Trisha Shetty (Editor)

Parliament of Scotland

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1 May 1707

c. 1235

Parliament of Scotland

Succeeded by
Parliament of Great Britain

Lord High Commissioner (Presiding Officer)
James Douglas, 2nd Duke of Queensberry Since 1705

Lord Chancellor (Head of Government)
James Ogilvy, 1st Earl of Seafield Since 1706

The Parliament of Scotland, or Estates of Parliament, was the legislature of the Kingdom of Scotland. The parliament, like other such institutions, evolved during the Middle Ages from the king's council of bishops and earls. It is first identifiable as a parliament in 1235, during the reign of Alexander II, when it was described as a "colloquium" and already possessed a political and judicial role. By the early fourteenth century, the attendance of knights and freeholders had become important, and from 1326 commissioners from the burghs attended. Consisting of the "three estates" of clergy, nobility and the burghs sitting in a single chamber, the parliament gave consent for the raising of taxation and played an important role in the administration of justice, foreign policy, war, and all manner of other legislation. Parliamentary business was also carried out by "sister" institutions, such as General Councils or 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 Parliament of Scotland met for more than four centuries, until it was prorogued sine die at the time of the Acts of Union in 1707. Thereafter the Parliament of Great Britain operated for both England and Scotland, thus creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain. When the Parliament of Ireland was abolished in 1801, its former members were merged into what was now called the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

The pre-Union parliament was long portrayed as a constitutionally defective body that acted merely as a rubber stamp for royal decisions, but research during the early 21st century has found that it played an active role in Scottish affairs, and was sometimes a thorn in the side of the Scottish crown.

Three Estates

The members were collectively referred to as the Three Estates (Middle Scots: Thrie Estaitis), or "community of the realm" (tres communitates), composed of until 1690:

  • the first estate of prelates (bishops and abbots)
  • the second estate of the nobility (dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, parliamentary peers (after 1437) and lay tenants-in-chief)
  • the third estate of Burgh Commissioners (representatives chosen by the royal burghs)
  • The bishops and abbots of the First Estate were the thirteen medieval bishops of Aberdeen, Argyll, Brechin, Caithness, Dunblane, Dunkeld, Galloway, Glasgow, Isles (Sodor), Moray, Orkney, Ross and St Andrews and the mitred abbots of Arbroath, Cambuskenneth, Coupar Angus, Dunfermline, Holyrood, Iona, Kelso, Kilwinning, Kinloss, Lindores, Paisley, Melrose, Scone, St Andrews Priory and Sweetheart. Later, the bishops themselves were removed from the Church of Scotland during the Glorious Revolution and the accession of William of Orange. The Second Estate was then split into two to retain the division into three.

    From the 16th century, the second estate was reorganised by the selection of Shire Commissioners: this has been argued to have created a fourth estate. During the 17th century, after the Union of the Crowns, a fifth estate of royal office holders (see Lord High Commissioner to the Parliament of Scotland) has also been identified. These latter identifications remain highly controversial among parliamentary historians. Regardless, the term used for the assembled members continued to be "the Three Estates".

    A Shire Commissioner was the closest equivalent of the English office of Member of Parliament, namely a commoner or member of the lower nobility. Because the parliament of Scotland was unicameral, all members sat in the same chamber, as opposed to the separate English House of Lords and House of Commons.


    The Scottish parliament evolved during the Middle Ages from the King's Council. It is perhaps first identifiable as a parliament in 1235, described as a "colloquium" and already with a political and judicial role. In 1296 we have the first mention of burgh representatives taking part in decision making. By the early 14th century, the attendance of knights and freeholders had become important, and Robert the Bruce began regularly calling burgh commissioners to his Parliament. 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 in the medieval period), 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 Scottish parliament met in a number of different locations throughout its history. In addition to Edinburgh, meetings were held in Perth, Stirling, St Andrews, Dundee, Linlithgow, Dunfermline, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness and Berwick-upon-Tweed.

