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Scottish Desire for Union 1707: John Clerk's Comprehensive Case

Few topics have been as popularly mis-represented through the years as the Parliamentary Union of Scotland and England! Here, John Provan who has an MA (Hons) in History, examines the writings of Sir John Clerk, one of the union negotiators for Scotland (April-July 1706) and whose 6-volume, History of the Union of Scotland and England – written 1724-1730 – is "a comprehensive case for union, rooted in thousands of years of history, and appreciated in the fullness of its wide British context".

Pic: A Force For Good's "Free Speech Rules!" Counter-Rally on Saturday 20th April 2024 in George Square, Glasgow, when the-then First Minister Humza Yousaf held an SNP Rally.

Sir John Clerk of Penicuik (1676 – 4 October 1755) was a philosopher, artist, architect and composer, and an undoubtedly talented individual. Yet it was as both historian and politician that he left his greatest legacy, through the unparalleled insight which he offers on the Union of 1707.


He served as a union commissioner – negotiating the Articles of Union – and voted strongly in favour of Union.


In his History of the Union of Scotland and England (written between 1724-1730) Clerk managed to place the Union within a very broad historical context, while at the same time providing an exceptionally detailed account of the union debates which took place within the Scottish parliament in 1706-07.


The depth and breadth of Clerk's historic analysis set him apart from any other commentator of the period.


In a preface to his translation of Clerk's work (which Clerk penned originally in Latin), historian Douglas Duncan remarks of Clerk that, with the exception of John Mair of Haddington he should be considered as Scotland's first international historian.


In an appendix to the work, Clerk himself tells us what motived him to undertake such a daunting task.


Firstly, he wished to demonstrate why he felt that union was necessary in the long-term.


Furthermore, he aimed to expound the whole affair to a foreign audience, and this may explain his decision to write in Latin, the lingua franca of academia. He also looked to explain his own personal stance on the matter, having served as one of the Scottish negotiators for the Treaty of Union.


But most significantly, his purpose was to refute the shocking claims of the Jacobite politician George Lockhart of Carnwath, who Clerk felt had been manipulating the Scottish public with his anti-union propaganda.


Clerk records of the Scottish people that:


They took things as they found them & relied on some silly accounts such as Mr Lockhart's memoires...they run away with a fancy that it [union] was brought about by compulsion & corruption & gave themselves no farther trouble about it.


The modern belief that the Union of 1707 was brought about through bribery and corruption can be traced back to the dubious testimony of Lockhart.


In an attempt to vindicate unionists from Lockhart's claims, Clerk demonstrates throughout his History the native roots of unionism within Scotland, and the genuine conviction which led to the Scottish parliament passing "The Union with England Act 1707" on 16 January 1707.


In doing so, he presents a remarkable history of the British Isles from the union debates right back to the very first peopling of the Islands.


As we will see, Clerk's unionism was nothing if not comprehensive!



For Clerk, union between Scotland and England was viewed as part of a much wider historical process – the final stage in a series of unions, annexations and dynastic mergers which had been gradually uniting the once varied tribes of Britain.


Nowadays, we know that ancient Scotland was a diverse place, inhabited by the Britons of Strathclyde, the Anglo-Saxons of Lothian and the Picts of the north-east, as well as the Scots of Dalriada from which Scotland takes its name. Even in the early Eighteenth Century, Clerk demonstrates an awareness of this fractured past:


For the Caledonians, divided into Picts and Scots, comprised two distinct sovereign states...


In a similar fashion, he notes that England had once been divided as a Heptarchy – a conglomeration of seven independent Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which were later united under an English king during the reign of Egbert.


The Scots had supposedly incorporated the Picts at around the same time, forming Scotland as the geopolitical entity which we know today.


The implication for Clerk as a unionist was that Scotland and England, as well as Britain itself, were union states formed by the merging together of distinct peoples. And these unions had been of great benefit, for they freed the people of Britain from the woes of constant tribal wars:


It had been a time when Britain suffered wretchedly from too many governments and kings. Saxon kings, Scottish kings, Pictish kings, chieftains of the Britones, all at each other's throats: a condition of elemental chaos.


Not only did these domestic wars bring misery to the ancient Britons, but they also left their homeland dangerously exposed to foreign invaders.


It was this vulnerability that had subjected the Britons to the wrath of the Viking raiders, and caused much of Saxon England to be ruled by these conquerors in the Danelaw:


So the Danes...knew they would meet no obstruction in a country whose inhabitants were at odds with each other.


According to Clerk, these calamities were to serve as a warning against division in his own time.


After all, the vast and tyrannical empires of the French and Spanish presented a far more potent threat than loose bands of raiders had back in the Dark Ages.

The message was clear: unity amongst Britons would bring peace and security, but disunity would lead to war and occupation.


Clerk accompanies this rather gloomy warning with a much more positive sense of pride in his native kingdom.



He held Scotland's ancient Keltic Church in high regard as a pure and native form of Christianity, marked in contrast to the global brands of Catholicism or Protestantism.


