Ae Fond Kiss, and Then We Sever!
The term diaspora1 refers to any movement of people
from their homeland to another country, where they share a common ethnic identity
or community. The word has its provenance in Greek, meaning, literally, a scattering
or sowing of seeds. Perhaps the greatest of all Scottish exports has been its
sons and daughters. Their legacy has left an indelible mark across the globe.
Of course, like many nations, there is a selective view of Scotlands Diaspora.
There are numerous tales of men, women and children being transported from these
shores as indentured servants due to economic conditions, Covenanters due to
religion, for political reasons like the Jacobites, or simply being forced from
the land in the Highland Clearances. The story of Scots forcibly transported
to foreign shores is maintained in the national psyche through popular literature.2
Conversely, there are several well-known tales of more fortunate and heroic Scots
venturing abroad. It could be argued that Scots seem to revel in either victim
or hero history. But why is this?
The popular history of the nation is one of subjection and tyrannical rule by
its larger neighbour, England. The greatest of all heroes, William
Wallace, has long been lionised as dying in a vain attempt to free Scotland from
under the English yoke. After the Incorporating Union of 1707 with England, it
has been almost casually accepted that Scotland was the victim of colonial rule.
Yet the Union undoubtedly opened up a dazzling array of riches in the plantations
of New World and allowed Scots to become collaborators in Empire.
Until fairly recently, a selective view has been underpinned by lack of systematic
academic examination. However, historians such as Prof. Tom Devine, Dr. Eric
Graham and Dr. Stuart Nisbet are now actively examining the role of Scots in
Empire as never before. There are many grey areas and unpalatable truths omitted
from general historical texts and subsequently from popular mindset and culture,
whilst the noble glories and popular tragedies in Scotlands past are celebrated
with great vigour. This is particularly evident in modern tourist initiatives,
and it could be argued that Scottish history is defined by a split personality.
For every aspect of the Dr. Jekyll version, there is a reprehensible Mr. Hyde
interpretation of events waiting to be told.
The role of Scots in slavery remains a contentious issue. However, it is undeniable
that the nation was historically dependent on trade with North America and the
West Indies. This was enabled by the infamous Triangular Trade which involved
three stages of commodity transportation. The main commodity was human life transported
via ships on Middle Passage from the West coast of Africa to near certain death
in the New World. The captured Africans were subjected to the most lethal form
of slavery in the plantations. Chattel slavery, an English concept, was established
in Barbados in 1661 and many versions and slave codes rooted in this most lethal
form of slavery were subsequently adopted across the colonies. The term chattel has
its provenance in French and means literally property. That is indeed
what the slaves became. They had no human or legal rights and murder as a form
of punishment was prescribed.3
Scotland had comparatively low levels of direct involvement in the maritime trade
in slaves from Africa to the New World. From 1706 until 1766 there are 31 recorded
slave voyages from Scotland. Of these, 19 left from Glasgows satellite
ports at Greenock and Port Glasgow. The direct voyages from Scotland are estimated
to have carried around 4,000 to 5,000 souls into chattel slavery. Exact quantification,
however, is impossible; the Custom Records from Port Glasgow and Greenock are
incomplete for the crucial years between 1742 and 1830. Scotlands limited
direct involvement, however, is attested to by other circumstantial evidence4,
and the recorded 31 voyages over a 60 year period is atypical when compared with
the prominent slave ports in England; from 1790 until 1799 the prolific port
of Liverpool cleared 1011 slave voyages. It is further evidenced by considering
the total estimated number of slaves transported on direct voyages from Glasgow
with the total slaves exported by British ships from Africa; circa 1.5 million
souls in the period 1710 until 1769.5 Nonetheless, there are several recorded
slave traders from Glasgow, such as the infamous Richard Oswald of Auchincruive
who owned a slave trading fort at Bance Island off the coast of Sierra Leone
in West Africa from 1748 until 1784.
This lack of direct involvement in the maritime trade in slaves has made it all
too easy to view England as the guilty nation while depreciating the economic
benefit to Scotland from slavery. Local merchants did not dominate in the maritime
trade in slaves but later excelled at the trade in plantation grown produce.
At times, Scotland traded more than all English ports together and the
majority arrived and departed from Glasgows ports.6
Glasgow was the premier Scottish trading port and the citys merchants monopolised
the produce grown by slaves, in particular tobacco. From 1740 to 1790, Glasgow
was the leading entrepôt of tobacco in the world. Indeed, this period
is known as the citys Golden Age.7 The incoming wealth initiated vast social
change as an arriviste aristocracy, the Tobacco Lords, became Scotlands
richest men. They built magnificent townhouses in testament to their status.
