IT was 330 years ago today that five ships set sail from the port of Leith heading for the Isthmus of Panama and the mouth of the River Darien.

The most painful attempt – indeed the only notable one – at foreign settlement in the history of Scotland got under way on July 14, 1698, and the Darien Scheme remains the nadir of Scottish arrogance and incompetence to this day.

It is also a gravely misunderstood part of Scottish history, not least because it is often incorrectly blamed as being the sole cause of the collapse of the country’s economy that directly led to the Act of Union of 1707.

In fact, as any brief perusal of the Act will show, it was the continuing inability of Scotland to trade abroad that really scuppered the Scottish economy at that time. That’s why so many articles of the Act of Union are concerned with taxes and tariffs.

The Darien Scheme confirmed, however, that England, despite having the same King William, held all the aces and in particular had the Royal Navy which dwarfed the Scottish Navy.


IN the early part of the 17th century, colonisation was the key word in the development of trading routes to the Americas, a process in which Scotland did very well, thank you, until the arrival of one Oliver Cromwell, conqueror of Scotland in the 1650s.

At the time of the Commonwealth, Cromwell imposed the Navigation Acts on the whole of Britain. The 1660 Act in particular was a draconian law passed after Cromwell’s death which meant that all goods traded into Europe had to be landed in England aboard ships captained by Englishmen and with 74% of their crews also English. Failure to abide by the law could see your ship sunk regardless of which flag you flew.

The restoration of the monarchy changed nothing, and Scotland duly suffered appallingly. King William and Queen Mary did nothing when they took the throne, and by the early 1690s Scotland was indeed the poor relation in trade terms.

Despite this, Scottish settlers had made an impact in places like Nova Scotia and the Carolinas, but trade to the Middle and Far East was a non-starter because it was dominated by the Spanish, Portuguese and English – particularly the East India Company.

Having already made a fortune in trade, William Paterson came up with the idea for a colony in Panama in 1691. He was unable to persuade people to back his idea, so founded the Bank of England instead in 1694. Sadly for Scotland, Paterson did not give up on his Panama idea.


PATERSON persuaded the Scottish authorities to set up the Bank of Scotland in 1695, and then persuaded many aristocrats, merchants and landowners to back the Panama project and by parliamentary vote he also set up the Company of Scotland, or the Scottish Darien Company.

So enticing was the plan for a Scottish colony bridging the Atlantic to the Pacific at Darien that between a quarter and a third of all the capital of Scotland was invested in the scheme. King William and the English parliament forced investors from England and Holland to pull out, leaving Scots to take all the risk. There was also no protection from King William or the Royal Navy as he did not want to risk war with Spain which claimed Panama as its own.


EVERYTHING. The 1200 people aboard the five ships were optimistic, not least because Paterson himself was so sure of success that he was aboard with his second wife and child.

They arrived in Panama in November 1698, and found conditions to be totally different from what was expected. So ill-prepared were the would-be colonists that they had brought woollen clothing to trade with the Kuna native people who, as drawings from the expedition show, hardly wore any clothes at all. Disease ravaged Caledonia, as the settlers called their new home, from day one. They built Fort St Andrew and retreated there when the Spanish troops attacked. Above all the crops the settlers planted failed dismally, and starving and dying in horrendous numbers – an average of 10 settlers a day succumbed to diseases like dysentery – the colonists voted to abandon Darien just eight months after they arrived.

Here is when farce turned to tragedy, for unaware of the first settlers’ actions, a second fleet sailed from Scotland even as the first ships sought refuge in the American colonies.

The second settlers arrived in November 1699 to find Fort St Andrew burned and Caledonian festooned with graves. They fared no better, headed home in 1700.


HAD Darien succeeded, Scotland would have had a wealthy empire, but with 2,000 people losing their lives in the Darien Scheme, the remaining settlers were seen as failures who had cost Scotland much of its wealth.

The aristocracy and mercantile classes had learned a huge lesson – that without the Royal Navy, Scotland could not count on trading anywhere. The impetus for the Union was already in existence, and Darien moved the process along with Paterson as a chief campaigner. He had survived returned home, but his wife and child died in Darien.

Many of those who lost sums of money in the Darien Scheme did indeed recover their losses when they were effectively bribed to support the Act of Union of 1707. It was those same people that Burns so correctly called the Parcel o’ Rogues.