Medieval Scotland History: Life in Scotland in the Middle Ages

We imagine life in medieval Scotland to be the picture painted in Scottish ballads with kings, queens, knights and wonderful castles at the forefront of life back then. There may have been all these things but the reality of life during the middle ages for the Scots was very different. Let's take a look at how the Scots lived and dispel the fairy tale!

Early Middle Ages

During the fifth century Scotland was made up of four separate kingdoms namely the Picts, the Scots of Dal Riata, the Britons of Strathclyde and the Kingdom of Bernicia. By the ninth century following the invasion of the Vikings the Scots and the Picts joined together to make the Kingdom of Alba. By the twelfth century Scottish rulers combined French culture with their own as was their preference at the time. Scotland established its independence with characters such as William Wallace (who is still much admired today) and Robert the Bruce fighting for the right to self-govern.

Scottish Medieval Castles

Medieval Scottish Castle

Scotland's castles began as defensive timber structures with wooden palisades evolving into magnificent stone fortresses as the middle ages progressed. These stone built castles were comfortable inside and had huge kitchens where delicious food was prepared to be served at lavish banquets. French wine and ale were the drinks of the day, while boar, venison, deer and rabbit were popular meats as were herbs and spices that seasoned the dishes. Singers and musicians would entertain the guests.

Ladies of the castle were pampered by their ladies in waiting and would spend hours embroidering linens or weaving, while the men folk went out hunting and hawking. The castle walls were decorated with beautiful hanging tapestries, while the only light when the hours of darkness descended would have been candles. When it came to visiting the bathroom people used garderobes which in essence were holes above a cesspit. Castles although elaborate and far more luxurious than where the peasants lived were places full of obnoxious smells.

The Workers

So, what type of work would your average medieval Scot undertake? There were many different jobs with tasks such as baking, butchering or spinning being popular jobs that were necessary to everyday life. Other occupations included singers, minstrels or clerical people, while trades if you had one, were a good way of making a living. The apothecary made and sold medicine, barbers believe it or not cut hair but also practiced bloodletting and would sometimes perform operations!

Barrels

Further trades included

  • Shoemakers
  • Swine herds
  • Fletcher or arrow maker
  • Coopers who made barrels
  • Hatters

Those who were skilled trained as apprentices in order to win the right to practise their skills.

Scottish Food in the Middle Ages

The Rich

Food eaten in the middle ages differed greatly from the types of food we deem acceptable to eat now. Noble Scots back then thought nothing of eating swan for instance a beautiful bird that is now protected. Animals such as seals, porpoises, lampreys and even peacocks would be caught and served. In fact birds were a huge part of the staple diet with geese, pheasants and many wild birds favoured. The Scots also ate plenty of fish as the church forbade the eating of meat on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays in the middle ages. Popular fish were herrings, salmon, bream, pike and eels.

Medieval Noble Kitchen Medieval Noble Kitchen

Peasants

Food that peasants ate was quite different to the food the rich ate as you would expect. Peasants would eat more or less the same sort of food on a daily basis, twice a day. Usually their meals would be made from home grown produce made into oat bread, porridge and oat cakes known as bannocks. Pottage was also a popular meal and was made from vegetables into a type of soup or stew. If they were lucky they may have mutton as an accompaniment.

Those who kept cows and chickens would have eggs and milk to eat, while everyone drank a weak type of beer as very often the water was not safe to drink as it was contaminated. People relied on the harvest coming in and if it did not very often people would die from starvation. Many peasants turned poacher during hard times and would steal the landowner's fish during the hours of darkness in order to feed their families. Food was cooked over a central fire in the house. As peasant's houses consisted of only one room the central fire served as cooker, heating and light.

Medieval Scottish Clothing

Depending on your station in life, what you wore was a given rule, in that peasants wore simple clothing, while the rich and regal population would dress in more colourful elegant clothing. Highland Scots stuck to their Gaelic roots with both men and women wearing a shirt or tunic known as a leine with the men wearing a mid-length version compared to the ladies full length garment. Those with a little more income would wear trousers or Braies, while poorer peasants would coat their leine in grease to waterproof them. Some Scots also wore woollen hose that were a type of footless tight.

Contrary to popular belief the kilt did not come into being until centuries later, while neither did the Scottish Bonnet. Medieval Scots wore a kind of kilt known as a belted plaid that was similar to a wraparound cloak and was an outer garment used to keep them warm. These belted plaids were not worn in battle as warriors would charge into battle simply wearing their leines. Men wore hats or hoods at this time, while shoes were made of leather and offered little protection against the elements.