Some examples, such as the Cunninghame Mansion, now the Gallery of Modern Art
(GoMA), remain intact today. The early townhouses built by extravagant slave
traders were designed in a Palladian style which came to define Glasgows
architecture. The grandiose locations, which placed the townhouse at the end
of an avenue, set a point de vue urban grid which is clearly identifiable
in the Merchant City area today. The city still has Virginia Street as an urban
reminder of the importance of the tobacco trade.
The merchants bought surrounding estates and embarked on a process of Improvement.
Some historians suggest that the beginnings of the agricultural revolution in
the West of Scotland can be identified to this period. The tobacco trade also
promoted the growth of a complex urban economy in Glasgow. There is an ongoing
debate about the impact of slavery-tainted wealth and how far this provided the
impetus for the Industrial Revolution. In any case, Scotland was one of the poorest
countries in Western Europe in the 1690s, and by 1850 was on the way to becoming
one of the leading industrialised nations in the world. Historians, and city
boosters alike8, have been quick to recognise the entrepreneurial attributes
of the Tobacco Lords, yet at the same time have neglected to address the reality
that this trade was built almost exclusively on black chattel slave labour.
The colonial merchants also traded in sugar, which was similarly dependent on
black chattel slavery. This was facilitated by trading relationships which from
the 1640s linked Glasgow and the Caribbean.9 Thus, the colonial merchants in
the city were dependent on sugar for a longer period than tobacco, although this
was not quite as lucrative. There were several sugar houses built in Glasgow
from 1667 onwards, and the trade continued after slavery was abolished in 1838.
West Indian merchants such as James Ewing accrued vast fortunes which seeped
into Glasgow. There are still many indications in the city today of the long
connection with chattel slavery for those who care to look. It should be noted
that many distinguished scholars, part of the Scottish Enlightenment, played
a key role in the abolition of the slave trade. Later, many local campaigners
also had a direct role in the abolition of slavery in the British colonies and
the Campaign for Universal Emancipation.10
It is indisputable that the merchants in Scotland were involved in colonial trade.
Clearly, there is no absence of evidence. But there is an absence of acknowledgement.
The nature of the trading relationship has allowed a myth of detachment from
the brutal realities of chattel slavery to evolve. It could be argued that there
is a distinctive It wisnae us mindset in modern Scotland.
This is particularly evident in the role of Scots in the colonies in the New
World. Indeed, there is a lack of contemporary acceptance of the extensive role
as plantation owners and the legacy of these sojourners.
Scotland had legal access to English colonial markets after 1707. India, however,
remained the monopoly of the English East India Company until 1801. Whilst a
large number of Scots served with the Company via the patronage system, there
was no mass invasion of the Glasgow merchant fraternity that occurred in the
Americas. The loss of the American colonies in 1775 narrowed the focus of their
activity to the West Indies and British hegemony was established by 1815.
Sugar was a mainstay of the Scottish economy for over 200 years. This promoted
long term trading relationships and a huge return of wealth, principally to Glasgow.
There was a Scots plantation grab in Jamaica and St. Kitts after 1711, and from
1763 in Dominica, St. Vincent, Grenada, Guyana, Antigua, and Trinidad and Tobago.
This facilitated the emigration of up to 20,000 sojourners in search of their
fortune in the period 1750 to 1800.11 These were typically young men in their
twenties who travelled to the slave islands. This added to already established
communities who had settled there as exiles and indentured labourers. Scots adopted
a unique role in the plantations as doctors, plantation owners, lawyers, merchants...
and slave traders and overseers. Indeed, the greatest of all Scottish egalitarians,
Robert Burns was on the way to become, in his words, a poor negro driver in
1786 before unexpected earnings from his poetry intervened. It seems his libertarian
sentiments would have been forgotten in order to pursue the proceeds of slavery
in a position that Scots dominated. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, although a noted Scottophobe,
observed in 1812:
Of the overseers of the slave plantations in the West Indies, three of
four are Scotsmen, and the fourth is generally observed to have suspicious cheek
bones: and on the American Continent the Whippers-in or Neger-Bishops are either
Scotchmen or the Americanised Descendants of Scotchmen.
Scots sojourners were involved at the leading heights of the management of the
plantations and became established amongst the ruling elite. The premier destination
was Jamaica, the leading producer of sugar in the Caribbean. One commentator,
Edward Long, estimated that in Jamaica in 1774 around one third of the white
population were Scottish or of Scottish descent. There are many documented examples
of Glaswegians owning plantations. Alexander Houston and Co. was the largest
sugar house in Scotland, although they were declared bankrupt in 1800 in the
worst financial disaster in the history of the British slave trade.12 James Ewing,
the Lord Provost and first MP for Glasgow in 1832, owned the Caymanas slave plantation,
the largest in Jamaica.
