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Last updated: 05 March 2020. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Dead Whales...and the Myth of Darien




Kirkcaldy Bay, where 31 whales beached themselves as the Act of Union was signed



The Whales of Kirkcaldy


The tragic deception of Darien, a rumination on the Acts of Union



“After the Darien disaster, Scotland was bankrupt. We had to go into union with England because we couldn’t survive on our own.”


These gloomy words were blurted out by a “No” supporter in the audience of Question Time a few weeks ago. It is a familiar refrain, buried deep in the Scottish psyche, even among many who are only vaguely acquainted with Darien and its apparent consequences. In my own school days, I well recall our history teacher repeating the mantra that Scotland’s ludicrously vain attempt to establish a colony in a swampy jungle left our misguidedly over-ambitious country bankrupt and with no choice but to unite with the far more competent and powerful England.

I don’t blame my teacher – she was repeating the received wisdom of hundreds of historians.

This month’s edition of History Today reiterates the narrative, even naming the culprit, one William Paterson, whose (mis)conception of the Darien scheme allegedly instead birthed the United Kingdom itself.

The history, and its lessons, seem to be settled – better together is the safest, the necessary course; but history is written by the victors and rarely more so than in the case of the Union of 1707.

The Union of the Crowns in 1603, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England, led to several abortive attempts to effect political union of the Stuart kings’ two realms as well. Ironically, the one that came closest to succeeding was the 1651 Tender of Union issued by the Commonwealth regime under Oliver Cromwell, the nemesis of the Stuarts, but it was never implemented. Particularly unpopular in Scotland between 1662 and 1689 was the forced merger of the churches of Scotland and England into an Episcopalian union to the horror of Presbyterians, whose form of worship was outlawed – the unsuccessful Covenanter uprisings came in tragic response.

17th century Europe was the scene of rapid change – the religious disputes of the previous century’s Reformation morphed into political challenges to the established order of feudalism and absolute monarchy. As colonialism stimulated trade, the rising mercantilist bourgeoisie demanded more rights, usually through some form of parliamentarianism – a process hastened by the English civil wars and the Thirty Years War that devastated central Europe.

The power of the Parliaments in both London and Edinburgh grew substantially until, in 1688, Protestant English MPs turned on the Catholic King James II, forcing him into exile in France. Proclaiming a Glorious Revolution, Westminster passed the English throne to James’ Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, William, Prince of the Netherlands statelet of Orange. The legitimacy of this move was based on James’ physical flight equating to abdication of his authority.

First formed in the thirteenth century, the Scottish Parliament opted for a very different rationale, taking the theory of “monarchy as a contract” as its starting point. By this logic, James was held to be in breach of contract and the Claim of Right of 1689 applied this basis to the offer of the Scottish crown to William and Mary. It was a significant difference – the Scottish legislature was declaring Scots to be citizens rather than subjects. By contrast, the English “revolution” had limited changes to the relationship between Parliament and the Monarch, who continued to qualify for office by the grace of God.

For now, the two kingdoms shared sovereigns, but continued on separate paths. There was trade across the border in cattle and textiles, but Scottish merchants were banned from trading with the English colonies under England’s Navigation Act. In spite of this, William expected Scotland to refrain from trading with France during his long wars against Louis XIV. While English merchants could compensate for this embargo by diverting to their colonies, Scottish merchants had to linger in port to stay legal.

It was in this context that the Darien Scheme was conceived. The “Company of Scotland trading to Africa and the Indies” was formed by act of Parliament. Initially, there was a 50% capital stake put up by English merchants but, as the scheme envisaged colonising territory already claimed by William’s Spanish allies, the King’s agents forced the withdrawal of this finance. Instead directors sold shares to thousands of ordinary Scots to raise a further £100,000, giving the venture capital of £400,000, by some reckoning half of the nation’s liquid finance.

The plan was to establish a settlement named Caledonia on the Caribbean coast of the narrow isthmus of Darien (now Panama) and, anticipating the later canal, run a road thirty miles along the long broad valleys believed to run to the Pacific coast, where a second settlement would be built. This would end the need for ships to take the long, dangerous routes to China via the Capes, and Scotland could grow rich from tolls charged on the passing merchants.

That was the plan – but outcome was an abject disaster on every level.

Between 1698  and late 1699, three expeditions carried successive waves of settlers to Darien, only to find a mosquito-infested swamp where crops wouldn’t grow, disease was soon rife, indigenous tribes were at best indifferent, the nearby Spanish colony was hostile - and there were no long valleys to the Pacific. The King added to Caledonia’s burdens by forbidding English colonies to give aid of any sort to the Scots (although in practice many English colonists defied William at the sight of desperate Scots begging for fresh water).

