Discipline in the Kirk.


By the Rev. Geo. S. Tyack, B.A.


In no country and at no time has a more searching system of ecclesiastical discipline been attempted than in Scotland in the first century after the Reformation. Not only was the teaching or the practice of the unreformed faith punished with the severest penalties, not only was attendance at church and the learning of religion, as the reformers understood it, rigidly enforced; but even the private life of the people was watched and scrutinized. The behaviour of the congregation on the way home from divine service, the amusements which formed the relaxation of the people, the dress of the women in the street as well as at kirk, the snuff-taking of the men, domestic broils and filial misbehaviour in the various households,—these and other such matters were discussed by ecclesiastical tribunals and visited with pains and penalties, as much as offences against human or divine laws. The country was overspread with a network of church authorities claiming disciplinary powers, there was quite an arsenal of punitive machines in every district, and the whole system was kept in motion by the free use of espionage. Verily, in Scotland “new presbyter was,” as Milton said, “but old priest writ large,” larger in fact than the original by far. Even the soldiery of the Commonwealth, sufficiently used to the methods of Puritanism in England, were astonished and disgusted with the ways and means of Scottish discipline; so much so that during their stay in the country in 1650 they destroyed many of the weapons of this intolerable tyranny; and it is indeed surprising that the people themselves accepted it so long with submission. That the Church has authority to use discipline over its members is admitted; and that at the present time this authority is too little recognised is, in the opinion of very many, equally true; but in the day of its supremest power the Scottish Kirk Sessions seem to have usurped a universal authority. The punitive rights of the State, the proper control which a man has within his own house, even that discipline which every one should learn to exercise over himself, all these, as well as that influence which more strictly is the province of the Church, the Kirk endeavoured to control and enforce by means of its own ecclesiastical courts.

Of these courts the first was the “Exercise,” as it was at first quaintly called, from the custom of “making exercise,” or critically examining a given passage of Scripture; more properly described as the Presbytery. Next to this came the authority of the Synod, or district court, and the final appeal lay to the General Assembly. Of these the higher courts not infrequently did much more than exercise appellant jurisdiction, issuing orders to spur on the zeal of the inferior ones.

The methods of punishment employed by the Kirk were various. Excommunications were freely launched against offenders, especially against those who did not accept in their fulness the teaching and practices of the reformers. Public penance was also resorted to, often in addition to some other form of punishment; the penance usually involving the use of the “repentance-stool,” or the jaggs, or jougs. The former of these was a wooden structure formed in two tiers or steps, the lower of which, used for less heinous offences, was named the “cock-stool.” An offender, judged to perform a public penance on this stool, was first clothed in an appropriate habit, the Scottish representative of the traditional white sheet, which consisted of a cloak of coarse linen, known as the “harden goun,” the “harn goun,” or the “sack goun.” Thus arrayed, he (or she) stood at the kirk door while the congregation assembled and during the opening prayer of the service; just before the sermon the penitent was led in by the sexton and placed, according to the terms of the sentence, either upon “the highest degree of the penitent stuill” or upon, “the cock-stool”; where he stood barefoot and bare-headed during the discourse, in which his sins and offences were not forgotten. The congregation generally wore their hats during the sermon.




The minutes and accounts of the Presbyteries have frequent allusions to this stool and its accompanying “goun.” Thus at Perth mention is made of the provision of both cock-stool and repentance-stool, and in 1617 the Kirk Session of the same place ordered a stool of stone to be built. The Synods specially enjoined on all parishes the procuring of a repentance-gown; in 1655 as much as £4, 4s. 6d. was spent in one for Lesmahago, and in 1693 Kirkmichael, Ayrshire, ordered one of a special fashion, “like unto that which they have in Straitoun,” to be made. The repentance-stool has maintained its place in scattered instances down to modern times, one of the latest instances of its use being in 1884, when a man stood on the stool to be publicly rebuked in the Free Kirk at Lochcarron. The Museum of the Society of Antiquaries at Edinburgh contains the old repentance-stool, formerly used in the Old Greyfriars’ Church of that city; the repentance-gown of Kinross parish is also preserved in the same museum. It does not always follow that penance implies repentance, and the strong arm of the Scottish Kirk sometimes compelled a man to submit to the former without his experiencing the latter; such was evidently the case with three reprobates who were excommunicated in 1675 by the Kirk Session of Mauchline, Ayrshire, because of “their breaking the stool of repentance on which they had been sentenced to stand in presence of the congregation.”






The jagg or jougs consisted of an iron collar fastened by a padlock, which hung from a chain secured in the church wall near the principal entrance. An offender sentenced to the jagg was compelled to stand locked within this collar for an hour or more before the morning service on one or more Sundays. About the time of the Revolution this dropt out of use, chiefly from the fact that the State no longer suffered the powers of the Kirk to be carried with so high a hand; several of the old jaggs, however, yet remain. At Merton, Berwickshire, at Clova, in Forfarshire, and at Duddingston, Midlothian, the instrument may still be seen attached to the kirk wall; the jaggs of Stirling and of Galashiels have also been preserved, though removed from their original places.[12]

Besides the repentance-stool and the jagg, which were specially the weapons of the kirk, there were other instruments of punishment employed by the State, to which the Kirk also did not hesitate at times to have recourse. Just as the Spanish Inquisition handed over those whom it condemned to the “secular arm” for punishment, so the Scottish Kirk passed resolutions desiring the bailies to put this or that offender in gyves; magistrates were requested to imprison others, “their fude to be bread and watter;” employers were instructed to fine or chastise servants who used profane language; and town authorities were solicited to procure appliances for “ducking” certain classes of sinners. The brank or scold’s bridle, the stocks, and the pillory, were used by the ecclesiastical, no less than by the civil, authorities; the Kirk also imposed fines, decreed banishment, used the steeples as prisons, and inflicted mutilation, and even death, upon offenders; its power to enforce these sentences being largely due to the fact that civil disabilities followed the pronouncement of excommunication. The excommunicated person was an outlaw; he could hold no land, might be imprisoned by any magistrate to whom he was denounced, and was to be “boycotted” by friends, followers, and tradesmen; any one showing him the smallest consideration, or affording him the least assistance, was liable to a similar punishment. These large powers were only abrogated in 1690.

Among the offences dealt with by the Kirk, a prominent place was given to adherence to the unreformed faith, and to any apparent lack of zeal for presbyterianism. Saying mass according to the ancient rite, or even hearing it, or giving any countenance to such as did so, was severely dealt with. Hamilton, Archbishop of St. Andrews, was summoned, with nearly fifty others, before the High Court in 1563, charged with saying mass; and although he was liberated at that time, he was subsequently hanged. For a similar “crime,” John Carvet was put in the pillory at Edinburgh, in 1565; other priests were banished in 1613; and another (John Ogilvie) was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered in 1615. For hearing mass, John Logane was fined a thousand pounds in 1613, and many persons were from time to time imprisoned, or otherwise punished. The Church festivals were also put under a ban. The General Assembly in 1645 prohibited schoolmasters from granting a holiday at Christmas; the Kirk Session of St. Andrews punished several persons for keeping that festival in 1573; and in 1605 the same authority at Dundonald summoned a man for not ploughing on “Zuile day” (Yule). To harbour a priest, to possess books of Catholic devotion, to paint a crucifix, all these were recognised offences, which were visited with fines and imprisonment. In 1631 Sir John Ogilvy of Craig was committed to jail for “daily conversing” with supporters of the old faith.

The means adopted to promote reformed opinions among the people were equally drastic.

The most rigid observance of Sunday as a Sabbath was enforced. In 1627 nine millers at Stow, in Midlothian, had to do public penance and pay forty shillings for that “their milnes did gang on the Sabbath;” and in 1644 another miller, in Fifeshire, was sentenced to a fine of thirty shillings, with the same addition, for a similar offence. The uncertainty of the weather was not admitted as any excuse for Sunday harvesting, as is shown by a fine inflicted (together with the usual penance) upon one Alexander Russell and his servant for “leading corn on the Sabbath evening,” at Wester Balrymont. There are records of the stool of repentance being called into use for the correction of fishermen who mended their nets, of sundry people who gathered nuts, of a woman who “watered her kaill,” and of another who “seethed bark,” on a Sunday. The last named had to stand in the jagg for three Sundays as well. Lads who were found playing on Sunday were sometimes whipt, as in a case dealt with by the Kirk Session of St. Andrews in 1649, and others at Dunfermline in 1685. In 1664 it was enacted at Dumfries that “persons walking idly from house to house and gossipping on Sabbath” should be fined thirty shillings for their evil conduct; and in 1652 the Kirk Session of Stow actually compelled one William Howatson to do public penance for having, on a Sunday, “walked a short distance to see his seik mother.”

But mere abstinence from work and play was not sufficient; attendance at the kirk was compulsory. The amount of the fine exacted in different districts varied, but everywhere even a single absence was noted, and had to be paid for. At Aberdeen, in 1568, the penalty was 6d. for every service missed; at Lasswade, in 1615, it was 6s. 8d. from a gentleman, and 3s. 4d. from a servant; at Dunino, in 1643, sum was 2s. for a first offence, 4s. for the second, and a like proportion for others. Paupers who failed in this duty were to be deprived of all relief, by order of the Kirk Session of St. Andrews in 1570.

