Scotland’s past, warts and all

Credit: Unsplash

Holly Jennings
Views Editor

Scotland’s history as colonised and coloniser.

I love being Scottish. I love Irn Bru, kilts, 500 miles, Lewis Capaldi, Hogmanay, Muriel Spark, Robert Burns, ceilidhs, and you best bet I consider Billy Connolly to be some sort of national grandad. Despite our atrocious attempts at sport, you can find me at Beer Bar singing O Flower of Scotland every rugby match, insisting that this is the match we’ll win. The music, writing, and people of our country makes me beam with pride, telling everyone outside our 30,421 square miles that yes, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a Scottish novel, and that yes, unicorns are our national animal. I am proud to be Scottish.

But, was I sick the week at school we learned about Scotland’s cruel role in the slave trade? Where in the Burns Supper’s is his time considering management of a Jamaican slave plantation mentioned? Did I miss the small print that explained how Scotland’s industrial revolution was mainly funded by slavery?

Much of Scotland now recognises it’s victim status of being colonised by the English during the Highland raids. Scotland feels the anti-Scottish sentiment and burns with resentment towards the people who ever questioned Scotland’s validity. Scotland understands the oppression we’ve faced, and questions what sort of nation we could have been had we had not had our wings clipped.

However, our own role in the history of slave trade is a narrative we choose to reject day in and day out. Scattered throughout Glasgow are the names of many Tobacco Lords who haunt the city’s streets: (Andrew) Buchanan Street, (John) Glassford Street, (Archibald) Ingram Street, (James) Dunlop Street. Most of the wealth coming to Glasgow was via this tobacco trade, of which the tobacco and sugar mostly came from slave plantations and their trading partners: Jamaica (Street), Virginia (Street), Tobago (Street), and Antigua (Street). Dr Nina Baker, an ex-councillor of the Green Party, puts Glasgow’s dilemma surrounding it’s street names best: “Many of our best known streets bear the names of the wealthy slave owners from Glasgow’s past and whilst these serve to remind us to strive to avoid past horrors, there are few streets named to recognise those who campaigned against them and even fewer streets named to honour the achievements of women in the city.” These countries are now littered with Scottish surnames and place-names, which serve as a constant reminder for the past we have created. In Jamaica, 60% of the names in the telephone directory are of Scottish origin, and the country houses more Campbells per head of the population than Scotland. Even the Jamaican flag is the only national flag other than Scotland’s to include the saltire.

More than just street names, Glasgow is populated by a plethora of places funded by the slave trade, including the University of Glasgow having benefitted from tens of millions from slavery. The Glasgow Museum of Modern Art, Edinburgh’s New Town, and churches up and down the country are founded through profits and donation of the trade.

Acknowledging our role in the slave trade is still dramatically overlooked, and is often considered our nation’s dirty not-so-little secret. We continue to hold a grudge against England for playing a part in our own country’s colonisation, without criticising ourselves. Whilst Scotland made huge efforts in the abolishment of slavery, this does not excuse our involvement. Remembering the hardships, lives lost, and ignorance of our nation, makes for learning to be better tomorrow. We seem to have forgotten our role in the colonial framework which has given the UK its riches. Realising our mistakes can be deeply disturbing, but it is not a good enough excuse for ignorance.

Slowly, Scotland is beginning to recognise our role in the slave trade; Glasgow City Council is considering plans to set up a museum about Glasgow’s links with the slave trade, and the University of Glasgow has set up a “reparative justice agreement” to rectify it’s benefitting from the slave trade. More than just financial compensation should be offered to the countries affected; Scotland needs to learn from their mistakes by acknowledging the past and creating a better, more equal future. In a time where Scotland is requesting recognition as its own country in the future, surely we must first understand our past. Whilst we as individuals may not have created these issues, it is our job to remedy them. I want to live in a country that values its past, warts and all; a nation of bravery, courage, and honour. But before we can truthfully call ourselves any of these things, we must first confront the shadowy alcoves our past.