Braveheart: The Geopolitics of Scotland

27 Mar

Scotland is both immensely difficult to conquer and immensely difficult to rule.

This simple fact has shaped much of Scottish history. The Romans raided Scotland during their rule of Britain, but they never managed to invade and ‘permanently’ occupy Scotland; the English, more persistent than the Romans, never held full control over Scotland even during the darkest years of the Wars of Independence. It was not until 1746 – nearly thirty years after the Act of Union – that London managed to assert full control over Scotland …

… And, even then, revolutionary movements continued to pose a threat.

This owes much to Scotland’s geography. While the ‘Lowlands’ are easy to reach from England, the ‘Highlands’ are much less so. Moving an army up to the far north was a daunting task – it still is, although these days there’s no risk of a real war. The clan chiefs had a great deal of autonomy, allowing them to evolve their own customs and wage private wars and feuds. These engagements didn’t always coincide with wars outside the Highlands. It was often claimed that the Lowlands were civilised while the Highlands were not. As odd as it may seem, there was some truth in this.

The downside of this was that strong government was extremely difficult. The king in Edinburgh had nominal rule over the entire country, but in practical terms his authority was very limited. Even strong kings – Robert the Bruce, William the Lion – had trouble asserting their rule in the Highlands. The smarter kings attempted to play the various clan chiefs off against one another, balancing their power so the king could become the power-broker and thus claim ultimate authority. Failure to maintain the balancing act meant disaster.

This had unfortunate implications for the monarchy. Scotland was never, historically, a rich country. Large-scale taxation was difficult, rarely bringing in enough money to support the king and his court. Scotland could not hope to build an army strong enough to confront England, let alone strike towards London. The Scots could (and did) raid the north of England, but they never posed a serious threat (apart from 1745, which we will come to in a moment.) Because the Scottish Crown was weak, England could meddle at will – English claims to overlordship could be maintained by backing pro-England factions in Scotland and trying to keep outsiders out. The Scottish Kings were never strong enough to drive out their treacherous lords.

At the same time, England had problems asserting its control over Scotland. Edward I could and did crush resistance wherever he found it, but he couldn’t reconcile the Scots to English rule. (A problem made worse by English overseers treating the Scots with contempt.) Set-piece battles almost always ended badly for the Scots, but long-term insurgencies caused far more problems for the English. So too did English wars with France – Edward I was more interested in pressing his claim to France than waging wars in Scotland.

In short, for much of its history, Scottish politics could be described as a nest of vipers – or as a crown of thorns. Feudal politics, for example, ensured that Scottish nobles – most notably ‘The Disinherited’ – often had ties to England, something that made it harder for them to be genuinely patriotic, insofar as that concept existed in 1269. (This was far from uncommon – in those days, noblemen might owe homage to several different kings, creating nightmarish conflicts over loyalty.) The Wars of Religion only made matters worse as conflicts between Catholics and Protestants (and various spin-offs) spread into Scotland. Worst of all, the Stuart Dynasty had a claim to rule England … something that caused a great many sleepless nights in London.

Balancing all these competing problems was not easy. Mary (Queen of Scots) could not maintain the balancing act and eventually fell from power, once she was forced into a position where she could no longer remain above the fray. She could – and did – have some successes, but they were always tactical. She could no more stamp her authority on her own nobility – let alone the rest of the country – than any other king.

Scotland did try to balance the English through ties to France (the Auld Alliance). Mary Queen of Scots was actually Queen of France, until her husband died. However, this rarely translated into practical help. The French were only interested in Scotland insofar as they could distract the English during wartime.

The death of Queen Elizabeth put James VI and I on the throne of England. However, this union of crowns did not reshape the political dynamic between Scotland and England. James understood Scotland well enough to rule by proxy, once he had parked his rump in England, but Charles I lacked his father’s political talent. (Worse, he was under the impression that he did have such talent.) Scotland resented his heavy-handed interference and rose up against him twice, then joined Parliament during the English Civil War. Charles lacked the ability to bring the Scots to heel, but Cromwell – a far more capable ruler – was still unable to crush Scotland completely.

(It is worth noting that the only time Scotland genuinely outmatched England was during the Bishops Wars. But Charles could not convince Parliament to fund an army – Parliament’s later New Model Army did not have that problem.)

Despite this, power was shifting rapidly to England. Scotland’s sole attempt to found an overseas colony failed spectacularly, allowing the pro-English nobles/politicians to ram through the Act of Union, uniting Scotland and England into a single country. This was bitterly resented in parts of Scotland, particularly the Highlands (many of the arguments put forward against Union would later be used against the EU.) It was generally felt that Scottish interests would be sidelined, which wasn’t entirely true. Arguably, the Scots got more representation at Westminster than they genuinely deserved. (This was no consolation to the vast majority of Scots, who didn’t have a vote.)

Scottish Nationalism, at this point, became entangled with Jacobitism. The Jacobites – supporters of the exiled James II, James Stuart and Charles Stuart (aka Bonnie Prince Charlie) – saw Scotland and the Jacobite clans as potential allies in their quest to put the Stuarts back on the English Throne. Scottish Nationalists were less keen on the idea of merely replacing one English overlord with another, but they saw the Stuarts as natural allies – the Stuarts were a Scottish dynasty. (Although how Scottish they were at that point is open for debate.) This resulted in a series of farcical uprisings, most of which were quickly suppressed. Notably, there were no major government reprisals after the Rebellion of 1715 because, simply put, the government didn’t see any major threat.

