Monday 26 May 2014

a parcel of rogues

On 18th September this year, voters in Scotland will get to decide whether their country becomes independent from the rest of the United Kingdom. There can be no doubt that there is a groundswell of animosity in the country towards the ‘auld enemy’, England in other words; since Bannockburn in 1314—Scotland’s last major military success against the English—the Scots have had plenty to feel aggrieved about.

Much of this resentment focuses on the failure of the Darien scheme, an ambitious plan by the Scots in the late 1690s to establish an entrepĂ´t on the isthmus of Panama to facilitate trade between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It was a scheme that looked good on paper, and it was widely supported initially by Dutch and English investors, but the East India Company, fearing the loss of its trading monopoly, objected. As a result, the English Parliament withdrew its support for the scheme, which forced the scheme’s English and Dutch investors to pull out.

However, there was no shortage of investors in Scotland—half of the capital available in the country was sunk in the scheme—and the first five ships set sail from Leith in July 1698 on a huge tide of what turned out to be misplaced optimism. It is obvious that none of the would-be colonists had any idea what they were letting themselves in for: yellow fever, malaria and marauding Spanish galleons were just three of the hazards waiting for them in their new home.

It was a scheme that was destined to fail, but what has fuelled Scottish resentment ever since is the decree by the English king (William III) that Royal Navy ships were not to help the Scots colonists in their difficulties with the Spanish (England had been fighting France at the time and didn’t want to pick a fight with another European power).

Within seven months of arriving in what they had optimistically renamed ‘Caledonia’, one-third of the 1,200 original colonists were dead, and the remainder were emaciated and so racked with fever that they decided to abandon the settlement. Unfortunately, no one seems to have sent word back to Scotland, because a further six ships had set sail for Caledonia in November 1699, with a third flotilla of five ships a short while later. Only one of the sixteen ships returned, and the final death toll was more than 2,000. Scotland was almost bankrupted by the total loss of the £500,000 investment.

It may be a coincidence but probably isn’t, but within eight years of this unmitigated disaster, the Scottish Parliament had been dissolved and the Act of Union, cementing Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom, had been passed by the English Parliament with the connivance of leading figures in Scotland, who had been quietly compensated for their losses in the Darien scheme. Eighty-four years later, Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, wrote a poem about this skullduggery:
What force or guile could not subdue
Through many warlike ages
Is wrought now by a coward few
For hireling traitor’s wages
The English steel we could disdain
Secure in valour’s station
But English gold has been our bane:
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

I would, or I had seen the day
That treason thus could sell us
My auld gray head had lain in clay
Wi’ Bruce and loyal Wallace!
But pith and power, till my last hour
I’ll make this declaration
We were bought and sold for English gold:
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

Robert Burns, Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation.
Although this poem is now more than 200 years old, it continues to encapsulate the nationalistic feelings of many people in Scotland, with its invocation of the ghosts of two of the country’s great historical heroes, Robert the Bruce and William Wallace, even though both had been dead for 500 years when the poem was written.

In fact, the vision of an independent Scotland that is being promoted by the Scottish National Party (SNP) has much in common with the era when Burns wrote his poem: the beginnings of the Romantic movement in art and music. Whether such a vision is justified is not for me to decide, but it is interesting to note who does and who does not get to decide.

For a start, people who were born in Scotland but who now live and work in England don’t get a vote. I wonder if that has anything to do with the increased likelihood that such people would vote to retain the union. Meanwhile, English people who now live and work in Scotland will have a vote, possibly in anticipation of increased sympathy for the independence cause among such immigrants, who may have more romantic views of their adopted country than the natives, although when I worked in Scotland, more than 40 years ago, the SNP was a fringe party, and the independence question simply never came up.

The eligibility criteria may have been well publicized, but if my speculations on the likely voting behaviour of Scottish and English expatriates is correct, then what we are seeing is blatant gerrymandering by the SNP, who will have had a big say in setting these criteria, in order to secure its desired outcome in the referendum. Such a parcel of rogues in a nation.


  1. My feeling is that independence is unlikely or Whitehall would be trying harder to find a new home for the Trident submarines. the Scots will also gain concessions from a 'no' vote

    1. You’re probably right Peter, although the ‘no’ campaign has been very badly run.

  2. Hard feelings take a long time to die. Sometimes, they never do.
    Very interesting post Dennis.
    Not too long ago, I felt the need to dig into my family history. I was really only trying to connect the few Tillett groups in the U.S. Before long I was hooked and started working with a lady at the the local Family History Center. Much to my surprise, I found out that much of my family tree work had already been done. Even more surprising was the fact that I'm related to some of the main players in the English/Scottish turmoil.

    1. So your ancestors may have been responsible for some of the cross-border raids on my home town then Pat! The town is less than 30 miles south of the border, and the hill overlooking the town is still called the Beacon, because a bonfire was lit on the top to warn the townspeople that the Scots were coming. The raids continued well into the eighteenth century.

  3. I apologize for them!
    I remember when the movie Braveheart came out and I found myself rooting for the Scottish. Little did I know I was related to both sides in that battle.
    Edward I, King of England was the paternal grandfather of wife of my 21st great grandfather.
    Robert I, The Bruce of Scotland Stewart was the father-in-law of great grandfather of husband of mother of my 1st cousin 18x removed.

    I realize that they are so distantly related to me, that they might as well not be related at all. However, I was tickled by it all.

    1. Shall I send you the bill for damage done then Pat? I haven’t seen Braveheart, but my understanding is that it was deliberately constructed to elicit the response you describe.

      By the way, that’s a pretty impressive family tree. The only famous person in my ancestry is John Dalton, who was responsible for atomic theory.


Please leave a comment if you have time, even if you disagree with the opinions expressed in this post, although you must expect a robust defence of those opinions if you choose to challenge them. Anonymous comments may not be accepted.