The Auld Alliance

Scotland's most famous connection with Europe was the Auld Alliance with France. First agreed in 1295/6 the Auld Alliance was built on Scotland and France's shared need to curtail English expansion. Primarily it was a military and diplomatic alliance but for most of the population it brought tangible benefits through pay as mercenaries in France's armies and the pick of finest French wines.

Shakespeare's 'Henry V' rightly portrays the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 as one of England's greatest military victories. For the French it was a disaster that led to the near collapse of their kingdom. In their darkest hour the Dauphin turned to the Scots, England's enemy, for salvation.

Between 1419 and 1424, 15,000 Scots left from the River Clyde to fight in France. In 1421 at the Battle of Bauge the Scots dealt a crushing defeat to the English and slew the Duke of Clarence.

Honours and rewards were heaped upon the Scots army by the French. The Earl of Douglas was given the royal Dukedom of Touraine and the Scots army lived well off the land, much to the chagrin of the French peasantry.

Their victory was short lived however; at Vernuil in 1424 a Scots army of 4,000 men was annihilated. As mercenaries they could have expected no mercy and those who were captured were dispatched on the spot. Despite their defeat, the Scots had brought France valuable breathing space and effectively saved the country from English domination.

Many Scots continued to serve in France. They aided Joan of Arc in her famous relief of Orleans and many went on to form the Garde Écossais, the fiercely loyal bodyguard of the French Kings, where they were at the very heart of French politics.

Many Scots mercenaries settled in France although they continued to think of themselves as Scots. One such man was Beraud Stuart of Aubigny: a third-generation Scot immigrant, Captain of the Garde Écossais from 1493-1508, and hero of France's Italian wars. To this day both he and other Scots heroes of the Auld Alliance are celebrated in Beraud's home town of Aubigny-sur-Neve in an annual pageant.

The Auld Alliance wasn't simply a military alliance; it was based on a long-established friendship founded on the Scots love of French wine.

The signing of the Auld Alliance in 1295 might have given the Scots French support against England, but it also gave the Scottish merchants the privilege of selecting the first choice of Bordeaux's finest wines - a privilege which was eagerly protected for hundreds of years, much to the annoyance of English wine drinkers who received an inferior product.

French wine was landed on Wine Quay of Leith and rolled up the streets to the merchants' cellars behind the water front. The wine landed was mostly for the elite of Scottish society, with most commoners drinking whisky or beer, but it seems to have been popular with everyone for Hogmanay celebrations.

Trade, especially of wine, has a tendency to fly in the face of political changes and alliances. After the Reformation, the Auld Alliance was no longer feasible between Protestant Scotland and Catholic France, but the trade in Claret continued. People simply kept drinking it.

An example of this process can be seen in the post-Reformation destiny of St Anthony's fund: a charitable fund raised on the back of the wine trade. The fund was simply converted to Protestantism by King James VI and passed onto the Old Leith Parish Church.

As late as the 1670s, Scots merchants were still going to Bordeaux to get their first choice of wine. Even after the Union of Parliaments with England in 1707, Scots continued to smuggle Claret into Scotland to avoid taxes. Scots of all persuasions, Jacobite or Hanoverian, continued to drink Claret in preference to patriotic Port - especially when toasting the exiled Stuart kings as 'the King over the water'.

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