What really happened at “1707: What Really Happened?”

History Festival

The faultlines of Scottish politics go back a long way: historians are still arguing about the Union of Parliaments back in 1707 when the Scottish Parliament voted itself out of existence. For some it was a pragmatic decision; for others it was a grave error. These controversies were argued over afresh at “1707: What Really Happened?” at Scotland’s History Festival last month.

Playwrights Tim Barrow and Jen McGregor read from Tim Barrow’s play “Union’ set in 1707. The scene dramatised the clash over the Treaty of Union between Lord Queensberry who was a main proponent of the measure and steered it through Parliament and Lord Hamilton, who led the opposition to it.  Here is an excerpt from the scene, set in the “magnificent chamber of the Scottish Parliament”.

The panel were asked to talk about some of the key figures of the period. Journalist and historian Michael Fry said that the Nationalist peer Lord Belhaven represented the new kind of landlord who was becoming important in the Scotland of the time. He was not like the aristocrats of the old, feudal Scotland. He said there was a stereotype of Jacobites of the time being backward-looking but that was not the case for many of them. Lord Belhaven was a good example of a new kind of landowner. He was interested in commerce and in new inventions. He wrote a book about agriculture and reformed farming methods.

Lord Belhaven delivered a speech in Parliament after the Treaty of Union was carried by a vote which was published as pamphlet and became famous.  Fry talked about the exaggerated oratory and rhetorical flourishes of this speech in which Belhaven talked about “Mother Caledonia”. Belhaven, he said, at one point paused and said he could not go on because of his emotions, and made Parliament wait, Fry said, “until he had finished peeling an onion.”

Professor Christopher Whatley responded by saying that he had spent 12 years researching his own book “The Scots and the Union”, and that he was probably the only person in the room who had read so many of the original documents. He had, he said, read a letter from Lord Belhaven dated 1704 in which Lord Belhaven voiced support for the agreement that was being suggested at that time between England and Scotland over the succession to the throne when Queen Anne died. Subsequently, after the failure of the Darien Scheme and his own personal ambitions being thwarted, he changed sides.

Whatley said he felt it was wrong for contemporary interpreters to see the debates of 1707 as Nationalist versus Unionist and to compare them to the politics of the present day. He said the context was very different.

That era was one of enormous religious ferment and it was hard for us to understand now that there was a real fear of Roman Catholicism in Scotland at the time. Many Scottish protestants were worried that if the Jacobites succeeded in restoring the Catholic Stuart family, they would face religious persecution. They saw Union with England as a way of protecting the Protestant faith. There was also a European war going on over the issue of who succeeded to the throne of Spain.

Whatley said that for him the key figures of the period were the men of the New Party, also known as the Squadrone Volante. These were politicians like George Baillie of Jerviswood and Sir Patrick Hume, First Earl of Marchmont. They were not aligned with either the Court or County parties of the time but in the end they gave their support to the Treaty of Union. He said their support was based on their assessment of the many difficulties facing Scotland at a time of great hardship. He said these were days of “doom and gloom” and that the members of the New Party didn’t see many alternatives. But men like Baillie and Marchmont had “agonised” over their support for the Union.

Jen McGregor, whose play about the transgender witchpricker Christian Caddell was read at the history festival, was invited to shed some light on the religious turmoil that had led to the large number of witch trials and executions in Scotland in the century leading up to Union.

McGregor  said that there was a climate of religious fear and persecution; fear of Roman Catholicism, and fear of Anglicanism which many regarded as similar. She said that the 17th century was an era of decade after decade of bad weather and bad harvests. Witches were a convenient scapegoat to blame for the catastrophic failures of the harvests and the famines that beset people.

Professor Murray Pittock set the Treaty of Union in a broader historic context. He said the treaty had been drawn up on a playing field that was not level. The commissioners who represented Scotland in the negotiations were appointed by Queen Anne and they were biased in favour of England. The Treaty that was drawn up and was offered to Scotland was one that favoured England.