Following a brief siege by Spanish troops, Caledonia was abandoned. Over two thousand settlers had died and several ships were lost along with £200,000. The economic impact on Scotland was substantial, especially when compounded with several years of drought-induced crop failures at home and the embargo on French trade.

And yet, given that this was a still-emerging capitalist society where most economic activity was bartered in kind, to suggest that Darien bankrupted Scotland is not merely an exaggeration – it is simply not true. The Government was not in debt and even the Company of Scotland retained sufficient solvency to send a trading expedition to Africa the following year. That is not to say that no one felt the financial pinch – but while some modestly affluent Scots suffered significant financial loss, it was a small number of influential members of the Scottish nobility who incurred substantial personal debt. As we will see, it was to be the interests of this tiny elite rather than any collapse of nation that was to be decisive in the events ahead.

In 1701, England began its involvement in the War of the Spanish Succession against France. The King was immediately concerned that the French could exploit Scottish antagonism towards him to open up a second front in the north of England. He also harboured fears about maintaining a Protestant monarchy – his wife had died and his prospective successor, his sister-in-law Anne, was childless. The 1701 English Act of Settlement had decreed that on Anne’s death the throne of England should transfer to the Protestant rulers of German Hanover, but there was no guarantee that Scotland would do the same. The issue was highlighted when the French recognised the exiled James’ son as King of Scotland and England on the old King’s death the same year.

William’s solution was to demand that the Scottish and English Parliaments should negotiate on political unification. However, with the English mercantilist Whig Party resolutely opposed to Scottish preconditions for free trade and the High Church Tories hostile to treating with Presbyterians, the discussions had little support in England.

In Scotland, there was a plethora of competing religious, political and class interests in play. The Scottish Parliament was a unicameral legislature composed of representatives of the Burghs and Scottish nobles. It was divided between three loosely structured groupings – the Court Party of the monarch; the opposition Country Party, which cohered more around hostility towards the Ministers of the day rather than in support of any particular manifesto, especially under the vacillating leadership of the Duke of Hamilton; and finally the Jacobite-inclined Cavalier group favoured the exiled Stuarts.

The union talks collapsed after William’s death in March 1702. Queen Anne was distrusted by Presbyterians because of her favouring Episcopalians and Scottish elections in January 1703 gave the Country and Cavalier parties a majority over the Court Party. Although Anne’s favourite, the Earl of Queensberry, remained as the Lord High Commissioner, or chief minister in Scotland, along with his deputy the Earl of Seafield, it was clear that Scottish voters had decisively rejected the attempt at union and Parliament lost no time in executing this mandate to assert its independence. By November, a series of challenging legislation had been enacted:

The Act of Security enshrined the right of the Scottish Parliament to choose the next monarch

The Wine Act asserted the right of Scottish merchants to trade with France, regardles of any state of war between London and Paris

An armed Scottish militia was established to protect against English invasion


Finally, the Parliament refused to agree financial supplies to the Crown unless the Queen assented to this legislation. Anne initially refused but, with the war going badly, she eventually conceded. Meantime, outnumbered in Parliament, Queensberry resorted to an elaborate plan to smear his chief opponents, but was quickly exposed. Anne had little choice but to dismiss him and with the Court Party in confusion, she looked elsewhere to carry on government.

Through liberal deployment of “management” (or bribery), the Royalists detached some 24 Country Party MPs to create a faction nicknamed the Squadrone Volante, or “flying squad”, mocking their rootlessness. This group’s sole common interest was that its membership, mostly nobility, was heavily in debt and perhaps that bit more open to being “managed”. Its leader, Lord Tweedale, became Lord High Commissioner.

In England, wrong-footed by the Scottish legislation, English chief minister Godolphin used renewed confidence after Marlborough’s victory at Blenheim in August 1704 to go on the offensive. He steered the Aliens Act through Westminster – this decreed that all non-resident Scots in England were to be treated as foreigners. Even more aggressively, he moved troops to the north of England, where the local militia were drilling for war. On the other side of the border, the new Scottish militia was soon doing the same and the two countries could hardly have been further apart.

This hostility reached a crescendo in April 1705 when three English sailors were arrested in Leith on blatantly false charges of piracy against one of the Darien ships. Although their innocence was self-evident, Tweedale was sufficiently cowed by the Edinburgh crowds to allow them to be hanged – witnesses related how the disbelieving Captain Green still watched hopefully for the arrival of a reprieve as the noose was fixed around his neck.

