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Mythology in the history of Anglo-Scots relations
by Alan Sked

THERE CAN BE little doubt that the relationship with England has been the key factor in the birth, development and for some the decline of the Scottish nation. England is Scotland’s larger, richer and more powerful neighbour and all the ‘heroes’ of Scottish history have been defined by either victory over her or defeat at her hands. Only one, of course, Robert the Bruce, truly achieved victory. The rest – including Wallace, Mary Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie – were either executed or driven into exile.

Still, the history of Scotland is so steeped in mythology that this is always overlooked. We Scots like to dress up our past in all its finery, like Montrose on his walk to the scaffold (‘dressed more like a bridegroom than a criminal’, according to one eye-witness report) and our contemporary Scottish Nationalists seem steeped in medievalism ready to refight the wars of independence all over again. They cleave to a Braveheart vision of the past, however unhistorical it may be.

Mythology was always at the heart of Anglo-Scottish relations.

In 1136 the Welsh monk Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his Historia Regnum Britanniae which influenced English thought for centuries. This was supposedly the history of the British from their first arrival in Britain in the twelfth century BC under King Brutus, the great-grandson of the Trojan hero Aeneas, until their overthrow in the seventh century AD by the Angles and Saxons. Geoffrey’s book was important because it for the first time introduced characters such as King Lear, Cymbeline and Merlin, not to mention King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. More than that, by giving future English dynasties an ancient foundation, it became the basis of a national mythology which was continued in Caxton’s Chronicles of England (1480), Hidgen’s Polychronicon (1482) and a flood of books right into the Tudor period written by authors such as Edward Hall, Richard Grafton and Raphael Holinshed. After the Reformation, indeed, it became almost apocalyptic. England became an ‘elect nation’ and according to Bishop Aylmer, God was an Englishman.

Moreover, it became very dangerous, for pupils of Geoffrey added that after the death of King Brutus the British kingdom had been divided. His eldest son inherited Loegria (England), his second Albany (Scotland) and the third Cambria (Wales) and under feudal law, the English king held seniority over the other two. Worse still, by the time of King Arthur, this monarch ruled all of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Scandinavia and Gaul, with Scotland as a tributary state, whose kings for centuries paid homage to England’s ruler.

Over the course of centuries this mythology became a powerful ideological weapon used to justify aggression against the Scots. Edward I, Henry V, and Henry VI all based their right to conquer Scotland on their descent from Brutus. Henry VIII likewise justified his claim to Scotland on his ‘Trojan-English’ ancestry. No king, he said had ‘more just title, more evident title, more certayn title, to any realm … than we have to Scotland.’

One almost inevitable reaction to this English ideology was the creation of a Scottish counter-ideology, which was used in international diplomacy at the same time as Edward submitted his claim to Scotland to the Pope in 1301. Then the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320, also laid before the Pope, claimed that Scotland had had 113 kings of her own and had never been ruled by a foreigner. The full exposition of the Scottish counter-ideology, however, had to wait till the monk, John of Fordoun, published his Chronica Gentis Scotorum between 1384 and 1387, later continued until 1437 under the title Scotichronicon.

Fordoun disputed that Brutus had ever ruled the entire island, which, he maintained had been called Albion, whereas the Roman name Britannia had only referred to England. The Scottish nation, he explained, was descended from a Greek prince named Gathelus (the Greeks, remember, had conquered the Trojans) and an Egyptian princess called Scota who had married about 1,500 BC. The Scots had subsequently wandered from the Mediterranean through the Pillars of Hercules and reached the west of Scotland, via Spain and Ireland. There they founded their kingdom in 330 BC under King Fergus I. After forty-five further kings and a period of exile lasting forty-three years the Kingdom of Scotland was re-established in 403 AD, from which date, despite English hostility, it had been ruled by independent Scottish monarchs.

