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How was this kingdom united?

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Award-winning historian Neil Davidson spoke to Chris Bambery about how Scotland was incorporated into Britain.
Issue 1921

What lay behind the union of Scotland and England in 1707?

The formation of the British state was part of the conflict for global supremacy between capitalist-constitutional England and feudal-absolutist France.

The English ruling class wanted Scotland to accept the Hanoverian succession to the three thrones of Britain – essentially to end any possibility of the Scots restoring the Stuart dynasty, which had been overthrown for the second time in 1688 and was now backed by France.

The feudal ruling class in Scotland was divided, and the English regime concluded that it would have to incorporate Scotland into a new British state.

The Scottish bourgeoisie was almost totally opposed to the union of England and Scotland, and so were the popular classes – there was of course no working class at the time.

For several months the Edinburgh crowd were in an almost permanent state of anti-union insurgency outside the Scottish parliament.

They rightly feared that the union would bring higher taxes and the Anglicisation of the Church of Scotland, virtually their only democratic institution.

The riots and demonstrations did not stop the treaty going ahead.

But they did manage to get several of the most offensive clauses changed or deleted.

In the end, the lords pushed the treaty through parliament because the English regime was prepared to guarantee the preservation of their feudal jurisdictions and legal system – their class position.

What was the attitude of people in Lowland Scotland to the Jacobites and to Highland society?

The Jacobites were not all Highlanders and Highlanders were not all Jacobites. Jacobitism was a counter-revolutionary political movement whose formal goal was to restore the Stuarts. Behind this, however, lay a deeper motivation.

Although the union was deeply conservative in Scottish terms, it did open up the country to greater capitalist development, through trade with the Americas (which had previously been illegal), the beginnings of agricultural improvement, and so on.

The Jacobite social base was among the lairds (equivalent to the gentry in England) and some of the great magnates who were unwilling or unable to make the transition to capitalist production. Unlike every other feudal class west of Poland they still had the power to raise their tenants to fight, but they also relied on support from the Britain’s European rivals.

During the last rising, the ’45, the Jacobites were received with hostility in all the major cities from Aberdeen southwards, except – alas – Edinburgh.

In Perth there was a major riot against the Jacobite occupation. In Stirling the townspeople themselves took up arms after the British army surrendered.

The idea that the Jacobite risings were national liberation struggles is a complete fantasy.

Can we turn now to Culloden? You treat it as the real turning point in the creation of the modern United Kingdom.

When I was a child in Scotland, Culloden was presented as yet another chapter in an age-old conflict between we Scots and the English. Presumably things were a little bit more complicated?

I was brought up with a similar view, although my parents, like most people, were not Scottish nationalists.

By the 1740s Scottish attitudes had changed from 1707, not least because the majority of Scots had come to accept – if not exactly to love – the new state.

Culloden was the final battle in the British bourgeois revolution.

Although the process had been completed in England in 1688, as long as Scottish lords retained feudal powers and could be used as the basis of a French invasion, the revolution was not secure.

Previously, only Cromwell had seriously challenged Scottish feudalism, but after 1746 the British state finally moved to destroy it.

This is the absolutely decisive moment in Scottish history. It also had important ideological consequences. It allowed the British state to become a nation, through the formation of shared national identity across the border.

It also allowed a unified Scottish identity to emerge for the first time, by removing the distinctions between Highland and Lowland.

One of the blackest ironies in Scottish history is that the symbols of Highland identity – some of which, like the kilt, were themselves of relatively recent invention – came to represent Scotland as a whole, but only after Highland society itself was in the process of being destroyed.

How did Marx see the Highland Clearances, the process of driving the Highlanders off the land?

Marx was outraged by the Clearances. There is no justification at all for the claims that are sometimes made that Marxism “must” regard the Clearances as a regrettable but necessary “progressive” measure which brought capitalism, and consequently socialism, closer.

In fact, had there been closer links between the Highland peasants and the Chartists, it is possible that the Clearances could have been fought more effectively than they were – since the Highlanders did resist, of course.

My view on this is that the Clearances were not inevitable, but constitute a major defeat for the oppressed. This is why we have to treat what Marx wrote on this subject with some care.

Not because he was wrong to support the Highland peasants – he was rightly on the side of the oppressed – but because he discusses the Clearances in Capital as an example of “primitive accumulation”.

However, unless “primitive accumulation” is an ongoing process which continues throughout the history of capitalism, this cannot have been the case.

Scotland was already at the pinnacle of world capitalist development by the time the enforced clearances began around 1815.

What I think Marx is doing in Capital is saying, “If you want to see what primitive accumulation was like, here is the nearest equivalent in the contemporary world”.

Reading David Hume, Adam Smith or Walter Scott, there is a tremendous sense of just how much had changed in a few decades in Scotland. How dramatic was that change?

The transformation of Scotland between 1760 and around 1815 was the quickest and most complete transition from feudalism to capitalism in European history. There is no comparable experience until the Stalinist industrialisation of Russia after 1928.

I think this is the first significant episode of what Trotsky called “uneven and combined development”, where a hitherto backward country “catches up and overtakes” the advanced in many ways, but in which the modern and archaic still coexist for a time.

The Scottish Enlightenment was crucial to this process.

The conscious destruction of feudal agriculture in the Scottish Lowlands and the introduction of capitalism in its place was its great accomplishment – the kind of bourgeois achievement that Marx hails in the opening pages of the Communist Manifesto.

Reading your books, you get a sense of how upper class Scots were not just junior partners in the creation of the British Empire but at the cutting edge of its construction and administration.

Yes, but it’s important to get the timing right. The union was not a deal to jointly rule the Empire. Nor does it appear as an issue in the private correspondence or diaries of those involved. It was only later on in the 18th century that the British Empire became important for the Scots – and not only the ruling class.

It did so in two main ways. One was economic. Scotland was a much poorer country than England at the time of the Treaty of Union.

But after 1707 the younger sons of the landed gentry had legal access to the colonies and could go there to make money.

The wealth accumulated in the Empire fed back into agricultural improvement, industrial investment and urban development, particularly in Glasgow. Much of this wealth was the product of slave labour in the sugar and tobacco plantations, where the Scots were disproportionately represented among the owners.

The other way was in terms of national identity. Many Highlanders fled from their collapsing society to North America or joined the British army. At one point in the 1760s around 40 percent of Highland men of military age had joined up.

It was their role, as colonists and as soldiers, that finally integrated the Highlanders into the Scottish nation and helped to integrate the Scots into the British nation.


  • 1603 Queen Elizabeth I of England died. James VI of Scotland became James I, king of Scotland and England.
  • 1651 Oliver Cromwell’s army conquered Scotland.
  • 1688 James II, a Catholic, was removed from the throne and William of Orange was invited to take over.
  • 1715 The first Jacobite rebellion in Scotland. The rebellion fizzled out.
  • 1745 Second Jacobite rebellion, an attempt to put Charles Edward Stuart on the throne.

Neil Davidson’s latest book, Rediscovering the Scottish Revolution 1692-1746, is available from Bookmarks—phone 020 7637 1848. He will be giving the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Lecture on “How revolutionary were the bourgeois revolutions?” on Saturday 9 October, 2pm, Birkbeck College, Malet Street, London. Admission free.

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