Scottish vested interests in the Caribbean were protected in the British Parliament
by Henry Dundas, known as the uncrowned King of Scotland. As the
MP for Midlothian, he introduced the cynical concept of gradual abolition which
ensured British slavery continued for 31 more years after the slave trade was
abolished in 1807. The role of Scots in the Caribbean is indisputable and there
was a pervading Caledonian influence in Jamaica. How does this resonate today?
Scots originally surveyed Jamaica and set the boundaries of the slave plantations.
To this day, this legacy resonates in place names such as Glasgow, Hampden, Argyle,
Glen Islay, Dundee, Fort William, Montrose, Dumbarton and St. Andrews. Of the
173 place names in Greater Kingston a quarter can be found in Scotland or are
based on Scottish family names; for example, place names such as Hamilton Gardens,
Sterling Castle, Gordon Town and Elgin Street.
Many of the Scots emigrants in the 18th century were temporary sojourners. However,
there are many examples of Scottish men having children with their slaves. The
husband of one of Robert Burns mistresses chose to remain in Jamaica on
his plantation with his ebony women and mahogany children. Many Jamaicans
are therefore directly descended from Scots and this is reflected in surnames.
Former slaves also adopted the surnames of plantation owners after Emancipation
in 1838. Scottish surnames are prominent across the Caribbean and in particular
Jamaica. Common Scots-Jamaican names include Campbell, Douglas, Reid, McFarlane,
McKenzie, MacDonald, Grant and Gordon. Despite all this, the descendents of Scots
in Jamaica have been termed the Forgotten Diaspora13 by Scots-Jamaican,
Prof. Geoff Palmer at Heriot-Watt University. Indeed, this amnesia is directly
played out this year in Homecoming Scotland 2009, a year-long celebration
of Scotlands culture and heritage managed by Event Scotland in
partnership with Visit Scotland, funded by the Scottish Government and
part financed by the European Union.
This new initiative to develop the Diaspora Market, via a £3 million programme
and £2 million of marketing, encourages Scotlands global family
to come home to participate in festivities, celebrate the 250th anniversary
of the birth of Robert Burns, and to revel in the achievements of Scots emigrants.
There is no doubt, Homecoming is a strategic vehicle for economic development
and profile raising, and for attracting high quality talent to Scotland.
The marketing of Homecoming, however, has been firmly directed towards
the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.14 In the Plan your trip section
on the official website the only countries highlighted are in North America,
Australia and Europe.15 There is no mention of the Caribbean islands at all.
Scottish National Party (SNP) Members of the Scottish Parliament are currently
on a drive to win international friends by twinning towns. Again, the focus is
firmly on North America, New Zealand and Australia, with California Governor,
Arnold Schwarzenegger encouraging co-operation with California in Falkirk.16
However, it begs the question why the premier Atlantic trading port of Glasgow
in Scotland should not have been a priority to develop co-operative relationships
with the modern New World? Indeed, Glasgow in Jamaica would seem appropriate
given the historic links. This oversight seems strange considering the sugar
trade was the mainstay of the citys development for almost 200 years; Jamaica
Street and Kingston Bridge in Glasgow, and the location in Jamaica named by Scots,
all point towards these connections. However, place names are not the only aspect
that has been overlooked.
Prof. Geoff Palmer has stressed that no-one from Jamaica has been officially
invited to any festivities although many view themselves as part of the global
Scots Diaspora. Of course, if there is not a full acceptance of the role of Scots
in the Caribbean, then how can there be full acceptance of the human legacy?
Indeed, it could be argued that the Homecoming initiative had no option
but to exclude the Scots Diaspora in the Caribbean considering the denial surrounding
Scots involvement in slavery. If the Caribbean Diaspora were included it would
have represented a sharp challenge to the dominant national mindset.
