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The Union of the Parliaments of England and Scotland 1707


ON October 3, 1706, the Parliament of Scotland met to deliberate on a momentous question—the question whether its own continued existence was in the interest of the nation it represented. Only on one previous occasion had it a question of equal moment to decide. About a century and a half before, in the year 1560, the Scottish Estates had met in convention and almost unanimously voted that Protestantism should thenceforth be the national religion of Scotland. These two memorable sessions are connected by the strictest relations of cause and effect; but for the decision of 1560, the question that had to be settled in 1706-7 could never have arisen. Had Scodand remained a Roman Catholic country, the Union of the Crowns could hardly in the nature of things have taken effect, and the Union of the Parliaments would have been excluded alike by the laws of God and man. By their common Protestantism the two countries were united in a bond which drew them into relations which of necessity tended to become closer and more complex, and which gradually convinced both nations that they were committed to conjoint interests and a conjoint destiny. However widely different their national traditions and their national characteristics; despite their hereditary hostility, four centuries old, they had one common enemy whom they had never ceased to dread and against whom the instinct of self-preservation constrained them to joint action. This common enemy was Catholic Europe, in whose eyes Protestant Britain was an offence against Heaven and a standing reproach and menace to the community of nations.

From the Union of the Crowns in 1603, Scodand and England had followed very different paths; the form of Protestantism which each had adopted was of a very different type; their national antipathies had not grown less; and no action of Cromwell’s had given more satisfaction to Englishmen in general than the punishment he had inflicted on the Scots at Dunbar and Worcester. Yet when James VII. made his deliberate attempt to impose Roman Catholicism on his two kingdoms, it was out of a common sense of danger that both rose simultaneously against him and engaged in the joint action which resulted in the Revolution of 1689 and the establishment of a Protestant succession. The pre-eminent cause, the fundamental condition of the Parliamentary Union, therefore, was that common Protestantism which bound the two kingdoms to present a united front against Rome and the Catholic Powers.

But not only did this common Protestantism make the Union possible; it was also the main force in conserving it when it became an accomplished fact. For a full generation after its accomplishment there was not a class in Scotland which did not remain convinced that its interests had been injured and permanently imperilled by the unequal yoke which the Union had imposed on the nation. The clergy lived in fear that a House of Commons and a House of Lords, whose members were mainly Episcopalian, would eventually seek the ruin of Presbytery; the nobility resented what they deemed infringements of the privileges of their order, and the trading and commercial classes were indignant at the inequality of taxation which crippled their enterprise. Had the successors of James VII., the elder and the younger Pretenders, adopted the Protestant faith and pledged themselves to govern as Protestant kings, the probabilities were that the Risings either in 1715 or in 1745 would have resulted in the restoration of the Stewart dynasty. Amid all the discontent of the nation, however, the dread of Rome held it fast to the Union as the one safeguard of the Protestant religion, now bound up with the interests and aspirations of the great majority of the people.

It was the common Protestantism of the two kingdoms, then, that made the Union possible and conserved it through all the perils that endangered it. But there were immediate considerations that directly suggested to responsible statesmen that a joint House of Legislature would be in the interests of both countries. Let us look at the chief of these considerations which weighed with the English and Scottish statesmen who carried through a Union which, in the words of a contemporary, was ‘a chimaera of the English ministry.’

