First off, it’s really important to understand that before the union, that’s before the UK began, Scotland (and England for that matter) was an independent sovereign state. Keep that in mind, because we’ll return to that fact frequently.
For nearly a thousand years before the union with England, the nation of Scotland was a major European sovereign state, one of the continent’s oldest, some say the third oldest nation in the world.
But in the early years of the 17th century, something happened that would significantly shape Scotland’s future. In 1603, Elizabeth I of England died. Her heir, amazingly enough, was our own king, James VI. And as soon as Jamie heard the news, he hightailed it for London and never came back.
The crown of England was a great gig for Jamie (now renamed James I and VI) but his leaving left Scotland bereft. And now instead of two adjacent kingdoms with a king each, now England’s king was also Scotland’s king, and kings in these days still had a fair amount of power. As the century progressed, England began to turn the screws on Scotland, shared king or not.
In 1651, England passed the Navigation Acts, whose purpose was to stop the direct trade of English colonies with the Netherlands, France, Spain and – get this – Scotland. The Acts effectively excluded Scots merchants from trading directly with England and her colonies.
Scotland took that on the chin though and decided to start its own colonies, starting with the Darien Scheme – perhaps you’ve heard of it? It was a good idea. Establish a colony at Darien (now Panama, where the canal is) where ships could dock, then transport their goods the 30 miles across the narrow isthmus to the Pacific Ocean. Load up the ships at the other end for onward transportation to the Far East, and save shippers the need to sail their goods thousands of miles around the treacherous Cape Horn.
But Scotland had not reckoned on England’s warlike empire building plans. 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, backed up by the Royal Navy, sabotaged the Darien Scheme. First they pressured investors to withdraw their money and then turned the screws 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.
Eventually, the Darien colony collapsed, and the remaining settlers sailed back to Scotland. But for King William, and Queen Anne, who 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.
Somehow, the Scottish Parliament had to be prevented from granting conflicting trade privileges and interfering in England’s foreign policy as a competitor. Actually going to war with Scotland over the issue would be costly and might result in the loss of lands and associated rents. Still, a permanent solution was needed to the problem of Scotland.
The ‘solution’ 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 in the end, it wasn’t that difficult.