‘Sic a parcel o’ rogues’

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by Peter Thompson

Most of us were taught at school that Duncan Ceann Mòr was called that because his enemies thought he had a ‘big head’ rather than the Pictish / Scottish Gaelic translation of ‘head of heads’ which reflected the rotating kingship between the Picts and Scots in the early days of Dalriada.  That Duncan’s family went on to establish their line as righ or King of Scots has long been as sore point amongst my antecedents – The MacGregor’s – who have long claimed a right to the throne of a united Scotland under the same Pictish / Scottish agreement of the early days of Dalriada: a claim that has also meant that Duncan’s successors, especially those upstart Stewarts, have long ensured the reduction of MacGregor lands and power, and for over 100 years in the 17th and 18th centuries the proscription of their name!

In these days with the SNP in power at Holyrood setting a distinctively Scotland first approach to many issues or, as Angus McLeod in the Times would say, ‘picking fights with Westminster’, the supposed historical fact of Scotland’s bankruptcy in 1707 raises its head from time to time in the national press.  Yet, as in the case of the teaching that ‘Duncan had a big head’, is it just more propaganda spin from the high heid yins or was it the truth and Burn’s was just one of Dr Johnson’s whinging, ungrateful Scotch, when he penned Sic a parcel o’rogues?

The scientist in me set out to research evidence to support the ‘Scotland was bankrupt in 1707’ thesis we have long been fed and in two books found historical assessments that look at the case and apparently refute this old saw – Professor David Stevenson of St Andrew’s University’s award winning book; The Hunt for Rob Roy (in which debags, once for all, Walter Scott’s mythical figure) and Michael Lynch, Senior Lecturer in History at Edinburgh University’s; ‘Scotland – A New History’.

Professor Stevenson’s approach was to place the ‘known character’ within the political context of Raibeart Ruadh’s day and see what transpired.  It is well known that Daniel Defoe’s main reason for being in Scotland was as an agent of the Westminster Parliament; what I had not realised, until reading the professor’s book, was that his main job was to use cash and other bribes authorised by the Whigs in Westminster to keep the Jacobite lords of the Highlands sweet.  Downing Street was concerned the Highland Scots lords would vote to prevent the acceptance of the Hanoverians in succession to Queen Anne, bringing back James the Seventh and Second instead, since the Scottish Parliament had, under the Scottish Constitution, the right to accept or veto Westminster’s choice as sovereign (The Declaration of Arbroath established the Scots people as being sovereign, not the crown, and Bruce’s Parliament of 1328 enshrined this concept in Scots Law).  To this end millions of English pounds ( £1 worth 12 pounds Scots) found their way into the pockets of the Highland lords professing ‘Jacobite allegiance’, over the decade prior to the Union, in English hopes of swaying the crucial vote in Edinburgh.

More interestingly many of the Highland lords accepting these bribes had little interest in returning the Stewarts to the throne as they saw James as a weak, incompetent and venal man – on the last I think the irony was lost on them – but the London cash cow was easy money.  The second problem for the Whigs in London was they did not fully understand the functioning of the Scottish Parliament and its three estates. Unlike Westminster, a lot of power lay outside of the landowners in the burgess and church factions (anyone see the Scottish church militant of the 17th century inviting a Catholic onto the throne in Scotland?) and yet Westminster was worried.  Neither was Scotland a weak economy in the decade prior to the Union, according to Michael Lynch’s estimates, based on excise returns, Scotland had an economy growing by around 2.5% per year.  In the run up to 1707 the burgesses and burgh towns had never had it so good – especially on the East coast.  In the decade prior to 1707 Scotland was free to trade with French controlled Europe and had warehouses in Antwerp, Amsterdam and across the Baltic trading in coal, fish, hides, beef and wool; a large wealthy market, greedy for staples and not accessible to the English merchants of the day.

That brings us to Darien. Did it ‘bankrupt’ Scotland as we have long been told?

Michael Lynch argues strongly that this is a myth, propaganda put out later in the 18th century to hide the real reason for the 1707 Union going ahead.   According to his research the Darien company was funded by the erstwhile ‘Jacobite’ Highland lords involved with the English pounds from their treasure kists and by their lowland mainly ‘Tory’ counterparts through the raising of mortgages on their lands, funded from the savings of the Scottish burghs’ growing middle class.  The outcome of English support of the Spanish to ensure Darien failed had consequences which the Westminster Parliament apparently did not see or expect.  The very group of Tory lords they were relying on to ensure the Hanoverian succession vote in Edinburgh were now heading for personal bankruptcy with their lands in danger of being repossessed by the burgh middle classes, in lieu of their debts.  The fiscal core of Scotland, the burghs, were not likely to become bankrupt as a result of the Darien failure.

At Westminster the Tories were back in control and, having long objected to the Whigs’ policy of buying off of the Jacobite Highland lords, according to Professor Stevenson, now switched the money to a one-off payment to the Scottish Tory lords; the deal – to ensure a bill of Parliamentary Union was passed.  Stevenson and Lynch’s research suggests this shotgun marriage being one of political expediency for Westminster and fiscal expediency for many of the Tory landowners in Scotland.

Lynch points out that the new Union was unpopular on both sides of the border with riots in Scotland and England’s major cities and towns. By 1714 the economic impact on Scotland of the Union was such that the Earl of Selkirk put forward a bill in Westminster to end the Union which was filibustered out by the English Tories.  Stevenson points out the Union did not solve the 18th century Jacobite political threat either, with Edward Stewart getting to within a hundred or so miles of retaking the throne for the Stewarts in 1745.

In summing up: the historical evidence appears to show that as a nation Scotland did not gain economically from the Union in the 18th century, in fact the reverse appears true as the Scottish economy was in free fall for around 75 years.  Some historical economists argue Scotland never has had any real fiscal gain at any point over the last 300 years of Union that it would not have achieved as an independent nation.  Carol Craig argues in her book ‘The Scots Crisis of Confidence’ that part of the legacy of Union has been to reduce Scotland to a de facto colony of Westminster with all the social problems that are related to a colonised and demoralised people.  Westminster has never really gained the political stability it was seeking on its northern border either and still has not; as the growing SNP hold on power in Holyrood, their current popularity and increasing vote share across Scotland indicates.  As for the Hanoverians?  They are still with us!

Clearly, I cannot cover in detail the wide ranging evidence I have alluded to in this piece but I offer you this thought in the year of the Home Coming : maybe Robert Burn’s was right after all – Bought an’ sold for English gold, Sic a parcel o’ rogues in a nation!