Global Migrations Conference in Edinburgh

By: Nick Draper

On Friday 4th and Saturday 5th July I was in Edinburgh at the Global Migrations of the Scottish People since c. 1600 conference, organised by the Scottish Centre for Diaspora Studies, based at the University of Edinburgh.  The conference was timed to coincide with Homecoming 2014, a year-long programme of events aimed primarily at people overseas of Scottish descent that includes under its umbrella the Commonwealth Games, the Ryder Cup and the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. In turn, Homecoming 2014 (the last such event was in 2009) coincides with the September referendum on independence for Scotland, so that the questions of Scottish nationalism and identity raised in the conference have particular resonance not only for Scotland but for the rest of the United Kingdom. The conference itself, sponsored by the Scottish Government and held at the National Museum of Scotland, presented a political balance in its opening by Gordon Brown and its welcome address from the Scottish Government by Humza Yousaf, Minister for External Affairs and International Development.

I gave a brief paper on the work of LBS and specifically the prominent place of Scottish slave-owners in the compensation records, as part of a panel on ‘Scotland and Black Slavery’ chaired by Phil Morgan of Johns Hopkins. My fellow-speakers were David Alston, whose meticulous work on Highlander Scots in Demerara, Essequibo and Berbice is available on the Slaves and Highlanders website, and Eric Graham, an associate of the LBS project, who spoke on Burns & the Sugar Plantocracy of Ayrshire, the title of his recently republished book detailing an intense regional nexus of slavery connections. The panel represented part of the effort underway to re-inscribe colonial slavery into the history of Scotland and its diaspora, an effort in parallel to our own work on Britain & Ireland as a whole and which seeks to complicate the dominant narrative of Scots as the historic objects of English colonisation.

I was not able to stay for the conference sessions on Sunday 6th, but in the time I was there I was struck by the impossibility of imagining at present an equivalent conference on Global Migrations of the English People, or indeed an English celebration equivalent to Homecoming 2014. English nationalism is not (yet) the object of academic enquiry, nor is it a respectable phenomenon in popular culture: but the effortless appropriation of British history by the English and the routine elision of the two could not survive the break-up of the United Kingdom, one result of which would surely be a need to discover a specific English history and English identity not as parochial and limited but as global and inclusive (difficult though that will be). I was also struck by an apparent gender division: based on the conference panels, the writing in Scotland of the history of the Scottish people appears to be a masculine preserve, whereas the new imperial history of Scotland is being undertaken by distinguished female academics in universities not in Scotland but in the former colonies themselves.