In the run up to the historic vote intense debate raged among “Great & Small, Rich & Poor, Old &Young, Men & Woman”. It was ‘the common discourse and universal concern of all ranks of people.” Hundreds of broadsheets and pamphlets poured onto the streets. Speeches from parliamentary debates were printed. The independence lobby were the noisiest – the mob was against. A key contemporary historian was a Jacobite. But many middle-class Protestants and merchants were quietly in favour of the Union of Parliaments in 1707.
For some it was a tragedy – the end of an auld sang, the moment when the oldest nation in Europe gave up on 2000 years of independence and was sold into servitude. Bought and sold for English gold, by a handful of robber barons motivated by their own self-interest. On the day itself, the church bells played “Why Should I be Sad on my Wedding Day”.
But, on the other hand, Scotland achieved what other small nations only dreamed of – the Treaty of Union gave legal protection to her institutions and representation in the Imperial Parliament. This was a ruthless age when titans battled for supremacy across the globe. Now Scotland’s merchants could call on the protection of the Royal Navy, her educated sons could find opportunity in Britain’s colonies abroad and her representatives in London could quietly work to get the best deals for Scotland.
What really happened in 1707 and why? At Scotland’s History Festival, “Previously” a panel will discuss this thorny issue. Two authors of books on the Union: Professor of Scottish History at Dundee University Christopher Whatley and historian Michael Fry will be on the panel along with Glasgow University Professor of Literature Murray Pittock. There are also two playwrights whose subject is Scotland’s past – Tim Barrow author of ‘Union’ set in 1707 and Jen McGregor whose play about Scottish transgender witchfinder Christian Caddell is also on at the History Festival.
These were turbulent times. The religious fervour which gripped Scotland at the end of the 17th century is reminiscent of the religious extremism we now associate with ISIS. In 1688 when the Catholic Stewart King, James II and VII fled, in Edinburgh a mob broke into Holyrood Abbey and tore it apart before breaking into the tombs of the Stewart Kings and destroying them. In Dunfermiline Robert the Bruce’s tomb was also destroyed around this time: a reconstruction went on view at Abbotsford earlier this year.
The established Church of Scotland in 1690 exorted its ministers to denounce all cursing, drinking, fornicating, blasphemy. Elders visited to check up on household practices. Servants could only move job if they had a reference attesting to their “honest and Christian behavior”. In 1697, 20-year-old medical student Thomas Aikenhead was hanged for blasphemy.
Meanwhile, in France the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, an order tolerating Protestants in 1685, meant 200,000 asylum seekers fled, some to Scotland. After 1701, the War of the Spanish Succession created the possibility of a Catholic empire stretching across most of the continent.
There were plots and counterplots. In ‘The Union’, Michael Fry recounts the tale of Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, who was convicted and sentenced for rape and kidnap before escaping Scotland for Paris, where he befriended the exiled Stewarts, converted to Catholicism and persuaded the French King to foment an uprising, before returning to sell information about the plot.
The Duke Of Hamilton who was cheered by the Edinburgh crowds outside Parliament as a leader of the pro-independence group, famously abstained from the historic vote, claiming to be indisposed with the toothache. Whatley comments cynically in “The Scots and the Union”: “Hamilton, the opportunist, might have backed the Jacobites but only in the unlikely event of a British rising and with very short odds on it succeeding. The Hamilton family backed winners.”
Economically too, times were tough. The loss of a court when King James I and VI moved to London a century earlier had removed power, money and patronage of the arts from Scotland. Famine stalked. The Darien scheme failed.
The day Parliament dissolved, 31 dead whales were found on the beach at Kirkcaldy. Scotland was quiet. No riots; no celebration. Whatley writes that even for its supporters “Incorporation was a means to an end rather than a triumphant end in itself.”