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The history of Scotland in the Late Middle Ages might be said to be dominated by the twin themes: crisis and transition. The Late Middle Ages was a period where the boundaries were set by the death of kings-that of Alexander III in 1286 and James IV in 1513, one by accident and the other by war; both different and yet, in a deeper sense, linked. The kingdom was to be tested both in war and in internal political struggles; and though at times it came dangerously close both to outright extinction, or permanent subordination to England, its powerful southern neighbour, it survived, in large measure due to the maturity and sophistication of the Scottish state itself. The foundations laid earlier by David I and his immediate successors, involving a blending of older Gaelic and newer Norman elements, ensured that the country avoided the piecemeal conquest and absorption that was to be the experience of Wales and Ireland, where local elites remained wedded, in large measure, to older Celtic practices, with decentralised and diffuse power structures. Another positive event in this period would be during the reigns of James III and James IV, which would see the Renaissance arrive in Scotland.

The Wars of Scottish Independence had seen the previously fractured Scottish nation unite somewhat during dynastic struggles and English intervention. The Late Middle Ages would see the development of more centralised Monarchy under the House of Stewart, who attempted to consolidate their power over Scotland's other powerful noble families, like the Douglases, the Livingstons and the Boyd family. As well as the strengthening of the Scottish Parliament, the era also witnessed the Scots language take its place as the language of law, government and of the people of lowland Scotland.

It was also a period where a distinct Scottish national identity began to take shape. While it is true that nationalism, in the modern sense, is largely a creation of the 18th and 19th centuries, and that loyalties in the Middle Ages tend to be focused on kings and chieftains, rather than abstract concepts of race and nation, the sentiments and ideals expressed in the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath stand comparison with all of the great statements of national self-determination. Intermittent warfare since the 14th Century, from the Wars of Scottish Independence to the The Rough Wooing, had one lasting side effect: to fuse the Lowlanders into a single people.

The wars of the 14th century led people to lose any old ethnic loyalties and become part of a coherent Scottish nation. This emerging identity was to be shaped not by what Scots were, but by what they were not: subjects of the English crown. In the period before 1286, war with England had been the exception, rather than the rule. When it had come, it was more often through the aggression of the Scots, and the expansionist ambitions of their kings, rather than the imperialism of the English. Yet from 1296, there was to be a fundamental change: to the crown of England, Scottish kings were no longer brother-monarchs but rebels, in breach of feudal law. War, and rumours of wars, thus became part of the whole national experience.

Contents

Geography

During this period, the borders of the Kingdom of Scotland evolved to closely resemble what is now modern Scotland. There were some significant changes during this era. The Orkney and Shetland Islands came under the ownership of the Scottish crown on February 20, 1472, following non-payment of the marriage dowry of Margaret of Denmark, queen of James III of Scotland. Later, James IV, successfully ended the quasi-independent rule of the Lord of the Isles, bringing the Western Isles under effective royal control for the first time. In 1482 the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, which had changed hands 13 times over the previous 335 years, was captured for the final time by the English Richard Duke of Gloucester, the future Richard III of England. Although the town was not officially merged into England until 1746, with the Wales and Berwick Act, it has been administered by England ever since that date.

Demographics

One interpretation of the linguistic divide in 1400, here based on place-name evidence.

The population of Scotland in this period is estimated only. Not until 1755, are there reliable sources about the population of Scotland, when it was 1,265,380. However, best estimates put the Scottish population in this period between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people, growing from a low point to a high point.[1] This population was much more evenly spread than today.

