Rich, murky history should be recovered

12th December 2008 at 00:00

Recent articles about the Scots' role in slavery, teachers' worries over curriculum change, comment from top historian Tom Devine and the BBC's latest A History of Scotland series remind us that, while we can't change the past, we can and do change how we interpret it.

What I Didn't Learn in School - the title of an accompanying Radio Scotland programme - was the last 300 years of Scottish history. I was taught about Britain and Europe from 1700.

The 18th century saw the Darien scheme, the American and French Revolutions, the union between Scotland and England, the establishment of empire, the Atlantic and Far Eastern trades and the beginning of the modern global economy. It saw the birth of the Bank of Scotland and the Royal Bank, the insurance and financial services industries. Trade wealth allowed the expansion of public institutions and gave us our noted neo-classical architecture. The 18th century gave us our greatest men. Yet all I was taught about this period was Bonnie Prince Charlie and Culloden.

Proposed revisions for Higher history include a Scottish section with an optional topic on the Treaty of Union. The Atlantic Slave Trade is one of the subjects available in the British History section, but a direct Scottish perspective seems to be missing. The reluctance to deal with this period of our history is damaging.

The story of Bance Island, a Scottish-owned slave entrepot off the coast of Sierra Leone, has re-emerged recently. The journal of a Dutch sea captain in the 1770s reports the Scots residents playing a two-hole golf course with slaves dressed in tartan kilts as caddies. In 50 years of operation, the Bance Island Company shipped as many as 100,000 Africans to the sugar and tobacco plantations of the West Indies and America.

I taught at James Gillespie's High in Edinburgh during its bicentenary year in 2003. Gillespie made his fortune milling and selling snuff. My pupils wanted to know what snuff was, observed its similarity to cocaine and compared the school's founder to a drug dealer.

Many of Scotland's institutions owe their foundation to drug money. Glasgow's Mitchell Library was a gift of Stephen Mitchell, whose firm was one of the founding companies of Imperial Tobacco. Glassford, Buchanan and Ingram bequeathed more than their names to Glasgow streets. They invested their profits from the Atlantic trade in the Forth and Clyde Canal, stimulated shipbuilding, founded banks, invested in factories, mills and mines and improved their estates.

In my list of Scottish villains, I would certainly include opium and tea dealers, Jardine and Matheson, arguably responsible for the Opium Wars, the annexation of Hong Kong and the heroin epidemic.

The project to recover Scotland's dark past in the murkier reaches of empire should not be motivated by a sense of guilt. That leads only to futile, ritual apologies. A more comprehensive version of our story should go beyond our "Wha's Like Us?" version of history and allow us to understand our relationships with our close and distant neighbours.

Frank Gormlie is a former teacher now researching aspects of Scotland's imperial history.

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