Is it not strange that at a time when we have lost our Princes, our Parliaments, our independent government, even the Presence of our chief Nobility, are unhappy in our accent and pronunciation, speak a very corrupt Dialect of the Tongue which we make use of, is it not strange, I say, that in these Circumstances, we shou’d really be the People most distinguished for Literature in Europe?

—David Hume, 1757

The constant influx of information and of liberality from abroad, which was thus kept up in Scotland in consequence of the ancient habits and manners of the people, may help to account for the sudden burst of genius, which to a foreigner must seem have sprung up in this country by a sort of enchantment, soon after the Rebellion of 1745.

—Dugald Stewart


The New Jerusalem


Just as the German Reformation was largely the work of a single individual, Martin Luther, so the Scottish Reformation was the achievement of one man of heroic will and tireless energy: John Knox.

Like Luther, Knox left an indelible mark on his national culture. Uncompromising, dogmatic, and driven, John Knox was a prolific writer and a preacher of truly terrifying power. His early years as a Protestant firebrand had been spent in exile, imprisonment, and even penal servitude chained to a rowing bench in the king’s galleys. The harsh trials toughened him physically and spiritually for what was to come. He became John Knox, “he who feared the face of no man.” Beginning in 1559, Knox single-handedly inspired, intimidated, and bullied Scotland’s nobility and urban classes into overthrowing the Catholic Church of their forebears and adopting the religious creed of Geneva’s John Calvin. Its austere and harsh dogmas—that the Bible was the literal Word of God, that the God of that Bible was a stern and jealous God, filled with wrath at all sinners and blasphemers, and that the individual soul was by God’s grace predestined to heaven or hell regardless of any good works or charitable intentions—were themselves natural extensions of Knox’s own personality. Calvinism seemed as natural to him as breathing, and he taught a generation of Scotsmen to believe the same thing themselves.

Above all, John Knox wanted to turn the Scots into God’s chosen people, and Scotland into the New Jerusalem. To do this, Knox was willing to sweep away everything about Scotland’s past that linked it to the Catholic Church. As one admirer said, “Others snipped at the branches of Popery; but he strikes at the roots, to destroy the whole.” He and his followers scoured away not only Scottish Catholicism but all its physical manifestations, from monasteries and bishops and clerical vestments to holy relics and market-square crosses. They smashed stained-glass windows and saints’ statues, ripped out choir stalls and roodscreens, and overturned altars. All these symbols of a centuries-old tradition of religious culture, which we would call great works of art, were for Knox marks of “idolatry” and “the synagogue of Satan,” as he called the Roman Catholic Church. In any case, the idols disappeared from southern Scotland, and the Scottish Kirk rose up to take their place.

Knox and his lieutenants also imposed the new rules of the Calvinist Sabbath on Scottish society: no working (people could be arrested for plucking a chicken on Sunday), no dancing, and no playing of the pipes. Gambling, cardplaying, and the theater were banned. No one could move out of a parish without written permission of the minister. The Kirk wiped out all traditional forms of collective fun, such as Carnival, Maytime celebrations, mumming, and Passion plays. Fornication brought punishment and exile; adultery meant death. The church courts, or kirk-sessions, enforced the law with scourges, pillories, branks (a padlocked iron helmet that forced an iron plate into the mouth of a convicted liar or blasphemer), ducking-stools, banishment, and, in the case of witches or those possessed by the devil, burning at the stake.

The faithful received one single compensation for this harsh authoritarian regime, and it was a powerful one: direct access to God. The right of communion, receiving the body and blood of Christ in the form of wine and bread, now belonged to everyone, rich and poor, young and old, men and women. In the Catholic Church, the Bible had been literally a closed book. Now anyone who could read, or listen to someone else read, could absorb the Word of God. On Sundays the church rafters rang with the singing of psalms and recitations from the Gospel. The Lord’s Supper became a community festival, with quantities, sometimes plentiful, of red wine and shortcake (John Knox presided over one Sunday communion where the congregation consumed eight and a half gallons of claret).

The congregation was the center of everything. It elected its own board of elders or presbyters; it even chose its minister. The congregation’s board of elders, the consistory, cared for the poor and the sick; it fed and clothed the community’s orphans. Girls who were too poor to have a dowry to tempt a prospective husband got one from the consistory. It was more than just fear of the ducking-stool or the stake that bound the Kirk together. It was a community united by its commitment to God and its sense of chosenness. “God loveth us,” John Knox had written, “because we are His own handiwork.”

To a large extent Knox’s mission to create the New Jerusalem in Scotland succeeded. The Reformation laid down strong roots in the Scottish Lowlands, that belt of fertile land and river valleys running from the Firth of Clyde and Glasgow in the extreme west to just north of Carlisle and Hadrian’s Wall across to Edinburgh and Berwick-on-Tweed in the east. North of this in the beautiful but barren and sparsely populated Highlands, its record was more spotty. But in all the areas that came under his influence, the Kirk created a new society in the image of Knox’s utopian ideal. It had turned its back not only on Scotland’s past, but on all purely secular values, no matter what the source. Knox made his view clear in one of his last letters before he died in November 1572. “All worldlie strength, yea even in things spiritual, decays, and yet shall never the work of God decay.”

One of those pillars of “worldlie strength” that Knox despised was political authority, or more precisely the power of monarchs. Perhaps because Knox’s closest allies were Scottish nobles who wanted to see the Scottish monarchy tamed, or because nearly every monarch he dealt with was either a child or a woman (the boy king Edward VI of England, Mary Queen of Scots, the Scottish Regent Mary of Guise, and English queens Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I), he treated them all with impatience and contempt. Yet neither Mary of Guise nor Mary Queen of Scots could do without him. Even though they were Catholics, Knox represented a spiritual authority they needed to legitimize their own. When Queen Mary announced her plans to marry her worthless cousin Lord Darnley, Knox gave her such a fierce public scolding that she burst into tears in full view of her court. She made the mistake of marrying Darnley anyway, and set in motion the series of scandals that would finally push her off the throne. By 1570, Knox recognized that Mary no longer had any part to play in making the New Jerusalem and he swept her aside, like a useless piece from the game board. Her infant son James VI was installed in her place, with George Buchanan, Scotland’s leading humanist, as his tutor, so that the boy could be raised in the Presbyterian faith.

Knox and Buchanan believed that political power was ordained by God, but that that power was vested not in kings or in nobles or even in the clergy, but in the people. The Presbyterian covenant with God required them to defend that power against any interloper. Punishing idolatry and destroying tyranny was a sacred duty laid by God on “the whole body of the people,” Knox wrote, “and of every man in his vocation.”

Here was a vision of politics unlike any other at the time. George Buchanan turned it into a full-fledged doctrine of popular sovereignty, the first in Europe. Buchanan came from Stirlingshire in central Scotland, at a time when it was still much like the Highlands in its culture and character—in fact, Buchanan grew up speaking both Gaelic and Scots. He studied at the University of St. Andrews and then at the University of Paris alongside other future giants of the Reformation such as John Calvin and Ignatius Loyola, the later founder of the Jesuits. As a Greek and Latin scholar, Buchanan had few peers. But he was also a founding father of Scottish Presbyterianism: he served as Moderator of the Kirk’s General Assembly—the only layman ever to do so—and helped write the Kirk’s First Book of Discipline. His greatest achievement, however, was his book on the nature of political authority, titled The Law of Government Among the Scots, published in 1579.

In it Buchanan asserted that all political authority ultimately belonged to the people, who came together to elect someone, whether a king or a body of magistrates, to manage their affairs. The people were always more powerful than the rulers they created; they were free to remove them at will. “The people,” he explained, “have the right to confer the royal authority upon whomever they wish.” This is the sort of view we are used to ascribing to John Locke; in fact, it belongs to a Presbyterian Scot from Stirlingshire writing more than a hundred years earlier. And Buchanan went further. When the ruler or rulers failed to act in the people’s interest, Buchanan wrote, then each and every citizen, even “the lowest and meanest of men,” had the sacred right and duty to resist that tyrant, even to the point of killing him.

Here was a powerful formula for democracy: government of the people and for the people. In the crude circumstances of the late sixteenth century, however, it was also an invitation to anarchy. That was what Scotland got for nearly two decades after Knox’s death, until Mary’s son, James VI, overturned his old tutor’s theories and reasserted the power of the monarchy. The dream of the people as sovereign died. But it would leave its trace within the church itself, in the system of synods peculiar to every parish and province in Scotland. It was the single most democratic system of church government in Europe. Even the minister was chosen by the congregation’s consistory of elected elders, instead of by some powerful aristocrat or laird. The elders also sent deputations to their local synod, who in turn sent representatives to the Kirk’s General Assembly. This meant that the members of the Kirk’s governing body really were representatives of the people, in addition to being enforcers of godly discipline and propagators of the Word of God.

Not surprisingly, a self-governing Kirk coexisted uneasily with monarchs such as the Stuarts, who claimed to rule by divine right. To the Presbyterian, it was still God and His people, not kings, who ruled. Preacher Andrew Melville once even told James VI that Scotland was two realms, not one, and that James as king of the first was also a subject of the second, which belonged to Jesus Christ. During his almost fifty-year reign, James VI (who after the death of Elizabeth Tudor in 1603 also became King James I of England) had the good sense not to force the issue. His son Charles I did not. When Charles finally did try to break the Presbyterian Church to his will, including forcing it to accept the Anglican Book of Common Prayer in its church services, he set off this explosive democratic mixture.

On Sunday, July 23, 1637, the dean of St. Giles in Edinburgh opened his morning service with the new royal prayer book, as King Charles had ordered. As soon as he started, women in the congregation began to shout insults; others threw stools and with loud protests stormed out of the church. The riots that followed over the next several months forced the Bishop of Edinburgh to flee for his life. Inspired by the resistance, ministers, nobles, and ordinary citizens gathered on the last week of February of 1638 to sign a National Convenant.

The National Covenant was more than just a petition or a declaration of faith. It was the Presbyterian version of democracy in action. In the name of true religion, it challenged the king’s prerogative to make law without consent, and affirmed that the Scottish people would oppose any change not approved by a free General Assembly and Parliament. Those who signed swore to uphold the faith John Knox had founded, and that “we shall defend the same . . . to the utmost of that power that God hath put into our hands, all the days of our lives.”

Bands of signatories carried copies from Edinburgh to neighboring towns and then the rest of the country. Thousands flocked to sign, both men and women, young and old, rich and poor. Ministers led their congregations to sign en masse. “I have seen more than a thousand all at once lifting up their hands,” wrote one, “and the tears falling down from their eyes.” In the southwest, some were said to have signed the Covenant in their own blood.

By the end of May, the only parts of Scotland that had not signed were the remote western Highlands, the islands north of Argyll, and the shires of Aberdeen and Banff, where the king’s most resolute aristocratic supporters, the Gordons, held the balance of political power. The covenanting drive even spread to the Scottish settlements in Ulster, where hundreds signed despite the desperate efforts of royal officials to stop them.

In November the General Assembly in Glasgow declared war on “the kingdom of Satan and Antichrist,” meaning Charles and his bishops. The Scots had forced on Charles a war he neither wanted nor could afford. Thousands of volunteers flocked into the Covenanters’ army, armed in many cases with little more than hoes and scythes. Yet they managed to best Charles’s invading mercenaries and compelled him to sue for peace. The Bishops’ War (there were actually two, the second following a brief truce that ended the first) revealed the flimsiness of Stuart rule, and encouraged the Parliament in London to defy Charles in turn. A civil war ensued, which culminated in the king’s execution in 1649 and the emergence of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector. The English Civil War would destroy forever the façade of absolute monarchy in Britain. A new political ideal, that of government with the consent of the governed, had arrived. But it took its original impulse from the Scottish Covenanters.

Yet we should remember that the Covenanters were inspired less by their love of democracy than by their hatred of Satan. As with the rules of the Kirk, choice never entered into the matter. Those who failed to sign were often thrown into the public pillory or forced to leave town. The men and women who drove the Covenant forward were religious zealots, prepared to destroy anyone—king, bishop, or halfhearted neighbor—who stood in their way. The things we associate with a democratic society today—the free exchange of ideas, freedom to express one’s own thoughts and opinions, a belief in tolerance and rational restraint—meant nothing to them.

Yet that same fanaticism had two faces. On one side, as the Aikenhead case would later show, it was the enemy of individual liberty and thought. For that reason, later Scots of the Enlightenment despised it, and singled it out as the single greatest threat to a free society— much as intellectuals despise and fear the so-called religious right today. But on the other side, it was also the enemy of public tyranny. It empowered individuals to defy authority when it crossed a certain line. David Hume, who himself suffered from persecution by the Kirk, saw this quality in the Covenanters of 1638. The religion of John Knox “consecrated . . . every individual,” he explained to readers in 1757, “and, in his own eyes, bestowed a character on him much superior to what forms and ceremonious institutions could alone confer.”

The effect of this egalitarian democratic spirit on Scottish culture would be profound and long-lasting. When Englishman Gilbert Burnet visited western Scotland in the 1660s, he had never seen anything like it. “We were indeed amazed to see a poor commonalty so capable to argue upon points of government, and on the bounds to be set to the power of princes,” he wrote afterwards. “Upon all these topics they had texts of scripture at hand; and were ready with their answers to anything that was said to them.” Burnet also added, “This measure of knowledge was spread even amongst the meanest of them, their cottagers and servants.”

Robert Burns framed it more memorably: “a man’s a man for a’ that.” To the Scot, appearance and outward form mean little. Instead, it is the quality of one’s inner self—one’s religious zeal, as in the case of the Covenanters, or one’s moral and intellectual integrity—that separates the extraordinary man from the ordinary one. Even in Burns, the religious skeptic and radical, we can still hear the Covenanters speaking across the centuries.

What though on hamely fare we dine,

Wear hodden-gray, an’ a’ that;

Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine,

A man’s a man for a’ that.

For a’ that, an a’ that,

Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;

The honest man, though e’er sae poor,

Is king o’men for a’ that.

Burns also understood how important education can be in shaping the character of the inner self. And here, too, Scottish Presbyterianism managed to achieve something that had profound consequences for the future.

In 1696, ironically the same year Thomas Aikenhead was arrested, Scotland’s Parliament passed its “Act for Setting Schools,” establishing a school in every parish in Scotland not already equipped with one. Each parish was now to supply a “commodious house for a school” and a salary for a teacher of not less than a hundred marks (or about sixty Scottish pounds or five pounds in English money) and no more than two hundred.

The reason behind all this was obvious to any Presbyterian: boys and girls must know how to read Holy Scripture. Knox’s original 1560 Book of Discipline had called for a national system of education. Eighty years later Parliament passed the first statute to this effect. The 1696 act renewed and enforced it. The result was that within a generation nearly every parish in Scotland had some sort of school and a regular teacher. The education must have been fairly rudimentary in some places: the fundamentals of reading and grammar and nothing more. But it was available, and it was, at least in theory if not always in practice, free.

Historians are still arguing about how many Scots really learned to read and write as a result of the School Act. In this, as in so many things, the Highlands lagged far behind. But one thing is certain: Scotland’s literacy rate would be higher than that of any other country by the end of the eighteenth century. An English observer noted with astonishment that “in the low country of Scotland . . . the poorest are, in general, taught to read.” In 1790 nearly every eight-year-old in Cleish, in Kinross-shire, could read, and read well. By one estimate male literacy stood at around 55 percent by 1720; by 1750 it may have stood as high as 75 percent, compared with only 53 percent in England. It would not be until the 1880s that the English would finally catch up with their northern neighbors.

Scotland became Europe’s first modern literate society. This meant that there was an audience not only for the Bible but for other books as well. As the barriers of religious censorship eventually came down in the eighteenth century, the result was a literary explosion. Intellectuals such as Adam Smith and David Hume wrote not just for other intellectuals but for a genuine reading public. Even a person of relatively modest means had his own collection of books, and what he couldn’t afford he could get at the local lending library, which by 1750 virtually every town of any size enjoyed.

A good example is Innerpeffray, near Crieff in Perthshire. Its library’s records of book borrowing run from 1747 to 1800. They show books loaned out to the local baker, the blacksmith, the cooper, the dyer and the dyer’s apprentice and to farmers, stonemasons, quarriers, tailors, and household servants. Religious books predominated; but more than half of the books borrowed were on secular themes, and included works by John Locke, the French Enlightenment naturalist George-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, and Scotland’s own Enlightenment historian, William Robertson.1 Literacy opened up new cultural choices, and reinforced others: a specifically Scottish reading public developed, with an appetite for the new as well as the familiar and well-worn.

Robert Burns’s father was a poor farmer from Alloway in south-western Scotland, who taught his son to make a living by handling a plow. But he also saw to it that young Robert received an education worthy of any English gentleman, including studying Latin and French. For the future poet, it opened up an incredible new world. “Though I cost the schoolmaster some thrashings,” Burns remembered later, “I made an excellent scholar.” The first books he read were a biography of Hannibal and The Life of Sir William Wallace, lent to him by the local blacksmith. “The story of Wallace poured a Scottish prejudice in my veins,” Burns recalled, “which will boil along there till the flood gates of life shut in eternal rest.” By the time he was sixteen, Burns the budding Ayrshire plowman had made his way through generous portions of Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, Addison’s Spectator essays, and the Scottish poet Allan Ramsay, along with Jeremy Taylor on theology, Jethro Tull on agriculture, Robert Boyle’s lectures on chemistry, John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, several volumes on geography and history, and the French Enlightenment philosopher Fénélon’s Télémaque in the original.

Do we treat Burns’s case as typical? Of course not. But his story does illustrate how early on reading and writing became embedded in Scottish society, even in rural areas. In Edinburgh the book trade was an important part of the local economy. There were six publishing houses in 1763, for a city with a population of only sixty thousand. By 1790 there were sixteen. Papermaking become a mainstay of the national economy; in fact, as the historian Anand Chitnis notes, “of Scottish domestic manufactures, only woolens, linen, and hemp, iron and liquors employed more people than the paper industry.” The paper mill was often the only industry in rural villages and hamlets in the Lowlands agricultural belt. The one at Currie brought two hundred new inhabitants into the village when it opened.

Bookselling, printing, the paper and ink industries—a whole range of businesses to service a large literate public. An official national survey in 1795 showed that out of a total population of 1.5 million, nearly twenty thousand Scots depended for their livelihood on writing and publishing—and 10,500 on teaching. All this meant that despite its relative poverty and small population, Scottish culture had a built-in bias toward reading, learning, and education in general. In no other European country did education count for so much, or enjoy so broad a base.

This attitude also decisively shaped the character of Scotland’s universities. As we shall see later, they would play a key role in creating modern Scotland. But their roots ran solid and deep. Glasgow and St. Andrews, in particular, enjoyed a long tradition that reached back to the Middle Ages. The greatest figure of later medieval thought, John Duns Scotus, had been a Scot, while John Mair, dubbed “the prince of philosophers and theologians” at the University of Paris, finished his career teaching at both Glasgow and St. Andrews (his students there included George Buchanan and John Knox). In 1574 an observer wrote that “there is no place in Europe comparable to Glasgow for a plentifull and gude chepe mercat of all kind of langages artes and sciences.”

The University of Edinburgh and Aberdeen’s Marischal College and King’s College had been founded more recently, but, like Glasgow and St. Andrews, they never became remote ivory towers or intellectual backwaters, as eighteenth-century Oxford and Cambridge did. Despite their small size, Scottish universities were international centers of learning, and drew students from across Protestant Europe as well as England and Ulster (since only Episcopalians could attend Oxford or Cambridge or Trinity College in Dublin).

Thanks to the swelling tide of literacy, these universities became in effect centers of popular education as well as more academic learning. Between 1720 and 1840 the college student population of Scotland trebled. Knowledge of Latin was usually enough to get you in, and many students learned this at their parish schools. A university education was also relatively cheap.

At Glasgow the tuition fee of five pounds a year was one-tenth the cost of going to Cambridge or Oxford. This meant that students like the Edinburgh apothecary’s son Thomas Aikenhead were more the rule rather than the exception. A father in trade, commerce, or the professions was more typical than a working- or laboring-class one; but even this contrasted with the socially top-heavy landed gentry and aristocratic student bodies in the English universities. More than half of the students at the University of Glasgow between 1740 and 1830 came from middle-class backgrounds. Many, although probably not very many, of the rest came from lower down the social ladder.

In the eighteenth century, sons of artisans and shopkeepers and farmers, some as young as thirteen or fourteen, would scrape together enough money to pay their university fees, attending lectures alongside Frasers and Maxwells and Erskines, the sons of Scotland’s most aristocratic families. Robert Foulis, who was an apprentice barber and the son of a maltman, spent his spare time in the 1730s taking classes with the University of Glasgow’s most distinguished philosopher, Francis Hutcheson, as well as the mathematician Robert Simson. Hutcheson was so impressed by Foulis that he hired him as his classroom assistant. It was the sort of scene unimaginable at Oxford or Cambridge until very late in the Victorian era.

Nor were boys the only ones who benefited from this. Auditing university classes became a favorite hobby among Edinburgh and Aberdeen townspeople, just as professors regularly engaged in a “community out-reach” to offer classes to students outside the academic setting.

Robert Dick, at the University of Glasgow, taught natural philosophy to a lecture hall of townspeople, men and women, in the 1750s. In the early nineteenth century, University of Edinburgh chemistry professor Thomas Hope’s public lectures drew more than three hundred serious-minded ladies from the town. For middle-class Scots, education was more than just a means to professional credentials or social advancement. It became a way of life.

The Schools Act of 1696 had set off far-reaching changes the Kirk could never have foreseen—a good example of how social actions have unintended consequences, as Adam Smith and a later generation of Scottish thinkers so well understood. Smith observed, in his Wealth of Nations, how Scotland’s parish school system taught “almost the whole common people to read, and a very great proportion of them to write and account.” Today we recognize that literacy and its mathematical counterpart, numeracy, are fundamental skills for living in a complex modern society. In that sense, no other society in Europe was as broadly prepared for “takeoff” into the modern age as was eighteenth-century Scotland.


This seems odd, because the obvious candidate for that lead position had always been England. The Scots themselves certainly thought so. Already by the 1690s, Scots were beginning to suffer from an inferiority complex regarding the kingdom to their south. They were taking several significant steps to remedy that problem—including, in a bizarre way, prosecuting the Aikenhead case, which Kirk hard-liners saw as a kind of preemptive strike against an encroaching English religious culture. But if the relationship between the two nations had never been easy, it had also not been so unbalanced until very recently.

England and Scotland had been joined together by history and geography since the fall of the Roman Empire. They were in effect twin kingdoms, born in the same era and from the same forces. Both were remote from the older traditional centers of European culture. Both had fought off the same foreign invaders—the Viking Norsemen—in the tenth and eleventh centuries.

Both had taken shape through the consolidation of power in the hands of feudal kings, who gave land to their powerful followers—in the case of Scotland, the heads of the clans—in exchange for obedience. Both spoke the same language, since the Scottish royal court had adopted English (or a dialect related to Middle English called Scots) back in the eleventh century, relegating Gaelic to the cultural backwater.

English and Scottish kings alike had not hesitated to take advantage of the other’s weakness to wage war, in order to grab territory and wealth. The result was a long and bitter enmity between the two peoples, each of whom viewed the other with suspicion and loathing. Scots are taught, of course, to see a figure such as William Wallace as the great Braveheart, who saved Scotland from English domination. But to the English, Wallace was a heartless murderer, who burned and ethnically cleansed entire regions of the north Border country in order to expand Scottish settlements. The Lanercost Chronicles celebrated Wallace’s gruesome execution in 1305:

Butcher of thousands, threefold death be thine:

So shall the English from thee gain relief.

Scotland, be wise, and choose a nobler chief.

Likewise, English history views King Edward I (1277–1307) as one of the Middle Ages’ most effective monarchs, who consolidated control over Wales and the north, creating the core of what would become the Kingdom of Great Britain. Scots, on the other hand, see him as a villain of the first rank, a treacherous tyrant who ravaged Edinburgh and stole Scotland’s holy Stone of Scone, on which her kings had been crowned for centuries.

Even the Reformation, when both kingdoms abandoned the Catholic Church for slightly differing versions of Calvinist Protestantism, failed to heal the hatred between Scottish Presbyterian and English Episcopalian. Each persecuted the other whenever he could. But then, in 1603, dynastic accident intervened. Elizabeth, the last Tudor, died unwed and childless, and the throne of England passed to her cousin, the son of her hated rival Mary Queen of Scots, James VI of Scotland, and now James I of England. For the next hundred years both kingdoms would be ruled by a single royal family, the Stuarts.

It was not a pleasant experience. Control of Scottish affairs was turned over to royal appointees who ran things according to the demands of the king’s advisers at Court. “With my pen I govern Scotland,” said King James with complacent self-satisfaction from his palace at Whitehall. He kept Scotland’s aristocratic families on a short leash, schooling them in the advantages of subservience to royal will and favor, and in the disadvantages of self-assertion.

He forced her ministers to accept the rule of bishops and to teach their congregations to kneel at the Holy Sacrament. Scottish noblemen who flocked to James’s court in London earned a reputation as needy and greedy spongers and parasites. It left a negative impression about Scots that lasted all the way down to the era of the American Revolution—the distant origin of the stereotype of the grasping, tightfisted Scot that still persists today.

Meanwhile, the high-handed policies of James I and then his son Charles I managed to offend both kingdoms so thoroughly that they rose up in arms. The English Civil War was as much a Scottish war as an English one; and when Charles I lost his fight against his English subjects in 1647, he offered the Scots religious freedom and state support of their Kirk if they would help him retake his southern crown. With astonishing shortsightedness and ineptitude, they accepted, only to be defeated at the battle of Preston by Oliver Cromwell. The result was that Charles lost not only his northern kingdom but his head as well, and the Scots their independence. Scotland underwent the full rigors of English military occupation and martial law over the Lowlands and Highlands for nearly a decade.

In fact, Oliver Cromwell managed to do what no monarch had done in over a thousand years of trying. He had unified not only England and Scotland under a single regime, but Ireland as well, after his brutal, cold-blooded massacre of the inhabitants of Drogheda in 1652 terrified that island into submission. The only thing this remarkable achievement earned him, however, was the undying enmity of posterity in all three nations. If there is one historical figure whom Irishmen, Englishmen, and Scotsmen can all agree to hate even today, it is Oliver Cromwell.

It was Scotland, not England, that first recognized Charles II as its king. His return to London in May 1660 ought to have signaled a new era of reconciliation between the northern and southern kingdoms. But Charles was determined to bend the Scots to his will, and on the one issue guaranteed to arouse the most intense opposition: that of religion. He was as committed to impose an Episcopalian establishment on Scotland as his father had been. His chosen instrument was his Secretary for Scotland, the Duke of Lauderdale, who ruled Scotland as virtual dictator from 1667 to 1680. These were the years of the Killing Time. In the words of John Hill Burton, “never was Eastern despot blessed with the minister of his will more obedient, docile, and sedulous.” Lauderdale used military occupation, torture, execution, and penal servitude in the West Indies to pound opponents into obedience. The Killing Time taught Scottish Calvinists to hate governance from London, the Episcopal Church, and Englishmen in general—and Highlanders as well, since Lauderdale liked to deploy regiments drawn from the pro-Stuart Highland clans (dubbed the “Highland Host”) for his military forays into the Covenant-ing southwest Lowlands.

The dismal sequence of religious persecution and popular resistance persisted after Lauderdale’s recall in 1680, and reached a crescendo when Charles’s Catholic brother James became James II. Scottish nobles such as the Earl of Argyll joined conspiracies with English anti-Catholics to overthrow James, and, like Argyll, paid for their failure with their lives.

So in the end the Scottish political nation greeted the events of 1688 with relief, when James II was driven from his throne and his Protestant daughter Mary, with her husband, William of Orange, took his place. As in England, the Glorious Revolution brought a loosening of old tensions and conflicts. The Kirk regained its independence. William and Mary abolished the hated Lords of the Articles, whom the Stuarts had used to dominate Scotland’s Parliament. But elsewhere a new split began to show. Some Highland clans, such as the Camerons, the Appin Stewarts, the MacLeods, and the MacDonalds of Glencoe, had prospered under the old regime. They were more than willing to see James II back on the throne. They resented the new regime’s focus on events on the Continent, where William was fighting a war with Louis XIV and the French. These were the first stirrings of Jacobitism, inspired perhaps less by loyalty to the fickle Stuarts than by resistance to the shift of the center of power from Edinburgh to London.

By 1689, little had changed, at least on the surface. The two kingdoms were still ruled by a single crown, with separate capitals and separate parliaments. But the balance between the two kingdoms had shifted. Economics, rather than religion, was becoming the new issue of contention. England had acquired an empire, reaching across the Atlantic to the New World, and extending south and east to Asia. From 1660 to 1688 the total tonnage of goods carried in English ships doubled. London and Bristol merchants had learned to shift their activities from woolen cloth exports, the staple of English trade since the Middle Ages, to re-exporting goods from America and Asia to the rest of Europe: sugar, tobacco, pepper, molasses, and cotton. Costs fell, demand grew, London boomed, and Parliament passed laws called the Navigation Acts, securing English merchants’ control over their Atlantic and Asian markets. The navy expanded into the largest in the world to protect the trade links with America and Asia, which would soon include India, and the slave trade with Africa. A new cluster of institutions—the Bank of England, the Royal Exchange, and the Board of Trade—turned the growing wealth of English business into the wealth of the nation at large, and of government. Richer, more populous, and more politically stable than Scotland, England was emerging as Europe’s new superpower.

Scotland’s traditional economy, by contrast, had reached its limits. Both Lowlands and Highlands still depended on the ancient ties between laird and tenant to work the land and produce enough food to feed her one million people. Her diet was monotonous even in the best of times. Ordinary Scots relied heavily on whole grains such as oatmeal and barley, with very little meat beyond the occasional piece of fish or a bit of lean pork. Probably nutritionists today would consider it a healthier diet than the typical fat-laden, sugar-sweetened, alcohol- and tobacco-ridden meals of the English and Scottish ruling classes. But it was not a meal anyone sat down to with relish. And that was when there was enough to eat. After 1695, when the first of a series of bad harvests hit, there would not be.

The English, like the Dutch before them, had learned how to import food when they needed it, in exchange for profitable manufactured goods. Scotland did have her overseas trade, but it rested on shipping unprocessed primary goods such as grain, cattle, wool, fish, coal, and lead ore: the sort of low-value exports of today’s poorest Third World countries. To make matters worse, the wars of King William and then Queen Anne on the Continent disrupted relations with her principal trading partner, France, while the Navigation Acts denied her access to the booming English markets and colonies. Scotland and the Scots were stuck in the mean and unproductive patterns of the past, and they knew it.

