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Queen's historian discusses the Scottish campaign for independence

Dr. Daniel Woolf, Principal and historian of Britain, shares his views on the Scottish Referendum.

Principal Daniel Woolf
Principal Daniel Woolf.

This week, Scotland will go to the polls to vote on whether to separate from England and receive independence. In a relationship that has often been strained, Scotland and England are days away from possible separation and Scotland could face dramatic changes should the vote pass. To gain more information on this topic, Rosie Hales, Communications Officer, sat down with historian of Britain, Principal Daniel Woolf to discuss the Scottish-English relationship and what an independent Scotland could look like.                                                                                       

Rosie Hales: Now that a referendum is days away, the Scottish-English relationship appears to be a strained one. Was this always the case?

Daniel Woolf: The relationship has been an up and down one for two millennia. Historically, the Scots and the English were frequently in conflict during the Middle Ages. The last major battles to be fought on British soil all involved Scots--the Battle of Flodden in 1513 (in which Scottish King James IV died); several battles of the English civil wars of the 1640s and early 1650s; and of course the post-union rising in favour of 'the young pretender', Charles Stuart ('Bonnie Prince Charlie') which ended in a crushing defeat for the highland Scots at Culloden in 1745. Throughout the later middle ages, Scotland was traditionally allied with England's trans-channel enemy, France. Mary Queen of Scots, the last reigning monarch of Scotland not also to be monarch of England, was married to the short-lived French king Francis II. 

England for its part claimed a kind of superiority over the Scots of various kinds on the grounds that the Scottish king had, since the 11th century, owed homage to the kings of England. This led to the wars of conquest in the late 13th and early 14th centuries famously (and very badly) depicted in movies like 'Braveheart'. Elizabethan and especially Jacobean writers played on the fact that from 1603, the two countries had the same monarch (James VI and I, son of Mary Queen of Scots) to argue that union was more or less historically inevitable. Shakespeare's play 'Macbeth' is one famous example of this point of view.

Since the union the relationship has been even more complex. Scottish intellectuals of the 18th century such as Adam Smith, David Hume and William Robertson, Principal of the University of Edinburgh, cultivated a notion of Scotland as 'north Britain' to promote the union. 

RH: How did England and Scotland come to be united in the first place?

DW: In the course of the 17th century the uneasy peace that having the same monarch had created (including a cessation of border skirmishes that had marred the middle ages) broke down a couple of times, most notably during the civil wars of mid-century. Scottish law and religion evolved quite differently from English. But English population and economic growth considerably outstripped that of the Scots during the 16th and 17th century; one precipitating event of the union was a disastrous colonial experiment by the Scots at 'Darien' in Central America which nearly bankrupted the country and its elites, and also convinced them that their best chance at imperial expansion lay in a fuller union with England. 

RH: Has independence from the UK always been a long standing goal for Scotland?

DW: I would say not. Scottish independence was relatively subdued during the later 18th century (one should remember that the Culloden campaign was at least as much about 'civilized' lowland scots vs 'barbaric', clan-organized highland scots as it was Scots vs English) and 19th century. In the 20th century, and especially since World War One, the movement has grown, encouraged by nationalist movements elsewhere, notably in Ireland.

RH: How will life in the UK change should Scotland receive independence?

DW: Very hard to predict that at this point. It will change more dramatically, I think, for the Scots than the English because, as has been made clear, they will need to develop their own currency and may not have access to the kinds of services that are provided in England with its larger tax base. For many people, the difference may not be noticeable at all, especially if an independent Scotland joins the European community and can thus share common passports with its members, including England.