THE Act of Union reached its 300th anniversary 10 years ago last month, having taken effect on May 1, 1707. For the life of me, I cannot recall huge celebrations on the streets of Scotland to mark the tercentenary of arguably the second-most-important document in Scottish history after the Declaration of Independence made at Arbroath in 1320.
It is always a mystery to me that the independence movement in Scotland is generally somewhat ignorant of the Act of Union, what led to it, how it was fiercely opposed, and how it was shamefully achieved. For if any legislation needs undoing if Scotland is to become independent, then this is it.
Over the next three weeks, The National will try to tell the story of the 1707 Act. Next week we will look at the year leading up to it becoming reality, and the week after that we will consider the effects of the Act. But first, we must look at how the conditions came about that made the Act of Union possible.
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It is hugely important to know that the 1707 Act was by no means the first attempt to unite the very separate countries of England and Scotland into what is technically a unitary state.
The first serious effort to incorporate the nation we now know as Scotland into England was made by William the Conqueror. Undoubtedly angered by the Scottish king Malcolm Canmore’s marriage to Margaret, sister of Edgar Atheling who many saw as the rightful King of England, and provoked by Malcolm’s raids on Northern England, William marched north in 1072 and forced Canmore to sign the Treaty of Abernethy. No copy of it exists, but it allegedly contained Malcom’s acceptance of William as overlord.
For several centuries afterwards, various English kings asserted that overlordship, most notably Edward I, known as Longshanks. He was asked to adjudicate the succession to the Scottish crown in the 1290s, a dispute which led directly to Bannockburn and the eventual English acknowledgement of Scottish independence under Robert the Bruce.
Fast forward to Henry VIII, who wanted to unite the crowns of Scotland and England under his son Edward VI in the mid-16th century. The plan came to fruition only after the death of Henry’s daughter Elizabeth in 1603, when it was James VI and I who joined the kingdoms of Scotland and England in his personal union.
It could be argued that from then on, the unity of Scotland and England under a single parliament and political system was inevitable, not least because successive Stuart monarchs wanted it. Yet it took more than a century to bring about, largely because neither country’s politicians really wanted it at first.
The first real suggestion of parliamentary union was made as early as 1607, just four years after the Union of the Crowns. It was the English Parliament that kicked that idea into touch with alacrity.
Further promotion of full union took place in the 1640s when the Scottish Parliament wanted a sort of federal union — again rejected by the English — and the idea continued to raise its head through the following decades.
There were several key times in that 17th century when Scotland was effectively at war with England, principally when Charles I was executed — much to the dismay of most Scots — and when Cromwell’s roundhead forces occupied much of Scotland after the Battle of Dunbar.
When the English Parliament invited William of Orange to replace James VII and II as king in 1688, the Scottish Parliament was not best pleased to have the appointment presented to them as a fait accompli. The result was the first Jacobite uprising of 1689 when only the death at Killiecrankie of their general John Graham of Claverhouse, known as Bonnie Dundee, stopped the Scottish and Irish army of James Stuart from occupying Scotland and probably most of northern England, too.
THE fact that the Government forces at Killiecrankie were almost entirely Scottish and that the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692 was carried out by Campbell troops did not ease the ongoing difficult situation between England and Scotland.
For throughout the 17th century, the English Parliament had frustrated many Scottish attempts to improve the economy through trade, sometimes by effectively blockading Scotland’s tiny navy, and just when it looked as though Scotland might be able to prosper in the 1690s, twin disasters struck the country. It is too simplistic to say that the failure of the Darien scheme, coupled with several poor harvests at the end of the 17th century, enabled Queen Anne to raise the idea of full Union when she came to the throne in March 1702, but there is no doubt the poor economic state of Scotland greatly helped her cause.
We know that things were very bad in 1698 because in one of his two Discourses written in that year Alexander Fletcher of Saltoun tells us so: “There are at this day in Scotland (besides a great many poor families very meanly provided for by the church-boxes, with others, who by living upon bad food fall into various diseases) two hundred thousand people begging from door to door. These are not only no way advantageous, but a very grievous burden to so poor a country.”
Fletcher suggested shipping beggars off to work as slaves on the West Indies plantations, so he was no enlightened reformer. He was however, a patriotic Scot and would play a vital part in the opposition to the Act of Union. As well as suffering famine due to poor harvests, Scotland had increasingly seen its trade routes to Europe and beyond blocked by England, which also frequently withdrew trading rights between the Scots and English markets, and with William III at war with Scotland’s ancient ally France, not a few people began to agitate for political union in the late 1690s as a way of solving all the problems.
