The late 17th century was a difficult period economically for Scotland. The country's economy was relatively small, its range of exports limited, and furthermore Scotland was in a weak political position in relation to the great powers of Europe, including neighbouring England (with which it was in personal union, but not yet in political union), and their overseas empires. In this era of economic uncertainty, rising tariff walls, and trade rivalries in Europe, Scotland was incapable of protecting itself from the effects of these trade wars. The kingdom had a tiny navy, and its merchants did not trade in any luxury goods which were in great demand. With the background of Jacobitism in the late 17th century the 1690s also saw several years of widescale crop-failure, which brought famine and led to this period being christened as the "ill years." This only helped to further exacerbate the deteriorating economic position of Scotland.
In response to this alarming situation, a number of remedies were enacted by the Parliament of Scotland: in 1695 the Bank of Scotland was established; the Act for the Settling of Schools established a parish-based system of public education throughout Scotland; and the Company of Scotland was chartered with capital to be raised by public subscription to trade with "Africa and the Indies."
In attempts to expand, the Scots had earlier sent settlers to the English colony of New Jersey and had established an abortive colony at Stuart's Town in what is now South Carolina. The Company of Scotland soon became involved with the Darien scheme, an ambitious plan devised by William Paterson to establish a colony on the Isthmus of Panama in the hope of establishing trade with the Far East – the same principle which, much later, would lead to the construction of the Panama Canal. The Company of Scotland easily raised subscriptions in London for the scheme. The English Government, however, was opposed to the idea, since it was at war with France and did not want to offend Spain, which claimed the territory as part of New Granada; as a result, the English investors were forced to withdraw. Returning to Edinburgh, the Company raised 400,000 pounds sterling in a few weeks (equivalent to roughly £40 million in 2007), with investments from every level of society, and totalling roughly a fifth of the wealth of Scotland.
The first expedition of five ships (Saint Andrew, Caledonia, Unicorn, Dolphin, and Endeavour) set sail from Leith on July 14, 1698, with around 1,200 people on board. Their orders were to proceed to the Bay of Darien, and make the Isle called the Golden Island … some few leagues to the leeward of the mouth of the great River of Darien … and there make a settlement on the mainland. After calling at Madeira and the West Indies, the fleet made landfall off the coast of Darien on November 2. The settlers christened their new home "New Caledonia".
There they cut a canal through the neck of land that divided one side of the harbour in Caledonia Bay from the ocean, and constructed Fort St Andrew, equipped with fifty cannons, on the peninsula behind the canal. On a mountain, at the opposite side of the harbour, they built a watchhouse. Close to the fort they began to erect the huts of the main settlement, New Edinburgh, and to clear land for growing yams and maize. Unfortunately for the majority of the settlers who arrived at Darien, the expedition would prove to be a disastrous and tragic undertaking.
Agriculture proved difficult and the local Indian tribes, although friendly, were unwilling to buy the combs and other trinkets offered by the colonists. With the onset of summer the following year, the stifling atmosphere, added to other causes, caused a large number of deaths in the colony. The mortality rose eventually to ten settlers a day, despite the care and assistance of the local Indians. Meanwhile, King William had instructed the English colonies in America not to supply the Scots' settlement so as not to incur the wrath of the Spanish Empire, which in addition to inadequate provisions, combined with the unfamiliar hot and humid climate, soon caused fever to spread and many settlers died. In July 1699, after barely eight months, the colony was abandoned.
Only 300 of the 1,200 settlers survived and only one ship managed to return to Scotland. A desperate ship from the colony that called at the Jamaican city of Port Royal was refused assistance on the orders of the English government.
Of the total 2,500 settlers that set off, just a few hundred survived.
The failure of the Darien scheme has been cited as one of the motivations for the 1707 Acts of Union. According to this argument, the Scottish establishment realized that it could never be a major power on its own and that if it wanted to share the benefits of England's international trade and the growth of the British Empire, then its future would have to lie in unity with England. More so, the Scottish economy had been bankrupted by the 'Darien Fiasco' and Westminster had been petitioned by Scotland to wipe out the Scottish national debt and stabilise the currency. Personal Scottish financial interests were also involved. Many Scottish Commissioners had invested heavily in the Darien Scheme and they believed that they would receive compensation for their losses. The 1707 Acts of Union, Article 14, granted £398,085 10s sterling to Scotland to offset future liability towards the English national debt. In essence, it was also used as a means of compensation for investors in the Darien Scheme.
Other Scottish settlements in America: