In July 1698 three Scottish ships set sail from the Port of Leith destined for the Darien Isthmus, a narrow stretch of land in Panama, Central America. The ships that set out on the arduous three month crossing were the 'St Andrew', the 'Caledonia' and the 'Unicorn'. The first two of these ships are obviously patriotically named but the latter, the ‘Unicorn’, you might well be thinking was named by a piss-taking Scottish public, a 17th century version of ‘Boaty McBoat Face’.
The ship was named the 'Unicorn' after Scotland’s national animal, the Unicorn. Scotland's national animal genuinely is the Unicorn, a mythical creature that's not even the most obvious choice for our national mythical creature -surely the Haggis makes more sense as Scotland's ‘make believe animal?' Any moon-faced, Donald-Trump-Junior-looking American types planning to travel to Scotland to shoot a Unicorn or a Haggis you can go ahead and leave ‘Cecil the Haggis’ the fuck alone.
The Unicorn was the only animal Noah could not get onto the arc which proves beyond doubt its Scottish credentials. Noah was never going to have much success trying to convince a bunch of Scottish Unicorns they faced impending doom because of forty days and nights of constant rain, that’s not a flood, that’s a Scottish summer.
During the reign of William and Mary at the end of the 17th century the ‘East India Company’ was making fortunes for its English investors from its colonies in America and the West Indies. Scotland however was languishing in this period of mercantilism thanks to years of failed harvests, William’s wars on the continent, and Scotland’s inability to trade with the English colonies. The East India Company had adopted a ‘it’s ma baw’ policy when it came to their colonies and only English merchants were permitted to trade with the English colonies - a system Brexitiers are now urging a return to.
To pull Scotland out of its economic slumber and rival the East India Company the ‘Company of Scotland’ was floated in London in 1695 and the decision taken to establish a Scottish colony on the Darien Isthmus in Panama. Panama was chosen because of its strategically important location. In a remarkable example of foresight three hundred years before its time, the Scottish merchants planned to create a canal that would link the Caribbean to the Pacific Ocean saving merchant ships from the treacherous voyage around Cape Horn and months in journey times. Incredibly insightful though it may have been we shouldn’t forget that, like the dualing of the A9, it would take another 300 years before the Panama canal was eventually completed.
In response to the creation of the ‘Company of Scotland’ the English Parliament decreed that anyone investing in the company would be prosecuted. Hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of investment from English merchants was lost as a result. What followed was a great patriotic rush to invest in the Darien scheme. Scottish people, rich and poor, came hand over fist to invest in the company, ‘Darien’ fever had struck. Scottish people were enticed by stories of inexpensive fags they could sell down their local boozer, duty free as far as the eye could see, and free flowing all-inclusive bevy that could be mercilessly exploited.
The complete and utter bullshit Scottish people were being fed was being supplied by a high-ranking banker. William Paterson the Scottish co-founder of the Bank of England in 1691 and the Bank of Scotland in 1695 was the driving force behind the Darien scheme. He promised sheltered bays, temperate climates, friendly natives and fertile land. Paterson was insistent that Darien would not be a colony of conquest, nor one that relied on plantations or slavery, it would be a colony where all were welcome to come and trade, a patriotic free-for-all - like a giant Central American ‘empty’ where everyone was invited.
The colonists arrived at Darien in November 1698 and named the settlement ‘New Caledonia’, they built a town ‘New Edinburgh’ and a fort ‘Fort St Andrew’. Conditions were far from the idyllic paradise they were promised in the brochure, they were faced with torrential rains and impenetrable jungle. On top of their disappointment at the destination their ordeal became even more ‘cruise like’ with the inevitable outbreak of disease. The settlers of New Caledonia were dying at a rate of ten people per day, levels of mortality not experienced since the plague and not seen again until the introduction of the ‘deep-fried mars’ bar to the Scottish diet.
