Scots fight for political traditions

December 26, 1997

THE SCOTS may have voted for their own parliament, but many are unhappy with the plan for elected representatives to be called members of the Scottish parliament.

Alan McDonald of St Andrews University's Scottish history department has proposed the title of commissioner, the name used for Scotland's elected representatives before the Union of the Parliaments in 1707.

"This isn't the creation of a parliament so much as a restoration," he said. "Some of the names that the devolution white paper posits for institutions and officers seem somewhat rootless, and it would perhaps be nice to use some of the nomenclature we already possess."

Dr McDonald is helping coordinate a project led by Keith Brown, head of the school of history, which will produce a new edition of Scotland's parliamentary records from the 12th century to 1707. The Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland were last published in 13 volumes in the 19th century, and more material has been found since. The five-year project, funded by the Scottish Office, will add commentaries and historical background, and will publish the records on CD-Rom and paper.

Scotland was the first country in Europe apart from Iceland to record its legislature from about 1400 in its own language. Until the 1630s, the parliament was held throughout Scotland, mainly in royal residences, and normally met in Edinburgh after that. One exception was in 1645 when plague in Edinburgh forced parliament to relocate to the library of one of St Andrews' colleges, now called Parliament Hall.

The devolution white paper "rather clinically" describes the equivalent of the speaker as the presiding officer, said Dr McDonald. Traditional alternatives could be the lord high commissioner, or the chancellor. Lobbyists could make their case to the Committee of the Articles, a body which drafted and received petitions.

The next piece of tertiary sector legislation north of the border could be an Act Anent Higher Education. "Anent", meaning "regarding", was the standard word in the title of parliamentary acts. Dr McDonald warns that some pre-1707 legislation is still in force, including an act forbidding people to build pigeon-lofts unless they are extremely rich. But assessing a present-day suspect's wealth is likely to be complicated, since the 17th-century criteria were based on "chalders", a measure of wheat. And a 1424 act still in existence requires every main road and town to have an inn providing stables, food and beds.

"One of the most interesting acts is notable because of its longevity," said Dr McDonald. "The Act Anent The Registration of Sasines was passed in 1617, saying that all property deals should be registered centrally, and that still carries on. It is the oldest register of the transference of property in the world, and if there is any dispute over ownership, a case is strengthened if transactions are registered."

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