Scotland, as you may never have heard it described before!

James Howell

James Howell

Recently I was reading an article on James VI of Scotland, Who became James I after the Union of the Crowns. I was reminded of a piece I had read some time ago by an Anglo Welsh historian called James Howell. Howell was possibly the first ever professional English language writer  and grew up around the time of the Succession of James to the Throne of England.

As well as being famous for inventing the proverb: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”, Howell wrote a satyrical essay after a visit to Scotland. His work entitled  “A Perfect Description of the People and Country of Scotland” was published in 1649 which ironically for such a keen fan of the Stuart monarchy was the same year that King Charles lost his head!

Howell’s description of Scotland reads in part like a stand up comedy routine and you can almost hear the guffaws of laughter as his pamphlet was read out in public places around England! He was certainly the David Starkey of his day.

Prepare yourself for this, it doesn’t pull punches:

A Perfect Description of the People and Country of Scotland

First for the Country, I must confess, it is good for those that possess it, and too bad for others, to be at the charge to conquer it. The aire might be wholesome, but for the stinking people that inhabit it. The ground might be fruitfull, had they wit to manure it.

Their Beasts be generally smal, Women only excepted of which there are none greater in the whole world. There is a great store of Fowl too, as foul-houses, foul-sheets, foul-linnen, foul-dishes and pots, foul trenchers, and napkins; with which sort, we have been forced to say, as the children did with their fowl in the wilderness. They have good store of fish too, and good for those that can eat it raw; but if it come once into their hands, it is worse if it were three days old: For their Butter and Cheese, I will not meddle withall at this time, nor no man else at any time that loves his life.
they have a great store of Deer, but they are so far from the place where I have been, that I had rather believe, then go to disprove it: I confesse, all the Deer I met withall, was dear Lodgings, dear Horse-meat, and dear Tobaco, and English Beer.

As for Fruit, for their Grandsire Adam’s sake, they never planted any; and for other Trees, had Christ been betrayed in this Countrey, (as doubtlesse he should, had he come as a stranger) Judas had sooner found the Grace of Repentance, then a Tree to hang himself on.

They have many Hills, wherein they say is much treasure, but they shew none of it; Nature hath onely discovered to them some Mines of Coal, to shew them what end he created to them.

I see little Grasse, but in their Pottage: The Thistle is not given them of nought, for it is the fairest of flower in their Garden. The word Hay is Heathen-Greek unto them; neither man nor beast knows what it means

Corn is reasonable plenty at this time, for since they heard of the King’s comming, it hath been as unlawfullfor the common people to eate Wheate, as it was in the old time for any, but the Priests, to eat Shew bread. They prayed much for this comming, and long fasted for his welfare; but in the more plainer sense, that he might fare better, all his followers were welcome, but his guard; for those they say, are like Paraohs leane Kine, and threaten dearth wheresoever they come: They could perswade the Footmen, that oaten cakes would make them long-winded; and the children of the Chappel they have brought to eat of them, for the maintenance of their voyces

They say our Cooks are too sawcy, and for Grooms & Coachmen, they wish them to give to their Horses, no worse then they eat themselves; they commend the brave minds of the Pentioners, and the Gentlemen of the Bed-Chamber, which choose rather to go to Taverns, then to be always eating of the Kings Provision; they likewise do commend the Yeoman of the Buttery and Cellar, for their readiness, and silence, in that they will hear 20 knocks, before they will answer one. They perswade the Trumpetters, that fasting is good for men of that quality; for emptiness they say, causes wind, and wind causes a Trumpet to sound well.

The bringing of Heraulds, they say, was a needless charge, they all know their pedegrees wel enough, & the Harbengers might have been spared, sithence they brought so many Beds with them; & of two evils, since the least should be chosen, They wish Beds might remain with them, and poor Harbengers keep their places, & do their office, as they return: His Hangings they desire might likewise be left as Reliques, to put them in mind of His Majesty; and they promise to dispense with the Wooden Images; but for those Graven Images in his new beautified Chappell, they threaten to pull down soon after his departure, & to make of them burnt-offering, to  appease the indignation they imagined conceived against them in the Brest of the Almighty, for suffering such Idolatry to enter into their Kingdom; The Organ, I think will find mercy, because (as they say) there is some affinity between them and the Bag-pipes.
The Shipper that brought the singing men, with their Papistical Vestments, complains that the hath been much troubled with a strange singing in his head, ever since they came aboard His ship. For remedy whereof the Parson of the Parish hath perswaded him to sell that profane Vessel, and to distribute the money among the faithfull Bretheren.
For his Majesties entertainment, I must needs ingenuously confess, he was received into the Parish of Edenburg (for a City I cannot call it) with great shouts of joy, but no shews of charge for Pageants; they hold them idolatrous things, and not fit to be used in so reformed a place; from the Castle they gave him some pieces of Ordnance, which surely he gave them, since he was King of Engl. and at the entrance of the Town, they presented him with a Golden Bason, which was carried before him on mens shoulders to his palace, I think, from whence it came. His Majesty was conveyed by the Younkers of the Town which were some 100. Halberds (dearly shall they rue it, in regard of the charge) to the Cross; and so to the high Church, where the only Bell they had stood on tip-toe to behold his sweet face; where I must intreate you to spare him, for an hour I lost him.

In the meantime to report the Speeches of the people, concerning his never exampled entertainment, were to make his discourse too tedious unto you, as the Sermon was to those that were constrained to endure it. After the Preachment, he was conducted by the same Halberds, unto His Palace, of which I forbear to speak, because it was a place sanctified by His divine Majesty, onely I wish it had been better Walled, for my friends sake that waited on him.

