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Bought and Sold for English Gold: The Treaty of Union of 1707

Why the Scots voluntarily gave up their independence in 1707 to join an incorporating union with the English is one of the most hotly contested questions in Scottish history. The one thing historians can say with certainty was that the treaty was never popular and its passing was the cause of riots and protests the length and breadth of the country. This was to be expected, as petition after petition opposing union with England flooded the Scottish Parliament. In spite of the extent of the opposition, the treaty was signed and the documents were rushed south with a large military escort.

Historians trying to explain this phenomenon fall into three categories:

  • Those who emphasise bribery and corruption

  • Those who emphasise TINA (there is no alternative), which rests on the desperate economic condition of Scotland

  • Those who see it as an act of great statesmanship – a visionary solution to longstanding problems concerning the backwardness of the country.

There is no common ground between these entrenched positions, but one thing they all forget is that, in many ways, there was no choice as soon as the English opted for union. In the past, the English wanted nothing to do with Scotland – in their eyes, Scotland was barbaric, lawless, and an economic basket case. But in the first decade of the 18th century, an awkward problem emerged: Queen Anne had produced no heir in spite of 17 pregnancies! Who was to succeed her? One possible and legitimate candidate was a Stewart, but that raised the possibility of a Catholic on the throne; the other possibility was Sophie and her husband the Elector of Hanover, who were Protestant to the core. A no-brainer!

But because the Scots were not consulted on the succession, they began acting bloody-mindedly and this exasperated the English. The only solution was union; failing that, invasion.

However, the Scots were able to use the desperation of the English to find a solution to the succession crisis to their advantage. In the negotiations that took place, the independence of the Church of Scotland was guaranteed; the legal system was to be left untouched; and equally important, those Scots who had lost large sums of money in the failed Darien Scheme were to get their money back plus 5 per cent interest (so it was a kind of bribe).

In the long run, union proved to be a good deal for Scotland, but try telling that to the rioters on the streets of Edinburgh after the news of the signing of the treaty became public!

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