The selective amnesia is nothing new but the cultural segregation at its heart
is now supported by official policy. There has been a clear lack of will in government
circles to accept the more inglorious aspects of Scotlands past. The Scottish
Executive produced a booklet in 2006-07 that commemorated the Abolition of the
Slave Trade in 1807. The booklet was intended to illustrate a history of the
Scottish role in slavery. However, much like the view to who constituted the Homecoming Diaspora,
this had a narrow focus. The two historians on the project, amongst the leading
authorities in Scotland, were dismissed after discussions about the booklets
content and style. One, the Scots abolitionist historian Rev. Dr. Iain Whyte,
stated to the media at the time:
In my view, they wanted a particular slant that was not historical. I felt
that they wanted certain stories that werent possible to produce, to change
the text in certain ways. I wasnt prepared to do that. The government always
has a certain agenda and they felt that what we were producing wasnt what
Significantly, the two historians suggested that the booklet should illustrate
the deep level of Scots complicity in the slave plantations. Both recommended
that there should be a follow up study to examine the unique Scottish role. However,
the booklets government editors were resistant to the notion as, they affirmed
unironically, the general population in Scotland was unaware of this involvement.
Subsequently, the editors of the booklet made 188 changes to the research, which
minimised and softened the role of Scots perpetrators. These revisions were not,
of course, consistent with the professional integrity of the two academics. After
some debate the research was shelved. The Scottish Executive eventually produced
an official booklet that contained a more palatable, watered down version of
the role of Scots. Whilst it was a Labour government who commissioned and censored
the research, it is quite clear there has been scant change with the Diaspora
focus of Homecoming.
Amnesia and whitewashing is further illustrated by the continued
lack of acknowledgement of Scottish involvement in slavery within the school
curriculum. This is in spite of the establishment of the Scottish Centre for
Diaspora Studies at Edinburgh University under the leadership of Scotlands
prominent historian, Prof. Tom Devine, who has been lumped in with British
unionists by some in the SNP due to his criticism of the Burns Supper school
of Scottish history.18 Clearly, the role of Scottish perpetrators in the colonies
doesnt sit nicely with the notion of a subjugated province.
History can confront its audience with the unpalatable, but it can also teach
lessons from the past. This unpalatable aspect of Scottish history has implications
for the next generation. Indeed, an inclusive history of Scotland, and Glasgow
in particular, could aid the process of acceptance in future. But to mitigate
the Scottish role in slavery by suggesting it was atypical of the actions of
the time does not fit with the continued attempts at obscuring this past. This
selective view can be neatly summarised in a Homecoming promotional graphic
which caused some controversy recently. The compound image is of a large group
of people seen celebrating Homecoming, with not one non-white person in
the assemblage. Six months later, in an updated design to reflect the diversity
in modern Scotland19, an Asian man was airbrushed in, taking up the position
of reading Robert Burns poetry. What this cynical tokenism states loud
and clear, to anyone who cares to listen, is that non-white ethnic minorities
are historical empty vessels that await assimilation on Scottish terms. This
cynicism has the potential to divide the nation and the Diaspora.20
Does the Homecoming initiative have implications for race relations in
modern Scotland? Considering the sensitivities of the issues, should a systematic
Race Equality Impact Assessment have been undertaken prior to its launch?21
As yet, there appears to be no version publicly available. Considering the scale
of the Homecoming initiative to develop the economy and provide support
to businesses22, surely an assessment must have been undertaken in order to ascertain
its impact on contemporary society?
How damaging or beneficial is this loss of memory to Scotland?
On the surface, Homecoming Scotland 2009 is a tourist initiative right
out of the Burns Supper school of Scottish history designed to encourage
increased visitors and spending. According to the Scottish Government, an 8:1
return on core spending is projected, purporting a minimum income of £40
million to Scotland, though business representatives have questioned the viability
of the targeted overseas markets.23 It is also clear the Homecoming initiative
represents the beginnings of an aggressive policy to cultivate business networks
with a wealthy Scots Diaspora. Recent research commissioned by the Scottish Government, The
Scottish Diaspora and Diaspora Strategy: Insights and Lessons from Ireland,
points to an impending Scots policy which transcends the previous boundaries
between culture and commerce. It is very clear that Scottish politicians have
scant regard for any such safeguards and think that culture should serve commerce
at every possible opportunity. Significantly, the authors highlight the urgency
in defining the Scots Diaspora as one which should be as wide ranging as possible:
There is merit in widening the definition of Diaspora to include as many
constituencies who might be prepared to play for Team Scotland as
Thus, the research highlights the commercially defined scope of the Scots Diaspora
at present. The economic motive behind Team Scotland is made explicit by a strategy
which says, [
] the wider the net is cast the richer the contributions
harnessed will be.25
According to the authors, the Scots Diaspora strategy must be both cultural and
economic, but at the same time there should be an open view of exactly who the
Diaspora consists of. With Homecoming we are instead seeing a programme
that disguises the cultural exclusion of some through the assimilation of others.