Now I will begin briefly to speak of the people, according to their degrees and qualities; for the Lords Spiritual, they may well be termed indeed, for they are neither Fish nor Flesh, but what it shall please their earthly God, the King, to make them. Obedience is better than Sacrifice, and therefore they make a mock at Martyrdom, saying, that Christ was to dy for them, and not they for him. They will rather subscribe, then surrender, and rather dispence with smal things, then trouble themselves with great disputation; they will rather acknowledg the King to be their head, then want wherewith to pamper their bodies.

They have taken great pains and trouble to compass their Bishopricks, and they will not leave them for a trifle; for the Deacons, whose defects will not lift them up to dignities, all their study is to disgrace them that have gotten the least degree above them; and because they cannot Bishop, they proclaim they never heard of any. The Scriptures , say they, speak of Deacons and Elders, but not a word of Bishops. Their Discourses are full of detraction; their Sermons nothing but railing; and their conclusions nothing but Heresies and Treasons. For their Religion they have, I confess they have it above reach, and God willing I will never reach for it.

They Christen without the Cross, Marry without the Ring, receive the Sacrement without reverence, dy without repentance, and bury without Divine Service; they keep no Holy-days, nor acknowledge any Saint but S. Andrew, who they said, got that honour by presenting Christ with an Oaten-Cake, after his forty days fast. They say likewise, that he that translated the Bible, was the son of a Maulster, because it speaks of a miracle done by Barley Loaves, whereas they swear they were Oaten-Cakes, and that no other bread of that quantity could have sufficed so many thousands.
They use no prayer at all, for they say it is needless, God knows their minds wihtout pratling; and what he doth, he loves to do it freely. Their Sabbaths exercise, is preaching in the Forenoon, and a persecuting in the Afternoon; they go to Church in the Forenoon to hear the Law, and to the Crags and Mountains in the Afternoon to louze themselves.
They hold their Noses if you talk of Bear-baiting, and stop their Ears, if you speak of a Play: Fornication they hold out a pastime, wherein mans ability is approved, and a womans fertility discovered: At Adultery they shake their heads; Theft they rail at; Murther they wink at; and Blasphemy they laugh at; they think it impossible to lose the way to Heaven if they can but leave Rome behind them.

To be opposite to the Pope, is to be presently with God: to conclude, I am perswaded, That if God and his Angels, at the last day, should come down in their whitest Garments, they would run away, and cry, The children of the Chappel are come again to torment us, let us flie from the abomination of these boys, and hide ourselves in the Mountains.
For the Lords Temporal & Spiritual, temporizing Gentlemen, if I were apt to speak of any, I could not speak much of them; onely I must let you know, they are not Scottishmen, for assoon as they fall from the breast of the beast their mother, their careful sire posts them away for France, where as they pass, the Sea sucks from them, that which they have suckt from their rude dams; there they gather new flesh, new blood, new manners, and they learn to put on their cloaths, and then return into their Countrys, to wear them out; there they learn to stand, to speak, and to discourse, and congee, to court women, and to complement men.

They spared of no cost to honor the King, nor for no complemental courtesie to welcome to their Countrey men; their followers, are their fellows, their wives their slaves, their horses their masters, and their swords their Judges; by reason whereof, they have but few laborers, and those not very rich: their Parliaments hold but three days, their Statutes three lines, and their Suits are determined in a manner in three words, or very few more &c.
The wonders of their Kingdom are these; the Lord Chancellor, he is believed; the Master of the Rolls, well spoken of; and the whole Counsel, who are the Judges for all Causes, are free from suspition of corruption. The Country, although it be Mountainous, affords no monsters, but Women, of which, the greatest sort, (as Countesses, and Ladies) are kept like Lions in Iron grates; the Merchants wives are also prisoners, but not in so strong a hold; they have Wooden Cages, like our Boar Franks, through which sometimes peeping to catch the Air, we are almost choaked with the sight of them; the greatest madness amongst the men, is Jealousie; in that they fear what no man that hath but two of his sences will take from them.

The Ladies are of opinion, that Susanna could not be chast, because she bathed so often. Pride is a thing bred in their bones, and their flesh naturally abhors cleanliness; their breath commonly stinks of Pottage, their linen of Piss, their hands of Pigs turds, their body of sweat, and their splay-feet never offend Socks. To be chained in marriage with one of them, were to be tied to a dead carkasse, and cast into a stinking ditch; Formosity and a dainty face, are things they dream not of.

The Oyntments they most frequently use amongst them, are Brimstone and Butter for the Scab, and oyl of Bays, and Stave-sacre. I protest, I had rather be the meanest servant of the two of my Pupils Chamber-maid, then to be the Master Minion to the fairest Countess I have yet discovered. The sin of curiosity of oyntments, is but newly crept into the Kingdom, and I do not think will long continue.

To draw you down by degrees from the Citizens Wives, to the Country Gentlewomen, and convey you to the common Dames in Sea-coal Lane, that converse with Rags and Marrow-bones, are things of Minerall race; every whore in Houndsditch is an Helena; and the greatest Bauds in Turnbal-street, are Greekish Dames, in comparison to these. And therefore to conclude, The men of old did no more wonder, that the great Messias should be born in so poor a Town as Bethlem in Judia, then I do wonder, that so brave a Prince as King James, should be born in so stinking a Town as Edenburg, in Lousy Scotland.



About rodger moffet

Rodger is the Director of ScotClans. Expert in all things clan and tartan.

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