Scottish Episcopal Church History
A First Word and The Beginning
At each midnight another day becomes history
but listen with the ear of the heart
and perhaps hear echoes of ones gone by.
This website is written by the Very Reverend Gerald Stranraer-Mull. He is Dean Emeritus of Aberdeen and Orkney and Warden Emeritus of the Community of Our Lady of the Isles in Shetland. For 36 years he was Rector of Saint Mary-on-the-Rock, Ellon, and Saint James, Cruden Bay, in Aberdeenshire and for 20 years Dean of the Diocese. In retirement he lives at Culloden, near Inverness.
Gerald's home town is Blairgowrie in Perthshire. He was a pupil at Woodhouse Grove School, Apperley Bridge, West Yorkshire, and then a student at King's College, London, and Saint Augustine's College, Canterbury.
Between School and King's he was a journalist for six years, and has continued to contribute to newspapers, magazines, radio and television down the years.
The concept of this history began at the Aberdeen and Orkney Diocesan Synod at Banchory in September 2012. Each century page begins and ends with a story (sometimes more than one) giving an insight into life of that time - some are about crucial events in the history of the Church and others much less so. In between is a chronological account of the century. The stories and the chronology can be read separately or together.
If you have any comments or questions about this history please email
The website is usually available as a book - Steps on the Way - but this is currently out of print. An updated edition will be available eventually. All the money raised by sales of the book goes to "For the Right Reasons", a charity in Merkinch, Inverness, founded by the Reverend Richard Burkitt, an Episcopalian priest, and aiding those recoveering from alcohol or drug addiction.
A First Word
Welcome to this history of the Scottish Episcopal Church, a church deeply rooted in the life of Scotland and also committed to its membership of the Anglican Communion, a family of more than 70 million Christians in 160 countries.
This is a story of people. Please click on the links at the top or bottom of each page for the different chapters.
The "century" ones begin and end with a vignette, a snapshot of "A Moment in the Century", and in between is the chronological story of that century. The vignettes can be read on their own as stand-alone pieces - some focusing on important events and others on ones much less so - but all of them attempting to offer a window into life of that time. The chronological story provides a time-line of Scottish history.
Throughout it all there are people – good, bad, indifferent – seeking to find and express the truth of God. None perhaps succeeded perfectly, but they tried. Whether their lives were peaceful or turbulent all knew hopes and fears as we do. And this is what makes history fascinating. It has a pattern and emotion because it concerns people. And we are affected by it for history is not just the past, but influences the present and shapes the future too.
The story of the Scottish Episcopal Church cannot be separated from the story of the other Churches in Scotland, or those elsewhere in the United Kingdom and beyond, for all are bound together in God's love.
The Episcopal Church's story traditionally begins with the Reformation in 1560, but this chronological account goes back further and starts at the Battle of Flodden more than five hundred years ago. James IV, a deeply pious and yet flawed King of Scots, died in the battle as did many of the leaders of the Church and Nation. The vacuum it created led to heightened expectations of the emerging Reformation, and also to harsh measures seeking to repress it.
But, to begin at the beginning, we need to go back further still. From the time of the earliest Christians in our land, who were probably soldiers in the Roman Legions, until 1560 there was just one church in Scotland and it was in communion with the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. Within this Church there were shades of opinion, such as the seventh century clash between the Roman and Celtic parts of the Church and, later, the question of whether Scotland (without an Archbishop until 1472) should be subject to the oversight of an Archbishop in England - a question settled by the Pope in 1188 who declared Scotland's Church “a special daughter....subject only to the Bishop of Rome".
Eventually, however, the “shades” deepened into divisions, which led to the Reformation and, in 1560, the emergence of separate denominations. Initially these were the Episcopal, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic Churches and of them the Episcopalians and Presbyterians have each at times (and sometimes the same time) been called The Church of Scotland. The name continues for the Presbyterian Church to this day while in the Episcopal Church it was used until well into the nineteenth century - and was followed, for ten years, by The Protestant Episcopal Church in Scotland, then The Episcopal Church in Scotland, a name more appropriate as the Episcopalians were not totally Protestant, seeing themselves still as part of the Catholic, but not Roman, church . In the late 1970s the name was changed once more to the more simple (and more bland) The Scottish Episcopal Church.
The word “Reformation” covers a wide series of changes in Western Christianity between the 14th and 17th centuries. It began with John Wycliffe (1329-84), an English philosopher and priest, who argued that the Pope’s claims were not founded in Scripture. The Lollards and Hussites in Europe took his views further and, although successive Popes regained authority, discontent continued to simmer. In Germany Martin Luther (1483-1546), the Vicar-General of eleven Augustinian monasteries, began to teach that faith alone and not works is the ground for justification before God. In Switzerland Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) and John Calvin (1509-64) went further still and carried through anti-papal, anti-hierarchic and anti-monastic reforms with a new theology.
