The Real History Of How Scotland Joined The United Kingdom

By Military Historian, John Sadler

Queen Elizabeth I of England died at Richmond Palace on 24th March 1603, the last of the Tudor dynasty. She never married and produced no heirs. At that time Scotland was, of course, a wholly separate country ruled by King James VI, son of thew unfortunate Mary Queen of Scots whom Good Queen Bess had beheaded, 16 years earlier. For a millennium England and Scotland had been rival states, frequently and bloodily at war – this had come about because Kings of England had claimed feudal overlordship of Scotland. The Scots tended to disagree.

Robert Carey, the Errol Flynn of the borderlands, was determined to be the one to bring this momentous news to James VI who was now also James I of England. Elizabeth had ruled for 45 years, few could remember any other sovereign and she had attained near deified status. Now she’d be succeeded by a King of Scots, the ultimate irony of the border wars – that after three centuries with Kings of England seeking to annex Scotland, the final score was exactly the reverse. Nor was this a conquest won by force of arms but a willing and sought after Protestant succession. This religious aspect was what counted. England was a Protestant nation surrounded by Catholic enemies. James had been raised as a devout Protestant. On that basis alone, he’d do. 

This was in every sense a regime change and game changer. The wild lads across the marches, those border reivers/steel bonnets (raiders), local desperadoes hadn’t quite got it yet but this was the drafting of their obituaries. Things were about to change, and they’d find this process very painful, particularly their necks.  You could say this was one of the most pivotal moments in the history of these islands. For three centuries Kings of England had sought, by shotgun diplomacy and massive violence to take the Scottish throne. In this, they had failed and yet here was a King of Scots becoming King of England and not by the sword but by willing acclamation. Protestantism trumped history.  

James VI was by no means averse to seeing a good looking, strapping fellow in his bedroom, especially one who, on 26 March 1603, brought news James had been waiting so long to hear; his hopes of twenty years fulfilled and a thumping return on all the bribes he’d disbursed: ‘I was quickly let in and carried up to the King’s chamber. I kneeled by him and saluted him by his title of England, Scotland France and Ireland’. Now the French bit was pushing it, as every toehold was long gone but England would do very nicely. James made all the usual noises of condolence; after all, the Queen was Robert Carey’s aunt. He promised him ample reward, (which was what he wanted to hear) and Carey made the point this was all on his own initiative and that the Council had tried to hold him back – just so the King knew who his friends were. Robert would be neither the first nor last to find out that the gratitude of princes spreads exceeding thin. 

James’ progress south was a PR stroke of some genius. He had, after all, had a long time to think about it but here he was, a King of Scotland marching on London with garlands and cheers: ‘The King proceeding by easy journeys and being from time to time stopped by the hospitality and fondness of his new subjects, spent a whole month of his journey from Berwick to London. Ten days after his arrival in the capital he issued a proclamation requiring all those guilty of the ‘foul and insolent’ outrages lately committed on the borders to submit themselves to his mercy before 20th June on pain of being excluded from it forever’. 

Just in case that wasn’t plain enough he published a second blast a couple of days later: ‘… In consequence of which the bounds possessed by the rebellious borderers, should no more be the ‘extremities’ but ‘The Middle’ and the inhabitants thereof reduced to a perfect obedience’.  This was at the heart of James’ cherished project. There would be no more Border. He was for the first time in history master of both realms; what had been the fringe was now the centre and it would come to heel or face consequences. What followed wouldn’t be some warden’s raid or even a judicial sweep; in modern terms it would amount to ethnic cleansing. 

James VI of Scotland, I of England wasn’t like his Stewart forbears. For one thing he’d lead a reasonably long life and die in his bed, having collectively reigned for nearly half a century and never seen a battlefield. He was physically unprepossessing, notoriously mean and recoiled in terror at the sight of a drawn dagger, though Sir John Ramsay’s knife had saved him from the Gowries. He’d been horrified when Colquhoun widows presented their dead husband’s bloodied sarks (shirts) after a fracas with MacGregors in Glenfruin, (though it was probably sheep’s blood). 

He was utterly determined to eradicate the old troublesome border then impose law and order at whatever cost to the inhabitants. To be fair and while expressions like ‘The end justifies the means’ may be more modern, the idea was the same and it’s hard to see how it might have been done more tamely. Further south, his English subjects soon began to tire of their new king’s horde of Scottish carpetbaggers, who flocked south in his wake, hungry for advancement and streets paved with other peoples’ gold. The English: ‘soon began to treat the King and his countrymen with insolence and contempt’. On this even papists and puritans could agree. 

King James was not to be deflected: ‘The King in pursuance of his favourite purpose of extinguishing all memory of past hostilities between his kingdoms and if possible, of the places that had been the principal scene of these hostilities, prohibited the name of borders any longer to be used, substituting in its place, that of the Middle Shires’. Well, reivers; you’d been warned.   

He meant business: ‘Soon after his arrival in London, he gave a commission to George Clifford Earl of Cumberland, a nobleman who had acquired high military fame in the wars of the late Queen; appointing him as Warden of the West and Middle Marches towards Scotland, with the most extensive powers and Lieutenant-General of the Counties of Cumberland, Northumberland, and Westmorland and of the town and county of Newcastle upon Tyne’. That wasn’t all; he was keeper of the upland Northumbrian dales, governor of Carlisle. He could appoint deputies and mete out justice. His wages and those of his officers were guaranteed. All he didn’t get initially was the East March and Berwick where Sir John Carey was left in charge till the garrison was reduced.

Cumberland didn’t win universal acclaim, John Graham, (bit of a clue in the name), writing in the early twentieth century on the tribulations those of his name endured under the Earl’s harsh governance was no fan: ‘[he] was not one of those [favourites] upon whose shoulder the King hung with maudlin infatuation – but one in whom he discovered transcendent merits unobserved by the world at large’. And now for the Scottish side: ‘at the end of July Alexander, Lord Hume was appointed Justiciar and Lord-Lieutenant over the three Marches’. He had plenipotentiary powers, a free and unfettered commission and a thousand merks (marks) a year [in sterling] by way of salary. I doubt anybody was surprised that Hume did so well, after all his name had several centuries of form behind them.      

Queen Elizabeth was a very hard act to follow but James ruled Scotland and England for the best part of half a century and died at a respectable age and in his bed, a distinction that had eluded all of his immediate six Stewart predecessors. England and Scotland were now one kingdom but not yet a single polity, that would have to wait for another century. What happened thereafter was a slow moulding, a transformation of both realms. This was not an easy process, plenty warts yet remained and English conduct in Scotland after 1650 was only marginally less oppressive than in Ireland. But then empire, industry, trade and a common, even if individually distinctive heritage emerged. Scott re-invented Scotland. 

Abraham Lincoln would have got this, two halves however they retain their own identities, eventually morph into something different and ultimately indissoluble. The efforts of the SNP over the last couple of decades have shown themselves to be retrograde and xenophobic, a narrow, overtly racist party which has criminalised private conversations and seeks to impose a version of oppressive Pound-Land Marxism, must not ultimately be allowed to prosper. English and Scots need to celebrate all we have in common rather than fictitious re-imaginings and a perversion of history intended to drive us apart. 

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