Confronting Scottish complicity on stage

Published

Credit: Oran Mor

Jasmine Urquhart
Features Editor

Reviewing It Wasnae Me, a hilarious satire treading the boards between accepting blame and addressing animosity towards Scotland’s position in the slave trade

In the secretive Oran Mor vaults (which I didn’t know existed until very recently), a bustling crowd gathered in anticipation of the play which promised to finally settle the matter of who, exactly, was at fault for the slave trade. Alan Bissett’s It Wisnae Me presented the issue as an interrogation of Scotland, personified as a ginger-haired apathetic young man dressed in classic “ned” fashion: an Adidas tracksuit, worn while slouched in a chair. The play essentially depicted the various historical clashes between England and Scotland, from the ancient times of conflict to the discovery of the slave trade and the eventual repercussions. The cast managed to pull off the divisive topic in a way that made everyone in the audience roar with laughter, which feels strange to write about now, as it is and always has been such a contentious issue, and one which Scotland as a country definitely hasn’t talked about enough. The choice to initially broach this subject was with classic slapstick comedy was bold, and it definitely worked.

After these scenes of debauchery came the main part of the play: Scotland (sometimes referred to as Jock), sat down reluctantly to listen to a complete defamation of its character. At times it felt humiliating to hear these insults, for example, “Yes” voters were derided as being bitter and stuck in the past, and the country as a whole was made out to be a petulant child who refused to acknowledge any responsibility for the immense suffering that occurred during the slave trade. Scotland did make some valid arguments in protest at the accusations, namely the validity of economics due to poverty in Glasgow and the lack of civilian involvement or reaping of financial benefit: whilst many street names were named after slave masters, (such as Oswald Street), Jock the Scot pointed out that ordinary Scottish people missed out on big profits from luxury imported items like tobacco and sugar, which the English enjoyed as part of their lavish lifestyles.

It’s worth noting that even today, many parts of Glasgow have some of the highest poverty levels in Europe. Jock also made a relevant point about the Jacobite risings and Highland Clearances, which Scotland’s population has never really recovered from. He said that there was never a true Union between Scotland and England, because Scotland was coerced and manipulated into joining forces with England, and never received any benefits from that either.

Nevertheless, Scotland stubbornly would not accept any of the allegations from a white man with an English accent. It took a black girl (who broke the fourth wall and pointed out that on the script her role was literally entitled “Black Girl”, while highlighting pointedly that the play was written by a white man), to drive home the point that Scotland was completely immature in saying that they were the group of people suffering the most this entire time. She forced Scotland to come out of hiding behind its victimhood and to confront its part in the slave trade, which resulted in harrowing treatment of black people over many centuries, and successfully argued that this was far worse than anything Scotland has ever had to suffer. She described the horrific conditions in which the slaves had to live for years, which encouraged the Scot to stop and think about whether he was outraged by the wrong things.

But then another very interesting point was made. The Black Girl asked the audience, who were mostly white, why she, as a black person, was the only person initiating the discussion on Scotland’s dark history. Mentioning the “hostile atmosphere” that we are finding ourselves in right now, she implored us to accept our complicity, whether we like it or not, and apologise for the horrors to which we, collectively and historically as a country, have subjected millions of people. But with acceptance comes hope and her words rang with a bit of hope. With acceptance and admittance, we can return to a Scotland that we once were. Glasgow, in fact, was the founding place of the abolitionist movement and funded the place of the first African-American to hold a medical degree, James McCune Smith, who went on to start a successful family of teachers, lawyers and businesspeople, but who had been born into slavery. She said we could still return to the attitudes of the Glasgow Emancipation Society, who were an integral part of promoting racial tolerance in the United Kingdom.

Even now this seems to be happening; after seeing several years of universities honouring imperialists (such as Cecil Rhodes at Oxford), Glasgow is leading a movement by honouring McCune Smith in a new building. This is obviously not enough, and there needs to be a general consensus that our dialogue is extremely flawed and that our country is responsible for some of the worst atrocities in history. However, honouring such figures is certainly a start in the move from simple tolerance, to unwavering acceptance of all other cultures and races in society. It is productions like this that make us think, question and evaluate our history; stirring up the tempers and ideas necessary to forge lasting change.