The rebellion of 1745 was a great deal more serious. Bonnie Prince Charlie had many flaws, but he was a charismatic and bold leader. He managed to unite the Jacobite clans and lead them into England, a task made easier by the fact that loyalist clans had been disarmed while rebellious clans had kept their weapons. Charles Stuart managed to pose the single greatest threat from the north that England had ever faced. However, the promises he’d made caught up with him and he was forced to withdraw back to Scotland.

It was a fatal mistake. It will never be known if Bonnie Prince Charlie would have won, if the Highlanders had pressed on to London, but they both threw away their sole chance for victory and convinced the government that the time had come to crush Scottish Nationalism once and for all. After the Jacobite defeat at the Battle of Culloden, London embarked upon a program of ethnic cleansing that smashed the old clan structure beyond repair.

In name, Scotland was still a region of the United Kingdom. In reality, this was nothing more than a formality. The handful of post-1746 uprisings were nothing more than minor headaches – many have vanished from remembered history. Real power rested in London and continues to do so.


Scotland’s major problem, therefore, is that England has always overshadowed it and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. England’s ability to generate military and economic power is far superior to Scotland’s. Scotland’s only real advantage, therefore, is the ability to use its terrain to its advantage, exhausting any invading army while depriving it of the chance to score a killer blow. Much of Scotland’s current prosperity is owed to England – to Britain.

The problem is made worse by intermingled loyalties. In the past, there were ‘Scottish’ noblemen who held lands in England and vice versa; now, there are countless Scots who consider themselves British. The economic and currency union between Scotland and England is merely the tip of the iceberg – Scotland and England have been tied together for so long that separation will be immensely costly. To all intents and purposes, Scotland is not a nation in any real sense.

Internationally, Scotland occupies an important strategic position. Naval and air bases in Scotland allow NATO to dominate the region. (That’s why the Royal Navy was based in Orkney during WW1 and 2.) However, Scotland does not have the independent power to take advantage of this, let alone protect itself. Nor is there any guarantee of NATO membership for Scotland, certainly not on good terms. On one hand, NATO does need Scotland; on the other, the Scots will have caused a great deal of disruption simply by withdrawing from the UK.

These factors throw the future of an independent Scotland into considerable doubt.

8 Responses to “Braveheart: The Geopolitics of Scotland”

  1. davidbwade March 28, 2017 at 2:25 pm #

    A nice writeup, and I largely agree. For highly interesting reading, try Stratfor’s “The Geopolitics of the United States”. My only quibble would be that I would rank the threat posed by the Covenanters in the Civil War as higher than the Jacobites in the ’45. Certainly the result of a Covenanter victory would have been less momentous, but they cam in my view closer to success,

    • chrishanger March 31, 2017 at 3:30 pm #

      I don’t think the Conventers were interested in forcing their way to London


  2. PhilippeO March 28, 2017 at 8:14 pm #

    to all intent and purposes, Scotland is not a nation in any real senses ?

    WTF ? by what criteria is this ?

    it had longer history than many other nation like USA or India. And its not only nation that has economy and people that strongly interwined with another.

    if Scotland not ‘real nation’ then so does Laos, Mongolia, Canada, or Nepal.

    • Bewildered March 28, 2017 at 10:06 pm #

      I’m guessing here but it seems that Scotland is a state of Britain not a nation in its own right. It follows therefore that to say you’re Scottish is akin to saying you’re Texan. Both Scots and Texans come from states that were independent nations, and that fought against the government they’re now part of, but both forfeited their independence centuries back.

      • PhilippeO March 29, 2017 at 3:30 am #

        and Scotland currently engaging in Second Referendum for Independence. which if they win sometime in future they might become Independent State once again.

        Nations sometime didn’t have state (Kurdish), sometime they subsumed inside another state, then successfully declare Independence (Lithuania), sometime they disappear (Newfoundland), sometime they born from nothing (Kenya).

        only the people themselves can decide on existence or non-existence of Nations. History, Economic viability, or present existence of state didn’t decide existence of nations.

    • Pyo March 29, 2017 at 11:40 am #

      Agreed. That statement is pointless. All nations are some sort of social construct, there’s no “true” nation, heck the concept of “nations” isn’t nearly as old as most of the older nations.
      If Scotland manages to become independent again (and frankly terrain or wealth or whatever won’t matter. All that matters is who votes for what. It’s not the 18th century anymore) they’ll be as legitimately a nation as anyone else.

      • Anonymous March 30, 2017 at 12:31 am #

        Being a nation that is worthless is not that great or important. Just look at some of the former republics (states in US way of looking) of Soviet Union.

        Ukraine is worthless.
        Belorussia is worthless.
        Moldova is worthless.
        Armenia is worthless.
        There are a few more.

        For the record, Soviet Union was formed by 15 republics (states). Out of those 15 only 4 or 5 are actually worth something.

    • chrishanger March 31, 2017 at 3:32 pm #

      In the sense that Scotland is legally separate from England.


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