Alastair Stewart: Burns Night a good time to see our history for what it is

Edinburgh ­University has a wonderfully ­understated research project with the National Museums of Scotland, titled The Matter of Slavery in Scotland.

Wednesday, 15th January 2020, 6:00 am
At Burns Night Scotland indulges in what Jeremy Paxman would call 'collective amnesia'

The title is apt given the frustrating delusion that Scotland finds herself with today. While it’s tempting to see slavery as a despicable blindspot in the Scottish memory, it’s one in a long series of uncomfortable home truths abandoned for the myth of Scottish romanticism.

Arguments for Scottish independence and Brexit borrow heavily from that most frustrating of ‘Yank’ traits – American exceptionalism. The term was Stalin’s rebuttal to revisionist and idealistic notions that the USA was a unique exemplar of liberty. The centuries since have poked a few holes in that fatuous and hyperbolic claim.

A zeitgeist reading of history is common across Scotland, all while serving as the bedrock for our future. The traditional mainstream trajectory takes us from Wallace to Bruce to the Enlightenment, the tragedies of the World Wars, North Sea oil, the rise of nationalism, devolution and the 2014 independence referendum. As sure as we’ve all heard “Scotland hated Margaret Thatcher”, these are among the most ubiquitous vignettes in our social consciousness.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant

With no loss of irony, most of our most romantic notions were efforts to preserve Scottish identity within the Acts of Union. Walter Scott’s heavily embellished Tales of a Grandfather was a quickfire journey through Scottish history written for his grandson (with an eye on the public’s pocketbook, too). The romantic distillation therein has become the meat of our subconscious understanding of who our most important figures are, with a few villains thrown in for good measure.

With Burns Night approaching, that sense of delusion comes out even more. The country thinks of itself as a romantic underdog with such questionable shames of empire and slavery conveniently pushed to the side. Burns himself accepted a role as a book-keeper on a plantation before poetry shifted his fortunes.

Jeremy Paxman marvellously explained that the UK lives with “collective amnesia”. Until the 1960s, there were classrooms across the country with maps of pink showing the world under the Union flag. And then it all disappeared.

For decades Scotland had a disproportionate number of soldiers and merchants, emigrés, administrators, clerics, doctors, teachers and governors at every level of the British Empire. By the early 19th century, both Ireland and Scotland were sending vast numbers of soldiers to fight Britain’s colonial wars across the world. Scotland was the Empire’s mercantile backbone, and Scots embraced it.

To call it an English enterprise, as some insinuate, is to do a criminal disservice to historical accuracy. There’s a compelling argument that our reactionary approach to the EU is a reaction to the loss of empire, the fatigue of union and the irrelevance of monarchy.

That’s not to say there’s no outrage at Scotland’s past when it’s pointed out. Still, there’s cognitive dissonance in Edinburgh especially, which has a litany of monuments, ­namesakes and businesses all linked to plunder, slavery and 300 years of empire.

It’s a ghastly cliche to say those who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it, but, in this instance, it seems oddly real. So much of our public discourse is predicated on where we’ve been, where we’re going, and who we are. It’s time to take a closer look.

Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant. Read more from Alastair at and follow him on Twitter @agjstewart