Like Geoffrey’s Historia, the Scotichronicon dominated Scottish historical consciousness till well into the sixteenth century and had many interpreters, the most prominent being Hector Boece, Principal of the University of St. Andrews whose Scotorum Historiae was published in 1527. He used the tale of the forty-five fictitious kings as a constitutional and moral warning against corruption, which would, he feared, undermine the country’s stability. The power of this Scottish mythology declined from the sixteenth century but was never completely broken. When Charles II was restored he had a Dutch master, Jacob de Witt, paint a series of one hundred and eleven portraits of the Scottish kings, starting with Fergus I in 330 BC right up to himself and his brother James (the future James VII and II) on the walls of Holyrood Palace. Hence the legend was used as a source of royal legitimacy as late as 1660.

The original purpose of the legend had been to legitimise Scottish independence. This seemed to have been established by Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn in 1314. And legally, of course, it had been. Yet Scottish independence remained fragile. The country was often invaded, defeated and humiliated by the English. As early as 1332 and 1333 two full scale Scottish armies were cut to pieces and their leaders slain. In 1356 Edward III again invaded Scotland devastating the South East counties in the so-called ‘Burnt Candlemas’. Under Robert II attacks on England (usually at the behest of the French) brought punitive expeditions by John of Gaunt, who first ransomed Edinburgh and later burnt it. In 1400 Henry IV also led an army to Edinburgh while in 1402 the ‘the flower of chivalry of the whole realm of Scotland’ was captured and held to ransom at Homildon Hill. Scotland’s greatest defeat, however, came at Flodden in 1513 where the king (James IV) died along with his illegitimate son, the Archbishop of St. Andrews, two other bishops, three abbots, one dean, fourteen earls, about the same number of lords, three Highland chiefs, and a great number of lairds. Yet as a distinguished historian remarked: there was ‘nothing novel about a heavy defeat at the hands of the English and Flodden was neither the first nor the last in a long series.’ One need not list them all. The final humiliation, of course, was Scotland’s defeat, conquest and occupation by Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s. Remarkably, there is no folk memory of this at all among contemporary Scots, unlike the visceral memory of Cromwell’s record in Ireland among the Irish.

The independent kingdom unfortunately suffered other woes besides English invasions. It was cursed for example by a succession of royal minorities. In the period 1406-1488 there was no adult ruler for thirty-eight years. After Flodden in 1513 there were three royal minorities, so that in the space of more than seventy years there were no more than twenty-two years’ rule by a monarch of a mature age. Mary Queen of Scots became queen when only a week old; James VI was crowned at thirteen months; and David II became king at the age of five. Worst of all were the cases of David II and James I, both kings were captured by the English and kept as virtual prisoners by them. David II, defeated in battle, was kept in England from 1346 till 1357 and was only released when Scotland agreed to pay an exorbitant ransom for him (the ransom was continually renegotiated). James I was captured by English pirates and kept a prisoner from 1406 till 1424 and also had to pay a large sum to secure his freedom.

Scotland was also subject to noble factionalism, the fifteenth century being particularly lawless. Both James I and James III were murdered while the reign of James II saw a bitter struggle between him and the Black Douglases. Before his own murder James III had to experience the murder of his own favourites by a dissident nobility. The independent Scotland created by Bruce therefore remained at the mercy of the English who invaded and devastated it and held its kings to ransom. Moreover it was a poor and lawless place as the above-mentioned murders affirm. In 1398 the chronicler of Moray wrote that ‘there was no law in Scotland but he who was stronger oppressed him who was weaker.’ Crimes went unpunished and justice ‘lay in exile outwith the bounds of the country.’ Some kings, it is true—James V for example—did try to impose justice but a prominent historian could write of Scotland as late as the 1660s as ‘a country which could not afford and did not know how to administer any system of regular policing.’ Independent Scotland in fact could hardly defend or administer itself.

One great hope of salvation lay with the French. An alliance with France would surely create security. But the effectiveness of the Auld Alliance is just another Scottish myth.

