NOWADAYS we don’t like to think about it much, but Scotland had a history of economic involvement overseas which put it among the pioneers of European imperialism.

If we sought a day to celebrate this aspect of Scots history, a good one would fall round the present time of year, on September 21. It was then, in 1621, that King James VI granted a charter for the colonisation of Nova Scotia to one of his sycophantic courtiers, Sir William Alexander of Menstrie.

Nova Scotia has kept the same name ever since, even through times of being not especially Scottish.

The king was already sovereign in two parts of America colonised by his English subjects, Virginia in 1607 and Massachusetts in 1620. They caused trouble for little reward, yet James thought a colony for Scotland would be a good thing too, as proof of the equality of his smaller kingdom in what he still hoped would become a Union of Great Britain.

The National: William Alexander Earl of Stirling Scottish coloniser of Nova ScotiaWilliam Alexander Earl of Stirling Scottish coloniser of Nova Scotia

Things in his time never went that far, but in 1629 Alexander helped to organise a settlement at Port Royal in what is now the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. It was more makeshift than similar European colonies in North America. The colonists were all males and they lived a communal life inside fortified buildings, carrying on a little trade in furs with the indigenous people.

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This was unwelcome to France, another North Atlantic power which had now started the colonisation of Canada with settlements along the St Lawrence River and which had its eye on Nova Scotia, too.

Relations with England in this region were always delicate. King James’s son, Charles I, preferred to keep the French sweet and abandoned Port Royal in a treaty of 1632. The province remained in French possession till 1710 when, in the first foreign war to take place after the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707, Nova Scotia was won back into British possession. There it stayed, at length becoming part of modern Canada.

The province has retained some Scottish character too, acquired mainly through immigration during the 19th century. Part of the population still speaks Gaelic and efforts have in recent times intensified to preserve the use of the language.

This might not have pleased King James, with his notorious hostility to the Gaels and all their works. It might have been more congenial to Sir William Alexander, who was a man of not only political but also wide cultural interests. He had first commended himself to his monarch by helping to polish the English language of a royal translation of the Psalms.

Alexander’s own claims to blue blood ring a little hollow, but there is no doubt he belonged to an intellectual class in Scotland left short of the accustomed royal patronage after King James departed Edinburgh for London.

Along with his friend William Drummond of Hawthornden, Alexander tried to get Scots poets organised so that financial support would continue to flow to them. They would write anthologies designed to tickle kingly or noble taste. But it seemed obvious the task would get harder as time went on and versifying friendships had to be cultivated over longer distances.

Still, this was a section of society where political ingenuity and cultural refinement might reinforce each other. As a young man, Alexander had started off in service to the Earl of Argyll and went with him on travels in France, Spain and Italy. Introduced also at the royal court in London, Alexander received the place of gentleman usher to the then Prince Charles and continued to enjoy royal favour after Charles mounted the throne.

A more solid source of advancement was Alexander’s appointment in 1614 as master of requests for Scotland, whose job was to put supplicants through to the court in London. He had to deal with minor matters arising between the two kingdoms, above all to see that the plague of beggarly Scots wandering abroad did not “trouble and discredit their country”. His conduct in this office recommended him for admission to the Privy Council of Scotland in 1615.

In 1617, he accompanied James on his triumphant visit to his homeland, the first, and the only one, since the Union of Crowns in 1603. In a relationship starting to grow troubled, Alexander played the part of diplomat and peacemaker.

He smoothed relations of Crown and Kirk. He helped to pack the General Assembly which imposed on worshippers the five articles of Perth (1618) requiring liturgical reforms, such as kneeling at communion, which were widely resented in a Scotland that had always looked to Geneva for religious progress.

In 1619, they provoked a bitingly hostile pamphlet from a high Calvinist minister, David Calderwood. The printer was found, hauled before Alexander and John Spottiswoode, brother of the archbishop of St Andrews, and imprisoned. Alexander worked for his release, but was foiled by the archbishop.

Nor did this universal handyman stop at the shores of Scotland.

In 1621, King James granted Alexander a royal charter appointing him overlord of a vast territory which was enlarged into the lordship and barony of Nova Scotia.

The creation of Baronets of Nova Scotia, a title still extant, was used to settle the population of the new province and later increase the territory (at least on paper) to include much of modern Canada.

King Charles promoted Alexander to be secretary of state for Scotland in 1626. Though the actual duties were of no importance, he held the office for the rest of his life.

Alexander set seriously about the colonisation of Nova Scotia, though his efforts at recruitment made unrealistic promises. He established the Scottish settlement at Port Royal led by his son William. The effort cost the family most of its fortune, and when the region was returned to France in 1632, it was lost to independent Scotland. Alexander reckoned he had squandered £6000 but got none of it back.

He spent his later years with limited means. Yet his settlement offered the basis for the Scottish nature of Nova Scotia and his baronets provided the flag and the coat of arms of Nova Scotia, which are still in use today.

In 1630, King Charles gave a cheaper reward by elevating his faithful servant to be Lord Alexander of Tullibody and Viscount of Stirling. Three years later, when Charles was crowned at Holyrood, Alexander became Earl of Stirling and Viscount Canada. The colonial territory prospered only through further, costless royal grants. In 1636, Charles gave Long Island to Alexander, who in turn sold most of the eastern half to Connecticut.

Alexander died in 1640, when eastern Long Island was quickly settled by the English, while the western portion remained under Dutch rule till 1674.

It had shown Scots could find places inside North Atlantic empires, not necessarily their own and not always of the size and quality they hoped for. They might have taught the rising nation that it was always better to fend for itself. But the reliance on patronage and favouritism never fully died out. Right down to today, wily Sir William Alexander would have made his way in life.