Worse still, the natives were uninterested in trading for the utter tat and shite the settlers had taken with them. Funnily enough there wasn’t a huge market for tartan, wool, wigs, trinkets and mirrors in central America - those on the first Darien expedition were trying to trade with the New World using the contents of the gift shop at the National Museum of Scotland. The settlers also faced the prospect of attack by the Spanish, who had claimed the Darien Isthmus for themselves.
Despite their desperation the letters the colonists sent home were full of optimism. Like backpackers picking fruit in Australia the settlers tried to convince themselves that it wasn’t all completely shite, they described a tropical paradise and even claimed to have struck gold. They were keen to talk up the Scottish colony as they did not want to dissuade those on a second voyage who would bring with them much needed provisions and goods they could actually trade - like sticks of rock, and snow globes of Edinburgh Castle.
The second Darien expedition sailed from Leith in September 1699. The ‘Rising Sun’ the ‘Duke of Hamilton’ and the ‘Hope of Bo’ness’ carried another 1300 hopeful Scot’s spurred on by the letters coming back from the colony. The voyage was long and arduous, there were sea burials every day and conditions on board were horrific – except of course for those from Bo’ness for whom the conditions were a marked improvement on where they had come from.
Unbeknownst to those on the second Darien voyage the colony had been abandoned three months earlier. The desperate colonists abandoned New Caledonia after hearing no word of a second expedition. The news of the abandonment reached the Company of Scotland twelve days after the second expedition had set sail. You can’t help but be impressed by the incredible disorganisation on display from the Company, it would take over three hundred years before the SFA would emulate such impressive levels of fuck-witery.
The second expedition landed at the abandoned colony in November 1699 and were immediately plagued by the same problems suffered on the first expedition. They carried out a dashing victory against a Spanish fort in February 1700, but the success was short lived. Spain won the return leg weeks later and Fort St Andrew was surrendered to the Spanish in March 1700. Just a month later the decision was taken to abandon New Caledonia once and for all. The Scottish settlers were permitted to return to Scotland however none made it back to their homeland, all three of the ships that had taken them to Panama were shipwrecked on the voyage home with no survivors.
The story of Scotland’s attempt at colonialism inevitably turned out to be a classically Scottish tale, a glorious failure that started with patriotism and optimism but ultimately ended with a last-minute Harry Kane equaliser at the back post. The man most held responsible for the failure of the Darien scheme was the king all Jacobites love to hate, King William.
After the scandal of Glencoe William’s reputation in Scotland was in tatters, the only way the King could make himself more unpopular amongst his Scottish subjects would have been to introduce a tax on square sausage and irn-bru. William achieved the impossible however and made himself even more unpopular in Scotland by almost single-handily destroying the Darien scheme.
The creation of the Company of Scotland coincided with William’s war against Louis XIV of France, and to defeat the French William required the support of Spain. As such he did not want to anger the Spanish by formally recognising the Darien colony. William ensured Darien was destined to fail by banning all English colonies from Boston to Barbados from trading with them. The King had actively suppressed the Company of Scotland and undermined the Darien colony against the best interests of the country he was supposed to represent. Scotland had been betrayed by its own king. The Darien scheme had been deliberately sabotaged to appease the Spanish and to weaken Scotland economically, thus making the country more reliant on England.
Despite its disastrous end Darien was a rare example of Scottish dash and daring fuelled by uncharacteristic optimism. The spirit of Darien, whether consciously or unconsciously, still forms a key part of the Scottish psyche and was evident on both sides of the 2014 Independence Referendum. Those on the yes side pushed a hopeful vision of a land of milk, honey, and no nuclear weapons. Those on the no side simply said ‘aye, but you’ll inevitably fuck it all up’. The debate on whether an independent Scotland would turn out as disastrously as Darien will rumble on, I’m just disappointed we never got to know how pasty-white, ginger people got on trying to live in central America - perhaps Gordon Strachan will bag himself the Panama job and finally settle my curiosity.