A Parcel of Rogues

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How did Scotland lose its independence in the 18th century? And what did Robert Burns have to say about it? It’s one of the subjects of ‘Pith & Power’, a new exhibition on display at the Saltire Society in Edinburgh which examines Burns’ relationship with politics and power.

In 1707 a Treaty of Union was proposed to unite England and Scotland into Great Britain, ending centuries of Scottish independence. Burns famously criticised Scotland’s parliamentarians who accepted the Treaty, calling them ‘a parcel of rogues’ and accusing them of accepting bribes.

But pith and power, till my last hour,
I’ll mak this declaration;
We’re bought and sold for English gold
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

When the Union took effect on 1 May 1707 the bells of St Giles’ Cathedral rang to the tune Why should I be so sad on my wedding day? capturing the sorrowful mood of the population. Several towns and cities were also overrun with protesters.

On the same day a number whales took a wrong turning in the Firth of Forth and beached themselves on the coast of Kirkcaldy. According to tradition the number of whales matched the number of parliamentarians who approved the Treaty, and this was taken as an ill-omen for the Union. Six years later Scottish MPs made an unsuccessful attempt to reverse the Treaty, arguing it had not brought the expected benefits to Scotland.

Following the Act of Union many Scottish writers began to drop their distinct Scots language as English became the dominant language of business and government. Burns rejected this idea and worked to emphasise the distinctness of Scots culture and literature.

In his ‘Address to Edinburgh’ Burns is excited by the effect the Scottish Enlightenment on Edinburgh. He talks of a new spirit of ideas, particularly around justice, learning and science. But he also laments Edinburgh’s loss of capital status in the aftermath of Union, mourning the city’s loss of ‘Legislation’s sovereign pow’rs’.

Pith & Power‘ is on display at the Saltire Society in Edinburgh, Mon – Thurs, 12-4pm till 15 March 2018. Free entry.

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