Collection of William Burns on the Attempt of English Centralisation

[Treaty of Union Articles Contents]


(To the Editor of the Spectator.)

   SIR – In a Glasgow paper of Saturday last I observe an article under the above most appropriate title, as copied from the Spectator, in which my name appears somewhat conspicuously. If you are in use to open your columns for discussion, I shall be very well pleased to break a lance with you upon the quarrel referred to; but probably you follow the custom of other London journals – strike, and then shut the door? As you profess, however, to consider me ‘a reasonable and rather clever being, with some rather sound notions on modern history,’ perhaps you may find time to consider, and, it may be, to answer a few questions on the subject. 

   Passing over your personal remarks – which may be all very pretty, in their way, but cannot be very interesting to the general reader – what is the question betwixt us? It is this. How far the practice, among your countrymen, of using the terms ‘England’ and ‘English,’ as the proper names of the United Kingdom and its people, illegitimate in itself, or injurious to Scotland and Scotsmen? I affirm this practice to be illegal, injurious, dishonest, and, in the circumstances, historical and otherwise, of the two nations, a ‘swindle.’ You defend it. The issue is a plain one; and, notwithstanding your affected disposition to ‘laugh rather than argue,’ it is quite obvious that you feel it to be a grave one. Let us, then, see how the case stands. By the Treaty of Union between Scotland and England, it was solemnly declared that England, as a State, should cease to exist, on condition that the same rule was applied to Scotland; and it was formally covenanted that there should be a new United Kingdom, under the common appellation of ‘Great Britain,’ the Legislature whereof should be ‘called the Parliament of Great Britain;’ and provisions were carefully made for the preservation and protection of Scotland’s laws, judicature, ecclesiastical polity, and other institutions. At that time Wales was an integral part of the State of England, and Ireland was (unfortunately) what you and others call ‘a dependency of the English Crown.’ A century afterwards Ireland was admitted to the Union. Such is now the position. 

   You assure me you are ‘innocent of any wish to swindle the Scotch out of their nationality.’ But you profess to be surrounded by ‘difficulties.’ There are, you say, ‘three nationalities’ in the Union, the English, Scots, and Irish; and you create, for the nonce, a fourth one, the Welsh – or ‘Taffys’ as you are pleased to call them. In these circumstances, you profess to have great difficulty in finding an appellation to cover the whole; and, after figuring various combinations, made ridiculous on purpose, you come to the conclusion that the simple remedy is, to set aside history and geography, violate the Union Treaty, and make England, as the larger division, stand for the whole. All this is simply an echo of the Times, but let us test it by a few questions. I ask, then, 

    1. What difficulty is there in using the same phraseology in your writings as you find in Government treaties, despatches, and other authoritative documents?

    2. Wherein consists the difficulty of using such terms as the ‘United Kingdom,’ ‘Great Britain,’ ‘Britain,’ ‘British,’ rather than ‘England,’ and ‘English?’

    3. Is there any such superiority in the latter over the former, as to justify the breach of a national covenant of the most solemn character?

    4. As to the case of the Welsh – Are you prepared to exhibit any ‘Treaty of Union between Wales and the rest of England?

    5. Was not Wales a part of the State of England, which contracted with the state of Scotland, just as the Orkneys and Hebrides were parts of Scotland? And if so, what becomes of your fourth nationality?

    6. In what sense can it be said that ‘Britain’ fails to include Wales while ‘England’ does so?

    7. But did not ‘Britain’ embrace England, Wales and Scotland, long before these distinctions were known? Are not the modern Welsh historically ‘Britons,’ independently of the Treaty of Union? And, if so, what warrant have you for assuming that you must insult my countrymen, by insisting upon styling us ‘English’ rather than ‘Britons,’ out of tenderness to the Welsh?

    8. Then, as to Ireland – by what process of reasoning do you make out that ‘England’ embraces Ireland, and ‘Great Britain’ fails to do so?

    9. What is there in the ‘long agony’ of connection between England and Ireland, that should produce, in Irishmen, the desire to be known as English rather than subjects of the modern British empire, under which Irish disabilities have rapidly disappeared, and Irishmen become freemen?

    10. In connexion with this, when did your countrymen become champions of Ireland’s honour, so as to justify a breach of honour towards Scotsmen on the plea of tenderness for Irish feelings? and

    11. In what sense do you make England, as the greater part, stand for the whole, which does not apply a fortiori [from the stronger argument] to the use of ‘Great Britain?’