The situation in England was complicated by the desire of Henry VIII and his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, to extend the sovereign’s power into every area of English life. Thomas Cromwell had some sympathy with the Reformers in Europe and a point of crisis came in 1527 when Henry, anxious about the future of the Tudor dynasty, wanted the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he might re-marry. This was refused by Pope Clement VII and eventually Henry broke with Rome and declared the Church of England to be the established Church in the land, with himself as its Supreme Governor. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, pronounced the king's divorce and conducted his wedding to Anne Boleyn.
In Scotland the Reformation had a different catalyst to the one in England. The early death of James IV at the Battle of Flodden in 1515 left the crown to his seventeen month old son, James V, and the care of the kingdom to a succession of Regents, including James IV’s widow, Margaret Tudor, and Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus, who married the widowed Queen. Estranged from her, he kept the young king a virtual prisoner while governing in his name until James, aged fourteen, escaped, and the Earl went into exile.
On New Year’s Day 1537 the twenty-four year old James V married Madeleine of Valois, the sixteen year old daughter of King Francis I of France. However, the new Queen was already ill with tuberculosis and died seven months later. Within a year James married another Frenchwoman, the twenty-three year old Mary of Guise and Lorraine, daughter of one French Duke and widow of another. James and Mary had three children but two of them, James and Robert, died in infancy and when the king himself died at the age of thirty, soon after a Scottish defeat at the Battle of Solway Moss, his six day old daughter Mary became Queen of Scots. The Crown had again come to a child and, as before, power to a succession of Regents. There were attempts from both England and France to secure the future marriage of the infant Queen and - as elsewhere in Europe - an increasing interest in Reformed theology.
A leading advocate of Scottish Reform, and certainly the best known, was John Knox. He was born in East Lothian in, most probably, 1514, the year after Flodden’s battle, educated at St Andrews University and ordained in 1536 as a priest in the pre-Reformation Church. However, his thinking was guided by the work of the early Reformers and - following the murder in 1547 of the Archbishop of St Andrews, Cardinal David Beaton, in the Castle at St Andrews - he joined the group of Reformers holding the castle against French forces besieging it. Following the capture of the castle, John Knox became a prisoner in France and a galley slave. On his release in 1549 he went to England, became a priest in the Church of England and Court Preacher to Henry VIII’s son, Edward VI. He was offered but declined the Bishopric of Rochester. He had an influence on the formation of the Book of Common Prayer, which was being overseen by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. But when Edward died, aged fifteen, and his Roman Catholic elder half-sister Mary came to the throne John Knox moved to Geneva, where he was influenced by the teaching of John Calvin. Later, in Frankfurt, he ministered to an English refugee congregation until differences over the Liturgy ended his association with the Church of England.
John Knox returned to Scotland in 1559, answering a call from Protestant aristocrats who disliked the government of Mary of Guise, who had become Regent five years earlier. Within weeks of John Knox's arrival a proclaimation banned anyone from preaching or administering the Sacraments without authority from a bishop. This was ignored by the Reformers and John Knox preached in Saint John's Church, Perth. Afterwards a priest began to say Mass and fighting began among the congregation. The outcome was the destruction of much of the interior of the church and over the next two days three monasteries in Perth were also destroyed. It was the beginning of the end for monastic life in mediaeval Scotland. It would not be restored until the 19th century.
The Scottish Parliament went on to abolish the Pope’s authority in Scotland (although questions remain over the legality of this as the Acts of Parliament were not accepted by the Crown – the young Queen Mary consistently declining to do so) and John Knox, in the newly called General Assembly of the Church, helped write a Confession of Faith and the first “Book of Discipline”.
However, as John Knox used a prayer book and accepted bishops, modern Presbyterianism descends more from the pattern advocated by Andrew Melville. His father, the Laird of Baldovie, was killed at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh, fought as part of Henry VIII’s “Rough Wooing” in his attempt to secure the marriage of his son Edward to Mary, Queen of Scots, and so Andrew Melville’s childhood was spent at his elder brother’s home, The Manse of Maryton. Later he studied at Saint Mary’s College, St Andrews, and at the University of Paris. He taught at Geneva, became Principal of Glasgow University, Principal of Saint Mary’s College, St Andrews, and Rector of the University. He took a leading role in devising the constitution for the Presbyterian Church in the “Second Book of Discipline”. He had disagreements with King James VI and I and, after four years of imprisonment in London, was refused permission to return to Scotland. For the last eleven years of his life he was Professor of Divinity at the Huguenot Academy of Sedan in France.