Scottish Sports and Pastimes in the Middle Ages

Hawking and Hunting

One of the most popular of pastimes in Scotland at this time was hunting and hawking. Hunting and Hawking was mainly done by the nobles with hunting played out on horseback. The nobles would use spears and longbows, while in the later middle ages crossbows were introduced. Animals hunted included deer, hare, rabbit, wolves and wild boar and special hunt attendants would collect the dead and injured prey.

In contrast hawking was done on foot without weapons as large birds of prey were used to catch small animals and birds. Specialist falconers were responsible for training the birds and were held in high regard, while a well-trained falcon was a prized possession of the owner.

Medieval Sports

People who lived in medieval Scotland enjoyed a number of sports that would take place in their own towns and villages. Popular events included

  • Wrestling
  • Pitching Quoits
  • Bowling
  • Fighting with Cudgels or Clubs
  • Archery
  • A primitive type of football
  • Badminton played with balls and paddles
  • Ice skating performed with cows shinbones for blades tied to their feet

Medieval Beliefs in Scotland

Religion and what people believed in the middle ages was extremely important to them all over Europe and none more so than in Medieval Scotland. Those who were the most dedicated would give up everything to take holy vows to become a monk or a nun, while others would work in monasteries in a lay capacity. When it came to places of worship Medieval Scotland was littered with churches, monasteries, cathedrals, shrines, holy wells and burial grounds.

Ordinary folk would go on pilgrimages to holy shrines in order to receive special graces from God. Their greatest fear was that of the devil and hell therefore prayer and sacrifice became a mainstay of their lives. Nobles would sponsor pilgrimages, while pilgrims would sow lead pilgrim badges into their clothing in order to gain protection from a saint. Throughout the year there were many festivals and religious feasts celebrating the lives of saints with the patron saint of Scotland being Saint Andrew who was a Christian apostle.

St Andrews Cathedral

Inside churches bible stories were depicted in wall paintings and embroideries as well as in stone carvings. Medieval plays were also acted out regularly and were very popular with the masses. As Christianity took over from pagan religions pagan sites were transformed into Christian sites, while wealthy folk made sure of their place reserved in heaven by donating plenty of money to the church!

The Black Death

The Black Death first took hold in England and the Scots were very smug about it saying it was the revenge of God upon the English. This of course was not the case and soon the disease that knew no boundaries arrived in Scotland just before the Scots were about to launch an invasion of England. They thought to take advantage of England's plight but by 1350 the Black Death took hold.

Scottish society was badly hit including ordinary people and peasants alike. Just like in England the peasants who survived the plague began to demand higher wages as labour was scarce. Churches and cathedrals put on plays called the dance of death. These plays were put on to remind everyone rich and poor that their final judgement would be by god whatever their station. The Black Death claimed thousands of Scottish lives exactly as it had done all over the European continent.

The Border Reivers 1300 to 1600

The Border Reivers Gangs hailed from within a mile of the English/Scottish Borders between the 1300's and 1600's and raided the land around the borders constantly within this time period. The Reivers gangs were organised according to their families and clans with feuding and raiding common place. The gangs would steal sheep, cattle and horses. Prior to 1513 thousands of raids along with armies of thousands of men had been killed in long battles along the borders of England and Scotland. These skirmishes and wars went on for hundreds of years and meant the border folk lived among violence for years.

The Border Reivers gangs were known for their violence but the emergence of poetry, ballads and how the people became masters in horse riding and its related pastimes were also associated with the time. The March Wardens were appointed officials from both sides in the conflict who tried to bring some sort of law and order to the area. Churches in the area were fortified so that when people required sanctuary they would have somewhere safe to take refuge.

Medieval Scottish Monarchs

James I

The kings and queens of medieval Scotland could not sleep easy in their beds as not only were outside forces a threat but there were threats from within specifically from Scottish nobles. The eldest son of King Robert III died in suspicious circumstances at Falkland Palace in 1399. King Robert sent his remaining son James to France but his ship was attacked and James was taken captive and remained so in England for eighteen years.

James eventually married Joan Beaufort the cousin of King Henry VI of England and returned to Scotland in 1424. This marriage was unusually for the time a love match! James became James I of Scotland and began the process of reclaiming Scotland as his. As there were those who also thought the throne was their right (Earl of Athol) plots and counter plots ensued resulting in the murder of James I on February 21st 1437 at Blackfriars Monastery in Perth at the hand of Sir Robert Graham. Queen Joan who survived the attack vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice and had them hunted down. Sir Robert Graham and The Earl of Athol were tortured without mercy and executed.