Scotland on the brink: the nation’s final years of independence

What was life like in Scotland as it considered union with England in 1707? Karin Bowie takes the pulse of a nation as its people faced a seismic decision...

Scottish nobles gathering in the 17th century

Relations with England

By 1707, many Scots felt that their country had become a mere satellite state

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In the 1690s, the lawyer Francis Grant scathingly declared that Scottish sovereignty was a “Phantome of a Body… without a Head”. This damning verdict reflected the suspicions of many that, since King James VI of Scotland had inherited the crown of England in 1603 (as James I, in a so-called Union of the Crowns), the interests of the Scottish people had been marginalised.

On moving south, James called leading nobles down to London for regular meetings, and the Scottish privy council continued to convene in Edinburgh to manage day-to-day affairs. But parliamentary meetings became increasingly rare, leaving many Scots feeling cut off from what had been a very personal monarchy.

The poet Alexander Craig was just one of the many Scots to rail against these developments, proclaiming that Scotland had become a “maymed bodie”, and begging the king to return from time to time, “lest you forget us”.

Over the following decades James and his successors become even less attuned to Scottish interests. Charles I relied on the advice of a handful of Scottish nobles living in London, creating a communications gap that allowed a surge of discontent to take him by surprise in 1637. By 1641, rebel Scots had forced the king to concede powers to the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh.

The ensuing settlement stated that the king’s officers were to be chosen by Scots, with parliament to meet at least every three years. But the instability created in England and Ireland by Scotland’s war with their shared king triggered rebellion in Ireland and civil war in England. By 1652 Scotland had been conquered by English forces and pushed into a united British Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell.

Most Scots welcomed the restoration of Charles II in 1660. But by the 1690s many were once more complaining that Scotland had become a mere satellite state. George Lockhart of Carnwath, a Jacobite member of parliament, wrote that Scotland “groaned exceedingly under the oppression of England”.

Some felt that union offered a solution, by giving Scots seats in a London-based British parliament. But others feared that, with Scots occupying fewer than 10 per cent of the seats in a British House of Commons, they would remain the poor cousins.

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The monarchy

From 1700, a shaky line of succession caused cross-border tensions to soar

On 30 July 1700 Scotland’s fraught relationship with its southern neighbour was thrown into disarray by the death of a boy who had barely celebrated his 11th birthday. William, Duke of Gloucester was the only one of the future Queen Anne’s children to survive infancy.

While the duke lived, the line of succession from William III and II to his sister-in-law Anne Stuart and on to her son was secure, but in the summer of 1700 he died of suspected smallpox.

The English parliament was quick to declare a successor: the Electress Sophia, from the German principality of Hanover. But how would this decision be received in Scotland?

The English had chosen Sophia because she was a Protestant. But Anne’s closest living relative was, in fact, her Catholic half-brother James Francis Edward Stuart, and his claim to the throne raised the spectre of discord and civil war.

His father, James II and VII, had been ousted from the two thrones by William of Orange and his wife, Mary Stuart, in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688–89. The supporters of James – the Jacobites – fought to regain the British crowns with the support of Catholic France. Until the mid-18th century, this presented a real and often urgent threat to the Protestant British monarchy.

Many Scots had supported the ‘Glorious Revolution’ for religious reasons – chiefly because it resulted in the reinstatement of a Presbyterian national church – and were happy to accept Sophia as the heir to the Scottish throne. But they also saw an opportunity to demand reforms in the Union of the Crowns. In 1704 an act was passed denouncing “English influence”, and calling for a more powerful Scottish parliament.

In response, in 1705 the English parliament threatened to slash economic privileges if the Scottish parliament did not either pass an act confirming Sophia as the successor to the Scottish throne or an act committing to talks for a union, with Sophia as the successor to a united kingdom.

Presented with this ultimatum, the Scottish parliament chose union talks. George Lockhart recorded that there was “a great inclination in the house to set a treaty on foot” in hopes of making the Union of the Crowns more advantageous to Scotland.

The economy

Scottish merchants attempted to emulate English success overseas

In the dying days of the 17th century the relationship between the English and Scottish economies was far from warm.

Though Scots were considered naturalised subjects of England – and vice versa – their economies were ferociously competitive. Both used tariffs to favour domestic industries, while England’s Navigation Acts barred Scots from trading with English colonies.

In the mid-1690s cold weather caused successive crop failures and famine in parts of Scotland. While the Scottish economy stuttered and farmers died, a 1700 petition to parliament complained of “great discouradgements to trade” and an “increass of poor” and begged the king to show favour to a Scottish trading company founded in 1695.

