JUST off the Royal Mile, close to where the Scottish Parliament stands today, lies a hidden part of Scotland’s history.

A small building, now belonging to the University of Edinburgh, played a vital role in deciding the future of Scotland.

This is where the Act of Union, the treaty bringing Scotland and England under the kingdom of Great Britain, was supposedly signed in 1707.

The National gained exclusive access to the building, which is currently being used as storage.

The history of the Summer House

The Summer House, which is now part of the University of Edinburgh’s Moray House School of Education and Sport, was built sometime in the latter half of the 17th century.

The National:

Serving as a literal summer house, in the 19th century it was then converted into a conservatory, possibly in order to grow oranges or vines, and then a sewing room.

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The location of the building appears to have moved over time, with various features being added including new doors and shutters, which are visible today.

The National:

In 1707, the Earl of Seafield had a tenancy here - he was Lord Chancellor of Scotland, and alongside the Duke of Queensbury was tasked with taking the Act of Union through the Scottish Parliament.

The Act passed comfortably by 110 votes to 67 - with 100 MPs absent from the vote - although it was highly unpopular with the ordinary Scot.

‘No union. No union.’

Getting the Scottish public to accept the Act would be a difficult task.

Virtually all print discourse in Scotland during the period of 1699-1706 spoke against incorporating the union, and the Scottish Parliament did not receive any petitions in favour of the union.

Sir George Lockhart of Carnwath, the only Scottish negotiator to oppose the union, noted "the whole nation appears against [it]".

Another negotiator, Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, who was an ardent unionist, observed it was "contrary to the inclinations of at least three-fourths of the Kingdom".

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The Act was so unpopular that it was impossible to sign on the Royal Mile, as was first intended, because protestors had blocked the way.

This is where Summer House comes into the story - a quaint, glorified garden shed no bigger than seven feet squared. Today, you would have no idea it existed unless you were really looking for it.

The National: The building is tucked away just off the Royal MileThe building is tucked away just off the Royal Mile (Image: Google)

More than 300 years on, the house is being used to store other old, forgotten bits and pieces of history - including a rusted sundial, and two stone animals which were removed at the beginning of the 20th century to be preserved.

Writing in 1880, James Grant attested the involvement of the Summer House in the signing of the Act of Union:

“There long remained the old stone summer house … wherein after a flight from the Union Cellar many of the signatures were affixed to the Act of Union, while the cries of the exasperated mob rang in the streets without barred gates. ‘No Union. No Union.’

The Scottish people’s cry against the possibility of a union is almost bittersweet, as the call for independence continues to grow.

Did the Union really come into existence in a shed?

Historians dispute whether or not the signing of the Act actually took place in Summer House - evidence is largely indirect, and other theories have emerged regarding where this took place.

The Union Cellar that James Grant refers to is often attributed to 177 High Street, opposite Hunter’s Square, where the Italian chain Bella Italia’s Royal Mile restaurant now stands.

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Contemporary publisher Robert Chambers wrote in The History of Edinburgh that the Act was signed in the cellar of the Royal Mile then-townhouse to avoid coming into contact with anyone who objected to the union.

Chambers wrote:

“The noblemen whose signatures had not been procured, then met under cloud of night, and put their names to the detested contract, after which they all immediately decamped for London, before the people were stirring in the morning, when they might have been discovered and prevented.”

Yet if Grant’s account is correct, then the signatories fled from Union Cellar to Summer House, where they then signed the Act.

The National: The building is now being used as storageThe building is now being used as storage (Image: NQ)

It wasn’t even necessary for the Act to have signatures - all it needed was the Royal Assent, which was given by the Duke of Queensbury who touched the Act with the royal sceptre, signifying the sovereign’s approval of acts of the Scottish Parliament.

It was the very secrecy of the signing of the Act that contributed to the lack of direct evidence - we may never know the truth.

Regardless, historians do not entirely reject the idea that some signatures may have been gathered in the Summer House.

The future of the Union

It is perhaps ironic that the Act of Union may - or may not have - been signed in what appears now to be an abandoned shed.

When we visited the building, those working there were slightly perplexed at our interest in a place that had clearly been forgotten.

Yet no matter where the Act of Union was signed, the circumstances remain; the Scottish people did not want to enter a union with England.

Three centuries later, as we look forward to Scotland’s future, perhaps it is time to start thinking about the most fitting place to sign an Act of Independence.