   When you have considered these questions, Mr Editor, I think you must see that the ‘difficulties’ referred to are but flimsy pretexts to cover that which your countrymen aim at, the absorption of one country in the other; and, in this way, the appropriation, by England, of Scottish energy, enterprise, and genius. 

   But you seek to salve your own conscience, and reconcile my countrymen to the wrong sought to be done them by making a tour throughout Europe and other countries, and showing that there are territories which have been conquered, ceded, annexed, or purchased, and their people merged in the conquerors, or purchasers. Here, again, I would ask – 

    1. What parallel exists between such cases as those of Finland and Poland annexed to Russia; the Tyrol to Austria; or Lorraine, Alsace, and Savoy to France; and the case of Scotland, giving a King to England, and entering into a voluntary national union, under a stipulation by which the specific thing in question was solemnly interdicted?

    2. How is it, sir, that any one allowed to write for the famous Spectator does not instinctively perceive that the very institution of such comparisons goes to prove my case, by furnishing a glaring instance of that whereof I complain – namely, the attempt to degrade my country from her legitimate position to that of a mere province or satellite of her sister kingdom? How is it that you cannot see that to compare Scotland to the conquered, ceded, annexed, or purchased provinces of continental despotisms is an insult which every Scotsman ought to resent?

   Nothing but a self complacency that shuts a man’s eyes, or a pampered egotism that cares nothing for the interests or feelings of others, could render any one blind to this. 

   But like Lord Palmerston and Mr Bright, you must needs rely upon the plea of ‘custom and convenience.’ In reply, I would ask – 

   1. Is not this very ‘custom’ the thing complained of? Has not that custom been introduced and maintained by those whom I challenge as the wrong-doers? And, if so, what does your plea amount to but this – ‘The “swindle” you complain of has been successful so far, ergo, we must be allowed to carry it out to completion.’ Pray, what do you think of logic? But –

    2. How can it ever be ‘convenient’ that popular language on such a subject should be placed in direct opposition to the fundamental constitution of the Union?

    3. How can it be convenient that the language of the senate, the platform, or the press, should be placed in such direct opposition to the language of statutes, treaties, despatches, and other authoritative documents?

    4. For example, in what sense can it be convenient that a treaty between the Emperor of France and ‘her Britannic Majesty,’ should, by you and others, be converted into a ‘Commercial Treaty between France and England?’

    5. In what respect is it convenient that, while the text of Earl Russell’s despatches to Paris, Washington, Berlin, or Copenhagen, as daily quoted in the newspapers, speak of ‘Britain,’ the ‘British Government,’ ‘British vessels,’ &c., you and your fellow-journalists in London should carefully substitute a different form of expression, converting the whole into ‘English?’

    6. How can it be otherwise than most ‘inconvenient’ that, in a debate on an address to the Crown (see the Times of 5th inst.), every alternate speaker should change the form of expression – thus demanding the ‘protection of British subjects’ ‘by the influence of England’ – seeking to place an efficient ‘British Minister’ in the ‘Foreign Office of England’ – in case of ‘war with England,’ proposing to send a ‘British squadron’ to vindicate the honour of the ‘flag of England’ – complaining that the ‘English Cabinet’ does not represent ‘the policy which the British nation prefers’ – and so on through the whole notes of a discordant gamut? Nay, that individual speakers should produce such sentences as this:- Mr Disraeli – ‘I believe the general impression in Germany, as well as Denmark, was that the bias of the British Government was in favour of Germany; and any one who happened to be in that country at the time must be aware that the despatch was looked upon as indicating the policy of the English Government?

   I could multiply such specimens of ‘convenience’ without end; but content myself, at present, with sending you some Glasgow papers, containing leading articles, extracts from London journals, including the Spectator, copies of despatches, letters from correspondents, and telegrams of latest news, in which you will find as beautiful a specimen of the Mosaic as the eyes of an artist could desire. In particular, in the Glasgow Herald of this date, you will find a leader from the Times, in which, marvellous to tell, everything is ‘British,’ our ‘Government,’ ‘ports,’ ‘colonies,’ ‘vessels,’ ‘sailors,’ ‘subjects,’ and ‘flags’- while in a parallel column you have a leader from the Saturday Review in which ‘England’ and ‘the English’ once more take an entire possession of the stage. 

