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A patriot capable of fearsome fireworks

ON my many forays into East Lothian, I invariably pass through the village of East Saltoun, which lies in the foothills of the Lammermuirs.

There is not much to it. It has a shop and a church and that's about all. But what it lacks in modern amenities it makes up for in history. For it was here in 1655 that Alexander Fletcher was born.

If his name is not one with which many Scots are familiar, more's the pity. Alex Salmond, however, knows it well. During his appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this week, the First Minister paid special tribute to the man who was known in his own lunchtime as the "Patriot" and who, when all around appeared to be prepared to sell Scotland short while feathering their own nests, argued eloquently against the 1707 Union.

In particular, Mr Salmond drew attention to Fletcher's speech to the Scottish Parliament the year before it was "adjourned". "All nations are dependent," said Fletcher, presciently, "the one upon the many. This much we know." But he also warned that if "the greater must always swallow the lesser," we are all diminished.

His argument, which Mr Salmond has long found appealing, is that incorporation leads inevitably to resentment and grievance whereas independence encourages mutual respect. Fletcher's speech, the First Minister remarked, is as pertinent today as three centuries ago.

Certainly, Fletcher was a remarkable fellow whose story ought to be known to everyone interested in the national narrative. That it is not cannot be blamed on those such as David Daiches, Paul Henderson Scott, David Buchan and others who have laboured to give him the prominence he deserves. While it's true he was not a Wallace or a Bruce and that his head, unlike that of the unfortunate Mary, remained on his shoulders, he was in many ways as notable as them.

He was educated by the local minister who, while noting his "many virtues", could not ignore the fact that he was "a most violent republican and extremely passionate". Moreover, he preferred, in the words of the historian Michael Fry, "pure principle to practical purpose", which made him part of what might now be called the awkward squad. While still a young man, he was forced flee to Scotland because of his republicanism. Had he not, the chances are he would have been executed. As it was, he spent several years abroad as a mercenary, initially in Holland, then in Spain and Hungary. In a career that might euphemistically be described as colourful, Fletcher shot dead the English Paymaster General, for which he was tried at Edinburgh in his absence, sentenced to death and had his estates confiscated.

Eventually, the then king included him in an amnesty but Fletcher, principled as ever, refused to take advantage of this, insisting, somewhat perversely, that only the Scottish Parliament had the right to pardon him. Nevertheless his life was spared.

It was the catastrophic Darien scheme that precipitated the Union that may yet be dissolved next month. Fletcher entered parliament in 1703 and soon made his presence felt. He wanted the Scottish Parliament to decide the make-up of the Scottish Cabinet, not Queen Anne, and insisted that power to declare wars should be removed from the sovereign.

He said: "All our affairs since the Union of the crowns have been managed by the advice of English ministers, and the principle offices of the kingdom filled with such men, as the court of England knew would be subservient to their designs." Thus Scotland, Fletcher concluded, "appeared to the rest of the world more a conquered province than a free independent people".

What is apparent is he could foresee where a union could lead, especially when those promoting it had so much to gain from it. The atmosphere in the old parliament was more charged than today. When his fuse was lit, Fletcher was capable of fearsome fireworks. Eager to duel with those he deemed to be traitors, he was advised that this might be against his best interests. Subsequently, the Act of Union passed into law and Fletcher retired to Saltoun, in that county which now calls itself "the birthplace of the Saltire", where he devoted his remaining years to farming the rich, red earth.

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