Objections to the Union of 1707

The objections raised at various times to the union of Scotland and England changed over time as did those opposing it. Over the century of bigamy the main opposition came from England, but by the time of the crisis which ultimately led to the union, more opposition was found in Scotland. This change-about in Scots attitudes was a product of the turbulent years since the Glorious Revolution. Although union had been desired by many for over a hundred years and urged by the Scots parliament repeatedly, when it came actually to enacting it, there was great opposition, within parliament and more particularly on the streets. A good, clear explanation of this latter opposition to the union is an article by the Scottish History Society entitled “Popular Opposition to the Ratification of the Treaty of Anglo-Scottish Union in 1706-7”.

Opposition in England

James I and VI required both his parliaments to negotiate a union, but they failed to do so. In England the general theme was that union was unnecessary to England’s interests; that such a poor land as Scotland would be a drain upon taxes; and that “We would lose the name of England – so ancient and victorious”.

For a hundred years since Henry VIII broke from Rome, England had been building a new, distinct national identity, and just fifteen years before King James’s accession Englishmen had seen the Spanish Armada destroyed by might of arms and the glorious providence of God, so the idea of throwing England aside in favour of a new nation and identity were taken askance. On 26 November 1606 Sir George More told the Commons that it was well known that Union was the work of God, just as continued disunion was the work of the Devil, but his motion was ‘disliked’. Prejudice ruled after centuries of antagonism against the turbulent northern realm: weeks later John Hare described the Scots as “beggardly” and the Puritan lawyer Nicholas Fuller likened the Scots to cattle, described their merchants as ‘pedlars’ and claimed they would head south and take jobs from Englishmen, and others pursued worse invective that the King was hard pressed to suppress.
England was seen as a land where Parliament and the law guaranteed liberty, while Scotland was more subject to direct royal authority, and a union, some feared, would mean exchanging the former for the latter. This is the same objection raised in Scotland a hundred years later; that England was then seen as less free.

Sir Edwin Sandys raised more eosoteric objections, but which found a mark amongst a House of Commons containing many lawyers. He said that union would abolish the Kingdom of England and thus invalidate the King’s coronation oath and extinguish the laws: ‘if we take away the name [of England], we take away the maxims of the law’. He claimed that the liberties won by earlier generations might not be passed on to the newly styled Britons: ‘As our predecessors have left us free, so we to leave our successors with prejudice’. Fuller took this up, claiming that a union would abolish Magna Carta. It should be remembered that the late Elizabethan period had been marked by a flowering of legal theory and the elevation of the genius of English law and liberty as markers of the nation.

‘The error was my mistaking’, the King later confessed. ‘I knew mine own ends, but not others’ fears’.

Opposition in Scotland

In Scotland by the opening of the eighteenth century, objections were founded on mistrust of how England would act towards Scotland after the union, which is understandable in the light of recent mistreatment. Would Scotland be mistreated, as the English had proven unfriendly of late?

More worryingly, the English church might be imposed upon Scotland, and if this seems a petty worry, recall that the Civil War began over matters of church governance, and in the Killing Times still in recent memory, the Covenanters were hunted down and slain for rejecting the rule of bishops and holding their own congregations. The Covenant had finally prevailed in 1702 and bishops abolished: would all this be undone?

In the early stages, the Episcopal party were in support of the union with England, whose church upheld the rule of bishops, but when the Articles were signed and they preserved forever the Presbyterian system, the Kirk spoke for the union and it was the Jacobites and Episcopalians who led the opposition to it.

At the same time, the knowledge that the Kingdom of Scotland was about to end forever brought forth a wave of new-born patriotic fervour and a romanticism about the Middle Ages, which romanticised idea about this bloody period has continued to this day. In the midst of this, Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, begged for some realism, noting that that, contrary to popular opinion, “Scotland is scarce known to any except its own inhabitants, or if it be, it is still under the cover of England, from whence its sovereignty and independency cast but a very dim light. What is it then we contend so much about?”

A good analysis of the opposition of these years has been brought together by the Scottish History Society in an article “Popular Opposition to the Ratification of the Treaty of Anglo-Scottish Union in 1706-7”.

Petitions against the union

Some 96 petitions were received by the Parliament of Scotland against the union, including many from the burghs and others from individuals. It is a large number but the text of each petition follows a set template written by a knot of objectors: they were not spontaneous petitions by any means but effectively one copied petition. The Duke of Argyll dismissed them as “paper kites”.

Nevertheless, the particular objections the petition contains are worth examining as genuine concerns. The petition from the Convention of Burghs read as follows:

The Humble Address of the Commissioners to the General Convention of the Royal Burrows of this Ancient Kingdom Convened the Twenty-Ninth of October 1706, at Edinburgh. Upon the Great Concern of the Union Prosposed Betwixt Scotland and England [. . .] Humbly Sheweth, That it is our indispensable duty to signify to your grace that , as we are not against an honourable and safe union with England [. . .] far less can we expect to have the condition of the people of Scotland, with relation to these great concerns, made better and improved without a Scots Parliament. And seeing by the articles of union now under consideration of the Honourable Estates it is agreed that Scotland and England shall be united into one kingdom, and the united kingdom be represented by one and the same Parliament, by which our monarchy is suppressed [. . .] And considering that the most considerable branches of our trade are differing from those of England [. . .] we therefore supplicate your grace and Honourable Estate of Parliament, and do assuredly expect, that you will not conclude such an incorporating union as is contained in the articles proposed, but that you will support and maintain the true reformed Protestant religion as by law established, the sovereignty and independency of this crown and kingdom and the rights and privileges of Parliament”

The petition therefore is not opposed to the union, and indeed supports union, if an honourable and safe union. Its objection is to the form of union and in particular to the loss of a Scots Parliament.

The petition is concerned about whether a united parliament could protect the people of Scotland or understand the needs of Scottish merchants. It is also concerned to protect the Church of Scotland.

If the English were not to be trusted to behave or to understand, then the petition has force. From the union though a tenth of all the House of Commons were to be Scots, who did ensure “safe and honourable” union, and that London could understand the needs of the north. The terms of the union left the Church of Scotland more secure than it had been before too.

One suspects a certain tongue-in-cheek approach in the petition: the petition, so pious toward the Kirk, was largely promoted by those opposed to the settlement of the Church of Scotland. It flatters the Scots Parliament, but it was never one to earn such confidence in its ability to protect the interests of most Scots, and its very independence seem to have been the cause of all the woes that had befallen Scotland since the Revolution. As to “the independency of this crown and kingdom”, the last few years had shown how much of a fiction that was. The Duke of Argyll had some justification in dismissing such petitions.

Specific reasons against the union

The opposition in the last debates came down to a few causes: equality, trade, the freedom of the church, romantic patriotism. The defence of the church, a theme in the petitions and several pamphlets, is ironic given that these were largely drawn up by Episcopalians and Jacobites, who had every reason not to want the Kirk secure; indeed their opposition arose when it became clear that the union would secure the Presbyterian settlement. In the event, the terms of the union secured all these in Scotland’s favour, apart from the last, which has nevertheless shown not tendency to dim in the heart. Opposition differed amongst different groups:

  • Jacobites saw the end of their hopes for a Stuart restoration
  • Presbyterians feared the imposition of the English church, until the terms of the Treaty ruled this out
  • Episcopalians supported the union until they saw the Presbyterian settlement entrenched
  • The Squadrone Volante worried that the new state would be more centralised than Scotland had been of late (the identical concern that English parliamentarians had held of Scotland a hundred years before)


Levels of tax might logically have been the major question, yet it is barely found amongst the complaints laid against it. Tax paid by Scots was to increase at the union as a result of equalisation: contrarily the long demand for equality was granted, but the equality was on occasion uncomfortable. Scotland’s tax had been lower because Scotland was poorer and less able to pay: in 1707, the revenue of Scotland was less than 3% that of England, which had had the result that the Privy Council in Edinburgh was in constant crisis and a deep pocket could buy a great many favours.