There was one conviction that had been forced on English and Scottish statesmen alike—viz. that the existing relations between the two countries could not continue. These relations had been tried both under the despotism of the four last Stewart kings and under the Revolution regime, with the result that the mutual antipathies of the two nations were never more violent than at the close of the reign of William. Throughout the reigns of the last Stewarts Parliaments had only been summoned to give their formal sanction to the royal pleasure. Packed as they had always been by the effectual methods devised by James VI., they did not represent the collective wishes of the nation. During the intervals between their meetings, the government was administered by the Privy Council, all of whose members were royal nominees, and who received their instructions from the king, advised by the Secretary permanently resident in London. It was the common saying, indeed, that the Secretary of the Council was the real * King of Scotland,’ and the Council itself was compared to a ‘Turkish Divan.’ Such was the state of things under the Stewarts. Under the rule of William this despotism was impossible, as the Revolution produced a number of distinct parties in Parliament, each with aims of its own, and ready on occasion to combine against the Government. In consequence of this opposition William was constrained to make important concessions which materially enlarged its powers, but the grievance still remained that Scotland was governed from London and governed in English interests. With this retrospect of the history of the Parliament since the Union of the Crowns in 1603, we can hardly wonder that Scotsmen were disposed to question if its continued existence under the same conditions were really in the interests of the country. On the eve of the Union we find a patriotic Scotsman writing these remarkable words: ‘Long ago it hath been a problem in Scotland whether Parliaments were useful or not.’ But if Scotsmen had reason to be dissatisfied with the action of their Parliament, the Government, on its part, had no greater reason to be content with the existing conditions. In the successive sessions of William’s solitary Parliament, his measures had been thwarted at every turn, and such was his experience of its refractory spirit, that only dire necessity constrained him to summon it. It was out of this experience, as we know, that he expressed the wish that Scotland and Scotsmen were both at the bottom of the sea, and out of this experience, also, that he gave his dying advice that the Parliaments of the two countries should be united with all possible speed in the interests of both.

The Tory Queen Anne was of the same mind as the Whig William, and in her first speech to the English Parliament she expressly suggested that Commissioners from both countries should be appointed to treat regarding the conditions under which the union might be accomplished. During the first years of her reign, however, the relations of the two peoples gave little promise of that consummation, which nevertheless lay in the immediate future. The Scottish Parliament, which was elected in 1703—the second year of her reign—proved even more refractory than that which had disturbed the stoical composure of William. Without consulting Scotland, the English Parliament had passed an Act of Settlement, which devolved the Crown on the Electress Sophia and her heirs. By the majority of the Scottish Parliament this was regarded as England’s crowning act of insolent domination, and, Whig and Tory agreeing, it passed the famous Act of Security, which, meant as a gage of defiance, proved through the irony of events to be the immediate cause of effecting the international compact. By the Act of Security it was declared that, twenty days after the death of the reigning sovereign, without issue, the Estates were to name a successor who should be a Protestant and a descendant of the House of Stewart, and should not be the person designated by the Parliament of England, unless under conditions that secured to Scotland complete freedom of government, of religion, and of trade. The Government at first refused its sanction to an Act which virtually declared Scodand an independent country, but was at length constrained to give it as the lesser of two evil alternatives. Sanctioned by the Crown, the Act might now be regarded as the expression of the national will of Scotland, and as such it was interpreted by all parties in England. In the words of Defoe, the Act of Security ‘put Scotland into a posture fit to be treated with, either by England or by any other nation.’ It was, in truth, the menace of this second alternative that first aroused in English statesmen a sense that Scotland could no longer be treated as a dependency. ‘Scotland,’ in Defoe’s quaint words, 'began to be talked up in the world a little.’ So profoundly convinced were all Englishmen of the menace implied in the Scottish Act that the Tory House of Commons and the Whig House of Lords with one accord took up the challenge. In both Houses bills were carried in terms and spirit as unflinchingly defiant as that of the Scots. The Bill of the Commons, which was eventually adopted by both Houses, bore the significant title :An Act for the effectual securing the Kingdom of England from the apparent dangers that may arise from several Acts lately passed in the Parliament of Scodand.’ By the terms of this Act, unless the Crown of Scotland were sceded by Christmas Day of 1705, all Scotsmen would thenceforward be regarded as aliens, and all importation of Scotch catde, sheep, coals, and linen be prohibited. More prudent or more calculating than the Scottish patriots, however, the English Parliament offered an olive branch along with the sword. By the same Alien Act the Queen was empowered to appoint Commissioners to negotiate a union between the two countries, which meanwhile seemed on the brink of international hostilities.

Equally under the despotism of the Stewarts and under the regime of the Revolution, therefore, the existing relations between the two countries had been found intolerable. In the interests of both, some new arrangement was imperative that would put an end to a situation which was a permanent menace to peace and a scandal to responsible statesmen. But if a new arrangement was to be effected, there could only be a choice of two alternatives—either some form of union or complete separation of the uncongenial yoke-fellows. We know which of the alternatives was adopted: let us then consider what general causes made it at once possible and desirable, and let us first consider the causes which operated in the case of our own country.