THE AULD ALLIANCE was a treaty of mutual defence against England signed by John Balliol and Philip IV of France in Paris in 1295. It lasted till 1560. It is still much revered and romanticised today by Scottish Anglophobes who see the EU as its modern equivalent. And, indeed, like the EU, it turned out to be a disaster for Scotland. It worked well enough for France, however. After her defeat at Agincourt in 1415 when her leaders were in a panic, an appeal was made to the Scots for help. More than 12,000 sailed to assist the French and at the battle of Bauge in 1421, the English were defeated. This provided a vital breathing space for France but in 1424 at Verneuil in a ‘second Agincourt’ 4,000 Scots were completely wiped out by the English.

Over the centuries Scottish knights continued to make their way to France but no French army ever turned up in Scotland to fight the English. Instead, French kings made appeals quite regularly to their Scottish counterparts to invade England to take the pressure off France when she was at war. Both David II and James IV were leading their armies into England at the request of the French when, first, David II was captured at the disastrous battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346 and then James IV and his leading nobles were annihilated at Flodden in 1513. At the Scottish court meanwhile there were always tensions between pro-French and pro-English factions. However, the final proof of the toxicity of the Auld Alliance came during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, whose first husband, Francis II of France, was made king matrimonial of Scotland. Not only that but Mary signed three documents making over her kingdom of Scotland to France should there be no issue from her marriage, this despite promises to the contrary having been made to the Scots.

In Scotland meanwhile during her absence in France, Mary’s mother, the French Mary of Guise, became regent and practically turned the country into a French province. French troops garrisoned Scottish castles and French administrators advised the Regent on policy. It was this French preponderance which led in 1559 to a Scottish revolution which saw the Scottish nobles seize back control. But they were lucky: things might have been very different had not a political crisis in France prevented the despatch of French troops to Scotland, had not Mary of Guise suddenly died, and had not Elizabeth I of England intervened.

The Treaty of Edinburgh of 1560, which saw both French and English troops withdraw, was, as a result a sort of peace treaty between England and France. It did not say much for Scottish independence or for the Auld Alliance which now came to an ignominious end. Factionalism at the Scottish court continued with Mary Queen of Scots’ return to Scotland in 1561. Yet it was not her Catholicism that fatally undermined her (the Pope despaired of her lack of action on behalf of Catholics) so much as her politics and marriages. Her forced abdication in 1567 and subsequent exile in England from 1568 till her execution in 1587, meant yet another Scottish monarch being held prisoner by the English while her infant son, James VI, was at the mercy of Scottish political factionalism. His first two regents were murdered and in 1582 he himself was captured by a faction led by the Earl of Gowrie. Only after a league with England was established in 1586, with James becoming a pensioner of Elizabeth I, was stability really restored. James could then accept both his mother’s execution and exhibit neutrality towards the Spanish Armada. But this was Scottish independence at a very high price.

The Darien Expedition was a fantastical scheme to found a Scottish colony or empire in Panama which could trade across both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The Company of Scotland provided vessels and colonists. Yet the colony was covered in jungle and swamp and the scheme threatened the interests of nearby Spanish adventurers. It was also opposed by William II and III, who sabotaged the whole enterprise to keep in with the Spanish. Yet almost anyone who had money in Scotland had invested in it and when it failed many faced ruin at a time when harvests were failing, foreign trade had collapsed and hunger stalked the land. Economically Scotland needed to be saved and only England could help her.

The other problem that sped on union was yet another crisis of the royal succession. William’s successor, Queen Anne, had no surviving children, forcing the English Parliament in 1701 to choose the Protestant Elector of Hanover as her heir. Scotland, of course, could make a different decision, as the Scottish Parliament in an Act of Sovereignty in 1704 made clear. But this only brought the Alien Act from England, which threatened to treat all Scots as foreigners and block Scottish exports if Scotland so decided. Also threatened was the use of force. The Scots were so outraged that they hanged an English ship’s captain on trumped-up charges of piracy. Inevitably, however, compromise was reached and the Scots agreed to negotiate a Union. And once negotiations got underway in London a Treaty was drawn up remarkably quickly: a new kingdom of Great Britain was created; the Hanoverian succession was secured; there was to be a single Parliament including 45 Scottish MPs and 16 Scottish peers; Scotland received an ‘Equivalent’ of almost £400,000 to compensate her for the higher English national debt but also to compensate the stockholders of the Darien scheme. This Treaty was ratified by the Scottish Parliament by 110 votes to 69.