The almost omniscient eyes of the Kirk Sessions kept watch, moreover, on the behaviour of the congregation while at the services. The Kirk Session of Ayr summoned Andrew Garvine before it and reproved him in 1606, because he was late at kirk; and at Saltoun, in 1641, a fine of 6s. 8d. was decreed against everyone who ventured to “take snuff in tyme of divine service”; at Perth the Session’s officer was instructed “to have his red staff in the kirk on Sabbath days, therewith to wauken sleepers, and to remove greeting bairns forth of the kirk.” The congregation was divided according to the sexes, the men (most ungallantly) being allowed to occupy forms, while the women sat upon the floor; and any departure from this arrangement was gravely censured. The dress of the women also occupied the attention of the Sessions, their habit of wearing their plaids about their heads being especially condemned. At St. Andrews, the beadle was commanded to go about the kirk during the service “with ane long rod to tak down their plaidis” from the women’s heads; while the authorities at Monifieth took very extreme measures, ordering the expenditure of five shillings in tar “to put upon the women that held plaids about their heads.” Women condemned to do public penance upon the penitence-stool were deprived of their plaids before ascending that ecclesiastical pillory.

The instruction which the people were to receive was also regulated by the Kirk Sessions. Before the morning service, and between that and the afternoon service, the children were publicly to recite their catechism, both for their own edification and that of the people present. So it was ordained at Stow in 1656, and at Dunfermline in 1652, on the ground that it was “usit in uthyre kirks.” But the passages of Scripture to be treated by the preachers were also settled by the same authorities; the custom being, apparently, for the minister to go systematically through some complete book of the Bible. The Kirk Session of the “Kirk of the Canongait,” Edinburgh, desired the minister, who had just entered upon the Book of Isaiah, “to begyne the Actes of the Apostles,” after completing the first chapter of the prophet; and Mr George Gladstanes, at St. Andrews, was requested to take up the Second Book of Samuel. The length of the sermon was fixed also by the Session, as is illustrated by a resolution passed at Elgin, to the effect that Mr David Philips do “turn his glass when he preaches, and that the whole be finished within an hour.”

All these regulations, moreover, did not apply exclusively to Sunday; for although the Kirk forbade the observance of old Church festivals, it rigidly enforced its own fasts and days of thanksgiving. There was public service in the towns usually every Wednesday and Friday, and work was as absolutely forbidden during service time on those days, and attendance at kirk as strictly enjoined, as on Sundays. Moreover, the non-observance of an appointed fast was visited with a heavy fine.

For the further protection of the people from any teaching contrary to the received standard, the Press was carefully guarded, and the publication of any work bearing on religion forbidden, unless it had first received the imprimatur of the Kirk’s official “superintendent”; and publishers who issued books which proved to be obnoxious to the ecclesiastical authorities were compelled to withdraw them. The purchase of Bibles, moreover, was not left to the zeal or discretion of the people; but by an act of 1576, every householder worth 300 marks annual rent, and every yeoman or burgess having stock valued at £500, was compelled to procure a Bible and a Psalm-book, under a penalty of £10 (Scots).

Next to importance in the guidance of religious teaching and worship, and indeed closely connected with it, in the estimation of the Scottish ecclesiastical courts, came the question of witchcraft and sorcery. The annals of the country throughout the seventeenth century, together with the closing years of the preceding one, are full of stories of the trial, torture, and punishment of alleged witches; and even in the early years of the eighteenth century there are occasional instances of persons proceeded against in the Kirk Sessions for using charms, and similar superstitious practices. The unfortunate women charged with selling their souls to Satan in exchange for occult powers seldom succeeded in establishing their innocence, and juries which ventured to acquit them were themselves occasionally charged with “wilful error” for so doing. Under these circumstances it would seem that the accused, abandoning all hope of escape, frequently took pleasure in exciting the wonder and the horror of the court by the weird and marvellous tales which they invented of their evil deeds; and no tale could be too marvellous for belief. It made no difference in the enormity of the crime whether the supernatural powers ascribed to the prisoner were used for good objects or for evil; Isabel Haldane, who “cured Andrew Duncan’s bairn, by bringing water from the burn at Turret Port,” Margaret Hornscleugh, who restored Alexander Mason’s wife to health and renewed the milking powers of Robert Christie’s cow, were burnt equally with Agnes Simpson, who had raised a storm to drown King James, and Catherine Campbell, who had struck her young mistress with convulsions. Foremost in hunting down these poor deluded, or maligned creatures, were the ministers of the Kirk; and practically the only lawful excuse for absence from a public service on Sunday, or even for the omission of the service altogether, was attendance at a witch-burning.

Much time of various Kirk Sessions was also occupied, now and again, in considering cases of pilgrimage to holy wells, “turning the riddle” to discover the name of a thief, and similar matters, and in reprimanding the offenders. So late as 1709, the Kirk Session of Kilmorie summoned before it a woman accused of “the horrid sin of the hellish art of riddle-turning,” and sentenced her to public penance on three several Sundays.

