Nationalist hero who was really a Union man

FOR centuries, he has been known to nationalists as a patriot who tried to save Scotland from the infamous sell-out by the "parcel of rogues" who signed up to the Act of Union in 1707.

Lord Belhaven was chosen as one of the "Voices of Scotland" after the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament for his stirring words in one of its last debates nearly three centuries before.

But new historical research has unmasked Belhaven and other leading campaigners who said "no" to the Union as being just as self-interested as their reviled political opponents.

In 1705, Belhaven wrote to Sidney Godolphin, the English Lord High Treasurer, offering to join Scotland and England in political union in exchange for a position of power in the new regime for his political allies, including the Duke of Hamilton.

Professor Christopher Whatley, of Dundee University’s history department, is writing a book called The Scots and the Union, to be published in 2006 ahead of the 300th anniversary.

As he carried out research, he found some of the anti-Union figures were not quite the nationalist heroes they had been made out to be.

"The politicians of whom I’m less respectful of now are the opposition politicians, who we have tended to hail as patriots," Prof Whatley said. "Lord Belhaven in 1706 made a great speech against the Union which is still quoted and revered by nationalists. But Belhaven and the Duke of Hamilton, the leader of the opposition, were until some time up to 1705 perfectly prepared to go for the Union had they been offered positions. The idea of Lord Belhaven being a Scottish patriot needs to be taken with a pinch of salt."

In January 1705, Belhaven wrote to Godolphin strongly suggesting he would support a Union if political allies like the Duke of Hamilton were appointed as Scottish commissioners on the team to hammer out the details of the act.

In the letter, he said: "I doe not see how we can shun the entering upon a treaty with England if it be resolved upon by her Majestie and the two houses. As for the successe of a treaty I am not yet able to give my sentiments in particulars, yet in generall I think ther will not be found so great difficulties ... but much of this depends upon the right concerting of affairs that persons of integrity and who dessine the peace of Brittain, of both nations may be imployed as commissioners."

He tries to address concerns that the people he is seeking to have appointed to political office might not be the obvious candidates: "If I should say those persons seem not to be fitt instruments to carrie on a treaty acceptable to this nation bot I declair to your Lordship that if my small experience in the concerns of my country could bring me to be of opinion that they would be the fittest persons for doeing so good a work I should most heartily petition for them to be imployed."

In December of the previous year, the Duke of Hamilton, who had considerable estates in England, had written to Belhaven saying: "They ar not good Brittains who would make a treatty difficult, and when wee are heard and understood I hope wee shall not appear unreasonable."

Prof Whatley said there had been a tendency to dismiss the pro-Union faction "as being wholly venal, interested in position and place and pensions". He added: "I think there are some rogues, but not a parcel - there’s a packet of rogues. It seems to me that, if you like, the thinking classes - thoughtful individuals thinking about Scotland’s condition and future - were more inclined to be pro-Union. They perhaps weren’t exactly hugely enthusiastic about that but there were several who were."

Prof Whatley said his research had led him to believe religion played a bigger role in the Union than he previously thought.

"I was somebody who took the view, and I’m associated with the view, that it was economic needs of a poor Scotland that forced the Union. I still think that’s true," he said. "What we see here is a hugely ambitious political class, but that ambition isn’t matched by achievement, largely because of the world situation. The world is dominated by large political powers with big navies - England, France and the Netherlands.

"What’s coming through that’s new for me is the importance of Presbyterianism as a factor. There are moderate Presbyterians convinced that a Protestant Britain is what they need to support a very insecure Church of Scotland.

"There was actually a demand in 1689 for an incorporating union from the Scottish estates, Scottish parliament. It was about the defence of the Church of Scotland of Protestantism against the great Catholic powers."

However, he said that hardline Church of Scotland members, like the Covenanters, were fiercely anti-Union and had there been a referendum on the issue, the idea would have been rejected: "There’s no doubt Scotland would have been opposed if you’d had a mass democracy like we have today. There are literally hundreds of petitions against it."

SNP leadership contender Mike Russell sat on the committee that chose Lord Belhaven to be one of the Voices of Scotland because of his stirring words against the Union. A quote from his speech in the Act of Union debate in 1707, which was chosen to be written on the hoardings surrounding the new Holyrood parliament building, said: "I see a free and independent kingdom delivering up that which all the world has been fighting for … to wit, a power to manage their own affairs by themselves."

Mr Russell said Lord Belhaven was seen as a heroic figure "in so far as there are heroes of that time, absolutely".

"There are a number of people who regarded the Union as a bad thing to happen who have always been interesting to the SNP," Mr Russell said.

He thought it a "great pity" that Belhaven was not quite the man of principle he had appeared to be. "I think this will be a disappointing piece of information, a lot of people will find it a little sad."