Like many Scots of the time, Clerk believed that Britain had been one of the earliest Christian states in the world, and that British Christianity had first taken root on Scotland's shores:


When Britain lay shrouded in the mists of false religion, it was first among the Scots that the light of Christianity began to shine, introduced by Roman soldiers who during their occupation were stationed principally in Scotland or on the Scottish border.


Clerk repeated the widely-held belief that the first British bishop had been Palladius, the famed apostle of the Scots.


The Keltic Church of this age, rooted in the monastic communities of Scottish sites like Iona, was esteemed across Europe, and founded its own missionary centres across the continent. When the pagan Saxons finally embraced Christianity several centuries after the Scots, this common faith, combined with a common culture and heritage, provided the basis for union in Clark's mind:


There were two reasons why the British peoples should unite: because they were Christians, and because they were British.


That Clerk should bring all Britons under the broad church of Christianity is significant. This is because amidst the debates leading up to 1707, there was much strife in Britain between Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Catholics.

Throughout his writings, Clerk shows himself to be very much a moderate, and his call for Christian unity mirrors his call for unity amongst Britons.



Having journeyed through the mists of the Dark Ages, Clerk arrives at Scotland's medieval past and begins to discuss such icons as Wallace and Bruce.


Clerk is no less enthusiastic than any nationalist in championing the heroism of Wallace.


Clerk differs only in that he places the importance of Wallace's struggle in a much wider British context. 


Clerk believed Edward I to be a tyrant, who would have submitted all Britain to his domineering rule had he been able to subject the Scots.


Wallace had thus preserved the freedom not just of his native kingdom of Scotland, but of Britain as a whole. The English were very much in Wallace's debt for the democratic freedoms that they enjoyed. Making no secret of his use of artistic license, Clerk goes on to attribute a remarkable speech to Bruce, delivered as his troops mustered on the fields around Bannockburn:


"All Britain awaits the outcome of this day, for no part of this island can be enslaved without damage to the whole, and the destinies of the British peoples are so intertwined that what happens to one affects all."


Such words are undeniably fanciful, but no more so than Hollywood-esque cries for freedom!


The significance of these words is that they demonstrate that unionists as well as nationalists were proud of their heritage as Scotsmen. Support for the Union in no way meant an abandonment of their heritage.



Blending from the late medieval era into the early Renaissance, Clerk then identifies the Reformation as the beginning of the modern drive for British unity.


Scotland and England both came to embrace the Protestant faith. In reference to the martyrdom of Protestant reformer George Wishart, who was burned alive by Papal inquisitors for his alleged heresy, Clerk remarks:


That cruel act caused the whole population to turn away from Catholicism as though with one accord, and from that moment onwards Scotland's nobles, who had cried down political union with England, began to press eagerly for union in matters of religion.


With these popular roots for union established, Clerk then discusses the attempts to forge political unity which followed the Union of the Crowns in 1603.



In what to many Britons appeared to be no less than an act of divine providence, the Scottish King James VI succeeded to the throne of England.


His royal court was moved from Edinburgh down to London, where he would rule all Britain from his throne.


With this dynastic union secured, James then embarked on a project to bring about a much fuller political union, which he planned to begin with a merger of the Scottish and English parliaments into a grand, British assembly:


James made an admirable speech recommending a union of the kingdoms as well as the crowns...substituting the name of Britain [in place of] England and Scotland...


James brought these proposals before both parliaments in 1604, and they triggered an outpouring of unionist discourse across both kingdoms for the remainder of the decade.


Scottish pro-union writers were often to the fore in arguing for a full incorporating union, with Scotsmen such as Thomas Craig, John Russell, Robert Pont and David Hume of Godscroft all making passionate arguments for the creation of a united British state. But their hopes were frustrated by an English parliament which was unwilling to enter into union with what it felt to be an inferior neighbour:


But the most serious impediment to union at that time was disparity of wealth and population. It struck the English as outrageous that such a small and poor nation as Scotland should be allowed equal suffrage in a British parliament...


Such reluctance on the part of the English stalled James' ambitions for his Britannic union.



And as Clerk notes, lingering divisions were to have devastating consequences for the British Isles; they plunged into civil war in 1638 and remained in a state of internecine strife until the Restoration of 1660.


This tumultuous period did, however, give the Scots their first taste of incorporating union with England. Despite the attempts of the Covenanters to establish a British state under a Presbyterian, covenanted king, it was Cromwell's republican Commonwealth which was first able to unite the Scots and English under a single parliament.


With the "Tender of Union" proclaimed at the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh on 4 February 1652, the first modern British state was created as Scotland's parliament disbanded and thirty Scottish members of parliament took their seats at Westminster.


Although short-lived, this brief experience of union was still remembered fondly by many Scots come the union debates of Clerk's day:


...there are many to this day who swallow their pride and praise Cromwell's rule, saying that under it Scotland prospered as at no other time, with trade flourishing and justice firmly upheld.



As Scotland's parliament was restored along with Charles II in the Restoration of 1660, Clerk observes the many efforts which Scottish statesmen undertook to restore British union.



He served as Lord President of the Privy Council of Scotland, and grew to become the kingdom's most powerful statesman. Having played a significant role in the Restoration, he was also a favourite of Charles II, and was able to convince the king to bring the issue of union before the parliaments with a view to negotiating an agreement on incorporation.


