Black History? What Black History?

This will be a controversial blog. I say this because, this ha been designated “Black History Month” and, no matter how much I protest colour-blindness when it comes to people and, having worked with and for black people during 16 years in the USA, modern social attitudes may equate disinterest in black history with racism. Having traveled the world, living and working in three countries furth of Scotland, embracing their culture (rather than seeking out British pubs), my cosmopolitan credentials ought to dispel any taint of racism. Nonetheless, It’s best to get my rebuttal in first.

The reason the concept of black history seems alien to me has nothing to do with its validity. Communities with black heritage have much celebrate and I hope this month succeeds in bringing that heritage to wider attention. As with other cultures, there are aspects of black culture I appreciate (jazz; blues; athletics) I admire, and others (reggae; rap; West African art) that I don’t. This is a matter of taste, as with most people. That I am left cold by Kabuki or Hinterglasmalerei does not imply racial hatred of either Japanese or Germans.

What I fail to understand is a sudden featuring of black culture across Scottish media when there are few black people here to appreciate it. When an American friend visiting Scotland for the first time was asked what she thought of it, she said: “it’s very nice—picturesque and full of character. But it’s so white bread”.

And she was right. There is much les racial mix here when 92% of 5,404,700 residents here identify as “white”. A further 3% identify as “Asian” and almost 4% declined to supply racial identity. The African/Caribbean/Black pooportian had increased by 28,000 since 2001, bringing it to 1%. Like most Scots, I welcome this increase in diversoty and would not object to jerk chicken replacing curry as Scotland’s national dish, even as I remain partisanly partial to McSween’s haggis.

So, by all means, let those with heritage and/or interest celebrate Black History month. Where this seems unbalanced is proper celebration by the over 90% white, 80% of whom (and 34% of ethnic minorities) declare their national identity a “Scottish” seems comparatively absent. This goes much deeper than St Andrew’s Day or Burns celebrations being scuppered by Covid-19. It goes well beyond “we wiz rubbish” 90-minute patriots decried by Jim Sillars, who think Mel Gubson got it right in Braveheart.

It’s also not about bookish study of links with the Irish, Norwegians, Netherlanders, French or Russians, once more important than those the English unionists harp on. Over 400 years, England has, understandably, imposed culture on ours, being 10 times our size, holding the seat of power all that time, devolution included. Go to titled homes or the Honourable Company f Edinburgh Archers and ‘received pronunciation’ English accents predominate. Many a lad o’ pairts make good by taking the London road.

This is not a swipe at the English, any more than it is at blacks. But ask anyone on Princes Street or Buchanan Street or Union Street and ask: Who was the Earl of Stair? or; what language did Lothian once speak? or; who was Somerled? What is New Lanark? or; who was John McLean? and you are likely to get blank stares.The Swiss know a lot more about themselves than William Tell. The Japanese could teach us much about honourr and community. People who know and celebrate their culture seem to hav less need to resent or blame someone else’s. There is a nationalism that is neither right-wong, nor belligerent, but rooted in pride and self-knowledge.

While Scots—largely Glasgow tobacco barons—were involved in slavery, the 3 million transported to the Americas from Africa were in English, Portuguese and Dutch ships. The tragedy affecting Scotland far more at the same time was the brutality of the Highland Clearances. The millions of the Scots diaspora now settled in Nova Scotia, Ontario, the Carolinas, the Appalachians, Australia, fragments of Poland and Russia, even Patagonia hold Highland Games and attend clan gatherings—but know little more than their cousins where of the story behind eyeless black houses open to the sky in abandoned clachans scattered from Kintyre to Caithness. They should.

It is the story of Scotland’s greatest tragedy—far more tragic than the loss of Berwick or Flodden or the finale that was Culloden. Ever snce George’s IV’s showy visit to Scotland in 1822, tailors and tat-sellers have made a good living out of “Scottish” culture. But, historically, minutely specified clan tartans, pleated kilts and louping sword dances are a myth, if not a cynical travesty.

Because Scotland used to be schizoid, a country divided between the more affluent, English-speaking Lowlands, where the power and money lay, and the wilder Gaelic-speaking and much-hated Highlands. “Mi-run mor nan Gall” (the Lowlanders’ great hatred) was how the clans described the schism. The hatred was largely earned, given the clans’ inclination to form “The Gallows Herd” and raid the fatter lowlands three ways from Sunday.

But those who died during cattle raids were as nothing, compared to forces deployed from Edinburgh (and, after 1603, London), to quell Scotland’s obstreperous untamed half. It began with the dismantling of the Lordship of the Isles,gathered pace with the Glencoe Massacre and Jacobite risings, to culminate in a concerted effort by government and clan-chiefs-become-landed-gentry to replace unprofitable clansmen with sheep and herd the population into productive ‘industry’ like fishing, kelp collecting and crofting.

Few enterprises so set up prospered. How many starved when the market for kelp disappeared or the potato blight decimated the crop is unknown, but a quarter million were displaced were displaced and their culture destroyed. Some 75,000 of them escaped their homeland altogether—more than double the present number of black people in Scotland, almost all of whom arrived—by choice—in the last 50 years. They are all welcome—Scotland is not full up and needs their talents.

While recent academics have played down the brutality and pitilessness of the landowners and their factors, books like John Prebble’s The Highland Clearances (Penguin, nut o.o.p) provides copious insight into the destruction of a culture that was not a genocide any more than slavery was a genocide: because the brutality and resulting deaths were not intentional, for all the dearth of humanity involved.

Which is why Scots should first learn about outrages perpetrated within their own country by brutal people reaching progress and enlightenment so that we may better understand the history of black people—and therefore black people themselves.

Encourage Sellar (her factor, subsequently tried for brutality) in trouncing these people who wish to destroy our system … I do hope the aggressors will be scourged” —Duchess of Sutherland (Her estate evicted 15,000 people)

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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