George Currie believes now is the time to commemorate the tragic tale of Darien

PANAMA should be in the hearts and minds of every Scot these days, yet it is seldom thought of, never mind written and spoken of. Therein lies the past and tragedy of Scotland, therein lies its future and its triumph. The Scottish experience in Panama is worthy of

its own postage stamp and coin, to

be remembered and commemorated throughout the the country.

It is just more than 300 years since a Scottish fleet assembled in the Forth to be loaded and equipped and to set sail to found the new Scotland, Caledonia, in the Darien Peninsula of Panama, bordering Colombia. A story of great sacrifice, suffering, unfulfilled hope and achieved despair, of national expectation and pride, resulting in desperation and death. A story of secrecy and intrigue, double dealing, stubborn stupidity, crass incompetence, and wonderful idealism.

All the evidence, in detail, lies on the dusty shelves and in vaults of ancient and venerable national institutions. All should be brought out and given to the present generation because of the great national significance it has for all, particularly young Scots.

We are faced with the imminent creation of a Scots Parliament after hundreds of years. Indeed, 300 years ago one of the last Acts of the old Scots Parliament, before the Act of Union, was to pass the Act for Encouraging Trade in 1693, which ultimately created the Darien Expedition and tragedies.

After some slow starts and English intrigue, the newly-formed Scots company opened an Edinburgh account in 1696 and collected nearly #500,000, then a huge fortune, to finance the Darien Colony. National pride was invoked, in part to counteract the hostility and arrogance of the English, in part to deal with the horrors of the memories of Glencoe and the feeling of inferiority within the land. The Darien Scheme became a national symbol, generating loyalties and support, similar to, and yet far beyond, the present day support for a national football team.

One of the first duties of our new Scots Parliament must be to commemorate Darien - and ensure the like of it never happens again in terms of human and national suffering. The pomp and ceremony of the Scots regiments piping out the Hong Kong colony of 1997 must be matched to the hundreds of Scots soldiers desperate to join the 1697 Darien Colony in order to create the new life alongside their fellow citizens caught up in this national fervour. Yet this fever of enthusiasm was wiped out by the fever and misfortune in the Darien where most perished at sea or are buried in unmarked graves.

There is no mention of Darien in the local tourist guides. The nearest area mentioned is San Blas, which gives the usual tourist homilies. As then, the Kuna Indians are providing for their own needs in a virtually autonomous society, as they were long before Columbus discovered them. Some books state that Darien is still a jungle, wild and unexplored, where the inhabitants are the descendants of black slaves imported by the Spaniards and the Choco Indians, another tribe, who hunt still with the bow and arrow.

John le Carre gives it a one-liner mention on page nine in his latest bestseller The Tailor of Panama, referring to ''Scottish adventurers''.

I found that if I wanted to explore Darien it was at my own risk. One had to get by plane to a small airport, La Palma, and then hitch a lift by canoe into the jungle and interior. Some of this land must have remained unchanged after 300 years where the Spanish, the flies, the climate, the in-fighting, the bad planning and sheer incompetence destroyed the hopes of a nation.

Darien was made ''Caledonia'', a colony of the Scottish Company in 1698. But by June the following year it was abandoned. Despite this, and due to poor communication, in August a second expedition left the Clyde. The doom and gloom deepen and accelerate. There was internal dissent and external opposition from the English and the Spaniards. By April 1700, the colony was left again and the Scots Parliament refused an address of help to the King, William III. All the women were evacuated to Jamaica but most of the Scots fleet was destroyed at sea on the return trip home via New York. By now, hundreds had perished and there were national riots in Scotland, with destruction in Edinburgh.

Events had spiralled out of control. Many felt that Scotland had been dishonoured and some accused the Company of treachery. Other events of national significance overtook Darien, culminating in the dissolution of the Scots Parliament itself and the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England which, inter alia,abolished the Scots Company itself. The Company disappeared into the mists of time, all but forgotten.

Le Carre may have failed to give due significance to it, but John Prebble did not. In his book, The Darien Disaster, he writes of the events in great detail and with a largely sympathetic eye. He demonstrates the involvement of the whole nation, at all levels, and even shows some of the detailed planning of the stores and provisions for the expeditions. There were hogsheads of beer from Thomas Whyte of Leith, clay pipes from David Montgomery. In dry water casks were loaded 380 bibles, 50 New Testaments, and 2808 Catechisms, all printed by Widow Anderson to inspire the Kuna Indians. Provisions included bob-wigs, periwigs, and campaign wigs. Knives, axes and hammers, tools for

the smiths, coopers, and carpenters. Blunderbusses, grenades, and lead shot mixed with men's hose and women's stockings and 25,000 pairs of shoes and slippers. Canvas, muslin, and linen were included with balls of twine. Three thousand candlesticks and thousands of candles were loaded onto the ships to join the buttons of wood, brass, and horn, and pounds of pure white soap. Tens of thousands of combs were sent, of horn, boxwood, and lightwood. They were to be gifts for the Kuna who were proud of their hair.

Prebble also tells us of the tons of biscuits and beef, casks of suet, flour, and unmilled wheat together, with the 1200 gallons of claret, 1700 of rum, 5000 of vinegar and brandy.

With the same precision, the main characters are identified and described, including one of the main players in this tale of tragedy, Thomas Drummond. He was at Glencoe and actively participated in the terrible massacre because he was ''acting under orders''. Indeed, there were others also in the Darien expeditions who were also at Glencoe with Robert Campbell of Glenlyon.

What emerges is that men, women, and children from all walks of life and for all the reasons of the human condition, participated in this scheme. In a sense, a miniaturised version of a complete and total nation constituted Darien and it perished on its ideals and ideas.

It demonstrated also that the majority, the rank and file, were victims not only of the diseases and illnesses etc, but also of their own leaders, idealistic and otherwise, who in turn became victims of their own intrigues and political powers sacrificed at the altar of power, control and ambition, not to mention greed. Yet, despite all this, there were rich seams of honour, straightforward honesty, and good intention in most. Politics cast its shadow over the whole endeavour, culminating in the 1707 Act of Political Union, which, among other things, reinforced the union of the two kingdoms in 1603, over a hundred years earlier.

It would be wholly appropriate for Scotland to commemorate this time of its history, especially so because of the political circle being completed. As this was one of the last Acts of nationhood of the Scots Parliament before 1707, it should be one of the first acts of the new Scots Parliament, around 300 years on. It should be duly recognised by all institutions now, especially those involved at the time, as well as the appropriate national institutes such as the National Library and Archives office, and Government offices such as those of the Secretary of State.

Like Scotland, Panama has its boundaries - it with Central America and South America - but it considers itself a nation on the Isthmus of Panama. The Panamanians consider that the Canal joins all the countries of the world - which was one of the fervent wishes of the Darien Scots at the time.

Now is the time to remember and honour them all.