Scotland’s story … before the Act of Union in 1707


IN this final part of this short primer, we will deal with the Wars of Independence and the period up until the Act of Union in 1707. You will recall that I am responding to a reader’s request for the 20 things every Scot should know about this nation’s long history.

I consider that everything after 1707 is completely coloured by the fact that we became incorporated – much against the will of the majority of Scots – into the state known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain. I will deal with Scotland’s history after 1707 in a future series on Scotland in the British Empire. I suspect that will make uncomfortable reading for those who would deny Scotland’s role in building that Empire.

To continue where we left off last week: how did the Wars of Independence start? The death of Margaret, Maid of Norway in 1290 left Scotland without an obvious heir to the throne. If all you have learned about the Wars of Independence was gleaned from the movie Braveheart then I commiserate with you, though I readily acknowledge the film’s role in reviving interest in the history of Scotland in that defining era.

When you see what American moviemakers do to their own history, we have to thank Mel Gibson for at least getting some things right. Though he left out, for instance, much of the back story of how the various noble families in the Scottish aristocracy began squabbling among themselves for the right to be called King of Scots – 13 claimants in all, and that was an unlucky portent.

The principal contestants were the Balliols, backed by the powerful Comyn family, and the Bruces, the Lords of Annandale. The nobility led by the Guardians – aristocrats who were given authority to rule in the monarch’s stead – called on King Edward I of England to adjudicate on the matter, which allowed Longshanks to proclaim that he was the overlord of Scotland.

Edward ruled in 1292 that Balliol should get the crown, but not before extracting promises of fealty from most of the Scottish nobles. Balliol has come down to us through history as a weak king nicknamed the Toom Tabard, or empty jacket. He did, however, find the courage to sign the Auld Alliance in 1295, putting Scotland and France into a pact against their common enemy, England. Longshanks retaliated the following year by coming north with a huge army, destroying Berwick-upon-Tweed and everyone in it, then devastating the Scottish army at the first Battle of Dunbar and occupying most of the country. Balliol was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London before being exiled to France.

What did William Wallace do? There are some people who over the years have tried to portray the subsequent Wars of Independence as a series of combats between greedy families of Norman descent just out to get themselves a throne.

There is an element of truth in that assertion but there is no doubt that Scotland’s path to full and recognised independence started with the people’s uprising led by Sir William Wallace and Sir Andrew Murray or de Moray, the former apparently doing so after his wife was killed by the English.

The Battle of Stirling Bridge on September 11, 1297, was a stunning feat of arms with the northern English army destroyed, though Murray was fatally injured in the victory. The next year Longshanks took command himself and came north to rout the Scots at the Battle of Falkirk, after which Wallace went on the run and may have joined John Balliol in exile in France.

As is so often the case with mediaeval history, we do not know exactly what happened to him for the next eight years. But Scottish resistance to English rule continued with events like the Battle of Roslin in 1303, showing that the Scots were not going to accept Longshanks and his overlordship. Some Scots did accept England’s rule, and it was one of these, Sheriff John de Menteith, who captured Wallace near Glasgow in 1305.

WALLACE was subjected to a show trial by Longshanks. As Braveheart gruesomely showed, he was hanged, drawn and quartered for treason despite his plea that he could not be a traitor to a foreign king to whom he had never sworn allegiance.

What did the Bruce do? The judicial murder of Wallace in such a barbaric manner backfired on Longshanks. Robert the Bruce, as Earl of Carrick, was one of many nobles who had pledged their allegiance to the English king.

Now he decided to make his bid for the Scottish throne and in circumstances which are still unclear, in February 1306 he killed his chief rival John “the Red” Comyn in a church in Dumfries.

That action would lead to his excommunication by Pope Clement V, but he still had the support of Scotland’s bishops – especially Bishop Robert Wishart of Glasgow. Bruce had himself crowned King of Scots at the traditional site at Scone near Perth on March 25, 1306, but he was immediately rendered an outlaw by Longshanks. He became hunted in his own kingdom by the English occupiers and those Scots who preferred Longshanks

as their ruler.

Yet many Scots flocked to Bruce’s banner and, possibly inspired by a relentless spider, Bruce began a long campaign of guerrilla warfare. His cause was greatly assisted by the death of Edward I in July 1307, as he came north to put down

the rebellion.

With the Hammer of the Scots replaced by his weaker son Edward II, Bruce gradually retook the areas and fortresses occupied by the English. Eventually at midsummer in 1314, the Scottish army won the Battle of Bannockburn near Stirling.

Contrary to the usual impression that people have, independence was not won by that battle alone. Bruce had to defeat the English several more times, most notably in the Battle of Old Byland in Yorkshire

in 1322.

