Scotland from the Earliest Times to 1603

By William Croft Dickinson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXVIII
The Reign of James IV

THE PERIOD covered by the reign of James IV was one of transition -- a change which had already begun in the luckless reign of James III gathered pace. The bonds of mediaevalism were breaking; new ideas were in the air; new movements were astir; and in that time, when the whole of Europe felt an upsurge of the spirit, Scotland suddenly seemed to come into her own. She was ruled by a popular king who was brave and energetic and ready to give a welcome to all that was new; trade increased, and the east-coast ports grew in importance; there was a firmer rule of law; the new learning reached Scotland, and there was a 'flowering' of all the arts. Scotland suddenly began to prosper. Her friendship and alliance were sought in the courts of Europe; her ships were feared and respected on the seas; her poets found music in words.

For this period, we are fortunate in possessing a contemporary account of Scotland written in 1498 by a Spanish ambassador, Pedro de Ayala, who had come to Scotland in 1496 in an attempt to persuade James to abandon the old alliance with France. There is fulsome praise of the King. James IV is 'of noble stature...and as handsome in complexion and figure as a man can be'. He speaks six languages in addition to English and Gaelic; he says his prayers; he is active and moves throughout his kingdom to administer justice and to collect his rents; and the Scots do not now 'dare to quarrel so much with one another' as they formerly did, for the King executes the law without respect to rich or poor. The King, however, is rash in warfare; he does not take care of himself; and he is not a good captain because he begins to fight before he has given his orders. Then follows an estimate of the royal revenues -- very much an overestimate. Immense quantities of fish are caught and exported, and there are large flocks of sheep; but although the corn is good the Scots 'do not cultivate the land',1

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1
Agricultural implements were, of course, still very primitive. But although the old cumbersome wooden plough, that required some eight oxen or scraggy horses to draw it, and that often stuck, was still in use and was used until the invention of the iron swing-plough in the eighteenth century, Ayala himself gave the main reason for the failure of Scottish agriculture when he added that arable and pasture were let 'by leases of three years'. These short leases, or 'tacks', of three or five years were the curse of Scottish agriculture, and short leases for small farmers were the common rule until the 'improvements' and the 'improving landlords' of the eighteenth century. No tenant with a short lease would develop his land or improve his buildings since, if he did so, the land, at the close of the lease, might be let to another tenant or his own rent might be raised. John Major, a Scottish historian writing soon after Ayala's comment, saw that this was the problem and in his History of Greater Britain offered the solution: 'If the landlords would let their lands in perpetuity, they might have double and treble of the profit that now comes to them -- and for this reason: the country folk would then cultivate their land better beyond all comparison, would grow richer, and would build fair dwellings.' To some extent, as we shall see later, the problem was met by the development of feu-ferme tenure (see infra, pp. 296-97), but, save on the crown lands, it was a long time before feu-ferme tenures were enjoyed by the smaller tenants.

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