He said that Queen Anne was a key figure when considering the Treaty of Union. He recalled a nursery rhyme referring to that time:

“William and Mary, George and Anne

Four such children had never a man

They put their father to flight and shame

And gave their brother a shocking bad name.”

The rhyme refers to the fact that the two married couples William and Mary, and George and Anne (Anne was married to Prince George of Denmark) had no surviving heirs. It was the conflict over who was to inherit the thrones of England and Scotland that in part lay behind England’s desire to unite the two countries.

The last line about the “shocking bad name” refers to the fact that the Catholic James Stuart was declared illegitimate and passed over for succession.

PIttock said that Queen Anne, who referred at the time of her death to her “entirely English heart” was unique among the Stuart monarchs in having an entirely English heart”.

Pittock referred to background threats such as the English “Alien Act’ of 1705 which threatened to ban the main Scottish exports to England and treat Scots as aliens if they did not accept the Hanoverian succession.

He said after 1707 that the Union was incredibly unpopular in Scotland. This was demonstrated by the fact that while the Jacobite rising of 1689 had low levels of support, in 1715, just a few years after the Treaty of Union, one in six of Scotland’s men of fighting age were prepared to risk their lives to join the uprising.
Tim Barrow said that writing a play about the events of 1707 “Union” and staging it in during the referendum year had been a very exciting and rewarding experience and that there had been an enormous interest in understanding more about the era and about the dramatic figures which populated it, such as Daniel Defoe who was working as a spy for the English.

He also talked about Lord Queensberry, whose mad son apparently killed a serving boy and roasted him on a spit in Queensberry House which forms part of the Scottish Parliament building.

In general discussion, other figures and events of the time came up.

Whatley said that mystery had for centuries surrounded the sudden death of Lord Stair, who ordered the Massacre of Glencoe and then helped the English Government to negotiate the Treaty of Union before dropping down dead. He told the Scots Parliament “You can’t negotiate with people who are stronger than you.” But Whatley said his own research, which included seeking medical opinion on the autopsy report, suggested that in fact, Lord Stair died of deep vein thrombosis. In all probability, he contracted this as a result of so many long sessions in Parliament and in meetings, where he sat for hours “in the service of his country”.

The Jacobite writer and spy Lockhart of Carnwath was also mentioned (He revealed the secret payments the English government paid to Unionist politicians, which Robert Burns referred to in his famous poem: Sic a Parcel o Rogues in a Nation). His contemporaneous record of the events of the time is an important resource for historians. But Whatley said that he had read a copy of Lockhart’s book which was annotated throughout by John Clerk who wrote in the margins that “This was not so”.

Fry said that Lockhart was another of the new type of landlord who had implemented changes at his property in East Lothian where he installed a Newcomen steam engine.

Fletcher of Saltoun a famous opponent of incorporation was mentioned. He left Scotland after the vote saying that “Scotland is fit only for the slaves who sold her” .  Fry said that Fletcher was badly treated by the English after 1707. At the time of the threatened French invasion in 1708, Fletcher was taken into custody, along with many other notable opponents of the Union (Belhaven was another).  Most were soon released, as the invasion came to nothing.

Lord Hamilton’s mother Lady Hamilton was one of few female characters of the time who make it into the history books. She was a Presbyterian who was opposed to the Treaty of Union and campaigned and leafleted around the family’s estates against it.

Lord Hamilton was the leader of the opposition to the Treaty. But he ended up abstaining from the crucial vote, saying that he had the toothache.

Fry told the story of French spy Nathaniel Hooke who visited Lord Hamilton when he was staying in Holyrood Palace on the eve of the vote. Hooke, he said, was admitted by a back door and sat in the dark ( so Hamilton could deny having laid eyes on him) talking to Hamilton in French. Hamilton asked Hooke whether the French King would support his own claim to the throne of Scotland. He was given a non-committal answer and Fry speculated that this may have led to Hamilton realising that his chances were unlikely to succeed and then deciding to abstain.

