Michael Fry is delving into Scotland’s past in this new history series. This week he looks at the final shaping and passing of the Articles of Union

ON January 16, 1707, the Act of Ratification for the Treaty of Union of Scotland and England was passed by a vote of 100 to 67 in the chamber of Parliament House in Edinburgh.

The wordy title signalled fulfilment of the task the Parliament had been busy on since its latest session opened in October 1706. Members approved the 25th and final article of the treaty only two days before.

Following talks with the Church of Scotland, a provision that it would remain by law Presbyterian was then written in. Finally the entire Act of Ratification, as “enlarged, explained and amended”, was voted through for one last time, just to make sure.

Nobody could then claim the act had not been duly and carefully considered and passed by the Scottish Parliament. The Court Party, the supporters of Queen Anne and her government, wanted things done that way because it held no actual majority in the chamber.

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There, about 200 votes were normally required to win any important division, but only about 180 could be relied on. The treaty in its turn was not just the property of a closed clique and needed the support of smaller groups to win through.

There was no lack of special interests represented in the Parliament. During the debates it had received 96 petitions against the Union. Some merited respect and others didn’t. John Campbell, Duke of Argyll, a leader of the Court Party, called them “paper kites”. While he and his friends managed to carry the substance of what they wanted, their opponents also extracted concessions, secured their position in a new order or laid stakes on the future.

At the close of business on January 16, the Lord Chancellor, James Ogilvy, Earl of Seafield, caught a wistful mood. “There’s ane end of ane auld sang,” he said as he sealed the record. The last gesture of all came from James Douglas, Marquess of Queensberry, seated on a throne as Queen Anne’s commissioner. He touched the text of the act with her sceptre. With that it became law.

The Union had been a long time in the making. It first appeared as a possibility when King James VI of Scotland ascended the English throne in 1603, uniting the crowns but not the parliaments of his two realms. It proved still premature when Oliver Cromwell overran Scotland and imposed his own military dictatorship in mid-century.

The chances seemed better after the House of Stewart’s autocracy was toppled in the Revolution of 1688. Peaceful agreement between the two nations was the dogged aspiration of the next monarchs, King William of Orange and Queen Anne. But serious talks did not start till 1705.

A problem for Scots was their consciousness of passing from one political order to another, from pride in a heroic past to calculation about a precarious future. Behind them lay the mythical history that had sustained national identity, forged in the medieval Wars of Independence by fighting folk who kept going in a distant corner of Europe over 2000 years.

The Scots of 1707, though divided among themselves, wanted to cling on to this tradition and persuade the English they should be entitled to. Inside Parliament House, all sides shared a commitment to three essential historic elements of the country’s life, to a church, to an educational system and to a legal system. These elements found their way into the Treaty, where they remain to the present, though time has taken its toll of them.

The National: James Ogilvy, 1st Earl of Seafield, 1663 - 1730James Ogilvy, 1st Earl of Seafield, 1663 - 1730

It was not as if the English cared that much. Their main aim was to get the Scots to accept the Protestant or Hanoverian Succession on Anne’s death, so that the revolutionary work of 1688 would not be undone.

In reality it proved possible for the Scots to trade this in return for economic and other concessions. These were specified in the “conditions of government” set out in the Act of Security passed in Edinburgh in 1704. It said the Union of Crowns was not to be maintained unless Scottish interests found safeguards too.

AN alternative might have been to remodel the Union of Crowns by shifting powers from the monarch in London to the Parliament in Edinburgh. That implied eventual development of a confederation or federal union, and it may be the way we are moving in the 21st century.

In 1703, Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, member for East Lothian, proposed to do it by limitations on the royal prerogative. His Act anent Peace and War stipulated the Parliament should have its vital powers extended by giving it authority over the monarch’s foreign policy.

One problem was that the Scots had long seen the English themselves as enemies. The two nations were no longer so bitterly hostile as before the Reformation or the Union of Crowns, but they had fought their last battle as recently as in 1651. War might have followed in the 1690s, the decade of the Boyne and Darien, not to mention Glencoe. England was a troublemaker in Scotland, and Scotland tried, with less success, to return the compliment.

The Union would not at once solve the problem. Scots placed more hope in getting round it by the expansion of trade. Without that the hope of any wider development was likely to remain wishful thinking.

Yet there were risks here too. Between two independent countries, free trade could be regulated by treaty. Within one country, acts of parliament would need to do it. Rich merchants could prosper, but producers and consumers might not be so lucky. There could be crippling competition from cheap English imports and a heavy burden from higher English customs duties.

A new Union faced with a choice between the interest of Scotland and the interest of England would surely submit to the stronger nation.

It was similar with religion. Presbyterians feared the Anglican majority at Westminster would make the Church of Scotland once again an Episcopalian kirk, or at least a kirk more tolerant of Episcopalians.

Non-Presbyterian Protestants tended to be Jacobites hostile to the Revolution of 1688. Militant Presbyterians refused to accept any British structure except for the Solemn League and Covenant (1643), that is, a confederation of Presbyterian kirks in England, Scotland and Ireland, all under a shared monarch.

Confederation and limitations were not viable options in 1706-7. Queen Anne objected to both, but many Scots preferred these options to Union with England.

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Princess Sophia of Hanover, a descendant of James VI, had already been accepted as heir to the English throne, while in Scotland the succession remained open. Jacobites clung to the Union of Crowns, with separate kingdoms of Scotland and England under a Stewart monarch. There were no easy answers.

Once the Act entered into force on May 1, 1707, the two nations could start to come together, if not always willingly on the Scottish side.

But it pointed them towards their future. The 18th century saw the end of the medieval monarchies in Europe. The 19th century was for much of the continent an age of national rebirth, which Scots saw as unnecessary in the British Empire.

By the 20th century matters took a different turn, with the end of empire. In the 21st century, empire is reduced to a nullity in the Scotland of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. Empire once showed a way into the UK for Scotland. Perhaps it will show a way out.