Tartan and home truths

Oh, the swing of the kilt and the skirl of the bagpipes! The tens of thousands who gather annually to try their strength at tossing Scottish cabers around ... in Leipzig.

A mania for "the heedrum-hodrum Celtic twilight", which is afflicting parts of northern Europe, is one of the topics to be researched at a new centre for the study of the Scottish diaspora at Edinburgh University.

But since its launch at the end of last month, the new centre, funded by a £1m donation from a Scottish financier, has been caught up in controversy. Its founder, perhaps Scotland's foremost historian, Professor Tom Devine, announced in the opening lecture that he intended to challenge the "Burns supper" school of Scottish history. As a result, he has been subject to attacks by nationalists accusing him of "unionist revisionism".

Now, a professor emeritus of Heriot-Watt University, Geoff Palmer, has weighed in. Palmer, whose mother was a West Indian woman with the Scots name Lamond, wants the new centre to challenge what he sees as Scotland’s refusal to engage with the legacy of slavery.

“I have a Jamaican telephone directory, and I would say that about 60% of the names in it are Scottish,” he says. West Indians with Scottish names acquired them from slave owners and slave drivers, a huge proportion of whom were Scots. Some fathered children with slaves while others simply imposed their names on them.

“Most Scots are completely ignorant of this,” says Palmer. He points to the nationalist Scottish government’s Homecoming Scotland next year – a festival to welcome back the Scottish diaspora with a series of events like a great clan pageant. There is no mention of the West Indies anywhere in the publicity material: “This event is being marketed in Canada, New Zealand, Australia. Why are they not inviting people from Jamaica with Scottish names?”

Palmer says he recently received an invitation from a black union official in Kent whose surname is “Cameron” to talk about Scotland and slavery. “I think a lot of West Indians want to know about their Scottish heritage. Perhaps they can even take some pride in it. For a while there was a movement towards dropping these names, but I think that would be to lose something real, a real record of our history in favour of a made-up African name. Personally, I would rather have an honest truth than some false pride.”

Palmer’s willingness to face up to the past is not shared by all Scots. Devine says: “I gave a lecture at last year’s Edinburgh book festival called Did Slavery Make Scotland Great?. Several people I knew were in the audience and a lot of them seemed really uncomfortable with it.”

The ignorance is not confined to slavery. Devine points out that half of fourth-year history students in Scottish schools appear to believe that Scotland was conquered by England. “That has implications politically; it has implications for their future behaviour.”

Devine, who has no political affiliation and has in the past been accused of nationalism, sees a link between Scotland’s “collective amnesia” of its real history and the rise of political nationalism. His condemnation of Scotland’s “victim” history, which presents Scots as victims of the English, has earned him the wrath of some in the Scottish National party.

Scottish National party MSP Christine Grahame issued a press release, saying: “Professor Tom Devine and other commentators have their perspective on Scottish history, which of course they are entitled to, but I fundamentally disagree that there is a ‘victim mentality’ to popular perceptions of history in Scotland. “Professor Devine may wish otherwise, as do most British unionists, but the fact remains that Scotland has been subjected to almost continuous external interference throughout most of its existence by England, with a political goal to subjugate and subsume Scotland.

“As Labour’s own justice secretary, Jack Straw, conceded, England has used its propensity to violence to subjugate Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

“All those with an interest in the history of our nation, which has in the past been deliberately suppressed for political reasons by British unionists, should welcome a debate on how that history is presented. I would encourage ordinary Scots to play their role in that national debate.

“We could start with the recent evidence of the 1970s that exposed the lies over whether oil could sustain an independent Scotland. That is indeed one of the ‘darker aspects of Scottish history’ rarely mentioned or discussed.”

Devine’s controversial book, Scotland’s Empire, talks about the “darker aspects” of the Scots and Ulster Scots history as being some of the most brutal slave-owning practices in history, the worst ever massacre of Tasmanian aborigines, the worst ever massacre of native Americans, encouraging the alcohol addiction of the Inuit in Canada, and involvement in the opium trade in China.

He quotes Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1812 observation: “Of the overseers of the slave plantations in the West Indies three out of four are Scotsmen and the fourth is generally observed to have very suspicious cheekbones.”

Devine puts some of this down to a rampant “Scottophobia”, which he claims abounded in the early 19th century. “But at the same time as there was this rabid hatred of most Scots, there was subtle intellectual colonisation going on.”

Diaspora puzzle

For Devine, the Scottish diaspora is worthy of its own centre because of an intellectual puzzle at its heart: why the Scots emigrated in such numbers when they came from a comparatively wealthy and advanced nation and why they became so upwardly mobile, achieving a disproportionate degree of military and political influence in countries they arrived in. He also wants the centre to generate studies of other diasporas in history whether or not they have anything to do with Scotland. The centre, the first of its kind in a history department, won a £1m bequest from international financier Alan McFarlane, and Devine believes other wealthy philanthropists in Scotland and outside are interested. “The only trouble is that your Donald Trumps and your Forbes tend to be quite right wing,” he muses.

Foreign students will also be attracted, he hopes, although he says they will be selected on academic merit, and the higher fees they bring are not an inducement.

David Hesse, an “urban intellectual from Zurich”, who gave up a journalism career to study in Edinburgh, says: “You could call my field the imagined diaspora. I investigate highland games in Germany and Scottish clubs in eastern Europe. I look at people dressing up as Scots. Those people have no “real” Scottish ancestry but feel aesthetic connections. I think international fascinations with Scotland and Scottish-looking things are a phenomenon.”

Hesse sees imaginary Scottishness as an identity that is becoming increasingly popular in northern Europe. “It is a folk identity, but it is quite macho. It involves military music and martial games. It is also a generally white phenomenon.”

The Guardian
January 25th November 2008