Saint Margaret of Scotland


Saint Margaret (1046 -1093)

In 1066 Malcolm Canmore moved his capital to Dunfermline, in Fife. He had been in exile in Saxon England for fifteen years following the death of his father King Duncan (see MacBeth). He owed his throne to English help, and his sympathies seem to have been more directed towards the Angles of Lothian than the Gaels of the rest of his kingdom. The damage done by the withdrawal of his capital into the Lowlands was soon to be aggravated.

After the Norman Conquest of England (1066), Edgar Atheling, the dispossessed heir to the Saxon throne, came to Scotland. With him came his mother and two sisters, one of who, Margaret, married Malcolm and became the dominating influence in Scotland.

Margaret’s power over the king was great, and she succeeded in turning him against his own way of life – indeed, although fighting was one of Malcolm’s pleasures, domestically he was a good deal less of a man. In addition, as we have seen, he had strong Anglophile tendencies owing to his long stay in England and his great friendship with his uncle, Siward, and was the more ready on that account to fall in with his wife’s wishes.

His court servants became courtiers and persons of consequence, and court manners as understood in Europe were introduced. Margaret was a woman sophisticated by the standard of her own times. Gaelic she did not know (she was from Hungary originally) and would not learn, for it was not spoken in any great court in Europe; so Gaelic ceased to be the court language – and English became the language of the Lowland court, in time all of the Lowlands would speak the Angle language, instead of Scots Gaelic.

Her principal efforts, however, were directed against the Celtic (Culdee) church, which was an affront to her Zeal and ardor fro Rome. As Frank Adam aptly put it, she “was a narrow-minded and ill-tempered virago, completely under the dominance of her confessor, Turgot, who had inspired her with an intense dislike of the Celtic Church.”

Malcolm, devoted to his half-English, half-Hungarian queen, supported her at a meeting at which the Celtic churchmen were presented with an ultimatum: conform or get out. Most chose to do the latter, and Margaret promptly replaced them with English and Norman priests. A complex diocesan clergy replaced the simple, evangelical Celtic Church. Benefices were instituted, bishops and abbots became men of wealth and eminence, gifts of land were made to churches and monasteries, and Malcolm’s generosity, inspired by his queen, started the process by which one third of the richest Lowland land in Scotland was acquired by the Church by the end of the thirteenth century. Had it not been for this process, there might have been no Reformation in Scotland.

Her grateful beneficiaries canonized her, in the Lothians (and nowhere else) she was regarded lovingly by the people, and to this day Scotland accepts her as a saint. But C. Stewart Black has succinctly, and not unfairly, summed up her character:

“She was imbued…with the English conviction that England’s ways are God’s ways, and that whatever is believed by Englishmen must of necessity be right. Any suggestion that the Scots might be capable of deciding their own destiny would have shocked her to the core.”

The effect on the Highlands was drastic. The removal of the capital from Dunstaffnage to Scone, and thence to Dunfermline, could not but impress the Highlanders with the Royal lack of sympathy: the King was no longer one of them (MacBeth was the last Celtic king). The death of the ancient Celtic Church, the moving of the capital, the change from Gaelic to English, and the influx of feudal Norman noblemen impressed upon the Highlander the great difference between himself and the Lowlander. The races that united under Kenneth MacAlpin now found themselves shunned by the foreigners of Strathclyde and the Lothians.

Feudalism, as it happened, was responsible for stabilizing the clan system, for clanship absorbed and transformed feudalism so that the word, as applied to the Scottish Highlands, means something very different from the usual mental picture of English serfs supporting their local manor by slave labor. (Although in the Lowlands English-like feudalism did take place). But this lay in the future, and Margaret and Malcolm only drove a wedge between the central government and the Highlands – a wedge that was not effectively removed until the tragedy of Culloden.

©Skye-Net, R. Gunn, 1995/2009

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