THIS month is the 325th anniversary of the start of the Darien Scheme, blamed by many as the biggest cause of Scotland’s economic collapse that led to the Act of Union in 1707.

I have shown that the Darien Disaster, as John Prebble called it in his seminal work on the Scheme, was not the only element that drove forward the cause of the Union, but there’s no doubt it had a huge impact on the Scottish economy and particularly the pockets of those who wanted the money being provided by the English Parliament to those who would vote for the Union.

Yet it all started so well. Affected by the hysteria created by the Company of Scotland, and angered by English interference in the Company’s fund-raising efforts, Scots of all classes queued to invest and by mid-1697, almost half of the country’s liquid wealth was subscribed to the Darien Scheme. With the required £400,000 sterling raised, the Company invested in an initial five ships, the full-rigged Caledonia, St Andrew, and Unicorn, and the smaller Endeavour and Dolphin. A plan was already in place for a second fleet.

Loaded with cargo – provisions for a year, reportedly – and 1200 colonists, the ships gathered in the Firth of Forth in the summer of 1698.

One of the last to board was the man who had conceived the idea of the Scheme, William Paterson, who had been expelled from the service of the Company for employing an embezzler, James Smith, but was allowed back in at the last minute – without rank – by the Company’s directors. It would prove a fateful decision for Paterson who went aboard the Unicorn with his wife Hannah and clerk, Thomas Fenner.

Authority was vested in a Council comprising ship captains, officers and noted gentry, but overall command at sea was given to the commodore, Captain Robert Pennecuik. Many of the colonists were soldiers, including tough veterans Captains Robert and Thomas Drummond, the latter infamous for his appallingly brutal role in the 1692 Massacre of Glencoe.

On July 14, 1698, the five vessels set out from the Forth and here met proof of England’s vehement interference and King William’s clear favouritism of the English over his Scottish subjects.

For instead of heading south and into the Atlantic via the English Channel, the five ships without the king’s protection had to avoid the Royal Navy and were forced to sail around the north of Scotland, adding hundreds of miles to the journey during which they encountered severe gales that sickened many of the passengers.

William Paterson would later write to the Company’s directors: “For God’s sake, be sure to send the next fleet from the Clyde, for the passage north about is worse than the whole voyage to the Indies.” Bear those words in mind for next week.

The fleet was scattered and despite growing disagreements in the ruling Council, the ships carried on and eventually sailed to Madeira where they were able to get fresh water, but little else. From there it was westward to the Caribbean where storms damaged most of the fleet. Still they persevered and sailed to Darien and found a wide bay off which they anchored on November 2, 1698, after 110 days at sea – by which time dozens of men and woman had died from the “bloody flux”, otherwise known as dysentery. Starting as gastroenteritis, the disease took hold easily and killed quickly, and spared no one – clergy, hardened seamen, callow youths were all victims, usually buried at sea.

Canoes carrying local natives had previously come out to the ships in canoes, and with some Spanish words, they were able to say they welcomed the Scots, who promptly got their onboard guests drunk. Prebble recounts how a small Native American man the Natives called their great captain and named Andreas by the Spanish, came out to meet the commodore on November 2, and both sides were greatly relieved when they realised they had a mutual enemy, the Spanish.

Paterson’s clerk Thomas Fenner died at sea the night before landfall and the Darien Scheme’s instigator lost his wife Hannah just a few days after they landed. Despite his grief, Paterson threw himself into the work of building the colony, but it soon became clear to him it was a hopeless task for the men were too weak after their horrendous time at sea and poor diet.

The Company had decided to name the colony Caledonia, and accounts of it at first were in the form of rave reviews with the islet in the bay named Golden Island and descriptions of the magnificent greenery all around.

Captain Pennecuik recorded his thoughts for later transmission to the Company directors: “This harbour is capable of containing 1000 sails of the best ships in the world. And without great trouble, wharves may be run out, to which ships of the greatest burthen may lay their sides and unload.” Prebble called that “an insane exaggeration”.

Each ship sent ashore 40 men whose job was to prepare huts for their companions and especially the sick who were growing in numbers as dysentery took hold. They retreated to the ships to eat and sleep, and did much more of the latter than the former given that meat rations had rotted away.

Surveys by the colonists showed that the sandy fringes might be pleasant-looking, but inland lay dense mangrove swamps and almost impenetrable jungle. However, this did not stop them planning and starting a township – to be called New Edinburgh, overlooked by Fort Saint Andrew.

The death toll continued to rise and there was considerable grief when the remaining minister of the Church of Scotland, the Rev Adam Scott, died.

The Natives had a higher chief than Andreas, and this man, Ambrosio by name, with his son Pedro was all for joining with the Scots to wage war against the hated Spanish occupiers.

Less than three weeks after they had landed, the new Scottish colony received a visit from an affable English captain Richard Long who told them his ship was a captured French vessel and he had been sent to look for sunken treasure. It was a lie, for Long was an English spy.