The tax was lighter because the land was poorer; no poorer than many regions of England that paid their full tax, but that was scant comfort for those tradesmen paying more duty on their goods; in time, the opportunities opened by the union and by peace would bring at least Lowland Scotland up to equality with its neighbour, but the early years were a shock. It was made worse as tax clerks and officers had to be imported from England who were familiar with the system, and they attracted disgust by acting in as crass and arrogant a manner as they were wont to do in England.

However to resist union because Scotland was too poor for it, when the union was the solution to end that poverty, would be eccentric to say the least.

(Looking at this 300 years later, were we to be taxed at no higher than the rates prevailing in 1707, we would be happy indeed.)

Fears and realities

England’s old objections were met as the law was preserved, but as to the poverty of the new extension of the realm, only the growing prosperity of the island through free trade would mend that. The overriding need for permanent peace and settlement, were secured. The fear of a newly centralised state with a German king in waiting proved an unnecessary worry, for King George, who succeeded seven years after the union, entrusted government largely to cabinet drawn from Parliament, which system has continued ever since.

All the demands of Scotland, for trade and the church, were accepted and cast in stone in the Treaty of Union, and its main opponents at the time were the Episcopal party, who thus lost their last chance to overturn Presbyterianism, and those whose hatred had been whipped up by the events of the past years. The mixed feelings were summed up by the tune played on the carillon of the High Kirk of St Giles on the date of the union; the popular tune “Why Should I be so Sad on my Wedding Day?

After the union

After the union was enacted, the more fervent opponents would not stop there and accept the position. One fervent Episcopalian whipped the Edinburgh crowds into a frenzy about the Equivalent: the Equivalent was a sum of £398,000 (a vast sum in those days) to be paid to Scotland in compensation for sharing the national debt, and to be used to repair the losses of Darien, to repay Scotland’s own debts and then to be used to encourage the improvement of industry.

When the money did not roll up Canongate on 1 May 1707, the Episcopal party asserted that the payment was a fundamental condition of the union, and its non-payment made the union null and void, and the crowds responded accordingly. Others claimed the money had been stolen, or lost when its weight broke the bridge at Berwick, or other such fantasies.

Three months later the money at last arrived, in gold, carried on twelve waggons guarded by Scots dragoons, and here one would expect relief, but instead the objectors changed their tune – this was now a bribe, the thirty pieces of silver for which Scotland was sold to the English, and the dragoons had to endure vile curses, execrations and worse hurled at them by the Edinburgh mob for bringing the gold they had so long demanded.

The gold was taken under guard to Edinburgh Castle, and soon the Commissioners for the Equivalent arrived, established their office and set to work conscientiously in accordance with the Treaty.

The objectors in England have been largely forgotten in history, but they were just as real and just as driven. The union was pushed through by the Whigs, while the Tories objected, and seven years later they tried to overturn the union, but were defeated. There was a mood of romantic patriotism for England as for Scotland, and some old stereotypes were brought out against the Scots. The chief Tory objection by this time was the Presbyterian settlement of the Church of Scotland, and the displacement of private rights of landowners to place ministers in their churches. In 1711 the Episcopal Church was formally tolerated, to the dismay of the established Church of Scotland, though the Kirk’s privileged position remained secure and the Episcopal congregations dwindled when they were penalised again four years later. In time even this Tory prejudice wore away; there were soon Presbyterian Tories and in 1762 one of them, the Earl of Bute, became Prime Minister.

The British government was determinedly British but on the streets of London, mindless prejudices did continue, dismayed at the loss of the name of England. Largely, this was ignored by Government and Parliament and it would wear away in time.

It would have been too much to hope that the turbulent years would be forgotten the moment the morn of 1st May 1707 dawned, or when the gold was in the castle, for intemperate emotion had burst forth and took some years to subside. In time the promise of new prosperity was fulfilled, even so much as to off-set the higher taxes, and little if anything was lost in it. The fears had been real, and they could be calmed only by the reality, and so they were.