This joint stock company had been formed to develop overseas trade – but it posed a challenge to England’s East India Company. Faced with a conflict of interests, William III and II chose not to support attempts to raise capital for the Scottish venture.

So the company was funded entirely from the Scottish economy, diverting investment to one highly risky proposition. When its attempts to found a colony on the Isthmus of Panama failed, due to poor management, tropical disease and Spanish hostility, hundreds of Scots were ruined.

It was a catastrophe – but it sparked calls for the relationship with England to be redefined. A 1704 resolve of the Scottish parliament proposed a “treaty” on trade, alongside new laws to “secure the liberty, religion and independency of the kingdom”.

Queen Anne’s 1706 treaty of union offered free trade in return for a full union of the kingdoms and parliaments. Yet not everyone was impressed: the pamphleteer James Hodges warned that “all the Sugar of the English plantations shall not be able to sweeten” the loss of Scotland’s independence.

The legal system

Scots jealously guarded their courts of law as union approached

Both England and Scotland had their own distinct systems of law and justice, so long-established and jealously guarded that, at the Union of the Crowns in 1603, few could imagine a union of laws. And by the late 17th century a union of English and Scottish law was widely considered impossible, Scots law having been systematically consolidated in the 1680s by the lawyers Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh and Sir James Dalrymple of Stair.

This situation was reflected in the terms of the union treaty, which maintained Scots law, the Scottish Courts of Session and Judiciary and legal offices such as
Lord Advocate. However, the new British parliament was empowered to make new
laws for Scotland, and to reform old laws where necessary.

It was uncertain how the Scottish courts would relate to the British House of Lords after 1707. Some pamphleteers argued that appeals should not be allowed to pass from the Court of Session to the House of Lords, because few lords would have any expertise in Scots law. In the end, appeals were permitted, but the Scottish law courts remained vibrant cultural centres, exemplified in the Scottish Enlightenment.

The church

Presbyterians sought the survival of their church “for all time coming”

On the eve of union, the national churches of England and Scotland were both Protestant but had different forms of government. The English church was governed by bishops, while the reformed Scottish church had developed a Presbyterian system of church courts.

Though James VI restored bishops to the Scottish church, they were removed in the rebellion of 1637–41, restored by Charles II and removed again in the 1688–89 revolution.

In 1706 many Presbyterians in Scotland baulked at the concept of closer union with Anglican England. They feared that the Scottish church would be swallowed up by its Anglican counterpart, and they objected to the presence of bishops in the House of Lords. They also remained committed to the 1638 National Covenant and the 1643 Solemn League and Covenant, which affirmed the Presbyterian nature of the Scottish church and advocated the reformation of the English church.

In 1700, the presbytery of Hamilton described these oaths as “a most sacred, awfull and universal dedication of the land unto the Lord as a Nationall Church and as a Kingdom”.

Yet the rising power of Catholic France and the Jacobite threat led some moderate Presbyterians to accept the idea of a stronger Protestant Great Britain. And to address fears about the loss of the Scottish church, a special act guaranteed that the Presbyterian church would continue for “all time coming”.

This did indeed increase Presbyterian support for the union. But, after the union, concern at the British parliament’s control over the Scottish church led ultimately to the formation of the Free Church of Scotland in 1843.

National identity

Most Scots were immensely proud of their nation’s martial history

Scotland on the brink of union was a fiercely patriotic nation cherishing a vivid concept of the realm as an ancient and honourable kingdom. If you’d asked many Scots of the time to relate their national story, they’d have told you a tale that began with an intrepid Trojan prince and a pharaoh’s daughter named Scota whose descendants established an unbroken line of kings in Scotland from 330 BC.

Most Scots accepted that their nation was not a powerful or rich one, but they cherished its martial history, and the fact that it had maintained its independence for (it was thought) 2,000 years. Many more regarded the prospect of union as a dishonourable conquest by England. A 1706 Poem Upon the Union labelled the English “inveterate enemies who trample on our laws, and us despise”, and asked: “and shall we our scars forget? And to our ruine be now more unite?”

So how did unionists of 1707 counter this perception? Perhaps surprisingly, they did not articulate a compelling vision of a British kingdom. Instead, they saw Scotland as a once-proud but much-reduced kingdom for whom a bright future could come only from closer ties with England.

For unionists, independence represented poverty and ignominy whereas union offered shared strength and prosperity. In the eyes of the Earl of Cromarty, a prolific writer of pamphlets in favour of incorporation: “Reason and prudence are the motives of this union” and unionists were “the true patriots”. In the end, his argument carried the day.

Karin Bowie is lecturer in Scottish history at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests include the Union of 1707.

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This article was first published in the October 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine