Act of Union 1707

You are here: Heritage | Timelines | Act of Union

Act of Union between England & Scotland 1707

The Union between Scotland and England may have created the Great Britain we know today - but at the time it was one of the most unpopular political moves ever to have taken place north of the border.

Ordinary Scots were incensed at what they saw as a stitch up designed to line the pockets of the country's most powerful men - and their judgment was absolutely right.

For Scots parliamentarians, the Act of Union in 1707 was a golden opportunity to pull their country out of dire economic poverty while at the same time lining their own pockets with money.

The English had different goals. They wanted to solve the problem of their troublesome northern neighbour once and for all while at the same time ensuring that the so-called union ended up as a takeover rather than a merger. And they got exactly what they wanted.

After the disaster of the Darien adventure, Scotland was the poorest country in Europe - a situation made worse by the English policy of deliberately blocking Scottish trade when it threatened England's own interests.

By the beginning of the 18th century, the two countries had gradually been moving closer to each other for 100 years, with the union of the crowns in 1603 and the short period of union under Cromwell's Commonwealth. But there was still no love lost between them, and still no inevitability they would join to form one nation.

However, the disastrous Darien adventure had taught Scots an important lesson. It made it clear that there had to be come sort of accommodation which would allow the two countries to pursue similar foreign and economic policies, since England could clearly scupper Scottish trade ambitions whenever it wanted.

The first concrete move towards union came when Queen Anne took the thrones of Scotland and England in 1702. The previous year, the English parliament had passed an Act of Settlement passing the crown to the German house of Hanover on the childless Anne's death.

The Scottish parliament was not consulted about the decision, and had also been angered by a war between England and its own traditional ally, France, which was affecting trade. It refused to pass the same act. Anne hoped that a political union between the two countries could solve the problem.

The Queen's Commissioner in Scotland, the Duke of Queensberry, managed to get a bill through the Scottish estates nominating commissioners to begin discussions with the English about union. But it fell flat when the English commissioners refused even to turn up.

A new parliament was elected in Scotland in 1703, but it was more radical than its predecessor, with many members prepared to choose their own Scottish monarch instead of Anne. It passed an Act of Security which allowed Scotland to decide on its own succession. In a further act of defiance against England's war with France, it then passed another act giving it a role in saying whether the monarch declared war or sued for peace.

At the same time, the English were becoming deeply worried about the new nationalist mood in Scotland, which they saw as a resurgence of Jacobitism. They discovered that the French were supporting the Jacobites, and decided to take their own steps to try and force a union.

The English parliament passed draconian legislation known as the Alien Act, which threatened to make all Scots who were not resident in its own territories or serving in its armed forces aliens. It also threatened to take drastic action against exports of linen, coal and cattle from Scotland to England.

The Scots were given a let-out - if they agreed to either accept the Hanoverian succession or enter into serious negotiations about union within 10 months, the proposals would not be enacted.

Scots were furious about the threats, but quickly realised how serious their problems would be if they did not comply. The Scottish Estates again decided to discuss appointing commissioners to discuss union.

The treachery of one of the country's leading nobles, the Duke of Hamilton, was instrumental in what happened next. Hamilton, who had been a virulent anti-unionist, suddenly switched sides after secretly being bribed by the English. His fellow anti-unionists walked out in protest, and a decision was voted through to allow the Queen to appoint the Scottish commissioners who were to meet with the English and discuss union.

Hamilton's move had a major impact - it effectively meant there would not be hard bargaining on Scotland's behalf, but that Anne was guaranteed the deal she wanted, with the interests of Scots well down the list of priorities.

There was, however, still a final hurdle - the decision to unite the two countries still had to get through the Scottish parliament. The English again used bribery, promising Scots jobs in the new government and handsome pensions if they supported union. It was an offer many felt they could not refuse.

Slowly but surely, the commissioners thrashed out a deal and put a treaty together. It was decided that the newly merged kingdoms would be called Great Britain, and that there would be a single, Hanoverian, Protestant sovereign. There would be one flag, one currency and free trade would be allowed under a single set of customs regulations.

There would, of course, also be a single parliament. It was eventually decided that Scotland should have 45 MPs and England 513 MPs in the new House of Commons. In the Lords, Scotland would have 16 seats and England 196. In other words, the Scots were so few in number as to be virtually unnoticeable.

Scotland did win some concessions during the talks - it managed to keep its own legal system, and the place of the Kirk and the retention of the distinctive Scottish education system were guaranteed.

One of the most important provisions, however, was the Equivalent - the sum of money paid by England to Scotland as compensation for Scots taking a share of the £14 million English national debt.

The cash, which was also used to compensate investors in the Darien scheme, was another bribe, because much of the money, which came to nearly #400,000 in total, went into the pockets of those Scots with the power to influence, or vote directly on, the new union.

When the terms of the deal became known, ordinary Scots were incandescent with rage. There were riots in Glasgow and Edinburgh. In the Estates, however, the mood was very different. The anti unionists realised that they were losing the argument. Too much English money was changing hands, and too many plum jobs in the new Great Britain administration were being offered.

The crunch came on 16 January 1707, when the Estates finally passed the act consenting to the Articles of Union. The vote was decisive: 110 members in favour, only 67 against. Scotland's independence had been voted into the history books.

The Scottish parliament adjourned itself on March 19, and the Act of Union came into existence on May 1 of that year. For many Scots - particularly those who had fought so hard to resist the merger - it was an emotional moment.

On the day the new Great Britain came into effect, the church bells of St Giles in Edinburgh tolled out the tune How Can I Be Sad On My Wedding Day? The Chancellor of Scotland, the Earl of Seafield, made an equally poignant statement, bitterly describing the union as "An end of an auld sang".

Later that century, Scotland's most famous poet, Robert Burns, was to make his own eloquent comment on the way in which Scotland's noblemen allowed their country to be bribed out of existence. "Bought and sold for English gold", he wrote. "Sic a parcel of rogues in a nation."

 Print