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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 April 2007, 06:27 GMT 07:27 UK
Empire's role in Scottish history
Dr Richard Weight
Historian, BBC Radio 4's Analysis

This year sees the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union which merged the English and Scottish parliaments.

As part of Radio 4's 1707 season, historian Dr Richard Weight asks what role the British Empire played in forging the Union, and whether it is significant that Scottish nationalism revived in the 1960s when the Empire was crumbling.

The Union was sold to the British people as strengthening the Protestant state against Catholic European powers.

But in Scotland, the Union was also seen as an opportunity for a small country to be a big player in the nascent British Empire.

The Act of Union of the Scottish Parliament at the National Archives of Scotland
The treaty was ratified by the Scottish Parliament in January 1707

Professor Tom Devine, of Edinburgh University, said: "In early 19th Century Canada, there was a fight to the death between the two great fur trading corporations - Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company.

"One company was dominated by Orkneymen, the other by Highlanders. Both Scots, but they had almost a suicidal fight over the profits of the fur trade."

The Union brought wealth to Scotland, and power and influence to many Scots which is still evident today.

Professor John Curtice, from Strathclyde University, in Glasgow said: "Glasgow is an imperial city.

"There are places in the city that are called Kingsborough and Queensborough and Victoria, and you can see the 19th Century Victorian British influence.

"And in some respects that part of Scotland's history sometimes gets forgotten."

The Scots are very good at complaining about things
Richard Finlay

While there is consensus that the Union and its child, the Empire, has been by far the most important single factor in the last three centuries of Scottish history, it is only now - and reluctantly - that the Scottish people are starting to reflect on the less heroic aspects of their involvement in Empire.

And while "The Scot with a grievance" might be a much-lampooned cliché, the Glasgow historian Richard Finlay argues that a sense of victimhood does form part of the national psyche.

"The Scots are very good at complaining about things," he said.

"We could say this goes back to Calvinism in which we have a very negative view of the world.

"Perhaps there's some truth to this stereotype of the Private Frazer: 'We're all doomed'."

'Popular books'

So is there a link between the end of Empire and the resurgence of Scottish nationalism in the 1960s when the Scottish economy went into decline?

Professor Tom Devine said: "It's fascinating that in the very decade when the African colonies were going at a rapid rate in the 1960s and 1970s, that was the very time when the historical popular books of John Prebble became bestsellers - all about Scottish victimhood.

"From the 1960s, the Scots seemed to be more attracted to disasters in their history and I think Prebble, with his books on the Darien Disaster and the Highland Clearances, fitted into that kind of mindset."

Bravehearts and Bankers will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Analysis programme on Wednesday 4 April at 2030 BST and repeated on Sunday 8 April at 2130 BST

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