The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Where It All Began

It's on vellum. You can still see the shape of the lamb. It's hard to read: the orthography, if not the language, has changed since 1638. It's harder yet to grasp its significance: the rant against the Roman Antichrist, the intolerance to all outside God's true church, the professed loyalty to the King's Majesty are now alien. But some phrases still leap out: 'a free monarchy', 'the fundamental laws, ancient privileges, offices and liberties of this kingdom', 'the people's security of their lands, livings, rights, offices, liberties, and dignities preserved'. The cramped signatures at the foot, of the lord, the councillors, the burgesses and the ministers of Queensferry. I looked at it today, in the museum that was once the town hall. It's behind a small pair of red curtains; you are asked to pull them back after looking at it. Its ink cannot bear the light.

Philosophers have imagined a Social Contract. Scotland actually had one; or rather, two. This is the original of this town's copy of the first, the National Covenant, signed in Greyfriars Kirk and then in local copies in most of the towns of the kingdom. Quaintly loyal as it seems to us, to Charles I it was provocation enough to raise an army. He neglected to ask Parliament's leave for its supply, and the English Revolution began.

It's too early to say, as I did below, that the Revolution is over. That two square foot of vellum had its successors, in stronger and sharper language. As Charles I found, the Revolution has its sharp reminders, for men of blood.


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