This is not simply a matter of forgetting the real life of Robert Burns or airbrushing
in the odd token other in order to mask an obviously exclusive invitation.
There is an even deeper issue with the mutilation of Scottish history and culture
whether by omission or commission to suit a commercial agenda. Homecoming is
a unique national event with an international focus. Given the link with Burns
and slavery, this year would have been a perfect opportunity to publicly reconcile
ourselves with our real history. Instead, the Scottish Government has severed
itself from the complexity of the nations past and shown how it is keen
to adapt to a romantic Disney-like charade based upon the denial of historical
evidence. For a country which has a long imperial past, a peculiarly white vision
has been authorised and publicised.
1. For a definition of diaspora that takes
into account current political environments and that encompasses all peoples
who find themselves in diasporic situations, please see: Redefining diaspora:
the challenge of connection and inclusion Berns-McGown, Rima, International
Journal, December 2007. http://www.articlearchives.com/international-relations/national-security/1874735-1.html
2. For example, Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped (1886); John Prebble, The
Highland Clearances (1969).
3. Asante, M.K., The ideological origins of chattel slavery in the British
world. Slavery Remembrance Day memorial lecture (2007).
4. Duffil, M., The Africa trade from the Ports of Scotland, 170666. Slavery & Abolition.
25 (3) 2004 (pp105-106).
5. Richardson, D., The British Empire and The Atlantic Slave Trade, 1660-1807, The
Oxford History of The British Empire. Vol. 2: The Eighteenth Century, (p442).
6 Devine, T.M., Scotlands Empire 1680-1815, (p140).
7. Devine, T.M., The Tobacco Lords: A Study of the Tobacco Merchants of Glasgow
and their Trading Activities, 1740-1790, (John Donald, 1975).
8. ...the Merchant City is Glasgows cultural quarter. Home to the
former warehouses of the Tobacco Lords - the 18th century entrepreneurs
who built Glasgows wealth through international trade - the Merchant City
has been transformed into a hip assortment of designers shops, bars, galleries
and venues which perfectly compliments Glasgows cosmopolitan city centre. Experience
Glasgows Merchant City Festival, 13 September 2007, Merchantcityfestival.comIt
is salient to contrast this official approach with that taken by Liverpool: http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ism/slavery/europe/liverpool.aspx
9. Graham, E.J., A Maritime History of Scotland, (Scotland, 2002, p37).
10. Whyte, I., Scotland and The Abolition of Black Slavery, 1756-1838,
11. Devine, T.M., Scotlands Empire 1680-1815, (London, 2004, p231).
12. Thomas, H., The Slave Trade, (1997)
13. Available: http://www.scotland.org/about/history-tradition-and-roots/features/culture/the-forgotten-diaspora.html (Last
14. Homecoming Marketing Budget, available: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/business/pqa/wa-09/wa0311.htm (Last
15. Available: http://www.homecomingscotland2009.com/plan-your-scotland-trip/default.html(Last Accessed: 5.5.2009)
16. Available: http://www.snp.org/node/14969 (Last Accessed: 5.5.09)
17. Available: http://www.sundayherald.com/news/heraldnews/display.var.1284345.0.executive_slave_trade_booklet_sparks_criticism_from_antiracism_group.php (Last
18. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2008/nov/25/centre-study-scottish-diaspora-controversy(Last Accessed: 16.5.09)
19. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2008/nov/25/centre-study-scottish-diaspora-controversy(Last Accessed: 16.5.2009)
20. Available: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/scotland/article5372681.ece(Last Accessed: 5.5.09)
21. Equality impact assessment (EQIA) is all about considering how your
policy (by policy we mean activities, functions, strategies, programmes, and
services or processes) may impact, either positively or negatively, on different
sectors of the population in different ways. Available: http://openscotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/1032/0054791.pdf (Last
23. Jim Mather, Scottish Parliament, Written Answers, Friday 30 January 2009.
Available: http://www.theyworkforyou.com/spwrans/?id=2009-01-30.S3W-19785.h (Last
Accessed: 15.6.09)European and External Relations Committee Official Report
17 March 2009, Col 1059, http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/s3/committees/europe/or-09/eu09-0502.htm(Last Accessed: 15.6.09)
24. Ancien, D., Boyle, M. and Kitchin, R., The Scottish Diaspora and Diaspora
Strategy: Insights and Lessons from Ireland (p2). Available: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2009/05/28141101/0 (Last
25. Ancien, D., Boyle, M. and Kitchin, R., The Scottish Diaspora and Diaspora
Strategy: Insights and Lessons from Ireland (p15) Available: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2009/05/28141101/0 (Last