The St. Andrews Society of Panama and its members welcome all Scots and Scots descendents as well as those who enjoy or have an interest in Scotland and Scottish culture. Scottish country dancing is popular and is practiced regularly.



 St. Andrew’s Panama Revival

The Panama St. Andrews Society would like to invite all Scots, Scottish descendants, as well as people interested in Scottish culture & Scottish country dancing to join us at Rincon Aleman Restaurant at at 7pm on the second  Tuesday of every month.

The Rincon Aleman Restaurant is located on Calle 51 (same street as Las Tinajas Restaurant). For directions contact us at:



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Scots in Panama

Article for The South American Explorer, New York, June 2005


The ill-fated Scots colony of Caledonia in the Darien isthmus of Panama was Scotland's last attempt at forming an independent colony at the end of the 17th century.
Dr. Stewart D. Redwood, a Scot living in Panama, describes the expedition to mark the 300th anniversary of the Darien Venture.

The full moon set in the west as the sun rose over our yacht in the mirror-calm waters of the magnificent natural harbor of Caledonia Bay, surrounded by mountainous jungle. The absolute silence of the tropical dawn was disturbed only by the gentle splash of oars as the Kuna indians set out for the day in their dug-out canoes, or cayucos, grinning silently as they held fishing lines held in their teeth, and the eerie cries of howler monkeys far off in the jungle. Phil, the captain, lay asleep on the cabin roof, cooler than below-deck but wrapped in a sheet against the chitras, small biting insects like no-see-ums or Scots` midges. We talked in whispers, and it felt like sacrilege to shatter the silence with the Avon dinghy’s outboard motor as we set out to explore the bay. After months of planning and a three-day sail from Colon, we had attained a long-held ambition. The date was November 4th, 1998: exactly three-hundred years since the day that the five heroic ships of the Scots` Expedition sailed into this harbor and established the colony of Caledonia on the Caribbean coast of modern Panama.

The Scots are renowned for having dispersed all over the world, yet it is surprising that Scotland never established any colonies of her own. Scotland did make some unsuccessful colonial attempts in the seventeenth century, the last and most ambitious of which was the colony of Caledonia in the Darien isthmus of Panama. Founded in 1698, the colony was abandoned within eighteen months with the loss of over two thousand Scots men and women, nine ships and most of the Scotland’s wealth. With it foundered the country's pride and Scotland's last hope as an independent nation.

While much has been written about the history of this bold and ill-fated venture, very few Scots, nor any other outsiders, have actually visited Caledonia Bay since the settlers themselves. Under the auspices of the Panama Saint Andrew’s Society, we decided to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Scots’ colony. The expedition members were myself, a Scot who has lived for some years in Panama; my Bolivian wife Maite; Major (US Army Retired) Donald C. Taylor II (Don); and Major (US Army Reserve) Gary Cook and his Panamanian wife Regina. Don and Gary are Americans proud of their Scots ancestry, then based in Panama before the US return of the canal. The only way to get to Caledonia is by sea, and we chartered a 45 foot ketch, the Calomoro, owned and skippered by a Californian named Phil Melanson who had washed up in these parts and dropped anchor to marry a local girl.

The place that the Scots chose for Caledonia lies in the San Blas archipelago of Panama, three-hundred and sixty five islands strung out like pearls along the Caribbean coast between the canal and Colombia. The area has not changed at all since the Scots' time, three hundred years ago. It is a beautiful, unspoiled paradise of lush green jungle, mangrove swamps, coral islands and reefs with golden beaches and turquoise sea which bask in the tropical sun and are nourished by the tropical rain. The Kuna indians are still the only inhabitants and maintain their near-utopian harmony with the land, the sea and each other, largely autonomous of the outside world.

The Kuna indian way of life is almost entirely water-borne. They live in densely populated villages on a few of the small islands and spill off the edges on houses built over the water on stilts. They are reminiscent of the floating villages the Uru indians of Lake Titicaca or the Marsh Arabs of Iraq, although their villages are actually built on islands. Most of the other islands are deserted and used for coconut cultivation. On-shore beyond the mangrove channels the Kuna keep small agricultural plots. Dugout canoes, often with single lateen sails, are the main means of transport. Small motor ships trade along the coast, and air-taxis connect the islands with Panama City, the dare-devil pilots dropping the aircraft on to incredibly short jungle air-strips on the small islands. The name Kuna is said to mean “plains indians”, but they migrated to the islands some centuries ago, and found a healthier way of life with the sea breeze keeping mosquitoes at bay and the sea providing bountiful harvest.

Our week-long expedition was a lot easier than that of our countrymen three centuries before. We spend three days sailing from the port of Cristobal in Colon, at the Atlantic end of the Panama Canal. We sailed non-stop for the first thirty hours until we were close to our destination. By dusk we were off the familiar waters of Portobello, the site of the Spanish port that exported the New World silver to Spain. The next day found us sailing along the San Blas archipelago, well off-shore from the outer islands to avoid hidden reefs. These are literally uncharted waters, and we sailed cautiously in to our first island with the high mid-afternoon sun, a look-out in the bow and an eye on the depth gauge to spot the numerous reefs. Our first anchorage was the uninhabited Iguana Island or Isla de Pajaros (Bird Island), a flat palm-covered island of sand and coral offshore from Pine Island, once a notorious pirate haven. The aptness of the name became apparent at dusk as tens of thousands of swifts flocked to the island, together with prehistoric-looking pelicans which settled with surprising elegance in the palm tops, and large groups of screeching parrots. It felt quite surreal watching this scene in the gathering darkness as the moon rose while floating in the water after diving. The waters teemed with life also: a huge spotted-eagle ray leapt out of the water to greet us on arrival, and we saw him again while diving, as well as large groupers, lobsters and a shark.

The next day we sailed on to Caledonia Bay. A Kuna indian shouted directions to us, in English, as we navigated around the reefs. Shortly after our arrival a fast outboard launch with three Colombians aboard zoomed in to ask us directions: we had seen the tip of their sail further along the coast as we entered the bay. Later in the week we were to rescue them from grounding. Our next visitor was an old Kuna in his cayuco. He berated us for not flying the Panamanian flag, this being Independence from Colombia Day. After we rectified this and he established that we were not Colombians, he became quite friendly. The Kuna are very suspicious of drug runners. He spoke good English which he had learned working at Fort Clayton, one of the US bases in the Canal Zone. We obtained his permission to anchor in the bay and carry out our exploration. He returned the next day with the sahila, or chief, for whom he translated into the Kuna language. We gave them some gifts and tried to explain the reason for our visit, but we found that they had no local lore of the Scots and little sense of time or history, and no interest in our story.

"The Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies" was founded by an Act of Scots Parliament in 1695 by two Edinburgh merchants, Robert Blackwood and James Balfour, an ancestor of Robert Louis Stevenson. The vision for the scheme came from Dumfries-born William Paterson (1658 – 1719) who had founded the world’s first central bank, the Bank of England, the previous year, and had been a merchant in the West Indies. He was a director of the Company and sailed on the First Expedition. The objective of "The Company of Scotland" was to form a trading colony similar to the powerful English East India Company, and establish Scotland as a great trading and colonial power. The Company was given wide ranging powers which made it a nation unto itself, with a monopoly of Scottish trade with Asia, Africa and America, the right to establish colonies, make governments and wage war. It was a strongly nationalistic venture which blatantly flaunted English superiority and trade restrictions which had become increasingly oppressive since the Union of the Crowns in 1603. The entire capital of the Company of £400,000 was raised in Scotland by public subscription after the company was outlawed in London and on the Continent by a protectionist English parliament. This was an enormous amount of money, estimated at half the available capital of the nation.

After three years spent scouring the land to raise the funds to build, outfit and provision the fleet, the First Expedition set sail from Leith, the port of Edinburgh, on July 14th 1698. The Expedition consisted of five ships – the Saint Andrew, Caledonia, Unicorn, Dolphin and Endeavour - and twelve hundred men, with a few boys and women, After a rough, sixteen-week Atlantic crossing, the weary survivors in their battered ships anchored off Golden Island (Isla de Oro or Sulatupo) on the evening of Monday October 31st. The next morning they moved to within half a mile of the island and surveyed the surroundings in a pinnace. The following morning, November 2nd, the Kuna Great Chief Andres was welcomed on board the flagship Saint Andrew, In the afternoon the Scots sent a boat to survey a well protected bay to the south-east. This was the first Scots entry to Caledonia Bay. Two days later, on November 4th, the Commodore of the Fleet, Captain Robert Pennecuik, led the fleet into the bay to found the Scots colony of Caledonia and the town of New Edinburgh. Men were landed to clear land, build huts for the sick, and bury the dead. The settlement was formally declared a Colony of the Company of Scotland on December 28th 1698. Treaties of Friendship were signed with the Kuna Chiefs Andres on December 3rd, and Diego on February 24th, 1699. Seventy-six people had died since the expedition left Scotland, and ironically, William Paterson's wife died shortly after the arrival and was one of the first to be buried at New Edinburgh.

