Thursday, August 20, 2009

Bring back the Auld Faith

The Reformation was ‘an unmitigated disaster’ for Scottish Culture

Harry Reid turns history on its head in claiming that the Reformation was integral to establishing Scottish independence ("Are we feart to celebrate the Reformation?", The Herald, August 13). On the contrary, the Protestantisation of Scotland was the first and, historically, the most effective step in effecting the Englishing of Scotland. In this, it foreshadowed the Union of the Crowns in 1603 and the Act of Union of 1707.

The Scottish Protestant faction received direct military and financial support from the English. After the death of James V in 1543, the English envoys laboured openly to organise an Anglophile party of Scottish nobles, directed against the Catholic Church. To Elizabeth, Queen of Protestant England, it was intolerable that Scotland should exist as an independent Catholic state on her northern border, free to align herself with the enemies of her realm. This had to change.

Four campaigns were fought in Scotland by the English armies between 1544 and 1549, and in each case the imposition of Protestant worship followed the destruction wrought by the English armies.

John Knox and George Buchanan, the Calvinist, assumed the English party to be the progenitors of Protestantism. For them, the English were the "defenders of the Gospel", and the enemies of "idolatry" (that is, Catholicism). The overthrow of the Catholic Church was the raison d'etre of the English party. In September 1545, they boasted of the burning of the abbeys; in 1546, they claimed that "no mass was said" in Scotland.

Not only was the Reformation fatal for Scotland politically, it was, culturally, an unmitigated disaster. The vast bulk of Scottish Latin church music was destroyed during the Reformation.

In literature, we see the same post- Reformation sterility. After the makars, we have to wait until Burns and Scott before we hear an authentic creative voice again in Scotland.

The cultural damage caused at the Reformation was overwhelming. The Reformers "complained" that it took three days to destroy the archives at Rosslyn, a unique national treasure of Latin and Gaelic manuscripts held under the protection of the Sinclairs. The ruins of the great Borders abbeys, Jedburgh, Kelso and Melrose, stand as mute witness to the material richness of Scottish medieval Catholic culture, a 1000-year-old legacy destroyed by the vandalism of the Reformation. And where are the glories of Scottish medieval stained glass or frescos and painting? For Gaelic culture especially, the Reformation was a death sentence.

I think the current hesitancy about celebrating the Reformation is perfectly understandable.

Brian Quail, Glasgow.

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