The Acts of Union 1707 and its impact on Scottish Commoners
The passing of the Acts of Union in 1707 was the successful final result of uniting Scotland with England after years of failed attempts. In March 1603 when James I of Scotland became James VI of England, Ireland and Wales, there was talk in both the Scottish and English parliaments of a proposal to unite the two countries. The idea was unpopular on both sides of the border and the matter quietly disappeared from discussion. There would be several later attempts by the Scottish and English parliaments to form a union, especially after William and Mary took the English throne in 1688 during the Glorious Revolution, none successful until 1707.
There are several factors which led to Scotland’s final agreement and passing of the Act of Union in the Scottish parliament. There was a section of Scottish Lords who like James a hundred years earlier held titles in both Scotland and England and saw the union of the two countries as a natural evolution of the state. Perhaps more important and significant were the economic factors, the failure of the Darien scheme had led Scotland and many wealthy individuals to the brink of fiscal disaster. The agreement of the Act came with a cash settlement from England, which would ease the financial burden. In the longer term, through the alliance with England, Scotland gained access to English controlled ports around the world, stimulating a flagging northern economy.
The decision to join or not to join England lay in the power of the political, social and economic elite of each country. The Houses of Parliament in each country housed members from the very pinnacle of society. Most had wealth and power the common person on the streets of Edinburgh or London could only dream of possessing. The layperson in Scotland, whether living in a large city or toiling on a tenant farm in the Highlands would be worried over two things. The first how they would fare economically under the Act of Union and second if the English would oppress and absorb them in the same manner, which happened to Wales.
Most of the Scots commoners, like their southern counterparts, were on the whole uneducated in matters of state and history. They had little knowledge of affairs outside their daily lives. However, they were not ignorant and most people who could not access government still had a keen interest and opinion on matters, which affected them. In keeping with the times, most Scots learned of news through attendance at their local Kirk, the church having a daily impact on the moral and social conduct of their parishioners. The Presbyterian Church of Scotland feared an alliance with England would threaten the stability of their Church and the English would try and force a pro Anglican religious revolution on them. The ministers in turn conveyed these fears to their parishioners, creating an atmosphere of fear among those who believed their faith might be at risk.
Scots Commoners who opposed the Acts of Union in 1707 saw it as the loss of independence in a country they had battled since time immemorial. Battles against England provided some of the most memorable Scottish icons, whether they won or lost. Acts of defiance such as cattle raids and kidnapping across the lowlands borders were a way of life for most Scots. To ally themselves with the slayer of William Wallace was not only unthinkable, it went against everything they believed in.Another point of opposition for Scots in the Act of Union was the loss of seats in the new, allied parliament. The Act of Union only provided the Scots with forty-five seats in the House of Commons and sixteen seats in the House of Lords. This was a fraction of the representation the common people had grown to expect from their parliament, as well as the fact the parliament would now be located hundreds of miles away. Scots were concerned the physical distance between Scotland and those who made the decisions, could only have a negative impact on the country.
The passing of the Acts of Union in 1707 opened a gateway into and out of Scotland, which had never beenin use before. Scotland was no longer an independent state, fiercely fighting for a place in Europe, politically, socially and economically. Through their agreement to the Acts, they joined England, Wales and Ireland and became Great Britain, a juggernaut of trade all over the world.
For the common people of Scotland the change would bring new ideas and new opportunities for economic growth. However at the time of the Union, Scots were afraid of losing their right to self determination and becoming absorbed into a Great Britain too vast for their voices to be heard.