The area the Scots settlers chose was already one of great historical significance. This was one of the first European landfalls and settlements on mainland America. In 1501 the Spanish explorer Rodrigo de Bastidas sailed west along the San Blas coast and became the discoverer of the isthmus of Panama. Columbus sailed east along the Panamanian coast the following year, reaching San Blas in 1503 on this fourth and final expedition, thinking that he was on the China - Malaysia coast. The first Christian settlement on mainland America was established to the south of here in 1510, Santa Maria de la Antigua del Darien, known as Antigua, on the Gulf of Uraba. From here Vasco Nuñez de Balboa set out to cross the Darien mountains and "discovered" the South Sea, or Pacific Ocean, in 1513, leaving the Atlantic coast at Careta, probably modern Carreto in the next bay south of Caledonia. The town of Acla was established near Caledonia Bay in 1515 or 1516, opposite Golden Island. Balboa was betrayed and beheaded here by Pedro de Arias Davila, or Pedrarias, in 1519. Later that year Pedrarias founded Old Panama on the Pacific coast, leading to the rapid decline of Antigua and Acla, whose locations were lost to the jungle. This part of the Spanish Main was later the lair of British pirates such as Francis Drake and Henry Morgan who sallied forth from the maze of islands and shallow channels to raid the Spanish ports and treasure ships laden with silver and gold from the mines of the Andes.

It was from the unpublished journals of two such English buccaneers, Lionel Wafer (author of “A New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America”, 1699) and William Dampier (author of “A New Voyage Around the World”, 1697), known personally to Paterson, that the Company of Scotland chose the location of their colony. This was kept so secret that the captains of the fleet sailed under sealed orders. The objective of the colony was to trade across the Darien isthmus between the Atlantic and the Pacific with the East Indies. Paterson's scheme was a visionary forerunner of the Panama Canal and the Colon Free Trade Zone. As it turned out, Paterson's vision was over two hundred years ahead of its time. Indeed, in the nineteenth century Caledonia Bay was the starting point for one of the routes surveyed for the Panama canal. The colony was intended to be a trading colony, not a plantation like the other English colonies in the Caribbean. This explains the ships' manifests of seemingly unlikely goods such as wigs, hose (stockings) and cloth.


Caledonia Bay is a large natural harbor in a very secure location, protected by a hilly isthmus to the east and the mountainous Darien jungle on the west. It is shown on modern maps as Punta Escocés (Scottish Point) or Puerto Escocés (Scottish Port). The modern Kuna name is Sukunya and there is a small village used on a temporal basis for fishing and coconut collecting. Caledonia Bay is shown on some contemporary maps as extending for some 20 km to the north-west and including Golden Island and a chain of islands beyond, but 7 km of open water separates Golden Island from Punta Escocés. There is a Kuna town called Calidonia (spelt with an i) (or Coetupu) on a small island beside Golden Island (Suletupu). However this coast is a windward shore of the north-east trade winds during the dry season, from December to April, which turned out to be a drawback for the Scots' ocean-going sailing ships. The Scots built Fort Saint Andrew to guard the harbor entrance on a point on the isthmus, and the town of New Edinburgh inside the Fort. Our first challenge on that bright November morning was how to get ashore: the bay is fringed by a reef only inches deep, too shallow even for the rubber dinghy. We eventually found a slightly deeper part where at the mouth of a fresh water stream, and we landed on a small beach at the south end of the Fort Saint Andrew.

Caledonia Bay echoed to the sound of the (taped) bagpipes for the first time in three hundred years as Don and I dressed in our kilts for a photo- and video-session. This attracted a few bemused Kuna in their cayucos, while a few dolphins swam by. We then donned more suitable garb for the scorching-hot, humid morning to explore the fort. I found a low earthen rampart and dry moat, and was able to follow it all the way across the isthmus for some 280 meters, with four bastions for cannon. The defenses at the north end are more impressive and terminate in a 25 meter long sea-filled moat cut into the coral rock, and a 3 meter high bastion. These are the most tangible ruins: the only other which I found a circular stone structure about 3 meters in diameter on the south side of the fort, probably a baker’s oven. This is built of diorite and gabbro, which do not outcrop on the peninsula, and red clay bricks which must have been brought from Scotland. The peninsula that forms the fort is about 250 meters diameter and is flat coral rock raised about one meter above sea level. It is vegetated with coconut palms and an impenetrable tangle of undergrowth, with lots of lizards. There is little soil and it must have been difficult to dig post-holes for the buildings. Several hundred Scots are buried here, but the cemetery must be outside the fort and its location has never been discovered.