Pittock said that this conversation was recorded in Hooke’s report but that he thought Hamilton had a very tenuous claim to the throne and that he simply was torn about what he should do.

Chair Jackie Kemp asked if it was possible that Jacobites like Hamilton thought that Union might be a step towards claiming the thrones of both countries for the Stuarts. She stated that later, in 1745, Charles Stuart could have held Scotland but wanted England too.

Pittock disagreed, saying that a Scotland held by the Stuarts would have been invaded by a British army, possibly supplemented by German mercenaries and the only option was to go to London as fast as possible.
Audience questions included:

How representative was the Parliament?

It was not representative in the modern sense. Fry explained that by 1707 the three estates were different from those mentioned in the title of Sir David Lindsay’s play ‘The Three Estates”. In earlier times, the Catholic Church formed the third estate, and the bishops sat in Parliament.  They, of course, disappeared with the Reformation of 1560.  Soon afterwards the country gentlemen, who had largely supported the Reformation, took their place as the county members.

(All Scots peers were entitled to sit in the Parliament..

2. All the royal burghs were represented by one member, Edinburgh by two, elected by the town councils.

3. Each county elected one, two or four members, depending on size, and the voters were the larger landowners. The total membership fluctuated a bit, but in general was about 200.)
Would it have made any difference to the vote if there had still been Bishops in Parliament?

Pittock said it would not have made much difference to the vote. Episcopal Bishops would have supported the Union.

Was a Treaty of Union with any country other than England considered, such as Scandinavia?

Unions with Holland and with France were mooted at various times, Pittock said. (These are recounted in Allan Macinnes book below.)

Was greed a factor in the Union?

Whatley said that the sums of money which were paid to various pro-Union politicians were relatively small.

Pittock said that in the 18th century, the wheels of politics were usually oiled with money. He said there was less money flowing into Scotland than pro-Union propaganda had anticipated.

He rejected a suggestion that the fact there was less money coming in was a factor in the 1715 uprising.

What was the importance of the failure of the Darien Scheme?

Whatley said it was extremely important. The failure of this attempt at creating a colony had cost a quarter of the available money in Scotland. Its failure had also led to a sense of gloom generally and a feeling that Scotland had limited options.

Another question was whether the prospect of trade with India had been an encouragement for supporters of the Union.

But the historians generally agreed that access to the East India company had not been promised although it did come later. Trade with the Caribbean was more of a lure in the run up to the treaty.

Kemp asked McGregor if the Union had hastened the end of the persecution of witches. McGregor said it was coming to an end at the start of the 18th century anyway; but the point was made that the last witch was executed in Scotland in 1727.


After the event, Whatley commented in an email in response to this report: “ I’d have liked to have made more of the fact that the articles of the treaty were amended following protests from within and outside Parliament, and that in fact two acts were passed in 1706/7.  The one we didn’t mention was that which secured the Church of Scotland post-Union, a measure that satisfied many Presbyterians who up till that point had been anti-incorporation.  Whilst I can’t argue with the numbers Murray Pittock produced for the Jacobite army in 1715 it might have been worth pointing out that many people turned out for the Hanoverians and in defence of the Union too, not least church ministers and their followers who feared that a Jacobite victory would have opened the way for the return of a Catholic monarch and maybe the re-introduction of Roman Catholicism itself.  And the removal of certain hard-won (at the Revolution) civil liberties.”  

Further Reading

The Myth of the Jacobite Clans: The Jacobite Army in 1745 (2009 ed), Murray Pittock

Scottish Presbyterians and the Act of Union, 1707 (Edinburgh UP, 2007). Jeffrey Stephen

The Scots and the Union: Then and Now, by Christopher Whatley, 2014 edition.

The Union, England, Scotland and the Treaty of 1707, Michael Fry

A Union for Empire (Cambridge, 2007).  Allan Macinnes