The special relationship between Scotland and France,
acknowledged in the phrase 'The Auld Alliance', has formed a bond between the two peoples
that survives irritations and misunderstandings.
It was first and always a military alliance against the common enemy,
England. Joan of Arc's personal standard was painted by a Scotsman, probably called James
Polwarth, and Scots fought under her command when she relieved the siege of Orleans and at
the battles of Jargeau and Patay in 1429.
According to the most complete account of The Auld Alliance,
Stephen Wood's book with that title, an un-named Scotsman, after returning to Scotland
after Joan's execution, continued the chronicler Fordun's manuscript Scotichronicon when a
monk in Dunfermline Abbey, and recorded how he had seen and accompanied 'the marvellous
Maid' in her attempt to bring about the recovery of France'. By then the Alliance itself
was almost a century and a half old.
It may be credited to one of the least distinguished of our
Kings, John Balliol, known as Toom Tabard, who had become King of Scots in 1292, when
Edward I of England was invited to determine who had the best claim to the vacant Scottish
throne. Edward compelled Balliol to accept him as his overlord. In fact Balliol, as a
great landowner in England and France as well as Scotland, was already a vassal of both
Edward and of Philip IV of France, though not, of course, in his new capacity as King of
These things were confused in the Middle Ages, for Edward of
England himself held lands in France and so was a vassal of the French King, too. But in
1294 he was, as King of England, at war with France and so the French King saw the
advantages of a Scottish ally.
That was to be the pattern of the alliance. The Scots helped
France and the French helped the Scots. The French always had more benefit from the
Alliance. This was partly because mediaeval wars between France and England always took
the form of an English invasion of France and partly because it was easier for the Scots
to invade England than for the French.
Our willingness to do so resulted in some disastrous defeats,
for instance Nevile's Cross, 1346 and Flodden, 1513.
The so called Hundred Years War, 1337-1453, between France
and England cemented our relationship with France. It also gave numerous opportunities to
adventurous Scots soldiers of fortune to carve out a career for themselves.
Their great period was the last stage of the long war,
beginning after the French catastrophe at Agincourt, 1415, when the Dauphin of France
(heir to the throne) begged Scotland for help 'in our great want and necessity'. The
Scottish Parliament sent a force of 6,000 men, commanded by the Earl of Buchan, Archibald
Douglas, Earl of Wigtown and Stewart Darnely. It was the Scots who gave the first check to
the hitherto all-conquering English when they defeated them at Beauge in 1421.
Soon after this the Scots Bodyguard of the French king was
formed and then Les Gendarmes Ecossaise a regiment of mounted knights. The most vivid
account of these Scots in French service is given by Walter Scott in Quentin Durward, far
from the best of his mediaeval novels. It was at this time that the French coined a proverb:
'fier comme un Ecossais' - 'proud as a Scotsman'.
The military alliance came to an end in the mid-16th century
when the Reformation brought about a realignment of Scottish foreign policy. John Knox and
other Protestant reformers favoured an alliance with Protestant England rather than
Catholic France, even though the Queen of Scots, Mary, (herself for a couple of years also
Queen of France as a result of her first marriage to Francis II) was herself half French
and Roman Catholic - or indeed for that very reason. Even so, the Scots regiments remained
in the service of the French king.
It is worth noting that the form of Protestantism that was
established in Scotland followed the model set out by the Frenchman Calvin. So that most
Scottish of institutions, the Kirk, has French roots.
If militarily, the French got more from the Alliance than we
did, culturally the debt was the other way around. Most of the scholars of the 16th
century Scots Renaissance studied in France. Moreover nothing shows the French influence
more clearly - than the Scots domestic architecture of the 16th and 17th centuries. The
Palace of Holyroodhouse itself is more like a French palais than any English house of the
same period. The Union, making Scotland part of the United Kingdom, inevitably meant that
Scotland, inherited English traditions of foreign policy; and so throughout the 18th and
early 19th centuries, when Britain and France were locked in a struggle for empire, Scots
found themselves fighting their auld allies. But they might find themselves fighting
fellow Scots at the same time, for there were still Scots in the French service and France
offered a refuge for Jacobite exiles.
The Royal Ecossais remained a regiment of the French army.
Indeed after the failure of the '45 Rising two other French regiments were formed from
Jacobite exiles. When in 1759, by capturing Quebec, General James Wolf won Canada for
Britain, the French officer who surrendered was a certain Roche de Ramsays, descendant of
Scots Ramsays and the aide de camp was a certain Chevalier de Johnstone, who had fought
for Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden.
Late, one of Napoleon's Marshals was Etienne Macdonald, son
of a Jacobite from South Uist. Though the Alliance was chiefly military, the connection
for the last three centuries has been largely civil.
A Scotsman, John Law of Laurieston, founded the Banque de
France and attempted to put the French monarchy's chaotic finances on a stable basis in
the 1720's, but his Mississippi project resulted in one of the most spectacular of
financial bubbles. Perhaps the peak of Scots influence on France came in the years after
Waterloo in 1815. The sight of Scots soldiers in the Army of Occupation and the poems and
novels of Sir Walter Scott provoked a craze for tartan in Paris. The attractive and now
immensely popular school of Scottish painters know as the Scots Colourists were all
Francophiles and their art is inconceivable without the French example.
And what do the French think of the relationship? Well, in
1942 the greatest Frenchman of the 20th century, General Charles de Gaulle, then leader of
the Free French, visited Edinburgh and made a speech which he thought sufficiently
important to quote in full in the first volume of his War Memoirs. He began by saying: 'I
do not think that a Frenchman could have come to Scotland at any time without being
sensible of a special emotion - awareness of the thousand links, still living and
cherished, of the Franco - Scottish Alliance, the oldest alliance in the world, leaps to
He recalled some moments of that alliance and then said: 'In
every combat where for five centuries the destiny of France was at stake, there were
always men of Scotland to fight side by side with men of France and when Frenchmen feel is
that no people has ever been more generous than yours with its friendship...'
He spoke of the 'mutual influence of French and Scottish
poets' of the philosophy of Hume, of 'what is common the Presbyterian Church of Scotland
and the doctrines of Calvin' of 'the influence which the great Walter Scott has exercised
over the receptive mind of French youth' and of 'all the exchanges of ideas, feelings,
customs and words so frequent between two peoples joined by a natural friendship'.
But, since it was wartime he returned to World War II on
which we were then engaged and offered a most remarkable tribute: 'For my part, I can say
that the comradeship of arms, sealed on the battlefield of Abbeville in May-June 1940,
between the French armoured division, which I had the honour to command, and the gallant
51st Scottish Division under General Fortune, played its part in the decision which I made
to continue the fight at the side of the Allies, to the end, come what may'. And he
concluded by quoting the old motto of the Compagnie Ecossaise: 'omni modo fidelis' -
'faithful in every way'.
Nobody reading this speech can doubt the reality, and the
deep roots, of the natural and special friendship between Scotland and France.