Suggest that our Scotland, the place we share as our common home, is a colony and its people colonised and all holy hell breaks out. On Twitter your compatriots will decry you as a tinfoil hat wearing bampot, and every word you utter as silly. We’re not colonised they’ll say, and they’ll laugh you off with comparisons of Africa and India. “We’ve nothing in common with Africa or Indian.” That’s a sore pity, I sometimes think, we could do with the weather.
They’re right. The colonisation of Scotland and the ethnic cleansing and genocide that it produced was nothing like that perpetrated against the peoples of Africa and India. It was also completely unlike the colonisation and brutalisation of Ireland, North America, Australia, New Zealand, and many other places around the world. What England’s power did to Scotland was unique to its relationship with Scotland, much the same as what happened elsewhere was unique in each context.
Right now I can see many reading this getting uncomfortable, some even angry. That’s not the purpose of this article. We weren’t taught this in school. It runs against the grain of the story we were fed of poppies and heroes, and an empire of pith helmets and dapper redcoats over which the sun never set. That version of events is sacred to a great many people, and – oddly for me – I’m not taking any great pleasure in the thought of stripping this particular altar bare. Know the truth, someone said, and the truth will set you free. So let’s not rage about the past. Let’s not wallow in shame either. We are the inheritors of this awful story and the products of it, but we don’t bear its guilt.
In India alone it is estimated that the British Empire was responsible for the deaths of 29 million human beings, and between 1783 and 1997 Britain’s global imperial adventures had cost the lives of over 150 million people. That’s some body count. At school, for many reading this, genocide – while ignoring Armenia for political reasons and Rwanda as it was unfolding – was all about Hitler’s Germany and the extermination of the Jews of Europe. It was never about the rape, torture, and murder of Kenyans by British soldiers during the Mau Mau Uprising of the 1950s, the wholesale slaughter of peaceful protesters by British colonial troops at Amritsar in 1919, the death of 28,000 Boer women and children in British concentration camps, or indeed the enforced export of grain from Ireland while upward of a million people starved to death during the Great Famine.
All of this was papered over with tales of juniper and gin in Bombay, and the great sacrifices of British manhood on the Somme, at Ypres, and at Passchendaele, and nothing – not a whisper – was told to us of the systematic and programmatic clearing and murder of inferior Gaels during the colonisation of Scotland. Nothing was said “because we weren’t colonised.”
It is interesting that those who at least accept the historical factuality of “Africa and India” concede, at least in their words, the guilt of empire and colonisation. It did happen, and it is interesting too that they make no attempt to deny it. Some, though they are rare, will yet point to the glories of what we achieved together as an argument for the British union. Nowhere, however, is there a denial or an attempt to bury the evidence.
This is the conspirator’s wink, the attempt to implicate us all into a bond of shared criminality. We have to stick together because we did this together. We all have blood on our hands. Such a position is taken up by many more who argue that Scotland and the people of Scotland were not colonised, but equal partners with England in the atrocities of our imperialism. On the face of it this is a wonderfully convincing argument, it’s true; there were – and still are – bagpipes and kilts in the Khyber Pass. Scotland profited from the theft, and Scots found themselves highly favoured in every sphere of industry, commerce, and government built atop the bones.
We couldn’t be colonised, not only because we were different from Africans and Indians (we were “great white men”), but because we were in on it – up to our necks in it. This is a convincing argument, but it is false. Bribed and blackmailed, the Lords of Scotland treatied with a foreign nation with which our law in the Declaration of Arbroath already foreswore any union or submission. This law was guaranteed in 1320 by the only sovereign of Scotland – the people, the Scots themselves.
In 1707 the Act of Union was without the consent of the Scots, enacted by Lords who had neither claim nor right to the sovereignty of our nation. It was illegal, wholly without legal reality – as it remains still. Efforts in King Edward’s Palace (Westminster itself) could never revoke the union for lack of meaningful Scots representation, and legitimate rebellion was crushed with the same barbaric cruelty England’s empire meted out against other inferior folk.
No sooner than rebellion and sedition were silenced, and rightful monarchs sent packing, than the genocide and ethnic cleansing began. We were not as white as the Anglo-Saxons, alas, and The Scotsman – long the Uncle Tom of Scotland’s conquered opinions – wrote of the Highland Gael’s expulsion: “Collective emigration is, therefore, the removal of a diseased and damaged part of our population. It is a relief to the rest of the population to be rid of this part (The Scotsman, 26 July 1851).” Diseased and damaged were the less than “British” Scots, and fodder for distant plantations and hunger.
Lord Trevelyan himself, the Somerset Baronet who starved the Gaelic Irish, was happy to add, “A national effort would now be necessary in order to rid the land of the surviving Irish and Scotch Celts. The exodus would then allow for the settlement of a racially superior people of Teutonic stock.” It begins to sound a lot more like Africa and India now, even like the language of certain Teutonic stock in the Germany of the 1930s. The Clearances were not just about economic progress; they were about British racial progress.
So the claim, “we’re not a colony,” sounds more pallid now. And yet we have not touched upon the economy – the resource and industrial purpose – of colonisation. Our Gàidhlig tongue torn out, and our rebels and patriots, our daughters and sons, abroad or frozen or starved to death, the Wade roads were laid for our gold and silver then to move south, and now our brightest and best, our gas and our oil, and everything of value we make and ever have made. A colony we were, a colony we are, and the screams of denial are the shrill rale of the thoroughly colonised mind.
The Butterfly Rebellion