execution took place and the bonfire wasn't set properly, it took him six agonising hours to die. He had become Scotland's first Reformation martyr.

While Protestantism was slowly gaining a foothold in Scotland, its most famous figure was still growing up. John Knox was born in Haddington in 1513. He was educated at university - possibly at Glasgow or St Andrews - and then ordained as a Catholic priest.

Knox fell into the company of George Wishart, another Lutheran reformer who was preaching in Scotland at the time. He fell strongly under Wishart's influence and by 1545 had become converted to the Reformation cause.

By this time, however, Henry VIII was on the throne in England, and had already snubbed Rome by establishing the Church of England as a Protestant church in order to dissolve his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

In Scotland, Cardinal Beaton, the nephew of Archbishop Beaton who had burned Hamilton, had become Chancellor of Scotland and was becoming decidedly jumpy at the prospect of Protestantism - which was now the officially established religion south of the border - gaining a further hold here.

Beaton reacted to Wishart's teachings as his uncle had done with Thomas Hamilton. He had him arrested and burned at the stake in his home diocese of St Andrews while he looked on.

Just three months later, though, it was Beaton who was dead. Scotland's most enthusiastic and bloodthirsty defender of the Catholic faith was assassinated in a plot hatched by Henry VIII, who was tiring not just of Beaton's Catholicism, but of his attempts to strike a deal with France, England's traditional enemy.

The actual murder was carried out in St Andrews by a group of 16 Fife Protestants who stormed his castle in St Andrews and killed him. They knew they could not get away, so they fortified their position and appealed to the English to come and get them out.

The Earl of Arran, who was Governor of Scotland at the time, hit back by surrounding the castle and asking the French to send troops to help. Among those who arrived in St Andrews to give support to the rebels inside the castle was John Knox.

The Protestants hoped that the English would come and save them but, unfortunately for them, the French arrived first. Along with the others, Knox was captured and, as a punishment, sent to France to work as a galley slave.

Catholic Scotland was jubilant. The Protestant revolution, it seemed, had been crushed and thanks to the intervention of the French, the faith was secure once more.

They knew they had won the battle. What they did not realise, however, was that the war was about to be lost. John Knox was coming back. And this time, it would be personal?. Follow the stort of John Knox & Queen Mary


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