The Queen’s response was to reinstate Queensberry and Seafield as ministers with the Duke of Argyll appointed as Lord High Commissioner. Argyll had been provided with £300,000 to purchase the compliance of the Scottish Establishment. Within months, the debt-laden Hamilton had agreed to renewed negotiations on union – although a federation, or even a simple common market, were the widely anticipated outcomes rather than a unitary state.

And so, in March 1706, a surreal scenario was played out, perhaps appropriately in the former Cockpit theatre in London, as Scottish and English negotiators drafted a blueprint for a new state in what became the Treaty of Union. The two parties never met physically or spoke – instead, notes were relayed between them until wording was agreed for consideration by the two parliaments – a Hanoverian monarch and free trade sat at the core of the proposed new unitary state, an incorporation, rather than a federation.

The popular Scottish response was overwhelmingly hostile – crowds in Edinburgh and Glasgow demonstrated against the treaty, while a rally by the Cameronians, a radical Covenanter group in Dumfries, ritually burned a copy. The Church of Scotland, balking at the prospect of religious policy in the hands of an overwhelmingly Anglican Parliament, thundered in opposition while several burghs, concerned about the impact of English traders on their local economies, raised petitions calling on parliament to vote against.

When the debate began in October, people arrived in Edinburgh to demonstrate against union in such numbers that the entire Scottish army of 1,500 regulars was stationed nearby and English cavalry were moved up to Newcastle to be available should Argyll feel the need. Other English forces were sent to Northern Ireland to menace the pro-independence Cameronian stronghold across the sea at Dumfries when it was rumoured the radicals were planning an 8,000 strong march on the capital to terminate the Parliamentary session.

In Parliament itself, the Court politicians set about neutralising their opposition one by one. Presbyterian pulpits went largely silent after the Church was guaranteed its position, while private law was to be unchanged, a boon to the property-owning classes. Public law, by contrast, could be subject to changes in the new state.

Although the treaty proposed only 45 Scottish MPs in the House of Commons and a mere 16 nobles in the House of Lords, Queensberry won over a number of sceptical nobles through granting all peers’ immunity from legal action over personal debts. Additionally, funds were to be lodged to compensate Scottish taxpayers for future liability for England’s national debt (first incurred by William to pay for war in 1692 and growing ever since – even today) and some were payable to individuals who had lost money on Darien.

Beholding this trough of tasty swill, the salivating, indebted Squadrone Volante took the bait. In the final vote on the Act of Union on 16 January 1707, its 24 MPs swung to the Court and proved decisive in the 110 to 67 division in favour of incorporation into a unitary state. The debate was over and, although crowds continued to shout it down, the signed document left Edinburgh under heavily armed military escort to be taken south for the Queen’s signature.

The Scottish Parliament dissolved itself on 25 March and, on 1 May, the United Kingdom of Britain came into being. On that morning, on the shores of Kirkcaldy, a pod of whales numbering the same as the Scottish negotiators at the Cockpit beached itself and died – an ill omen, some s

Thus ended the nine hundred year old Kingdom of Scotland.


Contrary to myth, it was neither bankrupt nor demoralised. Unlike England, it had no national debt. Above all, the Scottish population in its broad mass continued not only to loudly demand its independence but to contemplate war in its defence.

So how was Union effected when there was no significant support for it on either side of the border?

The answer, then as now, was the projection of the narrow interests of a self-serving elite as the supposed interests of the entire nation. The monarchs were concerned about ensuring a Protestant succession to the throne. The military was concerned for the continued supply of Scottish cannon fodder for its wars. And within Scotland itself debt-ridden nobles – not an indebted nation – were content to be “bought and sold, for English gold” as Burns would put it.

Within a few years, the British Government broke the spirit if not the letter of the Union, making significant changes to the laws on treason, church governance and taxation. In 1713 a disillusioned Argyll introduced a bill in Westminster to dissolve the union – it was defeated. The will of the Scots, even noble ones, was no longer their own.

Aside from the Union itself, perhaps the biggest travesty was the patent falsehood that in 1706 Scotland was a failed state, a beggar nation no longer fit for purpose, rendered dependent on its larger, more successful neighbour. In the centuries since, in history books and classrooms throughout what was once a kingdom, the myth has been reinforced over and again, buttressing a gnawing, self-effacing doubt that marked and marred the collective Scottish psyche for generations. Recently, the doubts have much dispelled, but the myth of Darien has persisted.

Well, it was myth then and it is myth now and one which, in the coming weeks, the voters of Scotland can finally put to rest.



Adrian Cruden, activist and blogger, Green Party England.

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books