The History of Scottish Independence: A Guide
Centuries ago, England was a dominant, domineering state determined to conquer its neighbours. While gaining control of another country is never a simple task, out of the three other Kingdoms in the British Isles it was Scotland who proved the toughest nut to crack.
Given the centuries of animosity between England and Scotland, why and how did they unify in the first place?
How did Scotland became part of the United Kingdom?
England was formed in 927 (the 10th century) and was deemed the UK’s first official state. It was only a matter of time before King Edward I declared war and conquered Wales in the late 13th Century. After claiming the kingdom of Wales, King Edward I proceeded to invade the northern Kingdom of Scotland. However, Scotland had no intention of renouncing its independence.
The First War of Scottish Independence lasted from the beginning of the English invasion of Scotland in 1296 until the restoration of Scottish independence with the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in 1328. In return for reparations paid by Scotland, it was agreed that England would recognise Robert the Bruce - the leader of the war of independence - and his heirs as the rightful rulers of Scotland, which was to be fully independent.
The Second War of Scottish Independence began when King Edward III of England overturned the treaty, which was unpopular among Scottish-based English nobles who had lost land and influence when Scotland became independent. A truce was agreed in 1357 with the Treaty of Berwick, but Scotland effectively relinquished its independence in order to achieve a lasting peace.
The unification process between the Scottish and English kingdoms happened when Queen Elizabeth I died without an heir, and her closest relative, King James VI of Scotland, was chosen to take over as King James I of England and Ireland. Thus, both nations shared the same monarch in a personal union.
The political elites of both countries were almost identical - Scottish royal dynasties such as the Stewarts and the Bruces were Norman in origin, much like the English monarchs, and the two monarchies frequently intermarried.
This monarch-sharing arrangement lasted for over 100 years until the Act of Union of 1707, which created what is now known as the United Kingdom. The Act of Union combined both nations into a single entity with a single parliament, located in London. It’s not immediately obvious why the Scottish parliament would have agreed to effectively cancel itself - but, at the time, Scotland was nearly bankrupt, and its parliament was therefore not in much of a position to refuse.
The origins of the Scottish independence movement
Scotland was an independent polity throughout the Middle Ages and continuously fought to protect its independence from the English state. Although after 1707 England and Scotland were technically united, the reality was somewhat less harmonious. For example, in 1746, the English decided to ban the kilt, for no apparent reason other than to annoy the Scots. This may seem trivial, but it is part of a wider sense of injustice and an undercurrent of resistance to Scotland’s loss of autonomy. Although many Scots are now perfectly happy to identify as both Scottish and British, for some the desire for independence and self-government has never fully disappeared.
In 1998, a referendum was held which granted devolution, or outsourcing, of some powers from Westminster to a separate Scottish parliament. Although devolution provided some level of autonomy, the British parliament retained the power to overturn any legislative decision made by the Scottish parliament.
Why we have seen such a resurgence of Scottish nationalism in the 21st century
So, why is Scottish nationalism still relevant today? One explanation is political affiliation. On average, the Scots tend to be more liberal/left-leaning than the English. The SNP, for example, has similar stances to Labour on many key issues. But because England accounts for the vast majority of the British population, Scotland has frequently ended up being ruled by a Conservative government that its people overwhelmingly oppose. It is perhaps no coincidence that David Cameron - the archetype of English privilege - took office at around the same time that the SNP became the most popular party in Scotland.
Another issue is oil - Scotland is home to the majority of the UK’s oil reserves, and some Scots have argued that revenue from this oil should be given directly to Scotland. However, whether or not Scotland could live off its oil reserves were it to become independent is far from clear, as no one is quite sure how much is actually left.
In 2014, the Scottish independence referendum took place. Following a surprisingly closely-fought campaign, Scotland opted to remain in the UK by a margin of 55% to 45%. A combination of personal affiliation and financial and practical considerations drove the decision to remain. But this is all at stake yet again following the UK’s decision to leave the EU in 2016. Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain, and resentment is growing as the economic and social fallout of Brexit starts to hit.
For more resources on this topic, head to our dedicated British History section.
Edited by Catherine Westall