As we know, there had been previous attempts to effect a union of the Parliaments of the two countries. It was a cherished ideal of James VI. on his accession to the throne of England, and he had taken steps to realize it. During the rule of the Commonwealth it even became for a time an accomplished fact; and during the reign of Charles II. the project was again revived. But in the way of these attempts there was an insuperable difficulty which only the development of public opinion in both countries could remove. Differences in religion, partly the result of political conditions and partly inherent in the idiosyncrasies of the two peoples, created a sundering gulf which no promise of material advantage could avail to bridge. As Andrew Marvell wrote in 1667:

‘Though kingdoms join, yet church will kirk oppose;
The mitre still divides, the crown does close.’

Throughout the 17th century, though in England in less degree than in Scotland, religion had been the main pre-occupation of the most strenuous section of the people, and had been the main concern of statesmen. By the later Stewarts Episcopacy was regarded as the only form of ecclesiastical polity compatible with the dignity and security of the throne, and their rule in Scotland was largely occupied in seeking to make that polity prevail. During the reign of James VI. his religious policy overshadows every other interest ; it was religion that occasioned the revolt that resulted in the two Covenants and the overthrow of Charles I., and during the reign of Charles II. two-thirds of the public business (so we are told by a contemporary statesman) were concerned with religion. Thus throughout the greater part of the 17th century, religious and theological considerations dominated the public mind and determined the counsels of statesmen. But towards the close of the century there were significant indications that a change was passing over the national spirit, and that new interests and new aspirations were arising in Scotland as in other countries.

If we seek for an explanation of this revolution in the national ideals, we may find it in two causes—one peculiar to Scotland itself, the other operative in most of the countries of Western Christendom. As the result of a policy mainly determined by considerations of religion, the Scottish people had been gradually taught, that at the stage of development which they had now reached, such a policy was no longer possible if a stable and acceptable rule was to be established in the country. On the one side, there had been the sovereign maintaining the divine origin of Episcopacy and employing all his resources to enforce it on his people, and, on the other, there had been a strenuous portion of his subjects holding the divine origin of Presbytery, and prepared, when the opportunity came, to impose it on the nation at large. The religious absolutism of James VI. resulted in the ruin of his son; the similar policy of the Covenanters resulted in the Restoration ; and James VII., carrying the policy of his predecessors to its legitimate conclusion, sought to bring back Rome, and lost himself and his House in the attempt.

Thus it had been brought home to the Scottish people that religious absolutism was incompatible with a stable rule, and that other considerations than the divine origin of this or that form of ecclesiastical polity must determine the public policy. And in the spirit and action of the Scottish statesmen of the Revolution we have a convincing illustration of the lessons which had been learned from the woful experience of the century and a half that had intervened since the national change of religion in 1560. One of the most momentous questions which the Revolution statesmen had to solve was—whether Episcopacy or Presbytery was to receive the sanction of the State. Hitherto the question had received a simple answer from whatever authority had chanced to be in the ascendant. In their hour of triumph the Covenanting party had imposed Presbytery on the nation as the divinely ordained form of Church government, and had even made the attempt to impose it on England and Ireland besides; and at the Restoration Charles II. had set up Episcopacy, at once on the ground that it was of divine institution and the only form of polity consonant with kingship. The Scottish statesmen of the Revolution were influenced by no such absolute considerations; they set aside Episcopacy and put Presbytery in its place for the simple reason that it had given its support to the Revolution and promised to be its strongest stay. Expediency had in fact displaced absolute principles in the conduct of public affairs, and under this new regime the relations of the two kingdoms could be adjusted on a secular and not on a theological or ecclesiastical basis.