The Late Middle Ages saw the emergence of the literary language of the Anglic, those speaking parts of Scotland known as Early Scots, which had already begun diverging from the varieties of early Middle English previously established in the kingdom. These varieties had particular affinities with Early Northern English, those northern forms of Middle English descended from Northumbrian Old English. During this period, the English language in Scotland was simply referred to using the word Inglis, a Middle English spelling of "English", thus indicating that speakers perceived no difference with any other English dialect. By the 14th and 15th centuries, the variety of English (Inglis that resulted from the above influences had replaced Gaelic (Scottis) in much of the lowlands and Norman French had ceased to be used as the language of the elite. By this time differentiation into Southern, Central and Northern dialects had perhaps occurred. Scots was also beginning to replace Latin as a language for records and literature. In Caithness, it came into contact with both Norn and Gaelic. The end of the period saw the language begin to evolve into what is now known as Middle Scots. The identification of the Stewart, with the lowland language, had finally secured the division of Scotland into two somewhat antagonistic parts: the Gaelic Highlands and the Anglic Lowlands.

During the 14th Century and 15th Century, Edinburgh began being regarded as Scotland's capital. In 1360, Edinburgh had 4,000 houses, and the castle began to be used as the usual royal residence, being strengthened in stone. The city became capital officially in 1437. The next most populous burghs at the time were Aberdeen, Dundee, Haddington, Glasgow and Berwick (although eventually being lost to England).

Death of a Dynasty

The death of Alexander in March 1286, in a fall from his horse, left his dynasty hanging by the thinnest of threads. His older children had all predeceased him, leaving his granddaughter, Margaret, known to history as the Maid of Norway. Margaret, only two years old at the time of her grandfather's death, remained for the time being with her father King Eric II in Norway, while Scotland was placed under the governance of six Guardians of Scotland. The arrangement worked well; but there were worrying signs. Robert Bruce, 5th Lord of Annandale, had a claim to the throne through his descent from David of Huntingdon, a grandson of David I. His neighbour in Galloway, John Balliol had a superior claim by his descent from the same Earl David, through the elder of his daughters. But Bruce was a much more forceful man than his rival. The Guardians-two bishops, two earls and two barons-managed to head off this crisis, in part by appealing to Edward I of England for help. Edward obliged, but at a price.

Edward's father, Henry III, tried unsuccessfully to obtain recognition of his rights as the feudal superior of Scotland from the young King Alexander in 1251. Edward himself pressed the same claim in 1278, with no more success. The untimely death of Alexander, and the succession of a female infant, offered the English king of enforcing his authority. He obtained the agreement of the Guardians to a marriage between Margaret and his son and heir, Edward of Caernarvon. While agreeing to the marriage, the Guardians were mindful of their duty to preserve the liberty of Scotland when the terms were settled at Birgham-on-Tweed in July 1290. This was to be a mere personal union of the crowns, and Scotland was to remain "separate, apart and free in itself, without subjugation to the English kingdom". However, Edward insisted on the insertion of his favourite caveat into the Treaty of Birgham: "Saving always the rights of the King of England, which belonged, or ought to belong to him."

All this came to nothing; for that autumn news reached the Guardians that Margaret had died in Orkney, on her way to Scotland. This is, perhaps, one of the defining moments in all of Scottish history. In the Middle Ages only the monarch could be said to bind together all of the threads of the national community; a country without a crowned head risked disintegration into its component parts. It also faced the danger of dynastic war. No sooner had Bruce of Annandale heard the news than he was once again in arms. Scotland was saved by two things: the Guardians effective control of public affairs and, paradoxically, by the intervention of King Edward himself.

Fearful of Bruce's sabre-rattling, William Fraser, Bishop of St Andrews, and one of the Guardians, wrote to Edward in October 1290, advising him of the rumoured death of Margaret and the armed rising of Robert Bruce. Fraser proceeded to ask Edward to intervene to prevent bloodshed, and also recommending that he reach an understanding with John Balliol, whose supporter he was.

History has not been kind to Bishop Fraser. He stands condemned to read the past backwards, so to speak, from consequences to causes. Some judgments have been particularly harsh. In his book Lion in the North, John Prebble says that "by this letter he opened the door to half a century of savage bloodshed." Yet the fact remains that, in 1290, Scotland could not settle the dynastic question by any acceptable internal process. It is unlikely that Edward would have stood aside while Scotland sank into chaos. If Edward really intended to subjugate Scotland, this would have been far easier in 1290, when there was no king, than in 1296. Edward was generally respected as an arbiter in international affairs, who had taken pains on the Continent to prevent political quarrels ending in warfare. His intervention in Scotland was widely accepted by the community of the realm, offering the only way out of a potentially lethal deadlock. Even Bruce, if he had been so minded, could not have defied Edward, to whom he owed allegiance for the several lands he held in England. Bishop Fraser's chief fault, perhaps, was not his appeal to Edward but his recommendation of John Balliol, destined to be one of history's great losers.

