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Nicola Sturgeon

A brief history of the Scottish Independence movement

The modern history of Scotland and England’s relations began with the death of Elizabeth I.

Nicola Sturgeon addressing the SNP spring conference in 2019: Terry Murden /

Relations between England and Scotland are notoriously temperamental with calls for Scottish Independence rarely far from the news. The history between the two countries is significant and throughout the ages, there have been opportunities to come together as well as acrimonious separations. So, let’s take a closer look at how England and Scotland’s relations have changed over time.

17th Century: Scottish Takeover and the Commonwealth

The modern history of Scotland and England’s relations began with the death of Elizabeth I. When Queen Elizabeth I died, she left no heir with no children of her own. The rules of inheritance meant her throne was passed to James VI of Scotland. The traditional rivalry between the countries was halted as King James moved his court to London and positioned himself in the heart of his new kingdom.

Challenges to James’ rule were frequent, the most serious coming in 1605 with the actions of the Gunpowder Plot. Catholics hoped that James, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, would be sympathetic to their plight. Despite this, he continued to persecute them promoting catholic Robert Catesby to plot the king's demise. Catesby planned to place multiple barrels of gunpowder under the House of Lords to blow up the king and his government on the opening day of parliament. The aim was to spark a Catholic uprising to restore a catholic monarch to the throne.

By the mid-17th century, unrest was becoming unmanageable. The English Civil War and the struggle between King Charles I and parliament led to Oliver Cromwell taking charge, as Lord Protector. Once, Charles I was executed, the Scots rallied to support Charles II but the Battle of Dunbar in 1650 saw Scottish forces defeated, soundly outdone by Cromwell’s armies and the age of Scottish kings in England was over. The Commonwealth of England, Scotland Ireland had arrived.

18th Century: Unionism and Scottish Enlightenment

Scotland’s maintenance of its parliament despite the monarch residing in England came to an abrupt end after an economic and agricultural downturn. Poor harvests and a failed attempt to establish a Scottish colony overseas left Scotland’s penniless and forced to turn to England. The parliaments of England and Scotland were joined and worked together from Westminster in the Act of Union of 1707.

This was not the end of uprisings, The Jacobites were behind several attempts to restore the Stuart monarchy to England and Scotland. Charles Edward Stuart has minority support in Scotland in 1745 and after the Battle of Prestonpans, Charles had effectively taken over control of Scotland. He began to extend his victory across England but was halted at Derby with the Jacobites pushed back and halted with the bloody battle in Culloden marking the end of serious challenges by force from the North.

Scottish enlightenment in the late 18th century saw the nation become home to many challenging and dangerous ideas. Intellectuals such as David Hume, Adam Smith and James Hutton began to share their ideas and create the idea that Scotland had an important and valuable role in the United Kingdom, due to its radical thinkers.

19th Century: Recognising Scotland’s identity

While Scottish forces no longer marched in an attempt to take over England, there were still many social struggles and activists willing to stand up. Andrew Hardie and John Baird led action to protest against the social hardships that people were experiencing. In the 1820 uprising, they marched with a militia in Falkirk but were stopped by the army. Another group of radicals, led by Andrew Wilson, protested in Strathaven near Glasgow but were also held by government loyalist forces. All three leaders were executed sending a message to anyone considering rebellion.

The Jacobite rising of 1745 meant many of Scotland’s rights and positions had been removed. By 1885 the post of Scottish Secretary was reinstated as there was no longer any considerable threat from Scotland. The Secretary of Scotland Act led to the creation of the Scottish Office and allows Scotland’s individual status to exist, as part of the United Kingdom.

20th Century: Reimagining Scottish Nationalism

The end of World War One led to a growing belief that Scotland should rediscover and recognise its individual importance as a nation. In 1922, Hugh MacDiarmid set up the literary magazine, Scottish Chapbook, and began to build a renewed interest in Scottish Literature and uniquely Scottish culture outside of the wider idea of the United Kingdom.

MacDiarmid was also a founding member of the National Party of Scotland formed in 1928 and the forerunner to the Scottish National Party. By the 1960s, the SNP were beginning to gain more traction. Winnie Ewing won a by-election for the SNP in 1967 and by the 1970s, the Labour government agreed to give Scottish voters an independence referendum. This devolution referendum was held in 1979 and a slim majority were said to support Scottish independence. However, the legislation stated that at least 40% of the total electorate needed to vote, yes and this wasn’t the case. When Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister Scottish devolution was no longer a consideration or priority.

The return of Labour to power in 1997 saw Tony Blair committing to a new Scottish parliament and a new referendum. The Scottish electorate spoke, and the new parliament was enacted, with powers to raise taxes and other responsibilities. The Scottish parliament officially came into force in 1999 and strengthened the power of the Scottish voice, so much so that an independence referendum was agreed upon and carried out just 15 years later.

The SNP, once a fringe party in Scottish politics is now the third-largest party by political membership in the UK. In the Scottish parliament, they hold 45 out of the 59 seats. Led by Alex Salmond from 2004 to 2014. The party has been led by First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon since 2014, Salmond's former Deputy Leader. She announced she was stepping down in February 2023, having failed in her ambition to lead Scotland to independence.

2014: The Independence Referendum

On 18th September 2014, the Scottish Independence Referendum asked the electorate “Should Scotland be an independent country?”. The “No” side won with 55.3% of the vote, with a voter turnout of 84.6% in total. The significant percentage of the population who did vote for independence means the SNP is still rallying for a further referendum and achieving full independence for Scotland one day.