THE early part of King James VI’s personal rule had proved pretty disastrous as he ended up being imprisoned for 10 months by the so-called Lords Enterprisers after the Ruthven Raid of August, 1582. 

It was a coup d’état, nothing less, against the teenaged king. England’s Queen Elizabeth took great interest in the events in Scotland, not least because she had Mary, Queen of Scots, under house arrest. Through her spy Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth encouraged what became known as the Gowrie Regime after William Ruthven, the 1st Earl of Gowrie who had been the chief leader of the conspiracy against James. Led by former Glasgow University principal Andrew Melville, the Church of Scotland took on a more extreme form of Presbyterianism during the Gowrie Regime, and that would cast a shadow over the king in future years.   

James was eventually free in July, 1583, and backed by the anti-Gowrie faction led by the Earl of Arran, he purged the Ruthven Raiders and their supporters from the court. Gowrie was pardoned at first, but James had him tried and executed for treason in May, 1584.

Meanwhile Glasgow was going on its merry way, growing and becoming wealthy as shown by the fact that its customs payments leapt up the league – the city went from tenth biggest payer to fifth in the space of three decades. We also know that the number of burgesses – residents who had land or homes in the city – increased considerably in the 16th century as becoming a burgess was the key to prosperity.

As one historical source puts it: “From earliest times the regulation of the admission of burgesses was in the hands of the community, and as representing the community, the power lay with the town council. Burgesses were received and sworn in the presence of the magistrates and council and their entries were engrossed in the Minute Books of the town.”   

Glasgow society had always been split between the mercantile classes – anyone from a shopkeeper to an international trader – and the craftsmen who had organised themselves into separate incorporations led by deacons. As time wore on, only merchants and craftsmen could become burgesses and only they were allowed to ply their trade or practice their craft in the city. The merchants constantly complained about their rights being infringed while the crafts jealously guarded their privileges as well as applying standards to work done by their members. The tension between the two divisions in the city grew apace, and it all came to a head at the Glasgow Fair of July, 1583.

At a ceremony called the “wapenshaw” – literally the weapon show – which was compulsory in every area of Scotland to check on the readiness of men to take part in battle, a dispute arose between the merchants and the craftsmen over who were to get the places of honour. There were more of the latter, and it seems they were only too happy to use their numerical supremacy – they were also better fighters than the merchants, and shoved their opponents aside. Cue what seems to have become an all-out riot, because records exist which show that on the following day, Glasgow’s magistrates summoned the deacons of seven crafts and read them the 16th century equivalent of the Riot Act. 

Each deacon was ordered to pay a surety for the good behaviour of their craft for the rest of the week-long Fair, but they refused to pay. The Provost and magistrates then decreed that anyone breaching the peace during the Fair would be expelled from the city and fined £100. Regulations would also be drawn up to prevent a repeat of the trouble but it appears that those regulations were never implemented, probably because the city was hit by an outbreak of the plague in 1584 and 1585. It was the ninth outbreak of plague to hit Scotland in that century, and by all accounts it was the worst. 

There are no records of how many died in that epidemic, but it was a nationwide disease that certainly caused thousands of deaths. The royal court moved to Linlithgow and Fife from Edinburgh, and beggars were forcibly ejected from all the main towns and cities of Scotland. Parliament was supposed to meet in Dunfermline in December, 1585, but was forced to meet in fields outside the former capital as no major burgh was reported to be free of the plague.   

One of the main weapons against the plague was lockdown – traffic between the cities and towns was simply banned and everyone had no choice but to stay inside their own town of residence. 

The growing trade between Glasgow and Edinburgh, for instance, was halted overnight. English spies wrote to their masters in London that shipping around the east and west coasts had been stopped completely while the import and export of goods from the Continent all but ceased.

Presbyterian ministers preached that the plague was divine punishment for the sins of the nation. 

The General Assembly of the Kirk in 1588 decreed that the latest epidemic was the result of the wrath of God kindled by “swearing, perjury and lies…profaning of the Sabbath day with merkats, gluttonie, drunkness, fighting, playing, dancing etc., with rebelling against magistrats and laws of the countrey…with incest, fornication, adulteries and sacriledge, theft and oppression, with false witness, and finalie, with all kind of impiety and wrong.” 

Glasgow Times: The Church of Scotland General Assembly meets every year in Edinburgh The Church of Scotland General Assembly meets every year in Edinburgh

The Kirk’s leaders ordered public atonement to be made, usually consisting of heaping humiliation on parishioners or even forcing them to fast. 

As in our own current pandemic, those who did not catch the plague or survived it usually rushed to help others with alms, while Glasgow had its own “cleansing” team or “clengers” whose job was to fumigate houses and bury victims. In that period Edinburgh lost approximately 10% of its population to the plague so it is reasonable to assume that Glasgow lost an equal proportion. Yet by the year 1600, Glasgow’s population had recovered to be in excess of 6000. 

The two sides of the divide still fought with each other, but one man would soon repair the rift between merchants and craftsmen to the city’s great betterment. 

His name was George Elphinstone of Blythswood. We’ll see what he did next week.