In the end, the whole contest for the Scottish throne, known as the Great Cause, was decided with scrupulous fairness — and much self-interest. As a preliminary Edward insisted that all the leading Scots, both Guardians and Competitors, recognise him as Lord Paramount of the Realm, the feudal overlord, the very thing that Alexander had rejected. There was some attempt to resist, which made little headway against Edward's intransigence. Once this matter was out of the way a feudal court was convened at Berwick-upon-Tweed, then the most prosperous town in Scotland, and John Balliol duly emerged as king in November, 1292.

Desiring nothing but our own

For Bruce the competitor, this was a bitter outcome. According to the chronicle of Sir Thomas Gray, he made his feelings plain: "All the magnates of Scotland yielded allegiance to John de Balliol with oath and homage, except Robert de Bruce the elder, who persisted in his claim, and declared in the hearing of King Edward that he would never do homage." It is certainly true that rather than submit to King John he resigned his lordship of Annandale, and his claim to the throne to his son Robert, Earl of Carrick, retaining only his English estates. Shortly after the younger Bruce resigned his own earldom of Carrick (which he held in right of his wife) to his son, also Robert, the future king, now eighteen years old. Robert of Annandale left Scotland in 1293, thus avoiding paying homage to Balliol like his father, and keeping alive the Bruce claim to the throne.

It is fortunate for the reputation of the Bruce family that they lost the contest of 1292: because a claim to the throne, in the circumstances of the time, was better than actual kingship. Determined to insist on the letter of the law, Edward treated John with humiliating condescension, by forcing one concession after another. For the barons of Scotland his determination to force the country to join him in his war with France was a step too far. Tiring of their compromised king, in 1295 the community appointed a council of twelve (in effect a new panel of Guardians) to manage national affairs on his behalf. In recognition that the country was drifting towards a showdown with England, the council concluded a defensive bond with France. The bond was destined to be the most enduring in Scottish history, and in time, to be referred to as the Auld Alliance. But Scotland was ill-prepared for war: the following year the host-which last saw action in 1263-was overwhelmed at the Battle of Dunbar. Soon after, John and his son, Edward, were taken into captivity. Scotland was now little better than a conquered province; a nation, once again, without a monarch. Nevertheless, the process of 1292 still held good: it still had a king in name, a focus for the idea of the nation; and for many that was enough in itself. It should always be remembered that the Wars of Independence began with a determination to uphold the rights of the absent King John.

In 1297, Edward was faced with a major rising in the north, and in September William Wallace and Andrew de Moray defeated an English army at the battle of Stirling Bridge. Thus began what might be referred to as the 'war of the scales', with one side up at one moment, and the other at the next. After the death of Moray, either at or shortly after Stirling Bridge, Wallace emerged as sole Guardian of the realm in the name of "the illustrious King John"; but his brief glory ended in the summer of 1298 at the Battle of Falkirk. The Guardianship survived, though, in the person of John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, head of an important Scottish noble house and the absent king's nephew. He is better known to history simply as the Red Comyn. He was joined in office, oddly enough, by Robert Bruce of Carrick, whose father continued to fight on the side of the English. This was clearly a political balancing act, intended to unite all shades of Scottish opinion behind Balliol. But while Bruce paid lip-service to the illustrious and conveniently absent John, it was perfectly clear that he continued to nurture the family ambition, and the arrangement with Comyn proved too fragile to last. In 1302 Bruce made his own peace with Edward. Two years later, Comyn was forced to make a peace on behalf of the nation, after Edward led yet another major invasion.

