A Short History of the Scottish Parliament



The Scottish Parliament, like other such institutions, evolved during the middle ages from the king’s council of bishops and earls. It is perhaps first identifiable as a parliament in 1235, described as a ‘colloquium’ and already with a political and judicial role. By the early fourteenth century the attendance of knights and freeholders had become important, and from 1326 burgh commissioners attended. Consisting of the ‘three estates’ of clerics, lay tenants-in-chief and burgh commissioners sitting in a single chamber, the Scottish Parliament acquired significant powers over particular issues. Most obviously it was needed for consent for taxation (although taxation was only raised irregularly in Scotland), but it also had a strong influence over justice, foreign policy, war, and all manner of other legislation, whether political, ecclesiastical, social or economic. Parliamentary business was also carried out by ‘sister’ institutions, before c.1500 by ‘General Council’ and thereafter by the ‘Convention of Estates’. These could carry out much business also dealt with by parliament - taxation, legislation and policy-making - but lacked the ultimate authority of a full parliament.

The Lords of the Articles

During much of its history, a great deal of business in the Scottish Parliament was carried out by the ‘Lords of the Articles’. This was a committee chosen by the three estates to draft legislation which was then presented to the full assembly to be confirmed. In the past historians have been particularly critical of this body, claiming that it quickly came to be dominated by royal nominees, and thus undermining the power of the full assembly. Recent research suggests that this was far from always being the case, at least during the fifteenth century. Indeed, in March 1482 the committee was taken over by men shortly to be involved in a coup d’etat against the king and his government.

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The Fifteenth Century

Parliament was often willing to defy the king – it was far from being simply a ‘rubber stamp’ of royal decisions. During the fifteenth century parliament was called far more often than, for instance, the English Parliament - on average over once a year - a fact that both reflected and augmented its influence. It repeatedly opposed James I’s (1424-1437) requests for taxation to pay an English ransom in the 1420s, and was openly hostile to James III (1460-1488) in the 1470s and early 1480s. In 1431 parliament granted a tax to James I for a campaign in the Highlands on the condition that it be kept in a locked chest under the keepership of figures deeply out of favour with the king. In 1436 there was even an attempt made to arrest the king ‘in the name of the three estates’. Between October 1479 and March 1482 parliament was conclusively out of the control of the James III. It refused to forfeit his brother the duke of Albany, despite a royal siege of the duke’s castle, tried to prevent the king leading his army against the English (a powerful indication of the estates’ lack of faith in their monarch), and appointed men to the Lords of the Articles and important offices who were shortly to remove the king from power. James IV (1488-1513) realised that parliament could often create more problems than it solved, and avoided meetings after 1509. This was a trend seen in other European nations as monarchical power grew stronger – for instance England under Henry VII, France and some of the Spanish cortes.

James V

The Sixteenth Century

During the sixteenth century the composition of parliament underwent a number of significant changes and it found itself sharing the stage with new national bodies. The emergence of the Convention of Royal Burghs as the ‘parliament’ of Scotland’s trading towns and the development of the Kirk’s General Assembly after the Reformation (1560) meant that rival representative assemblies could bring pressure to bear on parliament in specific areas.

Following the Reformation, laymen acquired the monasteries and those sitting as ‘abbots’ and ‘priors’ were now, effectively, part of the estate of nobles. The bishops continued to sit in parliament regardless of whether they conformed to Protestantism or not. This resulted in pressure from the Kirk to reform ecclesiastical representation in parliament. Catholic clergy were excluded after 1567 but Protestant bishops continued as the clerical estate until their abolition in 1638 when parliament became an entirely lay assembly. An act of 1587 granted the lairds of each shire the right to send two commissioners to every parliament. These shire commissioners attended from 1592 onwards, although they shared one vote until 1640 when they secured a vote each. The number of burghs with the right to send commissioners to parliament increased quite markedly in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries until, in the 1640s, they often constituted the largest single estate in parliament.

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The Seventeenth Century

In the second half of the sixteenth century, parliament began to legislate on more and more matters and there was a marked increase in the amount of legislation it produced. During the reign of James VI, the Lords of the Articles came heavily under the influence of the crown. By 1612, they seem to have been appointed by the crown rather than parliament, the independence of which was seriously eroded. This decline was reversed in the Covenanting period (1638-51), when the Scottish parliament took control of the executive, effectively wresting sovereignty from the king and setting many precedents for the constitutional changes undertaken in England soon afterwards. The Covenanting regime fell in 1651 after Scotland was invaded by Oliver Cromwell whose Commonwealth government imposed a brief Anglo-Scottish parliamentary union in 1657.

The Scottish Parliament returned after the Restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660, and, although initially docile, gradually came to exert considerable influence over the Crown - removing the clergy’s right to attend in 1689 and finally abolishing the Lords of the Articles in 1690. Parliament’s strength was such that the Crown turned to corruption and political management to undermine its autonomy. Nonetheless, the period from 1690 to 1707 was one in which political ‘parties’ and alliances were formed within parliament in a maturing atmosphere of rigorous debate. It is an oversimplification to claim, as Robert Burns memorably did, that the Union of England and Scotland (and hence the dissolution of the Scottish Parliament) was brought about by the members being ‘bought and sold for English gold’, nevertheless bribery, parliamentary division and wider economic imperatives best explain the Crown’s ability to attain a majority in favour of incorporating union with England.

The New Parliament

Almost three hundred years later, the Scottish Parliament has remained an important element in Scottish national identity, and in September 1997 a referendum of the Scottish electorate secured a large majority in favour of the establishment of a new devolved Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. An election was held in May 1999, and power was transferred from Westminster on 1 July 1999 to the new Parliament in its temporary premises of the General Assembly Hall on the Royal Mile. In September 2004, with the completion of a purpose-built chamber designed by Catalan architect Enric Miralles, Parliament moved to its current home at Holyrood at the foot of the Royal Mile.