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Scottish Origins of British Unionism: John Elder

This is the second in our chronological series examining the Scottish Origins of British Unionism, written by John Provan who has an MA (Hons) in History. Here we examine the unifying British vision of the Highlander, John Elder, and his appeal in 1542 to Henry VIII that "both the realms of England and of Scotland may be joined in one" and that they might "hew forever in peace, love and amity."

(Photograph of Union Jack Kilt model from Skilt kilt makers at Skilt)

In late 1542, long before the Union of 1707, and before the Union of the Crowns of 1603, the Scotsman John Elder wrote a letter to Henry VIII entitled 'A Proposal for Uniting Scotland with England'. [1]

Elder was a Highlander, and a self-described 'Redshank'. He was a Protestant clergyman from Caithness, who had studied at St. Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen. His faith came at a price, and it led to his exile in England.

His persecution would lead to him becoming a fervent unionist, who longed to see the people of Britain united under a single, godly king.

He challenges any notion that early unionism was the preserve of "anglicised" Lowlanders. [2]

UNION would PROTECT PROTESTANTS Religion was always at the forefront in Elder's unionism.

Like so many of his Protestant brethren, he was dismayed to see his country fall under the sway of Catholic clergymen in the regency of the infant Mary, Queen of Scots.

Persecution had been rife under her father James V. Protestants were persecuted, burned at the stake, lost any political office, and were used as soldiers for his domineering Catholic allies, the French.

This grim reality, and the anticipation of a worsening situation under Mary's regency council, is what forced Elder into exile in Protestant England.

In his letter to Henry VIII, penned in late 1542, he expresses the hopes and fears of a Scottish Protestant in pre-union Britain. He leaves no doubt as to who ran his native kingdom:

… being reuled as it was in his tyme, be the advyse of the Cardinall, associatt with proud papistical buschops, which euer allured our said noble Prynce in his daies, with their fals, flatteringe, and jugglinge boxes, from the natural inclinacion, and loue, which he ought vnto your Maiestie, his moost myghtie and naturall Vncle.

[James V's mother was Margaret Tudor, who was Henry VIII's sister.]

Elder believed that when Mary came of age and took to the throne, there was little prospect of the Catholic dominance in Scottish affairs ending. With the picture looking bleak in Scotland, it is no surprise that Elder should look to his brethren in England for support.

Like John Knox and other Scotsmen of the time, Elder was overjoyed when the opportunity for union presented itself, as the Protestant Henry VIII of England sought to have his son Edward marry Queen Mary.

In his letter, he is quick in encouraging Henry to pursue such an arrangement, and notes specifically that he desires to see a union of the two kingdoms brought about as a result of it:

… yf now after our said noble Kynges decese, Prynce Edowarde, whom God preserue, your Maiesties naturall sonne and heare of the noble empyr of England, shuld, as he shall by the grace of God, marye our younge Queyne of Scotland…boithe the realmes of England and of Scotland may be joynede in one; and so your noble Maiestie for to be superiour and kynge.

There would be beneficial aspects to such a union. Not least, the persecution of Protestants would end.


But beyond that, Elder believed that it was essential to the peace and prosperity of his native kingdom of Scotland.

Although some Scots today speak fondly of the Auld Alliance, in reality it was never so popular with the ordinary people of the time, who were often sent to the slaughter at the beck and call of the French, and used merely as a distraction to the English on their otherwise secure northern frontier.

Elder is highly critical of the French and the Catholic clergy of Scotland that were so supportive of the relationship.

The positive consequence was that union would free Scotland from the shackles of the French. It would remove foreign intervention, and it would allow for an era of peace to reign in the British Isles:

… by reason wherof, hypocrisy and supersticioun abolissede, and the Frence Kinge cleane pluckt out of our hartis, England and Scotland, and the posteritie of boith, may Hue for euer in peax, loue, and amitie.

A VERY HIGHLAND UNIONISM Perhaps the most unique aspect of Elder's unionism is the emphasis he places on the support it would have within the Scottish Highlands.

He argues that the Highland chiefs (which he refers to as 'Yrish' or 'Irish', as was common in his day) have grown tired of the growing power of the clergy, which had been infringing upon the autonomy from Edinburgh which they had historically enjoyed.

Elder is confident that he can assure Henry of their support in the event of an invasion:

Moreouer, heringe and seinge what loue and fauour the valiaunt Yrishe lordes of Scotland, other wayes callid the Reddshankes… beris [bear] vnto your said Maiestie.

Evidently, Elder believed that Henry VIII would restore many of the privileges that the Highland chiefs had lost to Edinburgh or to clergymen, and show some level of leniency towards their well-known lawlessness.

Elder bases this on the treatment that Henry had shown to the Gaelic chiefs of Ireland, as Henry was King of both England and Ireland, the crown of the latter being tied to that of the former by the Crown of Ireland Act, which was passed by the Parliament of Ireland on 18 June 1542.

He is no doubt aiming to flatter Henry here to some degree, but there is some root of truth when he praises the king's policies in Ireland:

Sene they heire and vnderstand how mercifully, how graciously, and how liberally your noble Grace haith vsed, orderide, and dealide with the lordes of Irland ther nyghboures, which haue continewid so many yeares rebellis ; perdonyng and forgyving theame ther offences and trespasses; creatinge of theame, some erlis, some lordes, and some barons; rewardinge theame more lyke princis then erlis and lordis, with gold, siluer, and riches; and sending theame home agane with gorgious indumentis, and riche apparell.

The social structure of the Highlands was very similar to that of Ireland, as the two areas had long had close cultural, linguistic, economic and ethnic ties.

No doubt the Highland chiefs, disgruntled as they were with the Edinburgh government, would have looked fondly upon the prospect of having a king who would respect their ancient autonomy. The additional prospect of being given official titles from the crown would also have been alluring.

We can see in John Elder quite a unique strain of unionist thought.

While on the one hand, like so many unionists of the time, he is greatly concerned with the persecution faced by Protestants in his native kingdom; he also shows a very Highland-centric concept of union, where the Highland chiefs might flourish, free from the imposing grip of Edinburgh and its Catholic rulers.

The notion of local autonomy within a British state is a recurring theme within unionism in Scotland, as noted by Graeme Morton in his book, Unionist Nationalism. [3]

So while there are some unique aspects to Elder's idea of union, perhaps they would lay the foundations for the unionists of later times.

Sources: 1. John Elder, 'A Proposal for Uniting Scotland with England' in Bannatyne Miscellany, (Edinburgh, 1827), pp.1-19.

2. We do not have a date of birth or death for John Elder but he is recorded as having "flourished" between 1542 and 1565. 'Redshank' was a term used to describe Highland mercenaries in particular, and Highlanders more generally. The term comes from the fact that they were bare-legged, since shank is a term for 'leg' or the 'lower-leg'.

3. Graeme Morton, Unionist Nationalism. Governing Urban Scotland 1830-1860, (Tuckwell Press, East Linton, East Lothian: 1999).


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