Unsustainable debt led Scotland into Treaty of Union

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IT IS technically correct but highly misleading to say that Scotland had no national debt in 1707 (Letters, 16 March). England’s national debt, funding government expenditure by long-term borrowing through a central bank, was then unique. Like pre-1694 England, Scotland’s financial administration operated as a pay-as-you-go system, eked out by short-term loans. It worked well enough up to 1688 but then broke down, leaving an increasing burden of public debt. In 1704, outstanding debt for the period 1689-1700 alone was estimated to be about £110,000 sterling, a sum 
that exceeded a year’s normal revenue. From 1702, renewed war added to the debt, and 
by 1707 warrants issued by 
the Treasury were often little better than IOUs.

This admittedly simplified analysis is based on 50-odd years’ work on the Scottish 
Exchequer records up to and since my retirement from the Scottish Record Office. My own conclusion is that by 1707 the burden of public debt was unsustainable and, whatever view one takes of the Treaty of Union, it did allow the debt to be cleared off, a much needed re-coinage carried out, and Scotland’s financial administration to be put on a proper, 
if far from ideal, footing. A “parcel of rogues” may indeed have profited, but there were others who saw the Union as the way forward, and some who accepted it was their best chance of getting money due to them. How far any of this is relevant to Scotland in 2014, your readers will no doubt 
decide for themselves.

Dr Athol L Murray, Edinburgh