The interior of Parliament House, Edinburgh, the home of Scotland’s original parliament prior to the Act of Union in 1707. Image: Classic Image / Alamy Stock Photo

Scots without Scotland

Centuries of Scottish guile show that sovereignty and autonomy are not the exclusive reserve of nation states
September 8, 2022
Scotland: The Global History, 1603 to the Present
Murray Pittock
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The title of Murray Pittock’s excellent new work of global history might simply read “Scotland,” but really it is as much a fascinating study of the Union as it is of Scotland’s evolving place in the world. This is especially so given how much of the world Scotland saw through the lens of the Union and how much it subsequently shaped in its name.

Seemingly on the make since time immemorial, Scots were well accustomed to the idea of operating outwith their state long before the union of its parliament with England’s in 1707. In the 17th century—an era when monarchs played a central role in diplomacy—Scotland’s own monarchs were clearly indifferent towards the country’s interests after James VI ascended the English throne in 1603: both James and his son Charles I visited Scotland just once each after the Union of the Crowns. With its embassies in decline from the 1620s onwards, Scotland shifted its diplomatic soft power towards the extensive business networks of Scots living across the European continent—as well as onto its renowned military “exports.” In 1625, the forces of King Christian IV of Denmark-Norway had three times as many Scots as it did native officers; throughout the Thirty Years War, it was not uncommon for Scots to fight against each other as part of competing armies.

After the English parliament invited William of Orange to be its king in 1688 without first consulting its Scottish counterpart, the push for a renewed political settlement between the two countries—considered highly unsatisfactory by both—seemed all but inevitable. England wished to quell growing Scottish support for a James “VIII and III,” the exiled Catholic Stuart who was still recognised by many on the European continent as the kingdom’s rightful heir, most notably by France. Scotland, for its part, wanted stronger diplomatic tools and better economic prospects after a string of failed colonial ventures. Amid these somewhat divergent political aims—including additional pressure by England in the form of the Alien Act of 1705, which placed heavy embargoes on Scottish goods—a deal was struck, and the Kingdom of Great Britain was born.

From the evidence Pittock provides, it is obvious that Scotland’s place in the early days of Union was not a happy one. Very soon the country’s tax burden was increased five-fold, with English tax collectors sent north to do the rounds; at the same time Scots living in England remained excluded from poor relief and were still treated more or less as a migrant workforce. After the first Jacobite uprising of 1715, Scotland was not permitted a domestic militia, even though—following the last of another two Jacobite uprisings, in 1745—over 400 British garrisons were stationed there. A handful of Unionist Scots aristocrats even attempted, until 1746, to replace local justices of the peace with army officers, after the Duke of Cumberland remarked that “one half of the magistracy have been either aiders or abettors to the Rebellion.” (Cumberland’s more radical proposition of mass deportations of the general population after the Battle of Culloden was resisted by the British government, who reminded him that the Scots ought to enjoy the same legal protections as other Britons.) In all, signs of a “happy marriage” these were not, and the more Scots dissented against the Union the more their part in it resembled a hostage situation.

This uneasy climate could not last forever, and were it not for the initiatives of Robert Walpole—Britain’s first real political leader in more than one sense—it may well have developed into something far worse. Walpole recognised that any longstanding political alliance could not be sustained off the back of military and economic subjugation alone. Scots needed to be treated better, even if the primary aim for doing so was to “draw some of the teeth of Jacobite disaffection.” Walpole’s plan to achieve this didn’t involve withdrawing the garrisons, however. Instead, he offered sweeteners to Scotland’s oversized noble, professional and landlord classes, mainly in the form of greater opportunities within England’s lucrative trading networks and organisations like the East India Company (EIC). It was thus that empire, as a truly British endeavour, began.

For their part, the upper crust of Scottish society wasted no time in taking advantage of Westminster’s newfound sympathy for their “oppressed” status. With time, fewer than 200 Scots made enough capital in India to “outstrip the reserves of their own banking system.” Between 1790 and 1813, Scots supplied a quarter of officers to the EIC, as they did a third of the governing council of Dominica, Grenada and Tobago in 1770—among many other examples Pittock gives of Scotland’s disproportionate role as imperial administrators. By the end of the first century of Union, one begrudging Englishman in the Caribbean remarked that the Scots were “clannish, ubiquitous and doing very well for themselves”—not bad for a vanquished people.