More useful were the efforts, directed by the disciplinary authorities of the Kirk, to prevent such sins as drunkenness, profanity, slander, and sexual immorality. At Stirling, in 1612, a man was fined 20s. for being intoxicated; and Dunino had, in 1645, a regular scale of fines for such cases, 6s. for the first offence, 12s. for the second, and so forth. Cursing and swearing were openly punished at the market crosses, by the shame of the pillory, and by fines. Slander was met with the use of the brank, the pillory, compulsory shaving of the head, or, in extreme cases, with banishment from the district. In all these cases, a public reprimand on Sunday at the stool of repentance was usually inflicted, in addition to whatever other penalty there was imposed.

The violation of the marriage vow was made a capital crime in Scotland in 1563; but the death sentence was not actually carried out very frequently. At Glasgow, in 1586, it was considered sufficient to send the offenders to the pillory, barefoot and in sackcloth, and then to cart them through the town; but in 1643, the punishment was made more severe—the jagg, a public whipping, committal to the common jail, and, finally, expulsion from the town, being the satisfaction demanded by local justice. In the case of a minister who had admitted that he was guilty of adultery, the utmost humiliation was demanded. He had first to prostrate himself before the General Assembly, and implore their pardon in the most abject manner; he was then required to do public penance in sackcloth at the kirk door, and on the repentance-stool for two Sundays each, in three several towns, which were chosen so as to complete his degradation. Edinburgh, the capital, Dundee, his native town, and Jedburgh, the place of his ministry, were all to witness his shame. For other sins of impurity, fines, imprisonment in the kirk steeple, standing in irons at the market cross, and having the head shaved, were, one or more of them, adjudged.

Some of the cases in which the Kirk exercised its discipline were such as, it would appear to us, might have been dealt with more effectually in less formal or more private ways. When a lad failed in proper respect to his father, like the Glasgow youth who did not “lift his bonnet” on meeting him, or even like him of St. Andrews, who struck his parent, it would hardly seem to have been needful to report the matter to the Kirk, for it to deal with it; yet the Sessions at those places solemnly considered these misdemeanours, in 1598 and in 1574 respectively. Again, few husbands, now, would probably care so far to confess themselves unable to control their wives as to call in the authority of the Kirk to prevent the “weaker vessels” from abusing their lords; yet such cases frequently occupied the attention of Kirk Sessions. The brank, or imprisonment, or the pillory, was the sentence usually pronounced on these rebellious wives.

The interference of the Kirk Sessions in some matters, which they once claimed as within their sphere, would now certainly be resented. Thus, the presbytery of Glasgow forbade a marriage between James Armour and Helen Bar, in 1594, on the ground that the prospective bridegroom was “in greit debt”; and at St. Andrews, in 1579, all persons who could not recite the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Commandments were debarred from matrimony. Moreover, the Kirk undertook the regulation of the wedding festivities. At Stirling, in 1599, the Kirk Session decreed that no marriage dinner or supper should cost above 5s.; and this was an advance upon the rule passed at Glasgow, in 1583, which limited the cost to “eighteen pennies Scots.” At Cambusnethan, in 1649, the presence of a piper at a wedding was forbidden; and at Dumfries, in 1657, the number of guests was limited to twenty-four.

In too many instances the Kirk procured the information on which it acted in enforcing these decrees through spies of one kind or another. The informants, through whom cases were got up against the adherents of the unreformed rites, were often men of the worst characters, such as Robert Drummond, a twice-convicted adulterer, who finally died by his own hand. The wretches who hunted down and tested those accused of witchcraft were scarcely more respectable agents. Officers both of the kirks and of the municipalities were required to watch for and report those who did not attend divine service regularly; an espionage of the most dangerous and objectionable kind being introduced when, as at Glasgow in 1600, it was decreed that, on the “deacons” of craft-gilds informing of any remissness in kirk-attendance of their members, half the fine imposed should be given to the gild. Bailies were desired to traverse the houses on “preaching dayes” to see that the people did not stay at home; beadles were “to tak notice of those who tak ye sneising tobacco in tyme of divine service, and to inform concerning them;” others were appointed to take the names of such as were in the alehouses after eight o’clock at night; midwives and doctors were threatened with discipline if they failed to report any illegitimate birth which they attended; “searchers” were appointed to find out those who did not buy Bibles and Psalm-books; in a word the lives of the people were constantly under observation. It is perhaps the strongest proof of the strength of the Scotsman’s character that, after a century or more of such interference with his responsibility, his sturdy independence survived. Much of this disciplinary system died away when, in 1690, it ceased to have behind it the civil disabilities attendant on excommunication.