By 1695 the Scottish ruling class assembled in Parliament in Edinburgh decided to do something about it. Their plan was simple and straightforward. Scotland would compete at the English level by doing as the English had done: creating a new economy by legislation. The same Parliament that passed the Blasphemy Act and the School Act also established a Bank of Scotland, closely modeled on the highly successful Bank of England, founded the year before (although it was much smaller, with a starting capital of only 100,000 pounds sterling, compared to the Bank of England’s almost 600,000 pounds). Then, the next year, Parliament authorized a public chartered corporation, modeled on the British East India Company, to create a seaborne Scottish trading empire flowing both east and west. The resulting Darien Company occupies one of the bitterest and saddest chapters in Scottish history.

It was the brainchild of William Paterson, a Dumfriesshire Scot living in London who was also the man who had drawn up the original proposal for the Bank of England. Like another fast-talking Scot, John Law, who would convince the French crown to set up the Bank Royale in 1718, Paterson had a keen grasp of the realities of the new overseas trading economies emerging in seventeenth-century Europe. And like Law, whose ambitions would eventually push the French financial system into ruin, Paterson was something of a dreamer who never let details stand in the way of a good plan. With the help of an East Lothian landowner and member of Parliament named Andrew Fletcher, who will become a key figure in our story later on, Paterson urged his fellow Scots to get in on the public joint stock company sweepstakes that was bringing in such wealth for England, such as the East India Company and Royal Africa Company, the latter of which dominated the slave trade. Parliament agreed and, on May 26, 1695, duly granted Paterson’s company a permanent monopoly for Scottish trade with Asia and Africa, and a thirty-one-year monopoly with America.

English merchants reacted with predictable dismay and hostility. They lobbied Parliament, which petitioned King William not to sign the bill. Although he did sign it, the business and political climate in London and Westminster became so antagonistic that the Scottish company’s original hopes of cashing in on the existing English trade links had to be scaled back. Paterson had another plan up his sleeve, however. On July 23, 1696, the Scottish Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Trade agreed to his proposal to use the company to found a Scottish colony in Panama, on the Isthmus of Darien. Paterson had an almost mystical belief in the importance of this uninhabited strip of beach and jungle to the future of world trade. Darien would be the perfect entrepôt for the flow of goods between the Atlantic and the Pacific, he believed, between East and West; he called Panama “the door of the seas, and the key of the Universe.” And now it could belong to Scotland rather than to England or Spain (who had laid claim to it since the time of Balboa). The company’s original mission had changed from encouraging trade to creating colonies. All Paterson needed were volunteers willing to go to Panama as colonists—which did not seem too difficult, since rural Scotland was slowly sinking into a prolonged famine—and money.

The English did everything they could to prevent the money from being raised. English subscribers withdrew; bankers in Amsterdam and Hamburg were told in no uncertain terms what would happen to their favorable dealings with London if they contributed funds to the Darien scheme. Instead, the Scots themselves raised the necessary cash, in a huge outpouring of patriotic sentiment—and anti-English resentment—not seen since the National Covenant. Hundreds of landowners and merchants emptied their pockets to buy Darien stock. Many of Scotland’s leading aristocratic families mortgaged their fortunes. The company raised the entire amount of 400,000 pounds in a matter of months, although it amounted to almost half of the total money in circulation in Scotland.

It was a magnificent gesture, yet what motivated the vast majority of subscribers was not a sense of a good investment opportunity, but rather a point of honor. The English had tried to sabotage the project, or so everyone believed; therefore they had to show the English what Scots were made of. London’s political point man in Edinburgh, the Marquis of Queensberry, had strong misgivings about the whole enterprise. However, he ended up subscribing three thousand pounds when he learned that the Duchess of Hamilton had done the same.

Ships, stores, and settlers, among them William Paterson and his family, soon gathered at Leith harbor near Edinburgh. The goods they would carry to Panama to trade with the natives included five thousand English-language Bibles and four thousand powdered wigs. On July 17, 1698, “amidst the tears and prayers and praises” of the entire city of Edinburgh, five ships set sail for the New World. On November 3 they dropped anchor at the Bay of Darien.

From start to finish, their stay was a disaster. On arriving, Paterson and his fellow colonists realized they had taken on provisions for only six months, instead of nine as originally intended. The English, from their bases in Jamaica and Havana, made sure that no more were to be had. As anyone could have predicted who knew that mosquito-infested coast, fever broke out, eventually killing settlers at a rate of twelve a day. Drunkenness spread, and discipline, godly or otherwise, collapsed. Then the Spanish reasserted their claims to Darien as part of Panama. They seized one of the company ships and threatened to attack. Beaten, exhausted, and decimated by disease, the survivors set sail again in July 1699, only one year after they had left Leith harbor to the clamor and acclaim of their countrymen.

Of the 1,200 who originally set out, very few returned home. Among the dead was William Paterson’s own wife, buried, along with her husband’s dazzling dream, on the surf-swept beach at Darien.