The catch to Walpole’s original invitation to Scottish would-be imperialists was that it hinged on specifically English institutional and personal patronage, with the “exclusion of Scotland as a country”—that is, the exclusion of its pre-Union institutions—a prerequisite that continued long after 1707. The idea was to socially integrate Scots within wider British society. In practice, it often had the opposite effect.

Acting “without” Scotland, Scots acquired a hyper-individualistic approach to their imperialism; in parts, Pittock’s characterisation of it here sounds practically neoliberal. Having for so long grown accustomed to operating outside the strictures of their state, Scottish imperialists were apparently not much interested in politically altering the societies they encountered. A “vibrant” global economy was the goal: as the 18th-century Scottish historian William Robertson advised, England and other European countries would be doing themselves a favour if they were to “content themselves with trade and not seek to transform” the people and cultures they colonised. Of course, this was precisely the sort of haughty moralising that masked a different kind of imperial domination. Scots did not seek out new markets to level or integrate with the British Empire’s conquered people; rather they wished squarely to benefit themselves, and other Scots. (Robertson was not alive to pass comment on whether the dubious practices of Jardine Matheson—the Scottish company that played a foundational role in the calamitous Chinese opium trade—were not every bit as political and transformative as they were economic in character.)

Another irony of Walpole’s “Scots without Scotland” was that the old tried-and-tested Scottish networks rooted in family ties and personal connections came up top trumps anyway. It was plain for all to see: in 1873, Anthony Trollope moaned that “in the colonies those who make money are generally Scotchmen.” In the Caribbean, enslaved people had begun calling a type of shellfish “Scotsmen” due to “the habit of these creatures in clinging one to the other.”

From today’s perspective, such blatant nepotism might read like potent material with which to build an independence movement—indeed, the sentiment that Scotland was “little more than nominally consider’d” by Westminster was as apparent then as it is felt to be now. But unlike the Jacobite cause, these later campaigns for restoring Scotland’s sovereignty enjoyed little support among the country’s otherwise patriotic nobility and mercantile classes: the economic treasures of empire were simply too good. In that respect, Walpole’s policy was a runaway success. It would not be until the abutting post-industrial, postwar and postcolonial eras of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—each acutely traumatic for Scotland—that the cracks in this quid pro quo for “domestic quiescence” would begin to show.

Before the Second World War, the UK had never existed as an entity without an empire. As decolonisation coincided with a Labour government’s centralising postwar consensus, what was once an exercise in empire building became one of state building. Britain needed to be a seamless whole rather than a composite of parts, if it was to shore up what was left of its former splendour. The war dead were now recorded as “British” as opposed to “British Empire,” as they had been in the First World War. More tellingly, the Beveridge report of 1942 was the first time that Scotland was referred to as a “region” instead of a country in official government documents.

The effects of this “regionalisation” on Scotland were profound. Although initially keeping pace with the UK’s rate of growth after 1945, Scotland’s GDP was on a decisively downward trajectory by the 1960s; almost all of Scotland’s 200 trade unions had disappeared by then, too, followed by its stock exchanges in 1971. Industries and businesses based or founded in Scotland, once touted by Unionists as evidence of enduring local control and dynamism within the country’s economy, began moving southwards. Emigration accelerated, with well over half a million Scots leaving the country between 1951 and 1971; the population of Glasgow alone dropped by 25 per cent. What had started out as an arrangement of economic convenience centuries earlier had begun to turn inconvenient. Worse than that, it had gained a political and transformative dimension that Scottish intellectuals like Robertson would have considered a little gauche.

It is in response to this thoroughly modern idea of Britain, forever united and “standing alone”—itself the impetus behind Brexit—that today’s Scottish independence movement has arisen. Given Scotland’s history as it is told here—as Europe’s oldest nation with a strong tradition of looking beyond its national boundaries—that seems hardly surprising. But Pittock cautions that Scotland has not been entirely immune to the UK’s insular turn. Too often Scottish independence has been advocated from a position that sees Scotland as the UK’s “moral conscience,” which says more about the current dysfunction in the UK than it does the aspirations of a new state.

Likewise, a return to a time of “keeping yer ane fish guts for yer ane sea-maws” will not get humanity anywhere in the fight against climate change and a whole plethora of other crises that extend beyond the abilities and leverage of any one nation state. But given their actions of the past 350 years, Scots know fine well that states are but one part of what constitutes true sovereignty and autonomy. With or without a Scottish passport, they will continue to do what they’ve always done, improvising and muddling through with the tools and opportunities they have to hand. And maybe, in that sense, they’re much more like the English than they think.