'The key of the universe': Scotland and Darien, 1695-1707

Detail from Darien map
Map of Darien by
Herman Moll.

Detail from page showing a coat of arms
Minute book of the
Company of Scotland,
1695. © RBS 2011.
Full page image

Detail from Act of Parliament
Act founding the
Company of Scotland.
Larger detail from Act

Important archive material relating to Scotland and Darien was the focus of the treasures display from 1 July to 31 August 2011.


This display told the story of the Company of Scotland's fateful colonial expedition to Darien in the 1690s.

Exhibits included the company's private record books, maps, and letters from colonists who travelled from Scotland to the New World.

The display was a joint venture by NLS and The Royal Bank of Scotland.

It followed on from the inclusion in 2010 of the archives of 'The Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies' in UNESCO's UK Memory of the World register.


Establishing the Company of Scotland

On 26 June 1695 the Scottish Parliament passed an Act establishing the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies, a company entirely financed by public subscription.

English investors soon raised their share, but withdrew their money after King William and the English Parliament turned against the venture. However, by August 1696 the Scots had raised £400,000 themselves.


First expedition sets out

The directors of the Company of Scotland began to lay plans for the colony.

On 14 July 1698 the company's first expedition left the port of Leith bound for what is now Panama. Five ships set sail — 'Caledonia', 'St Andrew', 'Unicorn', 'Dolphin' and 'Endeavour' — with around 1,200 people on board.


The Scots colony at Darien

Map detail showing New Edinburgh

In November 1698 the colonists reached Darien, which they called 'New Caledonia'. There they erected a settlement and cleared land for growing yams and maize. However, agriculture proved difficult, and the local Indians were unwilling to buy the combs and other trinkets offered by the colonists.

Meanwhile, King William had instructed the English colonies in America not to supply the Scots settlement.

Inadequate provisions and the unfamiliar hot and humid climate soon caused fever to spread, and many settlers died. In July 1699 the colony was abandoned.


Second expedition

Part of the heading of the Constitution of New Caledonia
Constitution of New
Caledonia and America.
© RBS 2011.
Larger constitution page

The Darien scheme was a complete and disastrous failure. Around one quarter of Scotland’s liquid assets was lost in the venture and some 2,000 people perished.

Blame was directed against England, for withdrawing support at the last minute and for not helping Scots at Darien from its American colonies.

King William and his successor, Queen Anne, pressed for union of the Scottish and English Parliaments. After lengthy negotiations this was finally achieved by the Acts of Union of 1707.


Treaty of Union

Under the Treaty of Union, Scotland was paid £398,000 (a sum known as ‘the Equivalent’) in compensation for the Darien losses and to support Scottish industries, which seemed vital to the country’s economic survival. 

The last Scottish Parliament met on 25 March 1707 and was not to be re-established in Edinburgh for almost 300 years.


Collection highlights

Among collection highlights on display were:

Handwriting from proposal document
Paterson's proposal for
a colony
at Darien.

Printed names and professions
List of subscribers to
the company.
© RBS 2011.
Larger detail from list

Map detail showing Darien in Gulf of Panama
French map of Darien
and Gulf of Panama.
Full French map image
  • Act of Parliament founding the Company of Scotland, 1695 (NLS)
  • The first minute book of the directors of the Company of Scotland, 1696 (RBS)
  • List of subscribers to the Company, 1696 (RBS)
  • William Paterson’s proposal for the establishment of a trading colony at Darien, around 1696 (NLS)
  • Cargo ledger showing items carried in the ships of the first expedition, 1698 (RBS)
  • Facsimile copies of maps, including one from 1699 showing where the ships landed in November 1689
  • Notification of the safe arrival of the first expedition in Darien, 1699 (NLS)
  • Constitution of New Caledonia in America, 1698 (RBS)
  • Treaty of friendship with Diego Tucuapantos, 1699 (NLS)
  • Letter about the battle of Toubacanti against the Spanish, 1700 (NLS)
  • Copy of the final surrender of the colony to the Spanish, 1700 (NLS)
  • Pamphlet printed by George Ridpath regarding Scottish grievances in the aftermath of the collapse of the Darien scheme, 1700 (NLS)



The treasures display in our George IV Bridge Building is a small sample of the millions of items in our collections. We change the display several times a year.

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