Characteristically, the Scots still refused to quit. Two more expeditions set out, but neither one did any better. The last one, better armed and provisioned and with more men, fought the Spanish and the jungle almost incessantly from the day they landed. Finally, in April 1700, they too gave up. The four ships, crowded with men, according to one eyewitness, “like hogs in a sty,” set out for home but ran into terrible storms. The ships scattered, and two foundered. The other two found refuge in nearby English and Spanish ports, but were seized by authorities. Not one ship returned to Scotland.

The Darien venture cost more than two thousand lives and over 200,000 pounds. It also broke the bank, literally. The loss of so much hard currency, and the ruin of so many families and business concerns that had been tied up with the Darien scheme, pushed the still-struggling Bank of Scotland over the edge. In December 1704 it suspended payments to creditors. With the kingdom’s finances in tatters, and its agriculture in the grip of famine and starvation, Scotland’s ruin was complete.

Darien also further poisoned relations between the two kingdoms. “I have been ill served in Scotland,” was King William’s remark, and when he died in 1702 and his wife’s sister Anne, the last of the Protestant Stuarts, took over as queen, the bitterness over Darien deepened. The English had been by turns amused, scared, and relieved by the debacle. They now saw the Scots as upstart economic rivals, pure and simple, and decided that their empire and its wealth must be permanently walled off from any Scottish interlopers. In 1704 Parliament passed an Aliens Act, which ruled that all Scottish nationals living in England were now officially foreign aliens, and incapable of passing their English property on to their heirs. It also banned all major import trade with Scotland. The law was revoked two years later, but it reveals a good deal about the depth of anti-Scottish feeling in the southern kingdom.

The Scots, too, were furious. Any sensible person would have realized that the Darien venture was doomed from the start. As a modern historian, Patrick Riley, explains, “No one can really defend an attempt to establish a colony in a fever-ridden territory belonging to someone else.” Although Paterson and the other directors knew the enterprise would generate huge English resistance, they did nothing to try to head it off. Instead of seeking English cooperation and making concessions to get it, Paterson and Fletcher had started with an aggressive arrogance, determined to beat Parliament and the City of London at its own game. Now that it did fail, however, everyone knew whom to blame: the English.

In late April 1705, an English ship that was rumored to have sunk one of the last Darien vessels put into Leith from the Firth of Forth. Scottish authorities ordered it seized and the captain and crew arrested for murder and piracy. A trial of sorts took place, in a lynch-mob atmosphere. The English captain and fourteen crewmen were found guilty and sentenced to death. This time, unlike the earlier Aikenhead case, the Crown intervened and pardoned the condemned men. However, the Scottish Privy Council, terrified by the howls of protest from the Edinburgh crowd, allowed the captain and two officers to be hanged. Vengeful Scots celebrated; indignant Englishmen raged; relations between the two countries sank to a new low.

To wiser observers in Scotland, including many newly sobered former Darien investors, all this proved one thing: that Scotland could not succeed in getting into the new Atlantic trading economy without English help. Under current arrangements, as two separate sovereign-ties governed by a single monarch, that would not happen. Darien proved that if the king or queen had to choose between English and Scottish interests, he or she would always gravitate toward the richer, more populous southern kingdom. Scotland would always come in second, unless some new, larger interest could be created, which would look to satisfy both.

Here the solution seemed to be the word more and more on the lips of the political classes of both nations: union. It had come up before in parliamentary debates and pamphlets; now, paradoxically, the bitterness over the Darien debacle turned it into a tangible issue. English political opinion was largely in favor of it. In fact, the Aliens Act of 1704 carried a provision calling for the naming of Scottish and English commissioners to negotiate “concerning the Union of the Two Kingdoms.” Whigs and Tories both saw it as a means of keeping the reins on any future Scottish enterprise like Darien, and of making sure Scotland remained in the English economic and political orbit.

And from the English standpoint, there were now strong geopolitical reasons for union, as well. After James II had been stripped of his throne and his title in 1688, he had found a ready ally in England’s chief enemy, France’s Louis XIV. With French help, James had landed in Ireland and raised a Catholic army against English rule. At the Battle of the Boyne, in June 1690, William and his Irish Protestant allies had managed to crush the revolt. But pro-James or “Jacobite” sentiment was also strong in Scotland. Through union, English politicians believed, they could prevent Scotland from being used as a strategic base for any future Stuart countercoup.

Scottish opinion was more mixed. Some, such as Andrew Fletcher, believed that the Darien venture proved that Scotland could never rely on any English help or cooperation. “There is no way left to make the Scots a happy people, but by separating from England and setting up a King of their own,” he told members of the Scottish Parliament in 1705. Pro-Jacobite Scots, such as George Lockhart of Carnwath, agreed with him. Of course the English were in favor of union, Lockhart wrote, “because it rivetted the Scots in perpetual slavery, depriving them of any legal method to redress themselves of the injuries they might receive from them.” He could have added that it also deprived James Stuart and his son of any claim to the crown, since by act of Parliament no Roman Catholic could sit on the throne of England—or, by extension, on the throne of an England-Scotland merger.

So, improbably enough, within five years of the Darien debacle, union had become the hot new political issue in both England and Scotland. The Scottish Parliament even agreed in principle to formation of a commission to discuss and negotiate a possible treaty. Everyone understood that the current relationship between the two kingdoms was no longer working, and that a new one was needed. The key question was what kind.

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