    Lords of the Articles

    From the early 1450s until 1690, a great deal of the legislative business of the Scottish Parliament was usually carried out by a parliamentary committee known as 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, thus undermining the power of the full assembly. Recent research suggests that this was far from always being the case. Indeed, in March 1482, the committee was taken over by men shortly to be involved in a coup d'état against the King and his government. On other occasions the committee was so large that it could hardly have been easier to control than the full assembly. More generally, the committee was a pragmatic means to delegate the complicated drafting of acts to those members of parliament skilled in law and letters – not unlike a modern select committee of the UK Parliament – while the right to confirm the act remained with the full assembly of three estates. The Lords of the Articles were abolished in 1690 as part of the revolutionary settlement.


    At various points in its history, the Scottish Parliament was able to exert considerable influence over the Crown. This should not be viewed as a slow rise from parliamentary weakness in 1235 to strength in the 17th century, but rather a situation where in particular decades or sessions between the thirteenth and 17th century, parliament became particularly able to influence the Crown, while at other points that ability was more limited. As early as the reign of David II, parliament was able to prevent him pursuing his policy of a union of the crowns with England, while the 15th-century Stewart monarchs were consistently influenced by a prolonged period of parliamentary strength. Reverses to this situation have been argued to have occurred in the late 16th and early 17th centuries under James VI and Charles I, but in the 17th century, even after the Restoration, parliament was able to remove the clergy's right to attend in 1689 and abolish the Lords of the Articles in 1690, thereby limiting royal power. Parliament's strength was such that the Crown turned to corruption and political management to undermine its autonomy in the latter period. 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. The disputes over the English Act of Settlement 1701, the Scottish Act of Security, and the English Alien Act 1705 showed that both sides were prepared to take considered yet considerable risks in their relationships.

    Before 1400

    Between 1235 and 1286, little can be told with certainty about Parliament's function, but it appears to have had a judicial and political role which was well established by the end of the century. With the death of Alexander III, Scotland found itself without an adult monarch, and in this situation, Parliament seems to have become more prominent as a means to give added legitimacy to the Council of Guardians who ran the country. By the reign of John Balliol (1292–96), Parliament was well established, and Balliol attempted to use it as a means to withstand the encroachments of his overlord, Edward I of England. With his deposition in 1296, Parliament temporarily became less prominent, but it was again held frequently by King Robert Bruce after 1309. During his reign some of the most important documents made by the King and community of the realm were made in Parliament—for instance the 1309–1310 Declaration of the Clergy.

    By the reign of David II, the "three estates" (a phrase that replaced "community of the realm" at this time) in Parliament were certainly able to oppose the King when necessary. Most notably, David was repeatedly prevented from accepting an English succession to the throne by Parliament. During the reigns of Robert II and Robert III, Parliament appears to have been held less often, and royal power in that period also declined, but the institution returned to prominence, and arguably enjoyed its greatest period of power over the Crown after the return of James I from English captivity in 1424.

    15th century

    By the end of the Middle Ages the Parliament had evolved from the King's Council of Bishops and Earls into a "colloquium" with a political and judicial role. The attendance of knights and freeholders had become important, and burgh commissioners joined them to form the Three Estates. It acquired significant powers over particular issues, including consent for taxation, but it also had a strong influence over justice, foreign policy, war, and other legislation, whether political, ecclesiastical, social or economic. Much of the legislative business of the Scottish parliament was carried out by a parliamentary committee known as the Lords of the Articles, chosen by the three estates to draft legislation which was then presented to the full assembly to be confirmed.

    After 1424, Parliament was often willing to defy the King—it was far from being simply a "rubber stamp" of royal decisions. During the 15th 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 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, as well as France and Spain.

    16th century

    Like many continental assemblies the Scottish Parliament was being called less frequently by the early sixteenth century and might have been dispensed with by the crown had it not been for the series of minorities and regencies that dominated from 1513. The crown was also able to call a Convention of Estates, which was quicker to assemble and could issue laws like parliament, making them invaluable in a crisis, but they could only deal with a specific issue and were more resistant to the giving of taxation rights to the crown.

    Parliament played a major part in the Reformation crisis of the mid-sixteenth century. It had been used by James V to uphold Catholic orthodoxy and asserted its right to determine the nature of religion in the country, disregarding royal authority in 1560. The 1560 parliament included 100 lairds, who were predominantly Protestant, and who claimed a right to sit in the Parliament under the provision of a failed shire election act of 1428. Their position in the parliament remained uncertain and their presence fluctuated until the 1428 act was revived in 1587 and provision made for the annual election of two commissioners from each shire (except Kinross and Clackmannan, which had one each). The property qualification for voters was for freeholders who held land from the crown of the value of 40s of auld extent. This excluded the growing class of feuars, who would not gain these rights until 1661. The clerical estate was marginalised in Parliament by the Reformation, with the laymen who had acquired the monasteries sitting as "abbots" and "priors". Catholic clergy were excluded after 1567, but a small number of Protestant bishops continued as the clerical estate. James VI attempted to revive the role of the bishops from about 1600. A further group appeared in the Parliament from the minority of James IV in the 1560s, with members of the Privy Council representing the king's interests, until they were excluded in 1641. James VI continued to manage parliament through the Lords of the Articles, who deliberated legislation before it reached the full parliament. He controlled the committee by filling it with royal officers as non-elected members, but was forced to limit this to eight from 1617.

    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 more under the influence of the crown. By 1612, they sometimes seem to have been appointed by the Crown rather than Parliament, and as a result the independence of parliament was perceived by contemporaries to have been eroded.

    During the 16th 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 1638 when they secured a vote each. The number of burghs with the right to send commissioners to parliament increased quite markedly in the late 16th and early 17th centuries until, in the 1640s, they often constituted the largest single estate in Parliament.

    The first printed edition of the legislation of the Parliament, The New Actis and Constitutionis, was published in Edinburgh in 1542 by the printer Thomas Davidson under commission from James V.

    17th century

    King Charles I ordered the construction of Parliament Hall, at the expense of the Edinburgh burgesses, which was built between 1633 and 1639 and remained the parliament's home until it was dissolved in 1707. The bishops were abolished by the Covenanters in 1638, when Parliament became an entirely lay assembly. In the Covenanting period (1638–1651), 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 Protectorate government imposed a brief Anglo-Scottish parliamentary union in 1657. Parliament returned after the Restoration of Charles II in 1661. This parliament, known disparagingly as the "Drunken Parliament", revoked most of the Presbyterian gains of the last thirty years. Subsequently, Charles' absence from Scotland and use of commissioners to rule his northern kingdom undermined the authority of the body. James VII's parliament supported him against rivals and attempted rebellions, but after his escape to exile in 1689, William's first parliament was dominated by his supporters and, in contrast to the situation in England, effectively deposed James under the Claim of Right, which offered the crown to William and Mary, placing important limitations on royal power, including the abolition of the Lords of the Articles. Rosalind Mitchison argues that the parliament became a focus of national political life, but it never reached the position of a true centre of national identity attained by its English counterpart. The new Williamite parliament would subsequently bring about its own demise by the Act of Union in 1707. The English and Scottish parliaments were replaced by a combined Parliament of Great Britain, but it sat in Westminster and largely continued English traditions without interruption.

    Union with England

    Robert Burns' claim that the Union of England and Scotland (and hence the dissolution of the Scottish Parliament) was brought about by the Scots members being "bought and sold for English gold" was largely accurate – bribery and parliamentary division combined with wider economic imperatives, partly arising from the disaster of the Darien Scheme, enabling the Crown to incorporate a Union with England in the Acts of Union 1707 which brought into existence the Parliament of Great Britain. Forty-five Scots were added to the 513 members of the House of Commons and 16 Scots to the 190 members of the House of Lords.

    Presidency of parliament

    The office of the presiding officer in parliament never developed into a post similar in nature to that of the Speaker of the House of Commons at Westminster—mainly because of parliament's unicameral nature, which made it more like the English House of Lords. An act of 1428 which created a "common speaker" proved abortive, and the chancellor remained the presiding officer (until recently the Lord Chancellor of Great Britain did similarly preside over the House of Lords). In the absence of the King after the Union of the Crowns in 1603, parliament was presided over by the Lord Chancellor or the Lord High Commissioner. After the Restoration, the Lord Chancellor was made ex-officio president of the parliament (now reflected in the Scottish Parliament by the election of a presiding officer), his functions including the formulation of questions and putting them to the vote.


    Parliament of Scotland Wikipedia