While hacking through the dense undergrowth, with the aid of only a diver’s knife instead of a machete, I heard a voice hailing us though I couldn’t understand the language. After a few minutes I walked into Gary and Regina, the two other members of our expedition who had been unable to sail with us at the last minute. Instead they had taken an air-taxi to the village of Tuvuala, about 15 km along the coast, and sailed in a cayuco to meet us. This was the way I had first visited Caledonia Bay a few years before. Unfortunately they had forgotten to keep their cayuco and had to sail overnight with us back to Porvenir, at the far western end of San Blas. Sailing a keeled yacht inside the islands and reefs back to Tuvuala was not an option in the evening.

In the afternoon we went scuba-diving to search for the wreck of the Scots` ship Olive Branch, which was burned and sank after the brandy in the hold caught fire from a sailor’s torch. Alas our search was fruitless, and the shallow muddy bottom easily stirred up into clouds. I imagined the bay crowded with ships in December 1698, the air thick with Scots accents, the five small weary ships creaking lazily at anchor in the heat with their sails rigged as awnings over the decks, protection from the rain as well as the sun. They were accompanied by a Dutch ship sheltering from the Spaniards and a French trading ship, the Maurepas, which sank after hitting a rock near the mouth of the bay, laden with merchandise and 60,000 pieces of eight in gold and silver. The previous afternoon we had dived in the mouth of the bay to search for the wreck, but with no joy.

The accidental sinking of the colonists' first trading visitor was a bad omen for the colony. The hoped-for trade never materialized due to the embargo by the English crown and the West Indian colonies, and the Spanish hostility to the invasion of their sovereign territory. Tropical disease and the climate are the usual scapegoats in Scotland for the failure of the venture, and while they were obviously important, this forgets the numerous other colonies in the tropics in the West Indies and around the world at the time where Scots and other Europeans prospered.

It is interesting to compare the Darien Venture with British India. At the same time the private British East India Company, formed almost a century before, had three profitable trading colonies in India. The British went to trade, it was another 250 years before India became a British colony, and that by accident rather than design. The Scots plan for a trading colony in Darien was along these lines. The parallels are clear and the comparison helps understand the Scots` motives. The story of Calcutta is particularly relevant. It’s early years were just as inauspicious as Darien’s, yet Calcutta became the capital of the British Raj and the second city of the Empire, and is now a teeming city of 13 million. Fort William, the first settlement at Calcutta, was founded in 1690 on the site of three native villages in swamp and jungle in the Ganges delta and was leased from the local emperor as a trading post. The British suffered very heavy losses from local rulers and tropical disease, with a mortality rate of over fifty percent. Calcutta became known as Golgotha or “Place of the Skulls” long before earning a reputation as the “City of Palaces”.

Returning to the Darien, the embarrassingly clear fact is that bad leadership was responsible for the fate of the colony. Paterson sailed on the expedition as a planter rather than a director, and had little influence. The fledgling colony had enough problems to face without the incessant arguing and bickering of the councilors, as the so-called leaders were known, described in a contemporary account as “a contentious, jealous band”. The colonists were in poor shape and low morale after the sea voyage, and made no attempt to cultivate or secure local supplies of food. Instead they relied on their own provisions brought from Scotland, which were meager and rotten after the voyage. Disease took its toll. True to form, however, the one commodity that the Scots did not run out of was booze - brandy, ale and wine had been brought in copious quantities! Nor was any effort made to exploit the area’s natural resources of gold and hard woods.

