School of Divinity

Letter-writing in the 16th century

The Breadalbane Letters show that 16th-century letters had a very different function from their counterparts in later ages.

An emerging letter-writing culture

The habit of ordinary letter-writing was in its infancy, though the ability to write was becoming a normal attribute of Lowland noblemen and noblewomen.

A number of Highland correspondents in the Breadalbane Letters were forced to employ scribes because they could not write themselves (e.g. GD112/39/3/29). They do not appear even to have signed their own names, which were written in a Scots, rather than a Gaelic, style.

The lack of this writing skill set them apart from their counterparts in the Lowlands. The scarcity of paper also indicates the absence of a strong letter-writing culture within the Highlands with some letters being sent on small or irregular pieces of paper.

The purpose of letter-writing

A letter's prime purpose was not to exchange personal information and greetings, though these were often briefly included, but to deal with political matters.

In early modern Scotland a noble lord needed to deal in person with the people of his lands and region on a regular basis and much traveling was done by both superiors and inferiors to ensure direct meetings.

Written communications were used only when face-to-face contact could not be made, making distance the most common factor in the decision to send a letter. Since Grey Colin and his immediate subordinates corresponded only in exceptional circumstances, there were not many letters from within the Breadalbane area.

Letter-writing within the oral tradition

Letter-writing operated in a society which functioned primarily within an oral framework and where personal contact was assumed to be the best form of communication.

When a letter was written, the personal touch was preserved through the use of trusted messengers or kinsmen who relayed the words and the emotions of the sender.

'Credit the bearer' - the oral messages carried alongside the letter.

'send ane speciall freind yat zour Lordship mycht credit becaus zour Lordship wald nocht wryt zour mynd.'
Argyll to Grey ColinGrey Colin to Argyll, 1572 (GD112/39/14/15)
'credence to zour Lordshipis cousing ye Laird of Glenlioun to quham I have schawin my mynd.'
Grey Colin to Campbell of GlenlyonGrey Colin to Argyll, 1572 (GD112/39/14/15)

Secret communication

Highly secret matters were not entrusted to paper but conveyed by a special messenger who would carry oral messages and instructions which he would reveal only to the intended recipient and then return with the replies (GD112/39/4/9).

Trusted messengers were frequently a close relative, like Campbell of Glenlyon, or someone of standing who acted more like an ambassador or negotiator. In the Highlands members of the Gaelic learned orders, such as Colin MacLachlan of Craiginterve (GD112/39/11/4), were often employed in this role.

A 16th-century version of taking the high road and the low road:

'For we haif causit Dougall to be content to pas to Ballyoch be ye heland gait and our self sall be yair on ye xviij daye off yis instant be ye Lauland gait quhilk daye Dougall promissis to keip.' In February 1565 Argyll sent Dougal, his messenger 'boy', from Carrick Castle to Grey Colin at Balloch Castle. Dougal carried his letter on the 'high road' of the wintry passes, probably through Glenfyne, Glenfalloch and the Drumalban passes into Glen Lyon or down Glen Dochart on his way to Balloch. The earl travelled the longer, 'low road' probably via Castle Campbell and Perth, then up the Tay to Balloch. Argyll to Grey Colin, Feb 1565 (GD112/39/3/17)

Grey Colin's communication network

For the routine 'posts', letters were carried by servants who, irrespective of age, were called boys. They traveled in all weathers and conditions and at remarkable speed between their destinations.

Letters were often carried in batches, especially in dangerous times. At the height of the Civil Wars in the summer of 1570, Grey Colin became disgruntled at acting as a post-office for bundles or masks of letters moving between members of the Queens Party (GD112/39/12/13).

Even though it brought burdens, the forwarding of correspondence gave Grey Colin an opportunity to keep abreast of all major developments. The number of letters sent between third parties that found their way into Grey Colin's collection underlines how much he exploited his role at the centre of a communications network.