Come and join great debate on nation's past, present and future

THREE hundred years ago today, in tempestuous times, Scotland voted for the Act of Union. The course of history changed, and debate has ebbed and flowed ever since.

It is the proper job of a newspaper which professes to serve this nation to give a special place in its columns to the debates surrounding the events of 16 January, 1707, and the 300 years since.

Between today and the end of March, The Scotsman will run "Scotland 300: The nationhood debate". It is about trying to understand what happened back then and how history might have been different if that crucial vote had gone the other way. But it is more than that. It is about the present and the future. Especially as, 300 years later, we are entering a fascinating year in which the May elections will ask profound questions both within Scotland and over the Border.

So, from today and for every day in the run-up to voting, we intend to position ourselves as the forum for debate on where this country finds itself in 2007 and where it might be headed. Vitally, it is your opinions and concerns that we want to hear. So we will be reaching out to all parts of Scotland in a way never attempted before. Our reporters will be travelling the length and breadth of the country talking to readers. Scotsman debates involving the public, politicians and community leaders will be held around the country. Scotsman.com will also act as a conduit for further debate.

Scotland 300 will be an excellent opportunity for readers to make their views known to our leaders. We pledge to ensure they are listening.

So what do we want to find out? It's pretty simple, really. What are the real concerns of Scotland, not just those which find voice at Holyrood or Westminster? For certain, views on devolution and the way we are governed will form a part, as will how we should be governed in future and whether we should cut the ties with Westminster. But equally important are the issues affecting the way we live our everyday lives.

How good are our schools, our medical services, our arts, our transport? What do we feel about our environment and our quality of life? Do we need more or less government? How do we find our humour? What do we do with our leisure time? What do we think of each other? Are we a united nation or a collection of different interest groups? The Scotsman wants to build up as comprehensive a picture as possible, a 2007 snapshot of the nation. We don't claim it will be "scientific", but it will be a fascinating journey for the next three months. I hope you will join us.

Q & A: THE SCOTSMAN GUIDE TO THE UNION

The 300th anniversary of Scotland and England coming together as a united kingdom has generated nationwide interest. But even after the academic studies and the national debate, do we really understand the Union?

The Scotsman today answers the key questions about the Union - the history; its relevance today; what it is; and what it is not.

What is "the Union"?

The coming together in 1707 as one country of Scotland with England and Wales - though the principality, effectively annexed by its neighbour to the east in the 1543's, rarely gets a mention.

The new kingdom of Great Britain came into being after the parliaments in Edinburgh and London voted to approve the 25-article Treaty of Union.

The final vote on the treaty was carried by 110 votes to 67 in the Scottish parliament in January 1707. It was ratified by the Westminster parliament in March 1707.

The Scottish parliament was dissolved in April and the Union began in May 1707.

What did the Treaty specify?

It declared that England and Scotland become one kingdom, with the same monarchy and succession, a single parliament, known as "the Parliament of Great Britain", and equal trade and economic rights.

Scottish institutions such as the burghs and legal systems were allowed to continue. Symbols of statehood such as the Great Seal of Scotland - still used to confer power on first ministers - were reconstituted in "British" versions.

Most clauses insisted Scotland adopt existing English institutions - for example, customs and excise duties, weights and measures and coinage.

English representation in the House of Commons and the House of Lords remained unchanged. Scotland sent 16 peers to the Lords and 45 MPs to the Commons.

What kind of union was it?

In constitutional terms, an incorporating union, in contrast to an alternative arrangement such as federalism. The incorporating union was signified by the acceptance of the common institutions.

There is academic dispute over whether it was a "take-over" of Scotland by England or a union of equals.

Experts who take a more nationalist perspective tend to see it as the former. Others argue that the preservation of the Scottish legal system, the local burghs structure and education - and access Scots gained to a wider economic market - prove the latter.

Is the Union the same as the Union of the Crowns?

No. That happened in 1603 when James VI of Scotland, the son of Mary Queen of Scots and Lord Darnley, acceded to the English throne.

Have there been other unions since then?

Yes. In 1800, acts of the Westminster and Irish parliaments created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. It is clear that Irish parliamentarians, who had initially rejected union, were bought for English currency, if not gold.

In 1922, following the partition of Ireland, another union was constituted, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

And in 1973 the UK became part of the European Economic Community, which evolved into the European Union.

Before devolution, what kind of state was the UK?

Academics Stein Rokkan and Derek Urwin have suggested the UK was a union state. Scotland's pre-Union legacy gave it a distinct identity within the UK and integration was, to give it the academic term "less than perfect".

Are unionists here the same as Ulster unionists?

Not necessarily. Ulster unionists believe in retaining the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and oppose republicans, who seek a united Ireland.

Scotland still has areas where there are annual Orange Order parades, so there will be Scots who are more aware of the significance of 1690 - the Battle of the Boyne, in which King William III defeated King James II to secure the British throne - than of 1707.

Are the Conservatives the same as unionists?

No. But between 1912 and 1965 the Conservatives in Scotland were known as the Scottish Unionist Party. It only became the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party when Edward Heath demanded it modernise. The union referred to is not that of 1707 but of 1800.

Are there other kinds of unionists?

Yes. Although the term was not widely used until recent times, in the modern context a unionist is anyone in Scotland who favours the idea of Scotland remaining within the UK.

For a long period - at least from the 1930s, through the Second World War up to the 1970s - the term unionist would not have been used by many politicians in Scotland, particularly Labour politicians. It was a given.

It has only begun to be used more frequently by Labour politicians since the rise of nationalism in the 1970 with the advent of the Scottish Parliament, where the SNP is now the main opposition party.

In theory at least, it can be possible to support a British union but to be in favour of a united Ireland. Scottish nationalists use the term "unionist parties" pejoratively to describe Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Tories.

SETTING THE AGENDA

DEBATE is the lifeblood of democracy. Opinions honestly held and passionately expressed have been the backbone of The Scotsman since its foundation in 1817.

On our letters and opinion pages, throughout the newspaper, we supply a platform for people to express themselves.

It is our aim to set the agenda for the next two- and-a-half months, using the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union to revisit a host of topics rarely aired under one "roof".

For the life of "Scotland 300: The Nationhood Debate", a page a day will be devoted to such opinions and subjects, including:

• What does it mean to be Scottish in 2007?

• What does the country need to do to progress?

Taking the Gordon Brown test, are we Scottish, British, Scottish/British or British/Scottish?

• Are we a meritocracy?

• Edinburgh: a capital city for all?

• Does the "Scottish cringe" really exist?

• What Scottish humour says about us.

• Do we need a national anthem?

• The Scottish diaspora: if they love the place so much why aren't they here?

The pop industry - Scotland's finest export?

• The generation game: do young Scots think the same as their parents about the country?

What is Scottish style?

• Does Scottish writing have an identity?

What are the Scottish divide lines? Religion? Class? Geography?

Is there a brain drain?

The list is not definitive. If there are subjects you would like our writers to address, email us at debate300@scotsman.com or write to Scotland 300, The Scotsman, 108 Holyrood Road, Edinburgh, EH8 8AS.