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Ancient History?

It isn’t hard to think of reasons why the Treaty (Articles) of Union is not on permanent display

Friday, December 1, 2023
4 mins

Where Is the Treaty of Union?

by Les Bertrand

On Scottish Twitter/X in recent days there has been speculation over the precise whereabouts of the Treaty of Union.

The point is made that there appears to be no celebration of the document. It is not on permanent display although it did appear in an exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh in 2007 to mark the tricentenary. The exhibition, titled "Union 1707: A Turning Point in British History," explored the political, social, and cultural impact of the Treaty on Scotland and England.

The document is housed in the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh as part of the National Records of Scotland (NRS) collection, a vast array of historical documents related to Scotland's past. 

Union of 1707 - Making the Treaty - The Articles of Union (scottisharchivesforschools.org)

It isn’t hard to think of reasons why the document is not on permanent display. For a start, it would present a tempting target for nationalists keen to replicate the ‘Stone of Destiny’ saga and/or act as a focal point for protest. 

Another reason why it may suit unionists to play down the significance of the treaty is that it reminds Scots how undemocratic the whole process was. We recently highlighted the serious unrest which swept Scottish cities in 1706. Off-Topic Scotland | 'We're No Havin' It!' (offtopicscotland.com)

A Good Read?

A common tactic of unionists in ‘debate’ with nationalists online is to decry the latter’s apparent fixation with ‘ancient’ documents and treaties. This sweeping dismissal of political/diplomatic agreements as ‘archaic’ is little more than a cheap debating trick, relying more on general ignorance of history than any substantive analysis of the contexts from which they emerged. And drawing attention away from examination of the documents helps avoid the awkward conversations which help to reveal why the Articles of Union are not ‘celebrated’. (We are reminded of George 'Dubya' Bush's alleged dismissal of the US Constitution as 'just a goddamned piece of paper'.)

The articles presented in the treaty are not difficult to understand. The original handwritten script is typically florid but the content is straightforward enough, concerned with the nuts and bolts of trade, property, institutional status. Here’s a passage, selected at random:

‘...by the Brewer at nine Shillings Six pence Sterling, excluding all Duties, and retailed, including Duties, and the Retailers Profit at two Pence the Scots Pint, or eighth Part of the Scots Gallon, be not after the Union liable on account of the present Excise upon excisable Liquors in England, to any higher Imposition than two Shillings Sterling upon the foresaid thirty-four Gallons English Barrel, being twelve Gallons the present Scots Measure. ‘And that the Excise settled in England on all other Liquors, when the Union commences, take place throughout the whole United Kingdom. VIII. ‘That, from and after the Union, all foreign Salt which shall be imported into Scotland, shall be charged at the Importation there, with the same Duties as the like Salt is now charged with being imported into England, and to be levied and secured in the same manner.’ But in regard the Duties of great Quantities of foreign Salt imported, may be very heavy upon the Merchants…’

Full transcript of Articles of Union:

articlesofunion.pdf (parliament.uk)

This language, while certainly unwieldy to modern readers, is no more difficult to read/understand than that used in documentation required for the ‘modern’ processing of mortgage agreements - would any property owner dismiss such vital documentation as ‘irrelevant’, ‘out-of-date’ and therefore beyond discussion, legal or otherwise?

Regardless of when ‘modern history’ begins, the Articles/Treaty of Union can hardly be described as ancient and their contents do not present us with an impenetrable mystery. More mysterious by far is the ease with which some are prepared to assert that the ‘union’ is anything but an undemocratic political construct borne of military/economic expediency.

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