But Clerk felt that Charles had thwarted Lauderdale's efforts by selfishly putting his own interests before those of his people:


The Scot's proposal...that he should complete the great work of union begun by his grandfather was less welcome to the King than was believed, for he secretly chose to keep his loyal and loving Scottish subjects hostile to England in case...he would need their help to put down disturbances in England.


Charles's use of the "divide and rule" tactic might have thwarted Scottish attempts at union in the 1670s, but the issue would resurface again within Scotland long before 1707.


After James VII's brief reign, King William was to be welcomed to the throne in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. No sooner had William taken his royal seat, than there were fresh attempts to secure an incorporating union.


Having discussed the matter with his Scottish subjects, the Scottish parliament took the initiative in inviting English commissioners to discuss the issue:


William...had raised the matter with the Scottish magnates, and accordingly in May the estates of Scotland proposed union with England and nominated commissioners to negotiate it...


The Scots were unequivocal in their call for full union. Clerk notes that in one 'Letter of the Estates to King William' from 1689, they called explicitly for the creation of a British nation under a single parliament:


…we want nothing more than that the two kingdoms should join together in a single body politic under one head and sovereign and become one nation with a single parliament". (p108)



Clerk also records a piece of evidence that has major implications for how we view the famous Claim of Right of 1689.


Much like the English Bill of Rights of the same year, it is respected as a constitutional document of huge significance.

Considering the document's assertion of Scottish sovereignty, it is not surprising to see modern nationalists adopt its language and imagery in support of devolution or independence. Indeed, in the debates leading up to 1707, some anti-union politicians attempted to use its authority to argue that union was unconstitutional.


But in his record of the debates taking place within the Scottish parliament, Clerk noted an important point which they were neglecting to consider:


…nowhere in the Claim of Right or any subsequent act was union said to violate our rights and privileges. On the contrary, the Claim favoured union, since it was primarily with union in view that parliament had approved it." (p108)


That is, at the same time the Scottish parliament passed the Claim of Right, it had been writing enthusiastically to William to appeal for union, and had seized the initiative in beginning talks on the matter with the English parliament.


The Claim of Right can certainly be considered a fundamentally unionist document. Along with the English Bill of Rights of the same year, it was part of a constitutional process designed to secure the transition to a democratic Britain in the wake of the Glorious Revolution – one where the principles of popular sovereignty and limited monarchy would be respected.


Britain could have come into being in a harmonious manner in the years between 1688 and 1690. But in a far from novel turn of events, Clerk recalls that the reluctance of the English parliament once again hindered the Scottish drive for union.



As Scotland continued to struggle as a small state in a world of global empires, governed by a King resident in London, and increasingly suffering from a balance of trade deficit, the 1690s proved to be a miserable decade for the kingdom.


A series of crop failures, rising tariffs at its European markets and the disastrous failure of its colony at Darien left the land in a perilous state.


Serious union negotiations between the two parliaments resumed in 1702, but again they failed to come to an agreement.


As union plans continued to be thwarted by Presbyterian radicals, Jacobite dissenters and the ambivalence of the English, Clerk remarked upon the desperation which was developing within unionist circles:


There were many who had so fervently longed for a union or association of the British kingdoms that they were ready to accept one on terms good or bad, believing that the welfare of all Britain and of the Protestant cause depended on it.


Having arrived at the time of the debates of his own day, Clerk at least had the benefit of hindsight, and was able to look back with comfort and remember that:


...the time was approaching when union would at last remove or alleviate these hatreds and rivalries.



Of course, that time came in 1706-1707, and Clerk was amongst those union commissioners who shaped the Articles of Union at "the Cockpit" in Whitehall.


In presenting his History of the Union, Clerk demonstrates that his own support for the project was borne of genuine ideological conviction.


Indeed, a major motivation in his decision to undertake such a great work was his desire to vindicate unionists from such accusations of "bribery" and "self-interest", rooted in the slanders of virulent Jacobites like George Lockhart of Carnwath.


In providing a comprehensive case for union, rooted in thousands of years of history, and appreciated in the fullness of its wide British context, Clerk broke the mould of those scholars who contented themselves with a more limited view of Scottish history.


In looking beyond the narrow confines of nationalism, he articulated a positive and emotive case for union between two peoples who had a deep, shared past. Our modern unionism benefits from his example. He helps to inform our understanding and beliefs today.



Sir John Clerk, History of the Union of Scotland and England, translated and edited by Douglas Duncan, (Scottish History Society: Edinburgh, 1993).



Sir John Clerk had two sons. His son, John Clerk of Eldin, produced the first-ever book on naval tactics in English. In his Essay on Naval Tactics (1779, published 1790), Clerk described the tactic known as 'cutting the line'. This involved sailing into the enemy's line of ships, and attacking the rear ships of the enemy's line with the whole force of the attacking fleet. Horatio Nelson used several sentences from Clerk's work in his orders to the British fleet before the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805. It could be said that John Clerk of Eldin's work helped to secure victory.


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