Scotland did very well out of the negotiations. She acquired access to English and imperial markets, enjoyed a uniform taxation system, her sons could join British regiments, while her legal, educational and religious institutions remained untouched.

How popular then was the Union? Its terms were debated at length in the Scottish Parliament despite the rioting mobs outside, and although there were petitions galore against it, these were from old opponents and were hardly representative. Claims of bribery of the Scottish Commissioners who negotiated in London were made and are still believed but these seem to have been based largely on a misunderstanding of the legitimate expenses due the people involved. According to Professor Smout: ‘In the end one is forced to the conclusion that the Union of Parliaments did not at the time seem of overriding importance to very many Scots.’ Control of foreign policy had been lost in 1603. Otherwise life remained much the same as far as church, law, education and even economics were concerned. Economic control of most things – estates, farms, manufactures – remained in the North. And the country was now protected from feuds over the succession as the history of Jacobitism proved. A Jacobite plot of 1708 never got off the ground, the 1715 rebellion had no support in the Lowlands and as for the Forty Five, Culloden was a victory of Scots over Scots. Three Scottish regiments fought prominently there and Scottish irregulars and volunteers numbered 13,000. More Scots enlisted against the Rebellion than in it.

The Jacobite army was composed mainly of Highlanders. Glasgow and Edinburgh were opposed and during his brief ascendancy there were several outbreaks against Charles. Even in the Highlands many of the great clans were aloof or actively hostile to the rising: Campbell, Mackay, Munro, Macpherson, Grant and Fraser, not to mention the McLeods, MacLeans, MacNeills and the MacDonalds of the Isles. Indeed, if Lochiel had persisted in his initial refusal to take up arms, the other chiefs would not have joined without him and the rebellion would have died instantly.

The Church of Scotland was absolutely opposed to the Jacobites, as were all Presbyterians. They saw the uprising as an attempt to return Scotland to a state of slavery under France and Rome. Not a single minister – and they were influential even in the Jacobite Highlands – joined the rebellion.

Contemporary witnesses put support for the rising into perspective: the Earl of Marchmont estimated that two-thirds of Scotland backed George II; Brigadier-General William Douglas put that support at more than three-quarters; while Sir Archibald Grant put it at ‘nine parts in ten of Scotland’. It would seem that the Union was quickly accepted by the vast majority of Scots. And support for it grew. The economy prospered as the industrial revolution transformed the country. The Scottish Enlightenment dazzled minds across the world and Scottish regiments played a prominent part in building up Empire and Commonwealth and taking a leading part in coalition warfare against European tyrants like Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler. Scottish emigrants with their democratic culture helped build up the world’s greatest democracies within the Commonwealth. Hence the Union contributed not merely to the growing wealth and freedom of Scots but to the defence and growth of freedom throughout the world.

In many ways the Union was both the logical outcome of Scottish history and its crowning glory.

Independence had allowed the Scots to build up national institutions which the Union then preserved. But independence had always been fragile and sometimes even nominal. The fate of Scotland was often decided by the English or their proxies in Edinburgh. Even when this was not the case Scotland herself was often without stable government and for long periods was a poor and lawless land. Union with England was always the obvious solution and when it came about it brought prosperity not poverty and enlightenment not oppression. Scotland became part of a world power with a record of success second to none.

Alan Sked was educated at Allan Glen's School in Glasgow, before going on to study Modern and Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, followed by a DPhil in Politics at Merton College, Oxford. Sked taught at the London School of Economics where he became a leading authority on the history of the Hapsburg Empire, also teaching US and modern intellectual history and the history of sex, race and slavery. Alan Sked is now Emeritus Professor of International History at the London School of Economics.

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