The demise was predictable. A large Spanish force of 1,500 marched over the mountains from Toubacanti to Acla. A Scots force led by Captain James Montgomerie attacked the Spaniards on February 6th, 1699, as they had already started to withdraw. The Scots claimed victory after routing the Spanish rearguard, with two Scots killed and eleven wounded. The colony was abandoned on June 22nd, 1699, leaving behind one hundred huts that comprised New Edinburgh, 402 graves and six Scots who were too weak to board the ships. Less than 300 men made it back to Scotland, after many died at sea while others deserted in Jamaica and New York. In the meantime, two relief ships had left Scotland in May 1699 with 300 men and women. They arrived in August to find the colony deserted, except for one survivor. Sensibly, they returned to Jamaica on the Hopeful Binning, leaving a dozen men and the accidentally burned remains of the Olive Branch at Caledonia. Amidst unconfirmed rumors that the colony had been abandoned, the Second Expedition of four ships, the Rising Sun, Duke of Hamilton, Hope of Bo`Ness and Hope, with 1,300 men and women, left the Clyde on September 23rd 1699. They arrived to find the truth on St. Andrew’s Day, November 30th. They rebuilt the colony but were as badly led and ill fated as the First Expedition, with lethargy, discontent and desertions. Rumors of an imminent Spanish attack led to the one positive move that the Scots made - a successful pre-emptive attack on the Spanish fort of Toubacanti on February 15th, 1700, led by Alexander Campbell of Fonab. He led a force of 200 Scots and 33 Indian militia, and seven Scots were killed and 14 wounded, including Campbell. Following this, however, Spanish ships and troops blockaded the colony. The Scots were forced to surrender on March 31st 1700. They abandoned the colony forever on April 12th, 1700. None of the ships and few of the survivors ever made it home to Scotland. Over one thousand lost their lives, while most of the rest were shipwrecked in Jamaica and Carolina.

Our own expedition cleared ship and set sail from Caledonia Bay in the evening for an overnight sail to Porvenir at the west end of the San Blas archipelago. We then anchored in a beautiful lagoon in the Lemon Cays for three days of scuba diving. This paradise was marred by two near-shipwrecks. The first was the Colombian yacht which ran aground taking a short-cut between two islands, and by next morning was listing badly. Phil, in his characteristic helpfulness, lent them all his spare ropes and anchors and helped them get off the sand bar with the rising tide. The next incident involved our own yacht and fortunately we got back to the boat just in time from a dive trip as a squall blew up from nowhere. If we’d still been diving we’d likely have lost both the Avon dinghy which we dived from, and the yacht. In minutes the sea and air were white with driving, stinging spray and rain. We fought to cut the sail rigged as a sun awning free as it acted like a sail and dragged the anchor. Desperately we rigged a second anchor and threw it overboard, and thankfully it held. When the storm calmed, I had a devil of a job to untangle the two anchors and chains on the sea-bed. Vicious squalls like this are typical of the rainy season in Panama, and blow over in a couple of hours. November is the end of the rainy season yet we had generally dry hot weather, with some overcast days with little wind for sailing, and some heavy showers. At night we were usually entertained to a firework display of lightning over the Darien mountains, while we watched the stars and moon and the phosphorescent water.

The Company of Scotland, its confidence and finances severely battered, made some attempts at trading on the African coast between 1699 and 1703. The first voyage was a success, with the African Merchant returning from the Guinea coast with a large cargo of gold just after the news was received of the surrender of New Edinburgh. The gold was minted by the Company as "Darien pistoles" (£12 Scots) and "half-pistoles" (£6 Scots), the last gold coins issued by the Scottish mint. The ships of the next expedition were captured by Madagascar pirates. A third ship was seized by the English in the English Channel in 1704, and the outraged and embittered Scots seized an innocent English ship off Leith in retribution, and hung her officers in a shameful national act of vengeance.

The Company was dissolved and its debts paid when the United Kingdom was formed by the union of the parliaments on May 1st 1707. As well as closing the company, the Treaty of the Union removed most of the commercial grievances that had made the company necessary in the first place. While Scotland may never have had a colony of her own, the Scots participated fully in the growth of the British Empire. Indeed America has been described as Scotland’s colony, and it has been said that “the loss of Scottish sovereignty became America’s gain”.

In conclusion, the Darien Venture was a bold and visionary scheme. Credit is due to William Paterson for his vision of free trade. If it had succeeded, Scotland could have become a powerful nation, and there would be a trading city at Caledonia Bay like Panama City or Hong Kong. The Panama Canal may have been built there. The colony failed due to bad leadership and planning, as well as English and Spanish opposition and hostility, rather than climate and tropical disease. The disaster has become part of the Scottish psyche. At the time of its 300th anniversary it had again become politically relevant with the creation in 1999 of the first Scottish Parliament since the Union.

In Panama the colony is largely forgotten, even by the Kuna who live there, remembered only by place names on maps and by a district of Panama City named Calidonia (sic). Yet it was an important part of Panama’s cosmopolitan history at the cross-roads of the world, and a forerunner to the Canal and Free Trade Zone.

This remote tropical place in the Panamanian jungle named Caledonia, far from Scotland, had played a very important part in the history of Scotland and the United Kingdom. Our expedition to celebrate the 300th anniversary was a tribute to the hopeful and valiant Scots men and women in their unmarked, but not unforgotten graves, who had made Scotland's last attempt to assert herself as an independent nation.