    7. When a union embraces territories geographically separate, ‘different nationalities’ with distinct histories, and, as regards England and Scotland, distinct institutions, requiring often separate legislation, and language in conformity, is it not, upon its face, a palpable inconvenience, to adopt an appellation for the whole, which must of necessity frequently mean only a part? and seek to discard an appellation that, without violence, covers the Union? Of this you have a specimen, also in parallel columns, in extracted matter in The Morning Journal of the 12th.

   Having thus ‘argued the point’ interrogatively, I must leave it for the present. That which you call convenient, I have ventured to christen as the ‘piebald style.’ I am aware there are those, even amongst ourselves, who seek to defend it on the maxim of the clown that ‘motley’s your only wear.’ But I can scarcely suppose the Spectator will deliberately adopt such a costume. So much for the plea of ‘custom and convenience.’ – I am, &c.,


   Belmont, Dowanhill, Glasgow, Feb. 13, 1864.”

Glasgow Morning Journal, Wednesday 24th February, 1864.


   The following letter appeared in the Glasgow Herald this week, from Mr William Burns, writer, Glasgow:- 

   SIR, – I read the account of the proceedings on Saturday with no small degree of pride and satisfaction, until I came to the concluding part of Colonel McMurdo’s address. 

   Colonel McMurdo, by name and reputation, is a Scotsman; he was addressing an army of Scottish Volunteers, Lowland and Highland, and he concluded a laudatory address, according to the Herald, as follows:- 

   It is a point that I have often remarked among the Volunteers, especially of Scotland, that the pastors of the people are attached to the Volunteer corps. There is seldom a review that I do not see the minister, as chaplain of the corps, marching past in its rear. There was once a time, a long time ago, when pastors assembled their armed congregations on these hill sides to protect their rights and liberties; but now the pastors of the people assembled on these hill sides with the Volunteers of England – (a voice, “of Scotland”) to show that they encourage the Volunteers to maintain the institutions of the country, the integrity of the dominions, and the honour and safety of the crown of England. (Loud applause.) 

   You, Mr Editor, and many of your readers are aware that for some years past I have maintained a protest against the growing practice of using the terms ‘England’ and ‘English’ as representing the United Kingdom, its people and institutions – a protest founded upon the practice referred to being in violation of the Treaty of Union, and at the same time dishonouring to the people of Scotland, subversive of their historical traditions and associations, prejudicial to their position (political and social), and so injurious to their material interests. In support of this I sometimes tried argument and at other times ridicule, and I cannot allow the opportunity of Colonel McMurdo’s address to the so-called ‘Volunteers of England’ to pass unnoticed. Not to speak of the utter confusion of ideas exhibited in the passage quoted, no one can read it without seeing how it confirms the ground of my protest, as just stated. For this reason I would call to it the attention of your readers, and particularly those who themselves belong to ‘the service.’ When a Scottish officer can come to Glasgow and address an assembly of Scottish Volunteers in such fashion, amid ‘loud applause,’ or be, as another report has it, ‘rapturously cheered by the Volunteers,’ it is really time our gallant friends were making up their minds as to their real nationality. – I am, &c.,


– Paisley Herald and Renfrewshire Advertiser, Saturday 6th August, 1864.

   “WHEN a man has silenced all his enemies, and can count among his converts Queen Victoria, the late Lord Palmerston, the late and the present Premier of England – we beg pardon, of Great Britain and Ireland – Mr Bright, and Lord Napier, he has some reason to speak with assured confidence, and to look the whole world boldly in the face. Mr William Burns, the Vice-President of the Glasgow St Andrew’s Society, is the happy man – of all men of the time – who is in this proud position. No victory was ever more complete than that which Mr Burns has gained… We live in an era of unfinished national monuments, and it will surely be a crying shame on every leal-hearted man who boasts the name of Scot if some towering structure is not at least begun in honour of the patriot of the nineteenth century who has done so much for Scotland.

