In 1707, the kingdom of Scotland forged a treaty, the Treaty of Union, with the kingdom of England to form Great Britain. Why? Why did it do this?
We’ve all heard or read about the exploits of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace who fought so hard alongside our ancestors to win and preserve Scotland’s independence from English aggressors. So why, only 400 years after the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath, did we suddenly just give it up?
I know you’re busy, so TL;DR..
Actually, we sold our independence. There was no glorious joining of two countries into one. There was no joyous coming together. There is no ‘precious’ Union. The only thing precious was our own, hard-won independence being torn from us by a country intent on accomplishing by any means what Edward Longshanks couldn’t – to keep Scotland in the iron grip of England, permanently and forever.
Aided and abetted by our greedy aristocracy, who took English bribes without question in returning for passing the Act of Union in 1707, our independence, our nationhood, our very country, was bought and sold for English gold.
Robert Burns never spoke truer words when he wrote in his song, Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation, 84 years later in 1791:
O would, ere I had seen the day
That Treason thus could sell us,
My auld grey head had lien in clay,
Wi’ Bruce and loyal Wallace!
But pith and power, till my last hour,
I’ll mak this declaration;
We’re bought and sold for English gold-
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation
The Theft of Scotland’s Independence
It began with a queen and a king. When Queen Elizabeth of England died in 1603, her heir was actually our own king, King James VI (or Jamie the Saxt, as he was known here).
(Wait. How? Well, England’s Henry VIII was Elizabeth’s father, but he was also James’s great-great grandfather. Henry’s sister, Margaret Tudor, had married James’s great-grandfather, James IV. Their granddaughter was Mary, Queen of Scots – mother of James VI. Elizabeth, who you’ll remember murdered Mary, died childless so the crown of England passed to Scotland)
When James inherited the English crown in 1603. he hightailed it to England in a heartbeat, £££ signs flashing in his eyes. But his leaving left Scotland bereft. He promised to return to Scotland every year, but never did.
Although we now shared a monarch with England, we still had our own parliament. But kings in these days still had a fair amount of power, and Scotland, neglected by James and his successors, except when it was dragged unwillingly into England’s wars, became progressively poorer.
Things came to a head in 1651 when England passed its Navigation Acts, whose purpose was to stop the direct trade of English colonies with the Netherlands, France, Scotland and Spain. The effect was to exclude Scots merchants trading directly with England and all her colonies.
This barrier to trade, policed rigourously by the Royal Navy, gave rise to the Darien Scheme. This was a trading plan hatched by William Paterson (who would later go on to found the Bank of England) that would enable Scotland to harness the lucrative and relatively available trade in Far Eastern markets in the same manner as England had achieved with Africa and the Indies.
It was a good idea. A colony would be established at Darien (now Panama, where the canal is) on the Caribbean Sea where goods would be landed. They would then be transported the 30 miles across the isthmus to the Pacific Ocean to be transported to the Far East, removing the need to sail the thousands of miles around the treacherous Cape Horn.
But Scotland had not reckoned on England’s warlike empire building plans, nor of the influence of the hugely powerful East India Company. Whether they shared a king or not, Scotland would not be allowed to get in the way of England’s empire.
England and the East India Company sabotaged the Darien Scheme. First, English and European investors in the scheme were pressurised to withdraw their money. Then the screws were turned on trade with Darien. The English colonies in the West Indies and North America were forbidden to trade or communicate with the Darien colonists or offer them any help or assistance, by order of King William (yes, our shared king) and his government in London.
Eventually, the Darien colony collapsed, and the remaining settlers sailed back to Scotland. But for William, and Queen Anne, who had succeeded William in 1702, the lessons of Darien were clear. Scotland was a threat to England’s trade and empire and needed to be neutralised.
A war with Scotland would be costly and would result in the loss of their lands and associated rents. But the Scottish Parliament had to be prevented somehow from granting conflicting trade privileges and interfering in England’s foreign policy as a competitor. A permanent solution was needed.
The ‘solution’ to the problem of Scotland was union, a union that would accomplish in the 18th century what Edward Longshanks in the 13th century couldn’t – putting Scotland in a constitutional vice that would keep it permanently in England’s grip.
And it wasn’t that difficult. The sabotaging of the Darien Venture saw to that. Many, many people in Scotland from the aristocracy down had invested in Darien and had lost their investment. Note: Darien was a private venture by the Company of Scotland. Scotland itself was not bankrupt after Darien, as Unionist writers today would have you believe.
England took a classic carrot and stick approach to securing a union. Scottish trade was still hamstrung by the Navigation Act and in 1705 England turned the screws further by passing the Aliens Act.
The Aliens Act was specifically aimed at forcing Scotland into a union. If we refused to negotiate, all Scots in England would be treated as aliens and all Scots’ exports to England banned.
It was an effective blackmail and commissioners were eventually appointed to negotiate the Treaty of Union.
But it was no merger. It was an English takeover. The ‘union’ was forced upon Scotland by a threatening enemy and eventually voted through the Scottish Parliament by a bunch of hard-up aristocrats who’d lost their shirts on Darien and who were only too happy to take England’s bribes. An enemy with whom we shared a king but who’d actively and savagely sabotaged our colonial trade.
So the Treaty of Union was completed and the Act of Union, the last act passed by the old Scottish Parliament, ratified the Treaty. The Act, however, was not signed in Parliament itself. When the people (that’s your 18th century ancestors by the way) found out what had been done, they were furious. They rioted in the streets and forced the members of the Parliament to flee, so that the Act of Union that sold the independence of our country was signed in a basement of a building in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. (That basement now houses a toilet. Apt, don’t you think?)
On 1st May, 1707, the day of Union, the bells of the High Kirk of St Giles in Edinburgh rang out to the tune, Why am I so sad on this my wedding day?. It was an appropriate sentiment as it’s estimated that over 95% of the people were opposed to the union. But in the 18th century, there was no vote for the people, no referendum asking them if they’d like to give up their independence.
On the first day of the United Kingdom’s new parliament, Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, a Treaty negotiator and ardent Unionist, observed of the new contingent of Scottish MPs:
“To find themselves obscure and unhonoured in the crowd of English society, where they were despised for their poverty, ridiculed for their speech, sneered at for their manners and ignored in spite of their votes by the ministers and government”
One might be forgiven to think that Scots MPs are still thought as such today, 300 years later.
That is how the ‘United Kingdom’ came to be. There never was a glorious and joyous coming together of Scotland and England. Instead, Scotland was shackled to England to create a United Kingdom of Great Britain, a United Kingdom that was – and still is – firmly under England’s control.
This is no precious Union.