William Paterson now returned to the land of his birth and, finding it impoverished, envisaged a scheme which he hoped would make Scotland independently wealthy and free from the duplicity of the English King. It was a scheme which was to capture the hopes and imaginations of the whole nation.
It was at this time that a Scottish company, the 'Company of Scotland, Trading to Africa and the Indies' was set up in Edinburgh, and enjoyed great support from Scottish Investors and from those English and Dutch merchants excluded from trading with the English 'East India Company'. Paterson became heavily involved with the company and proposed a scheme to establish a Scottish colony which could control trade between the Pacific and Atlantic on the Isthmus of Darien in Panama. 'The Darien Scheme'. Paterson did not know it at the time but the Darien Scheme would end up as one of the most significant events in Scottish history, altering the future constitution of the country forever - although not in the way in which it was intended to.
The project, which was possibly the most ambitious colonial scheme attempted by any country in the 17th century (it was the same ideas that would lead to the construction of the Panama Canal two centuries later), hit problems from the start, warnings about how inhospitable and disease ridden the area was were ignored (no one, not even Paterson, had ever been there to see it for themselves), and the proposals upset both the Spanish and the English Governments, who did not want Scotland establishing colonies which encroached on areas which they saw as their own or which could dent their own potential profits. The English Government forced the English and Dutch backers of the scheme to withdraw their support. Scotland could not easily match the financial demands on its own, despite this a great sum of money was raised from the ordinary people of Scotland, from every level of society (Scotland's population was only about one million), to fund the expedition (nearly a third of Scotland's wealth!); this was now a huge political and financial gamble on the part of Paterson and the Scottish people, many of whom had invested their life savings. It had to succeed. 'Darien', according to Paterson, would be Scotland's 'door of the seas, the key of the universe'.
The first expedition took place in 1698 with five ships (The Caledonia, The Unicorn, The Saint Andrew, The Dolphin and The Endeavour) leaving Leith upon waves of patriotic fervour and carrying 1,200 hopeful Scottish colonists. After an arduous and stormy voyage, with many passengers falling ill and dying on the way (including Paterson's wife and child), the adventurers arrived at their destination (finding it unfertile, swampy and malaria ridden), naming it Caledonia and calling their capital New Edinburgh. The poorly conceived scheme was badly managed and undermined by English meddling (King William had ordered the English colonies in the area not to assist the Scots or to sell them provisions) and Spanish hostility (there were several attacks on the Scottish colony which amazingly and bravely fought back and held out) from the outset, and to make matters worse disease soon started taking a terrible toll on the colony with 400 of the original settlers dead in the first few months and the rest suffering from yellow fever (despite the food and care given by the local Indians).
A sick and broken Paterson returned to Scotland in 1699 to try and prevent a second expedition leaving, but by this time it was too late and several more ships and several thousand more settlers had already left to suffer the same fate as the original expedition. Of the sixteen ships that had left for Panama, only one ever returned to Scotland with only a handful of survivors (The desperate, under provisioned ship with it's starving and fever wracked passengers had put in at the English colony at Port Royal in Jamaica but had been turned away causing the death of most of the people on board). The scheme had totally collapsed by 1700 and both Paterson and Scotland were bankrupt and Caledonia had been reclaimed by the Spanish. Blame was directed at England and the two countries were once more on the brink of war, with several naval engagements taking place. One English ship, the Worcester, which was driven into the Firth of Forth by gales was captured and when it was discovered that it had sunk one of the ships belonging to 'The Company of Scotland', the embittered Scots executed the Captain and two of his men.
It was this collapse of Paterson's great adventure which, instead of seeing Scotland becoming a major player on the world stage, as had been proposed; saw the country humbled and at the mercy of its richer neighbour. The Scottish Government which had always, like the people of the country, strongly resisted moves to unify Scotland with England, were now in no position to refuse the Union, as England was offering those who had lost money on Paterson's scheme compensation which would prevent Scotland's entire financial collapse. England had been trying to push Scotland into a Union for several years and their part in the downfall of the Darien Scheme may have been planned with this in mind. Never the less it was the failure of Paterson's brave scheme which could have seen Scotland being able to hold it's head up among the great nations of Europe, which became the catalyst for the Act of Union between the too countries in 1707 and saw the creation of Great Britain. Scotland held a Parliament on 25 March 1707, and would not do so again until 1999. William Paterson served the united Parliament as member for the Dumfries burghs and received no compensation from the Government for his own considerable financial losses until 1715. Paterson's dream, although brilliant, had been ahead of it's time and led to the worst disaster in Scottish history, he died in 1719.