Thus by the failure of government on theocratic principles Scotland had been conducted to secularism as the only basis on which a national policy was possible, and as it chanced, there were forces at work in the world at large which influenced her in the same direction. Since Scotland had become a nation, it is to be remembered that she was always an integral part of Christendom. All the organic changes she had undergone had, indeed, been primarily the result of this relation. When David I. gave her the framework of feudalism and the mediaeval Church, he only followed the example of the other countries of Western Europe, and, but for Luther and Calvin, she would have had no Reformation. But throughout the 17th century the leading nations of Europe—notably England, France, and Holland—had entered on a new phase of development, and, as in the past, Scotland was bound sooner or later to follow them. This new development was the growth of the commercial spirit, and the consequent international rivalry for the markets of the world. Throughout the 17th century England and Holland were engaged in a permanent contest for the leadership of the world’s commerce, and England’s wars with France, begun at the century’s close, were wars for the same end. ‘Trade,’ wrote Fletcher of Saltoun about the time of the Union, ‘ is now become the golden ball for which all the nations of the world are contending.’ And in using these words Fletcher implies that Scotland like other countries was bound to engage in the game. She had, indeed, given striking proof that she was already engaged in it. The disastrous Darien Scheme was her attempt to capture the golden ball for which all the nations were contending, and its historical significance is that it shows Scotland bent on becoming a commercial nation like her neighbours. What a change had come over her dream when it could be said by a contemporary that, since the signing of the National Covenant, there had been no such enthusiasm in the country as was shown by all classes in their eagerness to invest their savings in the ill-starred enterprise!

By this revolution in the national spirit, therefore, by this awakened desire to share in the world’s goods, Scotland was prepared to make a bargain which would enable her to compete on fair terms with other countries. And in England, also, the same transformation had been wrought in the national ideals. At the close of the 17th century church and religion no longer dominated all other interests, and on purely secular grounds she also was disposed to make terms which would turn to her commercial advantage.

Such was the general disposition of the two nations—by nations being always understood the most strenuous and intelligent sections of their peoples—when the Commissioners of Union met in the Cockpit in Whitehall on April 16, 1706. In nine weeks they had drawn up the terms of a Treaty of Union to be submitted to the decision of the Parliaments of the two countries. It is unnecessary here to specify all the heads of the Treaty and it is sufficient to bear in mind that the two main recommendations were the Union of the two Parliaments and community of trade. As the greatest opposition to the Treaty was expected from Scotland, it was arranged that the Scottish Parliament should first sit in judgment on its terms. The general circumstances in which the Act of Union was carried are among the most familiar in our history. Within the House and without it the opposition to the Treaty at times seemed to threaten civil war. Writing on November 19, 1706, the Secretary Mar declares that nothing prevents an invasion of Edinburgh but the season of the year and the bad weather. How far this hostility was worked up and how far it was real, is a question which does not admit of a satisfactory answer. The petitions against the Treaty which were sent in from every royal burgh except Ayr are not decisive evidence of the feelings of the commercial classes in general, since we have it on the authority of the Jacobite Lockhart that they were for the most part prompted and even concocted by the agents of his own party. Nor are the riots that broke out in Edinburgh and other towns any proof that the majority of their intelligent citizens were at heart opposed to the Treaty. In the case of certain classes, however, their hostility was undoubtedly genuine and can easily be understood. For Jacobites and Episcopalians the Union would be a crushing calamity as it would for ever cut off the hope of the restoration of the Stewart. But it was from the National Church that the most formidable opposition was anticipated by the government officials charged with the conduct of the Treaty. ‘One thing I must say for the Kirk,’ wrote the Secretary Mar on the 7th of November, 1706, ‘that if the Union fails, it is owing to them.’ What the Church naturally dreaded was that a united Parliament, in which the majority of both Lords and Commons would be Episcopalians, would sooner or later seek the ruin of Presbytery and impose a common polity on both kingdoms. In the drafting of the Treaty the question of religion had been deliberately excluded as the safer policy—the implication being that the Union would leave the national churches intact. But to the weaker church this was no sufficient guarantee of its future security, and so formidable was its opposition to the Treaty that the Government was constrained to make terms for its support. The result was the Act of Security which, as far as words could go, safeguarded for all time the National Church of Scotland as it had been established at the Revolution. According to the terms of this Act, which, though not embodied in the Act of Union, was to form an indissoluble part of it, the Church, as it then existed, was * to continue without any alteration to the people of the land in all succeeding generations,’ and the four Universities, whose professors must be members of the national Church, were similarly to remain ‘within this kingdom for ever. Even this solemn pledge for the immunity and perpetuity of their Church did not satisfy the majority of the clergy, most of whom, we are told, were men of ‘little experience and warm zeal’; and throughout the prolonged debate they did their utmost to incite their parishioners against the Union. The sager heads of the Church, however, and notably the sagacious Carstares, had been won over, and their support was of the first moment in passing the Treaty into law. Though opposed at every step by different parties in the House, the Articles were at length successfully carried after nearly three months’ debate; and on January 16, 1707, the Commissioner Queensberry touched the Act of Union with the royal sceptre, and at the same time, as inviolably bound up with it, the Act for the Security of the national Church. On the 19th of March following, amid a salvo of guns from the Castle, the exemplified Act was read in the House, and ordered to be recorded. As the Chancellor Seafield handed the Act with his signature affixed to the Clerk of the House, he is said to have exclaimed, ‘ Now, there’s ane end of ane old song.’ It was a form of words employed by his countrymen when they would relieve a sigh with a jest.

The Union had thus been carried in the teeth of persistent opposition both within and without the Parliament House, and it was with no exuberance of joy that its consummation was greeted by the country at large. A correspondent writing to the Earl of Mar from Edinburgh on the 1st of May—the day when the Treaty came in force—uses these significant words: ‘ There is nothing so much taken notice of here to-day as the solemnity in the south part of Britain and the want of it here.’ True, the bells rang from the steeple of St. Giles to signalise the occasion, but the same correspondent notes as of dubious omen that the first tune they played was, ‘Why should I be sad on my wedding day?’ The first experience of the results of the Union was indeed fitted to justify the gloomiest auguries as to the future relations of the two kingdoms now bound to a common destiny. In their zeal to carry the Treaty the legislators of neither country had taken the most ordinary precautions to ensure its harmonious working in the first stages of its action. Hardly had the Act come into force when one needless cause of friction after another arose to make both nations repent their bargain. By one of the terms of the Treaty it had been arranged that English revenue officials should be quartered in Scotland to superintend the new fiscal operations of which the natives of that country had no experience. In any case the duties to be performed by these strangers must have rendered them obnoxious, but the promiscuous mob of officials who were sent across the border and the manner in which they went about their task awoke a lasting indignation throughout the whole country and, as much perhaps as any other cause, created a settled antipathy to the Union. By another clause in the Treaty Scotland was to receive the sum of 398,085 10s., known as the Equivalent, as a compensation for her losses sustained and losses to be incurred. But the money was so long in coming that it was generally believed that England was disposed to break her bargain. ‘The Equivalent is so much despaired of here,’ wrote one from Edinburgh, ‘that among the vulgar the greatest part believe it is gone to Spain, and some believe that the bridge of Berwick is fallen with the weight of it, and all is lost.’  At length, on August 5, the precious burden, for the Scots had refused to accept the money in notes, conveyed in twelve waggons, and guarded by 120 Scottish dragoons, reached the capital, where in spite of doubled guards a riotous mob vented its spleen by stoning the convoy.

The legislation of the United Parliament during the remaining years of Queen Anne was not calculated to remove the fears of the weaker country that she had been entangled into a disastrous alliance which must end in the ruin of her remaining institutions, and the obliteration of her nationality. The nobility, by whose vote the Union had been carried, were exasperated by the Peerage Bill, which placed them at a disadvantage with the peers of England. In the Act restoring lay patronage, and in the Act of Toleration, the clergy of the national church saw a deliberate purpose of eventually establishing Episcopacy in Scotland. In the Malt Tax and other legislation the trading community saw at once a breach of the Union treaty and a sacrifice of their interests to the advantage of England. Thus all classes in the country had their own grievances and their own fears as the immediate and direct result of the unhappy compact. It seemed, therefore, that when in 1713, the year before Anne’s death, the leading Scottish statesmen, Whig and Tory alike, combined to undo the Treaty of Union, they were acting in accordance with the general desire of the country. As we know, the motion for dissolving the Union, brought forward in the House of Lords, was lost only by a majority of four. Yet Jacobite and Whig alike, who supported the motion, were well aware what the dissolution of the Union must inevitably involve. ‘ If we saw a possibility of getting free of the Union without a civil war,’ wrote the Earl of Mar, ‘we would have some comfort, but that, I am afraid, is impossible.’ The day of the dissolution of the Union would indeed have revealed to Whig and Tory the essential antagonism of their respective ends, and the result could hardly have been other than was anticipated. Again would the issue have been joined between Protestantism, on the one hand, and Roman Catholicism on the other, for in this light would the conflict have been regarded by all Presbyterian Scotland. On more than one subsequent occasion the Union was to be in apparent peril. If at the death of Anne the schemes of Bolingbroke had succeeded, the Stewart would have been restored, and his restoration would have involved a new relation between the two kingdoms. In the Risings of 1715 and 1745 the Union was again threatened, but English and Scottish Protestantism on both occasions proved its safeguard. The restoration of the Stewart meant the restoration of Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism was vitally bound up with the secular as well as the religious interests of both peoples.