The Darien disaster then all but overwhelmed Scotland. Thescheme will have a column of its own, but suffice to say Darien almost bankrupted Scotland by 1700 and indeed many people did go bust. And it was not just the aristocracy who lost fortunes in the Company of Scotland’s doomed attempt to settle Darien – it was a gamble by a large part of the nation which backfired spectacularly.
There is no doubt that King William not only didn’t back the Scottish attempt to establish a colony in Panama, he may well have sent the English navy to deliberately obstruct the scheme. The Spanish government, too, bitterly opposed the scheme as they considered the land to be theirs, and they sent troops to besiege the Scottish colonists who were also dying from various tropical illnesses.
Almost every family in lowland Scotland was affected by the collapse of the Darien colony. It is reckoned that a quarter of all of the country’s cash was lost.
Scotland took the collapse badly. Three innocent English sailors were hanged in Edinburgh in 1704 in apparent revenge for the seizing of a Company of Scotland ship by the East India Company. Queen Anne personally asked for clemency but the Edinburgh mob made sure the sailors died a gruesome death.
By then it was clear that the Scottish economy effectively needed bailing out, and with English markets again closed to Scottish trade, even while a “British” army was fighting on the Continent – Scottish regiments fought under the Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim in 1704 – the political moves that led to the Act of Union were already under way.
One of these was the Act of Settlement of 1701 which banned Catholics from the throne – an insult to many Scots as that ruled out the surviving Stuarts and meant that Sophie of Hanover was anointed as heir to Queen Anne. Moreover, it meant that, like William of Orange, the English Parliament would have first say on who would be Scotland’s monarch. In response, the Scottish Parliament tried to pass an Act of Security in 1703, basically saying that its members would decide on a protestant successor of Scottish descent unless the English agreed to certain economic and religious conditions. Fletcher of Saltoun summed up the Scottish position in a speech to the Parliament in Edinburgh: “No man in this house is more convinced of the great advantage of that peace which both nations enjoy by living under one prince. But as on the one hand, some men for private ends, and in order to get into offices, have either neglected or betrayed the interest of this nation, by a mean compliance with the English court; so on the other side it cannot be denied, that we have been but indifferently used by the English nation.
“I shall not insist upon the affair of Darien, in which by their means and influence chiefly, we suffered so great a loss both in men and money, as to put us almost beyond hope of ever having any considerable trade. The English nation did, some time past, take into consideration the nomination of a successor to that crown; an affair of the highest importance, and one would think of common concernment to both kingdoms. Did they ever require our concurrence? Did they ever desire the late King to cause the Parliament of Scotland to meet, in order to take our advice and consent? Was not this to tell us plainly, that we ought to be concluded by their determinations, and were not worthy to be consulted in the matter?
FLETCHER concluded his speech by saying: “It is my opinion that the house come to a resolution, that after the decease of her Majesty, heirs of her body failing, we will separate our crown from that of England.”
That was going too far. The Bill was refused by Queen Anne’s Commissioner, ie the queen herself. The following year, the Act of Security was passed by Anne, but only after the Scots threatened to withdraw their vital troops from Marlborough’s forces fighting the War of Spanish Succession.
Huge political pressure was now put upon Scotland as the English Parliament promptly passed the Aliens Act which made Scots into foreign nationals in England and threatened to destroy Scottish trade with England – valued at about half of Scotland’s total income.
Crucially, the Act specifically stated that its provisions would be suspended if negotiations began for either the repeal of the Act of Security or for an Act of Union. It was the latter option that prevailed. As we shall see, and indeed we shall name names, next week, there were already plenty in the Scottish nobility who were agitating for Union, but even they were surprised at how quickly it came about – in effect, it took less than a year for the negotiations, parliamentary votes and the Act taking effect.
The historian and Scots-born English bishop Gilbert Burnet wrote: “The Union of the Two Kingdoms was a work, of which many had quite despaired, in which number I was one; and those who entertained better hopes, thought it must have run out into a long negotiation for several years: but beyond all men’s expectation, it was begun and finished within the compass of one.”
Next week we will examine that year of 1706-07, one that changed Scotland for ever.