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Scotland Magazine Issue 33
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The Act of Union
This year marks the 300th anniversary of the union between Scotland and England. Paul Riddell looks at where events unfolded
It is now 300 years since Chancellor Seafield, the second most powerful man in Scotland, stood up in the Scottish Parliament and proclaimed: “Now there’s ane end of ane auld sang.” His melancholy statement marked the end of one of the most tempestuous periods in the country’s remarkable history. Between October 1706 and March 1707 members debated and, after much turmoil both inside and outside parliament, approved the Act of Union between Scotland and England.
It was clearly a period when, in that famous phrase, history rattled over the points. Yet for many people these events remain deep in lost time, accessible only through rather dry history books. Don’t be fooled. In Edinburgh, history remains on show to the visitor. The main locations for the events that are being commemorated in this tercentenary year still exist. They have all been modified, some dramatically, others less so. But their essence remains, and a walk on the city’s spine – the Royal Mile, will take you to them.
Reached via Parliament Square and tucked in behind St Giles Cathedral, Parliament Hall is one of Scotland’s hidden treasures. As part of the Court of Session, it is, however, very much part of modern working Scotland. Built in 1639 in Scots renaissance style with a magnificent hammerbeam roof, the interior is almost exactly as it was (the exterior was faced off in the 19th century with classical screens), although the parliamentary benches on which the three estates – nobles, barons and clergymen – sat are no longer there. Instead, it is one vast space. The walls are festooned with portraits of the great and the good. In continuing tradition advocates, to give Scottish barristers their correct name, can be seen parading up and down discussing the finer points of their cases.
Despite the years, it is not difficult to imagine the dramatic scenes played out here as Scotland surrendered her sovereignty. In one view this was because, as the national bard Robert Burns put it, the “parcel of rogues” in parliament were “bought and sold for English gold.” Indeed much of the money from the Equivalent, which covered Scotland’s losses in the disastrous imperial adventure in Panama, as well as around £20,000 in what may loosely be termed bribes, was dispersed mainly among the nobles. The alternative view is that Scotland faced ruin and had no choice but to agree to England’s terms and conditions. On my last visit I had no trouble imagining Lord Belhaven, who was opposed to union, making his outburst: “Good God! Is this an entire surrender?” (Followed by a hammy request for a moment to shed a tear). Or the Earl of Marchmont, puncturing Bellhaven’s pomposity, with his quotation from the Book of Samuel: “Behold, he dreamed, but lo! when he awoke, he found it was a dream.” Parliament Hall is open to the public, free of charge, during normal working hours. Go in the afternoon, when if you are lucky the sun will beam gloriously in through the splendid stained-glass window which shows James V inaugurating the College of Justice in 1536.
Right at the top of the Royal Mile, and visible for miles around, Edinburgh Castle has been at the heart of most of the great episodes in the nation’s history.
During the debates over Union, it played host to government troops who were increasingly called upon to keep order in the streets because the town guard wasn’t up to the task.
Following publication of the Articles of Union in early October 1706, the anti- Union mob rioted frequently. These outbursts of violence were often sparked by the Duke of Hamilton, the so-called leader of the anti-Union faction in parliament, as he made his way in his carriage down to his billet at Holyrood.
On one occasion Lord Queensberry as Lord High Commissioner, the noble tasked by Queen Anne with securing Union, found his coach pelted with insults, reproaches and the “flooers o’ Edinburgh,” or excrement. Queensberry was later to receive death threats.
The castle was also the scene of one of the most fascinating subplots of the Union negotiations. Since the departure from Edinburgh of James VI to become James I of Great Britain in 1603, Scotland’s crown jewels – crown, sceptre and sword of state – had been stored there (apart from a short interregnum in the 1650s when they were removed to Dunnottar to prevent Cromwell seizing them). Among the public they remained a symbol of the fact that Scotland was the oldest sovereign nation in Europe, and there were fears that they would be taken to England after Union. Such was the clamour that an amendment had to be made to the 24th article of Union in January 1707 to ensure they remained in Scotland. Hidden in a chest made of oak and iron, they were rediscovered by the writer Sir Walter Scott in a room at the castle in 1819.
The Castle is open from 9.30am to 5.30pm. Admission is £11 for adults, £5.50 for children aged five and older.
THE PALACE OF HOLYROODHOUSE
At the bottom of the Royal Mile lies the official residence of the Royal Family in Scotland. As hereditary keeper of the Palace vacated by James VI, rebuilt by Charles II and trashed by the mob after the final departure of the soon-to-be-deposed Catholic King James VII and II, the Duke of Hamilton had a grace-and-favour apartment at Holyroodhouse. Although ostensibly leader of the opposition to Union, James, the fourth Duke of Hamilton, was regarded as a duplicitous character who in the end failed to rally those behind his cause. That may be because he harboured the ambition of becoming King of Scotland. Queen Anne was the last of the Stuart dynasty, and although England had voted to accept the Hanoverian succession, the Scots only came into line during the progress of the Articles of Union. Hamilton later won renewed favour from Queen Anne.
The Palace of Holyroodhouse is open from 9.30am to 6pm (although closed from June 26 to July 7). Admission is £9.50 for adults and £5.50 for children aged five and older.
Now part of the new Scottish Parliament, Queensberry House in the Canongate was the townhouse of the Duke of Queensberry (the family’s principal residence was at Drumlanrig in Dumfriesshire). Queensberry was reviled for his role by most Scots. The behaviour of his son James for many people came to be seen as a symbol of his father’s actions towards Scotland.
While the Union was celebrated with pomp and circumstance in London on May 1, 1707, the mood in Scotland was sombre. Nonetheless, young James held a feast. So mentally ill was the heir to the ducal title that he was normally kept under lock and key. On this occasion, however, he escaped, caught and murdered a porter and roasted him on a spit.
See www.scottish.parliament.uk for details of opening times.
NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
On Queen Street, the gallery has on display paintings of most of the key figures in the Union debates, including that of pro-Union commissioner Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, author of a contemporary account of the events of 1706-1707.
Open from 10am to 5pm (7pm on Thursdays). Admission is free.