In 1320, the nobility of Scotland almost unanimously signed the Declaration of Arbroath with its ringing endorsement of Bruce as their king. It was also acknowledged that he ruled by the consent of the people of Scotland who were sovereign in all such matters. The Declaration contained the famous line that as long as 100 of them remained alive, they would never give in to the domination of the English.

The Declaration was addressed to Pope John XXII and seemed to have swayed his opinion in favour of the Bruce, whose excommunication was lifted. In 1328, Edward III and Robert the Bruce signed the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton which fully recognised Scotland as an independent nation.

What happened after Bruce? Despite the efforts of several English kings afterwards, the Scottish nation’s independent status was never overturned. After Bruce’s death in 1329, his son David II became king. John Balliol’s son Edward, with the support of King Edward III of England, carried out a coup d’etat and had himself crowned king at Scone.

However, Bruce loyalists eventually sent him packing and King Robert II, who had been the High Steward of Scotland, ascended to the throne to start the House of Stewart, which would reign over Scotland for the next 300 years.

Who were the Stewarts? They ruled over a troubled country in which the aristocracy fought amongst themselves for power, with the successive Stewart kings suffering early deaths. This in turn led to various regents and would-be kings fighting to control young, and sometimes infant, monarchs.

JAMES I was assassinated in Perth by rebellious nobles in 1437; James II was killed by an exploding cannon while besieging the English-held Roxburgh Castle in 1460; James III was murdered after the Battle of Sauchieburn in 1488 where his army was defeated by rebels

led by his own son, who became James IV.

He is generally recognised as the best of the Stewart kings of Scotland as he greatly modernised the country. However, he also caused Scotland’s greatest military disaster in 1513 when he invaded England to assist our Auld Allies France against King Henry VIII. At Flodden Field, James showed appalling leadership and managed to get himself and a large portion of the nobility of Scotland killed in a defeat that reverberated for decades. James V also died young, leaving his infant daughter Mary as Queen of Scots.

What happened to Mary? She was betrothed to the Dauphin, the Crown Prince of France and was briefly Queen of both France and Scotland – she changed her name to Stuart, the French spelling – before her husband King Francis II died at the age of just 16 in 1560. The Catholic Mary came home to reign over Scotland which was then in the grip of the Reformation.

The Catholic Church’s abuse of power and wealth meant Scotland was a fertile breeding ground for Protestant reformers such as John Knox. It was not wholly religion that caused Mary problems, but also her erratic personal life. She married Henry, Lord Darnley, her half-cousin. Her son by him would become King James VI of Scotland and James I of England.

Darnley wanted the crown for himself and became involved in a plot that saw Mary’s secretary, David Rizzio, savagely murdered in front of the Queen. Nobles loyal to Mary in turn murdered Darnley – he was strangled before his residence at Kirk o’ Field in Edinburgh was blown to smithereens. But after Mary married in haste the unpopular Earl of Bothwell, James Hepburn, the Confederate Lords rose up against her and she was forced to abdicate. Mary escaped from imprisonment in Loch Leven Castle, but the forces loyal to her were defeated at the Battle of Langside in Glasgow in 1568 and she fled to England to seek the help of her relative Queen Elizabeth.

The Protestant Elizabeth saw Mary as a threat to her religion and her possession of the throne of England, to which Mary had a good claim to be Elizabeth’s successor.

Elizabeth’s spies found or falsified evidence against Mary, for which she was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle in 1587. James VI made a token protest, but had his eye on the English throne, to which he succeeded in the Union of the Crowns in 1603.

What did the Stuart kings of Scotland and England do? James survived the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 but failed in his plan to unite the two countries. Instead, he and his son King Charles I managed to pick a succession of fights with the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, which culminated in the signing of the National Covenant in 1638 by tens of thousands of Protestant Scots.

This was a hugely important moment as the Covenant explicitly defied King Charles. It indirectly led to the Wars of the Three Kingdoms that ended with

Charles executed and Scotland conquered by Oliver Cromwell after the disastrous Battle of Dunbar in September 1650.

The Scots had already crowned Charles I’s son as Charles II, and when the monarch was restored in 1660, Charles reigned over both countries.

He was succeeded by his brother James II, who was a Catholic, and when he had a Catholic son, the Protestant nobles of England ousted him and replaced him with William and Mary at the so-called Glorious Revolution.

In the first of several Jacobite uprisings, a brilliant Scottish general, John Graham of Claverhouse, known as Bonnie Dundee, won victory over William’s army at Killiecrankie but was killed in battle.

The Massacre of Glencoe in 1692 was the attempted genocide of Clan MacIain MacDonald, and stirred Jacobite anger. Yet Queen Anne, last of the House of Stuart, was able to decree the start of the Act of Union in 1707, which was a completely corrupt fix.

That’s the story of Scotland before 1707 – proof that we always were an independent nation. I will complete the 20-plus things to know about Scottish history in the next series on Scotland in the British Empire.

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