A pivotal point in Scottish history – now and then

A pivotal point in Scottish history – now and then

How exactly did we get to be united with Scotland?

It may be of interest to our readers to understand why we are united with Scotland. The Act of Union that united Scotland and the rest of Britain in 1707 was brought about for several reasons.

Royal successions and political machinations Scotland at the end of the Seventeenth Century created in a state of crisis.

Decades of warfare, combined with seven years of famine, drove the indigenous population from their homesteads and choked the cities with homeless vagrants, who were starving to death in the streets. The nation’s trade had been crippled by England’s continual wars against continental Europe, and its home-grown industries were dying.

Some way had to be found to revive Scotland’s economic fortunes before it got swallowed up by its much richer neighbour south of the border.

The man who came up with the answer was a financial adventurer called William Paterson, a Scot who had made his name down south as one of the founding directors of the Bank of England.

Paterson returned to Edinburgh with an audacious scheme to turn Scotland into the major broker of trade across the Pacific Ocean. In London, he had met a sailor called Lionel Wafer, who had told him about a wonderful paradise on the Isthmus of Panama, with a sheltered bay, friendly Indians and rich, fertile land – a place called Darien.

Paterson had immediately seen the potential of Darien as the location of a trading colony. Trade with the lucrative Pacific markets was a hugely expensive business, as all ships had to make the hazardous trip round Cape Horn. This added months to the journey, and the ships involved were at high risk of being lost at sea.

If a colony could be established at Darien, goods could be ferried from the Pacific across Panama and loaded onto ships in the Atlantic speeding up Pacific trade and making it more reliable. Also, the Scottish directors of the Darien Venture could charge a fat commission, completely ignoring the fact that the Spanish claimed control of that area!

Scotland 2The idea proved hugely popular, and there was a great rush to subscribe to the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies, founded in June 1695; but it was not just the Spanish who felt threatened by it. The English East India Company, fearing the loss of its monopoly on British trade to the Indies, successfully lobbied the English Parliament, which threatened the new company with impeachment, forcing its English investors to withdraw.

Thousands of Scots, both rich and poor, flocked to subscribe, and within 6 months £400,000 had been raised. The money was used to fit out five ships for the expedition, despite efforts by the English authorities to block them.

However, the stories of a land of milk and honey were untrue. The land was unsuitable for agriculture and the natives unfriendly.  They also faced the constant threat of attack from the Spanish, with no support from the English colonies at all, which had been ordered not to assist them in any way.

Paterson’s wife was one of thousands who died on that peninsula, along with his dreams.

At the news that the Spanish a planning an attack on the colony the settlers took to the sea in panic, abandoning the settlement. Of the four ships that fled the colony, only one made it back to Scotland, with less than 300 souls on board.

The Darien Venture was a complete disaster for Scotland. The blow to Scottish morale was incalculable. The company had lost over £232,884, made up of the life savings of many of the Scottish people.

Scotland was now completely incapable of going it alone. Just 7 years after the failure at Darien, it was forced to concede to the Act of Union, joining Scotland with England as the junior partner in the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

As part of the deal, England paid off Scotland’s debts with the ‘equivalent’, a sum of £398,000, most of which went to cover the Company of Scotland’s losses. The institution established to administer this money eventually became the Royal Bank of Scotland.

No amount of money could make up for the nation’s sense of betrayal, however. Many Scots believed that their chance of independence had been deliberately sabotaged by the English, and the resentment this fostered played no small part in the Jacobite rebellions which were to plague the Union.

Will a ‘yes’ vote be another pivotal point in Scottish history?  Will Scotland be able to become a sustainable nation in its own right, or will it be heading towards another economic disaster?