On 10th February 1306 at Greyfriars Kirk in Dumfries, with Scotland seemingly subdued and at peace, Robert Bruce killed John Comyn[2] for reasons that have never been absolutely clear. It was a dramatic act followed by one even more dramatic: less than seven weeks later, he was crowned King of Scots at Scone. But the Wars of Independence were now paralleled and overlapped by a new contest, involving Scot against Scot. The civil war between the Bruces and the Balliols was to last almost as long as the war with England itself.

In the years that followed, with England now ruled by Edward II, the Scots steadily gained the military initiative, with major victories at the Battle of Bannockburn and elsewhere. In 1328 the English government finally recognised the independence of Scotland-and the legitimacy of the Bruce dynasty-in the Treaty of Northampton. By the time of Robert Bruce's death in 1329, his dynasty seemed secure. He was succeeded by his infant son, David II, who already had an heir in the person of his older nephew, Robert Stewart, son of Bruce's daughter, Marjorie, and Walter FitzAlan, High Steward of Scotland. Robert was to become, in time, the first of the Stewart kings of Scotland.

Birth of a dynasty

The Peace of Northampton was of brief duration, less because of English resentment—though that was real enough—and more because of Balliol ambition. By 1332, the former King John was long dead, but his son, Edward, offered an alternative to all those with Balliol and Comyn associations, who over the years had maintained their hostility to the Bruces as allies of the English. Although officially disinherited in Scotland, these men were particularly tenacious in pursuit of their various claims; none more so than Henry de Beaumont, who had a right by marriage to the earldom of Buchan, formerly held by the Comyns. With his encouragement—and the tacit agreement of Edward III—Balliol came to England, subsequently launching a 'free enterprise' attack on Scotland, winning a dramatic victory at the Battle of Dupplin Moor. He was subsequently crowned at Scone, the traditional site of all Scottish enthronements, though his regime was too superficial to last. The following year, Edward came out in his support, and the Scots were subjected to an even more devastating defeat than Dupplin at the Battle of Halidon Hill. The military initiative which had been lost to England, during the days of Robert Bruce, was now back in their hands: from this point forward, it was rarely lost.

With the political and military situation in Scotland both confused and dangerous, David was sent to France for safety in 1334. National resistance was kept alive by a new series of Guardians, the most notable of whom was Sir Andrew Murray, the son of Wallace's companion in 1297, who won a small but important victory against the supporters of Edward Balliol at the Battle of Culblean on St. Andrew's Day, 1335. The national cause, though at times very weak, was preserved, especially after the outbreak of the Hundred Years War between England and France in 1337, when Edward lost interest in Balliol and Scotland. By the time David returned in 1341, the country was largely free of both English and Balliol forces. Important political changes occurred during his absence. The weakening of central power saw the emergence of the semi-independent Lordship of the Isles under the chiefs of Clan Donald, which was to enjoy a troubled and uneasy relationship with the Scottish crown until it was abolished in 1493.

In response to a plea from Philip VI of France, under serious military threat from Edward, David invaded northern England in late 1346, only to be defeated and captured at the Battle of Neville's Cross. He spent eleven years in captivity, during which time national affairs were managed by Robert Stewart. Once again, a half-hearted attempt was made to revive the Balliol cause, with no lasting effect. In 1356 he surrendered his claim to the Scottish crown to King Edward, and the long struggle between the Bruces and the Balliols, stretching all the way back to 1286, was finally at an end. The following year David was released after a ransom treaty was concluded at Berwick. Berwick was in no sense a comprehensive treaty of peace, like Northampton in 1328, but it marked an important new stage in Anglo-Scottish relations. Although the claim to feudal superiority was never fully abandoned, it became less significant after the release of David. In both practical and symbolic terms, the Wars of Independence were truly at an end. It left in its wake a legacy of bitterness and mutual mistrust, the occasion for intermittent conflict on the borders, destined to last for close on two hundred years.

The remainder of David's reign was dominated by two themes: the question of the English ransom and the question of the Scottish succession, separate but related.