   Let us consider for a moment what Mr Burns has accomplished. Fortunately, we have the whole materials at hand, with the imprimatur, so to speak, of the author himself upon them. In a lecture delivered on Thursday last to the members of the St Andrew’s Society, we have the whole story of the labours and successes of Mr Burns told by himself, with the pardonable pride of a man who has done far more than his duty, and whose brow will only blush with conscious worth when the laurel wreath encircles it. We have no Blind Harry to deal with in this case, nor have we to disentangle facts and fancies from half mythical chronicles five centuries old. It is all as plain as noon-day, and Mr Burns stands out clear and distinct  the guardian of ‘puir auld Scotland,’ the avenger of her wrongs upon Cockney heads, and upon the rear of some of her own degenerate sons. A few years ago Scotland was ignored and degraded by her bigger sister beyond the Tweed. Her nationality was wilfully and maliciously written down. She was merely the northern province of England; her great men were Englishmen; her rivers that sing to the music of a hundred national songs were English rivers; her enterprise, her commerce, and her discoveries were all classed as English; and it was only when something shabby and mean was to be said of the northern province that our nationality was ever allowed. Whisky drinking, for example, was a Scotch vice; and Sabbath keeping, which was always joined with it, was allowed to be another national characteristic. The fact is that an attempt was made – an old underhand attempt – to cheat us out of our nationality altogether. The English in the 13th century demanded that Scotland should acknowledge their Kings to be Lords Paramount over the whole island; and in the 19th century the same spirit led these assuming Southerners to speak and write as if that demand had never been resisted, and as if they had swallowed us up when the Union was consummated as the boa constrictor swallows a rabbit. There did not fail great Scotchmen to take up the cause of their country in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; and when all other hearts were faint in the nineteenth, one Scotchman resolutely buckled on his armour and took the field. History is always repeating itself, but the consolation is that when we find such an episode as that of Edward Longshanks’ claim upon Scotland repeated in the conduct of the statesmen and thunderers of England of the present day, we also find our Wallaces and our Bruces reproduced in our ‘North Britons’ and William Burnses.

   The campaign began by a correspondence with Lord Palmerston, and was continued by the indefatigable Burns till every public man in England was compelled to do justice to Scotland, and to speak of the united people of this island by their proper designation – Britons, and not Englishmen. It is singular that almost all Mr Burns’ correspondents commenced by laughing at him. They probably thought that he was the perpetrator of a good-humoured joke, and they answered him accordingly. They had evidently considerable difficulty in comprehending how any intelligent person could be in dead earnest about such a frivolous matter, or how he could possibly feel the nationality of his country insulted because in speech or in writing Englishmen used the words England and Great Britain as synonymous terms. They soon found out their mistake. Mr Burns was incapable of a joke of this kind, and he was perfectly unaffected by the raillery which his letters produced. He had a blessed immunity from the sentiment of the ludicrous; and while Englishmen roared, and his own countrymen decorously tried to hide their smiles, he solemnly wrote on, producing facts, arguments, and illustrations of the most prosaic but most convincing character. After one of those letters it was impossible to deny that Mr Burns was literally in the right, and feeling this neither quip nor crank nor wreathed smile, neither the banter of Lord Palmerston nor the humour of Mr Bright, had the least effect upon him. Is it not so and so stipulated in the Treaty of Union; and, if so, why not stick to it, and give Scotland her due? This attitude recalls the story which Charles Lamb tells of a Scotchman. Speaking of a dinner at which one of Robert Burns’ sons was present, Lamb said, ‘I wish that instead of the son it had been the father.’ ‘That is impossible,’ said the Scotchman – extinguishing poor Lamb as Mr William Burns extinguished Lord Palmerston – ‘for Burns is dead.’ All through the controversy Mr Burns shows the same downright literalness. He cannot understand why people should laugh at his letters, and what they call his little craze; for are not his letters true, and is not the subject of his craze embodied in the articles of Union?

   It is needless to say that letters written so perseveringly under such circumstances produced their effect… Palmerston, Gladstone, Disraeli, Bright, and even Sir Archibald Alison, who though a Scotchman was never very precise in his language, at last caved in, and acknowledged that Scottish nationality ought to be respected, and the word England, as applied to the United Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland, for ever discarded from the language. When the eminent English statesmen, who had felt the prick of the Scotch thistle as applied by Mr Burns, came down to Scotland to eat dinners, or to be feted, or to be enrobed in Rectorial gowns, they made amends for their former flippancies. The Scotch nation was applauded, and the maintenance of Scotch nationality was enjoined in a manner that must have gone to the heart of Mr Burns. We had always doubts ourselves whether these right honourable gentlemen were quite sincere, or whether they were not flattering our national prejudices and winking all the while, as if they were saying to their Southern friends ‘You see how gently I am clawing the Scotch itch of the North Britons and the Burnses.’ It was a mistake, however. Mr Burns assures us that this deference to Scotch nationality was the result of his letters; and we can hardly doubt it. These eminent men knew that if they had called Great Britain and Ireland England, or the English nation, the inevitable Burns would have been down upon them.”

– Glasgow Herald, Monday 8th February, 1869.