In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Scotland

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Primary Sources
  • Renaissance Court Culture
  • Courtly Poets
  • Henryson and Other Pre-Reformation Christian and Moralizing Poets
  • Drama
  • Literature under James VI
  • 17th-Century Scots Poets
  • Language Choice and Linguistic Politics
  • Latin Literature
  • Gaelic Literature
  • Comic and Satirical Writers
  • Other Arts
  • Music
  • Art
  • Mathematics and Other Sciences
  • Architecture and the Built Environment

Renaissance and Reformation Scotland
Jane Stevenson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0326


There is a case for seeing Scotland as a Renaissance invention. In the early Middle Ages, the northern and southern Pictish kingdoms mentioned by Bede came under pressure from three directions: from Northumbrians and Britons pushing northwards, from northern Irish settlers on the west coast, and from colonization by Scandinavian pirates moving south. By the 12th century, the Picts had disappeared as an identifiable polity, and there was a king of “Alba,” with a power base in southern Scotland, who was the most important ruler north of Hadrian’s Wall, though the western islands (with the Isle of Man) were still ruled by a succession of Celto-Norse kings, and there were other significant powers in the north, such as the independent rulers of Moray. From Malcolm Canmore onwards, these Scots kings mostly took English or Anglo-Norman brides, and by the 14th century, the principal language of elite culture was Scots, not Gaelic, and Scottish nobles beguiled their leisure with the same mix of chivalric romance, chronicles, and moralizing literature as their coevals in England. The first king to rule something like the geographical area now defined as “Scotland” was James IV, who successfully subdued both the Lords of the Isles and the unruly chiefs along the English border in the later 15th century. He was a cultivated monarch who sponsored the introduction of printing to Scotland in 1507, but since his son James V, his granddaughter Mary, Queen of Scots, and his great-grandson James VI each came to the throne as an infant, even before James VI left for England in 1603, Scotland’s culture was less court-centered than England’s. After the Reformation of 1560, the Kirk was in a position to exercise censorship over printed literature, which was consequently mostly practical or religious, but there was a lively culture of scribally circulated verse (and music) among Scotland’s educated elite, and a genuine taste for neo-Latin poetry and prose.

General Overviews

There have been many general histories of Scotland, its culture(s), and its literature(s). Devine and Wormald 2012 balances consideration of the facts of Scottish history with an exposition of its governing myths. Smout 1969 is a classic history of Scottish society, and Jack 1988 is a basic survey of the various literary traditions, Scots, Latin, and Gaelic. Scots showed a keen interest in their own history from the 14th century onwards, witnessed by a variety of chronicles and histories. After the Reformation, the Protestant George Buchanan and the Catholic John Leslie offered competing versions of Scotland’s past. Thomas Innes’s Critical Essay on the Ancient Inhabitants of the Northern Parts of Britain or Scotland (1729) is the first Scottish history to be governed by a modern sense of what constitutes evidence. However, 19th-century Scottish historiography tended to be biased by religious agendas of one kind or another. Additionally, Sir Walter Scott’s oeuvre had positive and negative consequences: it fostered a resurgence of antiquarian interest in the actual documents of Scottish history (resulting in the many publications of the Bannatyne and Abbotsford Clubs, among others), but also encouraged a superficial perception of Scotland’s past as picturesque, lawless, and romantic. Wormald 1981 (cited under Scottish Government) was among the first to argue that Scotland was effectively governed in the late Middle Ages, and this theme is revisited in Wormald 2005. A number of more recent writers have also been concerned to demonstrate the participation of Scots in international culture, surveyed in Brown 2013.

  • Brown, Keith M. “Early Modern Scottish History: A Survey.” Scottish Historical Review 92.234 (2013): 5–24.

    DOI: 10.3366/shr.2013.0164

    An audit of recent developments in Scottish historiography: the questions which are currently being asked by professional historians.

  • Devine, T. M., and J. Wormald, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Modern Scottish History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    This is aimed at both scholars and undergraduates, and presents a synthesis of current thinking on the facts and myths of Scottish history. Part 1 considers general issues such as environment and demography. Part 2 covers the period from 1500 to 1680.

  • Jack, R. D. S., ed. The History of Scottish Literature I. Aberdeen, Scotland: Aberdeen University Press, 1988.

    Essays by various hands on specific aspects of Scottish literature from the early Middle Ages to the late 17th century, including chapters on Scottish Latin literature and classical Gaelic. The most useful and accessible starting point for studying Scots, Gaelic, or Scoto-Latin literature.

  • Smout, T. C. A History of the Scottish People, 1560–1830. London: Collins, 1969.

    A classic study, emphasizing society rather than politics, and combining economic, social, and cultural history. The first half describes the shape and organization of Scottish society before 1690.

  • Wormald, Jenny, ed. Scotland: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    The chapters are arranged chronologically, and there is also a chapter on historiography.

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