Society

In the early Stewart period, Scottish society often organised along lines of kinship. The period of weak government had led to people owing allegiance, first and foremost, to their superior kinsman, then to the Monarch. This in turn led to the Scottish clan system remaining strong throughout Scotland into the 17th Century. In some areas, such as the Borders (with families such as the Armstrongs, the Humes, the Chisholms) and the Highlands, the leader of the clan held huge sway over local society, sometimes more so than the king. This respect for kinship was unusual in that pride in one's family, could be totally divorced from one's economic and social rank. This sometimes led to confusion or derision in other parts of Europe, because this culture of kinship was a muddled mix of egalitarian and patriarchal features, and appeared uncouth and alien to the rest of the world as it was mainly a legacy of Celtic Scotland.

Slavery was absent in late medieval Scottish society, this was an important distinction which Scots did not share with other countries. Celtic Scotland had been familiar with slavery and the reasons for its decline, however, remain obscure, the Wars of Independence could well have been a factor, although another cause may have been that the Black Death ("Pestilence") struck Scotland four times in the later 14th century, the first time in 1349.

"In Scotland the first Pestilence
Began of so great violence
That it was said of living men
The third part it destroyed then;
A year or more it was wed and raging.
Before that time was never seen
A pestilence in our land so keen
Both men, and bairnies and women,
It spared not for to kill them." --Andrew of Wyntoun
(from L.A. Barbe, Sidelights of the History, Industries
and Social Life of Scotland, Glasgow 1919, p.289.)

It is possible that, if around a third of the population of Scotland had been killed by the plague (as is consistent with its effects in England), then this enormous loss of life, on top of the mortality caused by war, would have improved the balance of men and land and therefore, the bargaining position of the peasants. Lords, anxious to get tenants working the estates may have granted a large amount of freedom and terms that were less favourable to themselves. John Mair described the upper grades of the Scottish peasantry as having remarkable freedom of spirit to match their freedom in law. He mentions that they are more "elegant" than those of France, and aspired in dress and manners to be like lower nobles.

Another feature of late medieval Scotland, that differed from the rest of Europe, was the apparent absence of the Popular revolts and class warfare that had occurred from England, Germany and Flanders to Croatia and Slovenia, despite Scotland's peasants suffering the same hardships as the rest of Europe such as the Black Death and the Little Ice Age. This could have been a result of the importance of kinship and being more likely to feud between families, rather than the Scottish people conceiving themselves as being divided by class.

Law and government

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The Rise of the Stewart State

For the majority of the Late Middle Ages Scotland was ruled by monarchs of the House of Stewart (later Stuart). The first Stewart monarch of Scotland was Robert II, son of Marjorie Bruce and Walter Stewart, 6th High Steward of Scotland, and grandson of Robert the Bruce. He had been regent and Earl of Strathearn fighting the forces of Edward III of England while his uncle David II reigned in exile in France.

The reigns of the early Stewart kings were marred by the comparative failure of Royal government. David II and James I were kept prisoner in England for a total of 29 years. Kings Robert II and Robert III ruled with such incompetence that one chronicler wrote ~"justice herself seemed outlaw in the kingdom". After James I emerged from captivity, he tried to be a strong, reforming monarch, but his reign met an end at the assassin's dagger in 1437, and for nearly 200 years, every Scottish monarch came to the throne as a child. These periods of minority rule and regency meant that much of the good work done by Kings in their majority was undone by cliques and family feuding during their successor's minority. In some cases, lords secured privileges that in effect almost elevated to the status of petty kings. The system of feudalism was often the vehicle of faction and rebellion, hindering the monarchy, rather than being an institution that aided it. The office of Sheriff, established by David I, at times became a hereditary one, held by the most powerful noble of the Sheriffdom rather than by a civil servant. Justiciars made little attempt to supervise the royal Sheriff Courts. Their duty to keep order in their district often led to them holding their own "Baron Courts", where more and more offences were tried without genuine appeal to the crown.