Yet for many years to come it was rather the dread of what would follow on its dissolution, than a conviction of the benefits it had brought, that held Scotland fast to the Union. The promise of immediate commercial prosperity had been the golden bait with which the statesmen responsible for the Union had sought to reconcile her to the loss of national independence. An improved coinage and free trade with England and her Colonies were to be the means through which the harvest was to be promptly and bounteously reaped. Proportioned to her deceived hopes, therefore, was her disappointment at the actual result, which seemed the immediate and direct consequence of her reluctant copartnership. So far from entering at once into a golden harvest, what she appeared to have reaped was the loss of her trade with France, heavier duties, and heavier taxation, exacted with a rigour unknown in her previous history. As late as the year 1742, Lord President Forbes, the most enlightened public man of his day, drew up, at the request of Lord Tweeddale, the Scottish Secretary of State, a statement regarding the national revenue which is sufficiently explicit. 'The revenue,’ he says, ‘is in such a declining state that the usual expense of the civil government can hardly be answered.’ The only cheering fact to which he can point is the promising condition of the linen manufacture; the fishery, he says, ‘has totally failed for many years’; the foreign trade of Glasgow had been seriously injured by the Spanish War, and as for the rest of the country, it is ‘worse than nothing.’ Never was there less coin in the country within living memory, and paper was the only currency to be seen. The expenses of the Government had been hitherto met by the duties from the Customs and the Excise, but for many years the Customs had produced 'little worth speaking of,’ and the Excise had fallen to a half of its former value.

Such was the gloomy account which Forbes could give of the state of Scotland thirty-five years after the Union. Yet we now know that for some years before Forbes wrote the country had already entered on that path of material prosperity which was to conduct to such splendid results by the close of the century. New industries had been introduced; foreign trade, especially with the American colonies, had vigorously begun, and such towns as Glasgow, Greenock, and Paisley, already gave promise of their future greatness. When the middle of the 18th century was turned, the evidences were indisputable that Scotland had become one of the competitors for the world’s trade, and that she was likely to hold her own in the competition.

In conclusion, the question naturally suggests itself—what benefits have accrued to the two nations from the union of the Parliaments in 1707? The answer must be that the one supreme benefit it brought to both was strength and security as the result of their combined resources. The indispensable condition for successful trade, as the past had already shown and the future was still more significantly to show, was strength of arm, to attack, to defend, and to maintain. It was by sheer force that England wrested the commercial supremacy from the Dutch in the 17th, and from the French in the 18th centuries. The governing motive, therefore, which induced England to seek the union was the desire for increased security and strength. Had Scotland become an independent Kingdom, retaining her ancient hostility, England would have been seriously crippled in the course she was to run. Scotland, in the phrase of the time, would have remained the back-door through which England’s enemies might at all times have found a convenient entrance. On the other hand, Scotland, to hold her own in the conflict of international interests in which the nations were already engaged, would have required a fleet and army, the maintenance of which would have overstrained her resources and permanently retarded their development. Relieved from this necessity and no longer dominated by theological preoccupations, she was at liberty to pursue the new paths on which she had entered at the Revolution, and only under such conditions became possible her growth in material prosperity and her contribution to the world’s thought which mark the close of the 18th century as the most distinguished period of her annals.

P. Hume Brown.