Friday, 31 May 2013

Early years of the British Union

The Union of Scotland and England is officially portrayed as being between two equals, but the reality indicates otherwise.

The true outlook of the English ruling class was made clear shortly after the Union of 1707, when Britain’s First Lord of the Treasury, Robert Harley, asked the new British Parliament, “Have we not bought the Scots, and may we not claim the right to tax them?” It was the same Robert Harley (Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer) who, prior to the Union, had sent a number of spies to Edinburgh with the remit of informing on the activities of the Scots. One of the spies was Daniel Defoe, who would later find fame as the author of Robinson Crusoe, which was based on the real-life experience of Fife sailor Alexander Selkirk who had been shipwrecked and marooned for four years on an uninhabited island off the coast of Chile.

Within the British Union, Scotland has never been an equal partner with England. In 1707 the English parliament believed Union was simply the most convenient, and least bloody, means of removing a potential enemy on its northern border. In ‘buying’ Scotland, England concluded a deal it saw as a ‘win-win’ – not only was a historic enemy pacified, but Scots were now to be at the call of London in England’s foreign wars, including against France, a nation that had always enjoyed friendly relations with Scotland.

Initially, though, things didn’t go quite as England had planned. Within eight years of the Treaty of Union, many Scots rose to support the French-backed James Stuart in his claim to the British throne - the Scottish and English crowns having come together in 1603 when James VI of Scotland assumed the English throne on the death of the childless Queen Elizabeth.

James Stuart was a descendent of James VII of Scotland (James II of England), who had been deposed in 1688 by an army led by Dutch-born William of Orange (who was married to King James’ daughter Mary). The 1715 ‘Jacobite’ uprising – taking its name from Jacobus, the Latin form of James - was an attempt by the House of Stuart to reclaim the British throne.

It would be entirely wrong to portray the 1715 Jacobite uprising (or the later one in 1745) as being conflicts between Scotland and England. In fact, what lay behind the Jacobite rebellions was a dispute between two aristocratic dynasties over who should rule ordinary Scots and English, and over which religion – Catholic or Protestant – should prevail.

The mixed nature of the opposing armies is shown in reports of the Jacobite advance into England. It was recorded that they picked up around 1,500 English recruits as they marched through Lancashire. However, the Jacobites then suffered a significant defeat to a Hanoverian army, which included members of the Clan Cameron, at the Battle of Preston. The House of Hanover had assumed the throne in 1714 when German-born George I succeeded Queen Anne, who had, herself, succeeded her brother-in-law William of Orange in 1702.

Ultimately, the Stuart attempt to reclaim the throne was defeated and James escaped back to France in February 1716.

The 1745 Jacobite rebellion saw James Stuart’s son, Charles Edward Stuart, also make claim to being the legitimate sovereign of Scotland and England, as the descendent of the deposed King James VII (James II of England). Like his father before him, Charles Edward Stuart – known as Bonnie Prince Charlie or the Young Pretender – called for the support of ordinary men and led an army into England, reaching as far south as Derby. Again, Scots and English fought on both sides, in armies thrown into battle to defend the claims of two aristocrats, both of whom professed to be their rightful lord and master.

Unlike the earlier uprising, the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion was to have devastating consequences for ordinary Scots, including many who had not even supported it.

Once again, forces loyal to the Hanoverian British monarch pushed the Jacobites back into Scotland, culminating in a bloody battle at Culloden, near Inverness, on April 16 1746.

Again, this was not a fight between Scotland and England. Contemporary accounts record a significant number of ordinary Scots fighting on the side of the British monarch and government, while the Scottish Jacobites were augmented by English Episcopalians, alongside Scots and Irish regiments of the French army.

British forces were led by Prince William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland and son of King George II. Culloden was a decisive defeat for the Jacobites, but it was what happened following the battle that was to have a deep impact on the Highland way of life, and on Scotland’s place within the British Union.

Having won a resounding victory, Cumberland then ordered his men to scour the battlefield, killing anyone they came across, whether they were wounded Jacobites, fleeing Clansmen or innocent bystanders. The ‘justification’ for such brutal action was a claim that the Jacobites’ battle orders had contained the instruction that ‘no quarter’ should be given to British forces. However, the copy of the battle order containing the ‘no quarter’ instruction was a British forgery.

Marching under the British flag, Cumberland’s men then turned their attention to the area around the battlefield, hunting down any Jacobites who had managed to escape and killing them. Many innocent villagers and farm-workers suffered the same fate. Similar atrocities continued in the weeks and months following the battle, with hundreds of ordinary Scots killed and more burned from their homes.

Understandably, the brutal actions of British soldiers earned their leader the name ‘Butcher Cumberland’, with many Scots, to this day, referring to “the Butcher’s apron” to describe the British flag under which atrocities were committed.

The British parliament, containing just 45 representatives from Scotland – all of them members of the aristocracy - then enacted punitive legislation designed to curb the power of the clan system and prevent any further Highland-initiated uprisings against the British monarchy and establishment.

However, the new laws had much deeper consequences, leading ultimately to the destruction of the supportive social structures of the traditional Highland way of life and paving the way for the landed-aristocracy to carry out the act of ethnic cleansing that was the Highland clearances.

* Originally published as part of the Hidden History series in the Scottish Socialist Voice (Edition 418).

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