In the 14th Century, many of the greatest lords had obtained heritable grants of "regality", which legally recognised them as having all the rights of the king himself within their own territories; royal servants and royal writs were formally excused from such an area, and the courts of regality were declared competent to hear every case except high treason. The surrender of power and privilege downwards from the crown confirmed the situation that had existed, that when the king had failed to, or was unable to govern, local lords had to take their place, and rule themselves to prevent the collapse of the society. Kings continuing to recognise the fait accompli made it more difficult to recover any power later. James I was perhaps the first to make vigorous efforts to restore central government machinery and reinstate royal justice. He was forced to ignore his predecessors extravagant grants of private rights to nobles, who eventually conspired and assassinated him. His son, James II, proved to be an active and interventionist king, making plans to take Orkney, Shetland and the Isle of Man. The king travelled the country, and seems to have originated the practice of raising money by giving remissions for serious crimes. He enthusiastically promoted modern artillery, and tried to increase Scotland's standing in Europe, he died trying to recapture the last Scottish castle still held by the English after the Wars of Independence. The Scots eventually succeeded in taking the castle, and his death marked the Scots finally reclaiming the last occupied part of Scotland.

While the later Stewart dynasty consolidated their power in Scotland, the monarchy was sometimes still vulnerable, examples of this would be the assassination of James I by competing nobles, and James III who was briefly deposed by his brother Alexander Stewart, (styling himself "Alexander IV") Duke of Albany and later being killed at the Battle of Sauchieburn by an army raised by disaffected nobles, and many former councillors, supported by James' son.

The Scottish Parliament

The Parliament of Scotland in this period was unicameral. The members were collectively referred to as the Three Estates (Scots: Thrie Estaitis), for nearly all of parliament's history, composed of:

The Scottish Parliament 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. Those could carry out much business also dealt with by Parliament—taxation, legislation and policy-making, but those institutions lacked the ultimate authority of a full parliament.

From the early 1450s, 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'etat 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.

After 1424, Parliament was often willing to defy the King. During the fifteenth 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. The King James I and II, III and IV, all received opposition from their parliaments, over more than 80 years:

  • The Scottish Parliament repeatedly opposed James I's (1424–1437) requests for taxation to pay an English ransom in the 1420s.
  • 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'.
  • In 1458, an Act of Parliament criticised James II.
  • In the 1470s and early 1480s, parliament was openly hostile to James III (1460–1488).
  • James IV (1488–1513) realised that Parliament could often create more problems than it solved, and avoided meetings after 1509.

Between October 1479 and March 1482, Parliament had been conclusively out of the control of James III. It had refused to forfeit his brother, the Duke of Albany, despite a royal siege of the Duke's castle, had tried to prevent the King leading his army against the English (a powerful indication of the estates' lack of faith in their monarch), and had appointed men to the Lords of the Articles and important offices who were shortly to remove the King from power.

This was a trend seen in other European nations as monarchical power grew stronger, for instance: in England under Henry VII, in France, and in some of the Spanish Cortes Generales.

Notes

  1. ^ , R.E. Tyson, "Population Patterns", (2001), p. 487–488
  2. ^ http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/dumfries/dumfries/

References

  • Brown, Michael (2004-04-30). The Wars of Scotland, 1214-1371. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 0-7486-1238-6.  
  • Macdougall, Norman (2001). An Antidote to the English: The Auld Alliance, 1295-1560. Tuckwell Press Ltd. ISBN 1-86232-145-0.  
  • Brown, Keith M.; Roland J. Tanner (2004-02-17). The History of the Scottish Parliament: Parliament and Politics in Scotland, 1235-1560 Vol I. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 0-7486-1485-0.  
  • McGladdery, Christine (1997-09-26). James II. John Donald Publishers Ltd. ISBN 0-85976-304-8.  
  • Smout, T. C. (1998-03-02). A History of the Scottish People, 1560-1830. Glasgow: Fontana Press. ISBN 0-00-686027-3.  
  • Barbe, Louis A. (1919). Sidelights of the History, Industries and Social Life of Scotland. Glasgow.  

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