IT is a common claim on the part of Unionists that the Acts of Union were set in stone in 1707 – and to be fair, before they passed the Acts, neither the English or Scottish parliaments seriously contemplated that the Union was anything but permanent. That is why, as I have written, there is no right or mechanism in the Acts for Scotland to resile from the Union. The fact is, however, that the Union was fragile from the outset and only just survived at times until well into the 18th century.

You wouldn’t know that from British Unionist history, the kind that was taught almost exclusively in most Scottish schools until relatively recently. Fortunately we have many fine professors of Scottish history now and the doyen of them all is Professor Sir Tom Devine, Sir William Fraser Professor Emeritus of Scottish History and Palaeography at the University of Edinburgh. In his seminal work the Scottish Nation: A Modern History, Devine pays short shrift to the notion that the Union was successful from the outset.

He writes: “The reality was, however, that a long and rocky road had to be traversed after 1707 before the new relationship between the two countries was finally formalised, and at some points along this difficult route the very survival of the new union was sometimes in grave doubt. The treaty had been born out of a marriage of convenience between the governing classes in Edinburgh and London, and its successful passage through the Scottish Parliament was a close run thing, delivered in the teeth of a good deal of popular hostility outside of the House. This was hardly the context for the stable and harmonious development of Great Britain.”

Indeed not, and Sir John Clerk of Penicuik recorded the very first misgivings of the Scots who had brought about the Union after the first sitting of the new British Parliament on October 23, 1707. Clerk wrote that the 45 Scottish MPs and 16 peers sent to Westminster at the Union found themselves “obscure and unhonoured in the crowd of English society, where they were despised for their poverty, ridiculed for their speech, sneered at for their manners, and ignored in spite of their votes by the ministers and government”. Apart from those with London residences, the Parcel of Rogues went back home, by all accounts thoroughly chastened because although they had been bought off, they were not getting the respect they expected. English MPs’ behaviour in the Commons and Lords was as bad, if not worse, than that of the current Tories towards the SNP.

The first serious attempt to undo the Union happened only a year after it. Even within that space of time many Scots had changed their mind about the Union which, of course, had been opposed by a considerable majority of the people who were overruled by the nobility in the Scottish Parliament.

It was one of those nobles, John Erskine, the 6th Earl of Mar, who took it upon himself to tell the Union’s greatest encourager, Queen Anne, about the true situation in his native land. On June 14, 1708, the Earl, who had been a strong supporter of the Union, wrote to the Queen about how the Union was being implemented, or not, in Parliament and Scotland as whole: “The predominantly English House of Commons thought in terms of their own country. Ignorant of the Law of Scotland, they regarded their own system as superior. They paid little attention to the Scots MPs in their midst. Often, they claimed they could not understand what they were saying let alone care. The Scots became tools of the two English political parties and were wooed with favours to keep them amenable but many were quickly disillusioned.

“I think myself obliged in duty to let your majesty know that so far as I understand the inclinations and temper of the generality of this country, it is still as dissatisfied with the Union as ever, and seem mightily soured.”

Parliament then brought in the Treason Act 1708, ostensibly to even up the nature of the offence of treason against the monarch in both nations, but in fact to impose the criminal law on treason on Scots law – the first but certainly not the last time that the supposed invulnerability and supremacy of Scots law was bludgeoned aside by the Westminster Parliament.

You only have to read the Act’s introduction to see what it was all about: “From and after the First Day of July in the Year of our Lord One thousand seven hundred and nine such Crimes and Offences which are High Treason or Misprision of High Treason within England shall be construed adjudged and taken to be High Treason and Misprision of High Treason within Scotland.”

There were still many active Jacobites in Scotland and England, and this Act was aimed at them. It is important to note that while it did not take effect until July 1, 1709, the Act was passed the previous year in immediate and direct response to the first great threat to the Union.

THE prospects for the Union’s survival had worsened when King Louis XIV of France decided to open a “second front” in his ongoing war with England – the War of the Spanish Succession – into which Scotland had now been unwillingly dragged, given that France had been Scotland’s ancient ally. Louis had recognised James Francis Edward Stuart as King of Great Britain when his father James VII and II died in 1701.

I have written about the 1708 Jacobite Rising and still consider it the greatest missed chance of undoing the Union, not least because England’s greatest general, John Churchill, better known as the Duke of Marlborough, was bogged down with his army in Flanders. Two great Jacobite spies, Colonel Nathaniel Hooke and the wily Tory – ie pro-Jacobite – politician George Lockhart had convinced Louis and James Stuart that the time was right for a rising in Scotland. Louis agreed, mainly because it would mean Marlborough having to take his army home.

