Confronting Scotland’s Racist Past

Cameron McKay Student Services Officer


June 5, 2020

A key component of Scottish national identity is the belief that we are a tolerant country. Racism is thought to be less common in Scotland than in other parts of Britain, with one 2011 study finding that positive attitudes towards immigrants were amongst the highest in the UK. Traditional problems with sectarianism have seen some improvement in recent years as well, with legislation being passed in an effort to curtail bigotry. Even the Declaration of Arbroath, one of the most significant documents in our history, contains the line ‘there is neither weighing nor distinction of Jew and Greek, Scotsman or Englishman.’ David Daiches, a Jewish-Scottish academic, claimed that Scotland was the only European nation never engage in state sponsored anti-semitism. During the interwar years, when many countries veered dangerously to the right, fascism in Scotland remained a fringe movement which never gained widespread support. Scotland’s overwhelming decision to vote in favour of remaining in the EU, in contrast to England and Wales, seemed to confirm our sense of exceptionalism in an increasingly divided world. Yet this view of Scotland, although undoubtedly the product of inclusive civic nationalism, puts too much emphasis on what we are and not enough on what we were. 

Scots alongside the other celtic nations, tend to view themselves as the first victims of English imperialism. This interpretation, however, ignores the fact that Scots, alongside the Welsh, and even the Irish, were at times enthusiastic participants in the imperial project as soldiers, administrators, merchants, and missionaries. Indeed one of the main reasons Scotland joined the union in 1707 was to gain access to England’s overseas colonies. During the 18th century Scots dominated the international tobacco trade, and by 1762, tobacco represented 40% of all imports from abroad and 52% of all exports. This brought immense wealth to Scotland, especially Glasgow, where much of what is today Merchant’s City being built with tobacco money. Yet behind the facade of these sumptuous Georgian mansions is a difficult truth. For tobacco production to remain profitable labour costs on the American plantations needed to stay low, and this required the use of slaves. Despite the economic benefits slavery brought to Scotland, slave ownership itself remained legally dubious in Scots Law. In 1769, Sir John Wedderburn returned from Jamaica with his slave Joseph Knight, resulting in a legal case which would be a cause célèbre for the abolitionists. Knight escaped from his master and married another servant, a Scotswoman, and declared himself free. Although Knight was initially arrested, a sheriff ruled ‘that the state of slavery is not recognised in the laws of this kingdom.’ This ruling was later confirmed by the Court of Session in Edinburgh, meaning that Knight was a free man and entitled to legal protection under Scots Law. Although a fascinating story, we must not forget that Joseph Knight was just one man amongst millions of slaves, most of whom never gained their freedom.

Scotland’s role as an imperial aggressor and profiteer from the slave trade can at least serve to reveal the inate fallacies of racism. The first black Africans to come to Scotland were themselves the agents of empire, albeit it was Roman rather than British imperialism that brought them here. When Septimus Severus invaded Caledonia in 209 AD he brought with him black legionaries to help subdue the native tribes. Scottish plantation owners would have been shocked to learn that the first of their countrymen to cross the Atlantic were not colonists like them, but were in fact slaves. When the Icelandic viking Thorfinn Karlsefni landed in North America in the 1010s he brought with him two slaves captured in Scotland. These facts are not designed to detract from the enslavement of millions black Africans, but they do severely undermine any notions of inherent racial superiority. The Scots, white, Northern Europeans, were at one time considered savages fit only for exploitation, a characterisation that would later be applied to black Africans. Changing conceptions of race aside, there is an important difference here; no Scotsman walking the streets of Rome or Reykjavík  today would experience discrimination because his ancestors were slaves. 

In recent years there has been some, albeit limited, recognition of Scotland’s racist past. There is an ongoing campaign in Glasgow to rename Buchanan and Ingram Street, as their namesakes profited from  the slave trade. Glasgow University, in partnership with the University of the West Indies, has also help found a centre for Development Research, in recognition of accepting donations from Scottish slave owners during the 18th and 19th centuries. Although welcome, these are ultimately symbolic steps in recognising our part in the exploitation of millions of black Africans and the racism which still exists as a result of this. Let us then recognise our culpability and accept our duty to help create a more equal world.

To see a talk by James Robertson that he gave to our students in 2018 about his novel Joseph Knight see below -