Blind to the legacy of an imperial past;Comment;Opinion

26th January 1996 at 00:00
The notion of contrite apologies from governments accused of wrongdoing in the distant past seems to be fashionable at the moment. In Scotland, the film Braveheart has much to answer for. At least one enraged nationalist has been so aroused by Mel Gibson's performance as to seek to organise support for a demand that John Major apologise for the execution of Wallace and the sacking of Berwick.

Such feelings are not confined to Scottish suffering at English hands. We nod approvingly at evidence of how the German education system seeks to ensure that its young people understand the barbarity of Nazi actions, in particular the slaughter of six million Jews. We sigh and shake our heads at stories of Japan's efforts to avoid mention of the brutality of its soldiery during the Second World War.

Pupils in Scotland explore how the Roman legions pushed north and smashed Celtic resistance at Mons Graupius. They investigate how the peoples of Scotland suffered from Viking onslaughts. They study how Scotland's independence was menaced by English monarchs, only for that menace to be gallantly resisted and repelled.

The movement of Scots abroad to settle in other people's lands tends to focus on the reasons for departure. A picture of misery, poverty, famine and cruel and insensitive landlords is labelled "the Clearances". Scots do indeed seem to be suffering people oppressed by others.

Might not reality be rather more complex? Shouldn't the curriculum take account of Scots as aggressors, as colonisers who were not necessarily welcome in the lands they settled? Studies of medieval and early modern times tend to neglect Scottish assaults on northern England, yet even the disaster at Flodden was provoked by just such aggression, aggression that compelled the elderly Earl of Surrey to trudge wearily north.

Many Irish people can be excused for holding a rather mixed view of Scots, for James VI did much to create later problems by deliberately planting Scots Presbyterians in Ulster. Ireland had hitherto been little troubled by the Reformation: Ulster Protestants were to change all that.

The Darien Scheme may have been a pitiful failure, yet the readiness of so many Scots to contribute to the venture demonstrates that they were as eager to colonise as any other nation. Once united to England in 1707, Scots proved enthusiastic colonisers. Many rose to high positions in military and administrative affairs. James Murray, the first governor of Canada, was a Scot who had fought with Wolfe. Scottish soldiers, administrators, bankers, merchants, tradesmen, artisans and clerks spread over the Empire. As many as a quarter of the East Indian Company's army officers were Scots. Warren Hastings positively preferred them. Scottish missionaries joined this tidal wave, taking their particular version of Christianity to people who held quite different beliefs.

Many thousands of Scots who settled abroad in the 19th century may have been driven by poverty and misery: that did not mean that their arrival was welcome to the native peoples of the lands to which they sailed and whose way of life was so altered by the arrival of so many incomers.

Now those on the receiving end of imperialist expansion are starting to demand apologies. In a recent visit to New Zealand, the Queen offered the Maori peoples an apology for British failure to honour promises of 150 years ago; 38,000 acres of confiscated Maori land plus pound;26 million have been offered in compensation.

The Organisation of African Unity is backing the African Reparations Movement's demand for apologies from former colonial powers involved in slavery. Won't such demands seem baffling to pupils in Scotland who are largely ignorant of our imperial past? When offered the opportunity to teach Standard grade pupils about India, from Raj to Independence, all but a tiny number of history teachers plump for yet another treatment of Nazi Germany. The S1-S2 syllabus is more likely to explore Spanish and Portuguese imperialism than our own. Nineteenth century studies concentrate on domestic affairs.

Yet understanding about imperialism matters. It powerfully shapes attitudes and actions in the modern world. It forms a crucial part of our past. We may feel uncertain as to how to treat it but surely we shouldn't behave as if it had never existed. An understanding of our own part in conquest, colonisation and control of subject peoples should feature in every school curriculum.

Sydney Wood is a history lecturer at Northern College.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today