This is how I described the Rising before: “Colonel Hooke had been intriguing for two years among known Jacobites and by early 1708 a plan had been formed. Louis provided 6000 troops and 300 small ships to transport them to Scotland where they would land in the Forth. Simultaneously the clans would rise in the Highlands and march south, there being very few government forces in Scotland at the time – they were fighting on the continent. James and the planners were counting on support from the ordinary people of Scotland who were known to hate the Union – martial law had been imposed since May of 1707 because of the many protests against it.”

Such was the ill-feeling against the Union that Jacobite clan chiefs were able to pledge an army of 25,000 men to fight for James. All they were waiting for was word that the 7000 promised French troops had landed on the East Coast and they would march south. But that word never came.

As I wrote in 2018, it all went wrong for the Rising when its leader James became ill ...

“Then came one of those accidents of history that determine great events. James caught measles and the fleet had to stay in France for a fortnight to allow him to recover. When it did eventually emerge, the Royal Navy had been given two extra weeks to prepare and they chased the French fleet all the way to the Forth. Jacobites were waiting, but were too few in number, and unable to land the troops, the French fleet went home, despite James’s pleas to be put ashore. Several French vessels sank, but James made it back to France.

“Numerous Jacobites were arrested, but they were all later released and eventually the 1708 Jacobite Rising fizzled out without a shot being fired on land. What might have happened had James not caught measles is a matter for speculation.”

IT was the fact that so many Jacobites were allowed their freedom that made the English MPs bring in the Treason Act. They had only themselves to blame – egged on by Scottish MPs, Westminster had abolished the Scottish Privy Council which had been the main executive government in Scotland. The Privy Council was in its final days at the time of the Rising, and declined to act against fellow Scots.

The point about the Rising was that James had promised to be King of Scots only and to end the Union, and that was what brought so many people to declare for him. He would do so again in 1715 and I will examine the run-up to that event next week.

For long before that second Rising, there were serious problems for the Union, most of them self-inflicted by an unseeing, uncaring Parliament in London. The two main factions in Westminster were the Whigs and the Tories, the latter always accused of being pro-Jacobite while the Whigs were the supporters of the parliamentary system who were absolutely opposed to an absolute monarchy. The latter crew were also tolerant of Protestant dissenters, something that the strictly Presbyterian Church of Scotland vehemently opposed. Both factions were loose groupings and were never political parties as we would recognise them. Nevertheless MPs and Lords usually attached themselves to one or other faction in the years after the Union.

Queen Anne’s main ministers Lord Godolphin and the Duke of Marlborough were moderate Tories leading a coalition with Whigs and did not trouble themselves much with Scotland. That all changed in 1710 when the Tories gained power and promptly began to interfere in religious matters.

As Sir Tom Devine summed it up: “The High Church Tories seemed bent on a policy of cutting down the privileges of the Church of Scotland enshrined in the Treaty of Union. This was not so much hostility towards the Scots as such as general campaign against Presbyterians in both England and Scotland by high Anglicans in the Tory Party.”

We’ll see next week how that clash between Kirk and Parliament almost brought the end of the Union …

Of greater concern in Scotland was the Union’s failure to deliver. The Scottish people had been promised great and immediate benefits to the economy of the country from the outset of the Union, and while trade with England increased slightly, there was certainly not the boom that had been promised. Nor was the protection of the Royal Navy for Scotland’s merchant fleet of much use at a time when naval resources were stretched.

We know precisely how the people ostensibly governing Scotland felt just for years after the Union, due to a letter penned by the Earl of Mar in 1711. The original is in the Mar and Kellie Papers in the National Records of Scotland.

It was this letter above all which earned the Earl of Mar his nickname of “Bobbing John” as the most senior aristocrat to change his mind back and forth about the Union.

He wrote: “I am not yet wearie of the Union but still think it, if rightly used, for the good of the whole Island, and also that it is the only thing which can preserve Scotland and England too from Blood and confusion, so I do not at all repent any hand I had in it, tho I’m afraid I have fue [few] of either side of my opinion, but shou’d that hardship of the Peeradge be putt upon us so contrair to all sense, reason and fair dealing and if our trade be no more encuradge’d than yett it has been, or indeed is like to be, how is it possible that flesh and blood can bear it and what Scots man will not be wearie of the Union and do all he can to gett quit of it.”

If Mar felt that way, how close was the Union coming to cancellation? Find out next week.