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Issue 29 - Under the great dictator

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Scotland Magazine Issue 29
October 2006


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Under the great dictator

This issue James Irvine Robertson looks at a dark chapter of Scotland's history

Indomitable Scotland. For century after century it fought off its vastly more powerful neighbour to the south.

In 1603, her Stuart kings took the throne of Great Britain, uniting the four nations of Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales under one monarch, but it took more than another century before the successful negotiation of the Act of Union which formed the United Kingdom was created.

All of this said, there is an episode which tends to be forgotten; a time when Scotland was conquered by England, a time when thousands of Scots were forcibly transported to the Americas, and a time when, with scarcely a voice raised in protest, an English dictator ruled Scotland and, perhaps, governed with more justice than the nation had seen for generations.

The English Civil War, when Parliament fought King Charles I for power and won, killed 10 per cent of the male population. The consequent disease and disruption reduced the inhabitants of Britain by 20 per cent. In comparison, the losses during the American Civil War, the most costly conflict in United States history, killed less than two per cent of its citizens.

In 1639 Scotland had taken up arms to defend the Presbyterian Church against the monarch and his bishops. Three years later, in August 1642, Charles I raised his standard to open his campaign against the English parliament.

The following year, with the war in England going nowhere, a representative Scots convention signed the Solemn League and Covenant. This agreed to send military assistance south to the parliamentarians in exchange for an agreement to establish Presbyterianism in both England and Ireland.

Alexander Leslie, a veteran of the brutal continental wars, led the best part of 30,000 Scots to join with the parliamentary militias and win the decisive battle of Marston Moor in the north of England on July 2, 1644. But in Scotland, royalist forces under the Marquis of Montrose were chewing their way through successive armies, and so Leslie refused to march south, preferring to take and occupy Newcastle, comfortably near the border should he be needed at home.

With Oliver Cromwell as his second in command and leader of the cavalry, Thomas Fairfax, the parliamentary general, reorganised the so-called “Roundheads” into a national force, the New Model Army, whose effectiveness for parliament crushed King Charles’s supporters and rendered the Scots superfluous. After surrendering to Leslie, the King was sold to the English parliamentarians in exchange for £200,000 back pay.

After this, the Scots and the increasingly radical English began to drift apart. In Edinburgh, the Scots made a peace with the King, but the English claimed sole jurisdiction over him. The Scots did not like this and the rapidly-rising General Cromwell crushed a Scots army sent to defend the monarch. This resulted in a change of regime north of the border with an extremist, covenanting faction taking power, a faction with an appetite for measures like witch-burning.

In the meantime, the parliament in London wanted rid of the monarchy and, in 1649, Charles was executed for the crime of tyranny.

But he was also the King of Scots. The parliament in Edinburgh was outraged and promptly recognised his son, Charles II, as king, not merely of Scotland, but of Great Britain and Ireland. This set the scene for the next act in the drama.

Once Cromwell had destroyed all opposition in Ireland with characteristically ruthless efficiency, he turned his attention to Scotland. He marched north with 16,000 troops in July 1650 and met the Scots force at Dunbar on September 3.

This was an army controlled by what would nowadays be termed religious extremists, and it was humiliated. Cromwell took 10,000 prisoners and killed 4,000. The young King Charles II was crowned by the Scots at Scone on January 1, 1651, but the English general tightened his grip on the country, winning the battle of Inverkeithing and taking Perth in August.

At this juncture, Charles, based at Stirling, took the chance to slip south with 14,000 men to rouse the English royalists. Cromwell had been hoping for this and followed. The outcome was the Battle of Worcester on September 3. This time 3,000 Scots were killed and another 10,000 taken prisoner; most were transported to New England.

By now Scotland and her people were exhausted. The political, military and religious elite were either dead, in prison, or keeping their heads well down. The nation had no leadership; government did not exist.

Instead control over every aspect of the country was in the hands of English soldiers reporting to the English parliament. Before long they began to collect taxes, act as judges and magistrates in civil and criminal cases and handle every aspect of government.

Initially the English Rump parliament intended to incorporate the country into England, but a ‘happy union’ rather than an annexation was eventually decided upon.

Scotland would join the Commonwealth with England and be represented at Westminster by 30 parliament ministers, mostly Cromwellian soldiers. The Scots parliament was abolished, the Presbyterian Church was disestablished, becoming just one of the proliferating puritan sects.

The framework of land ownership was also changed. All crown lands in Scotland were confiscated along with estates owned by Scots who had supported the royalist cause and royalist operations against England.

Trade was to be free throughout the Commonwealth, as would be taxes. A free people on ‘easie rents’ and ‘reasonable conditions’ would be created.

The 9th Earl of Glencairn’s Rising interrupted the progress of this idyll. General George Monck, the English Commander in Scotland, crushed it; fortifications were erected throughout the country; other castles were razed. Oliver Cromwell was appointed the Lord Protector of Great Britain, in effect its dictator, and the power of his army nullified the slightest opposition.

There was virtually no support in Scotland for the new regime, but equally there was very little opposition. Most people got on with their lives, made the best of things and found themselves in the midst of the most stable decade of the century. The revolutionary ideology of the English puritans was quietly ignored; the Presbyterian Church was preserved intact; the old elite complained of debt and hardship, so the confiscatory laws were relaxed.

Oliver Cromwell died in 1659. He had dominated his people and his age like no Englishman or Briton before or since. Without his command and genius, the Protectorate died with him. The monarchy was restored under King Charles II and Scotland regained her nationhood and returned once again to political and religious strife.

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