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The Scottish Empire, an inconvenient truth

We were never a colony

The Thin Red Line - Robert Gibb 1881

A Scotsman, an Englishman, a Welshman and an Irishman walked into a country, and they all took it. 

At 18.15 HKT on the 30th of June 1997, the “sunset” handover ceremony for the territory of Hong Kong took place on the waterfront. To the cheers of the watching crowd, the Black Watch marched onto the parade square for the final time, in an event that, for many, symbolically marked the formal end of the British Empire. 

Scotland’s empire did not end with the disaster of the Darien Scheme in February of 1700. Instead, it would go on to be an integral part of the largest empire the world has ever seen. Scotland, its cities and its people would grow rich and powerful from that Empire. Scotland, as we know it today, along with countless historic buildings, bank accounts, land purchases and regimental histories, attests to the indelible mark left through its role in the British Empire.

On a recent day trip with my wife, I saw first-hand how empire will forever be tied to the names of Scots. We visited Eilean Donan Castle, which had been destroyed in the Jacobite war and restored in 1932 by Lt. Col John MacRae-Gilstrap of the MacRae clan. John was born in the Punjab and fought in Egypt and the Sudan. Above the mantelpiece, in the main hall, there’s a large portrait of him in full regimental dress, the medals of his imperial service shining proudly on his chest.

In the cabinets scattered around the room, we browsed the artefacts of Empire: ornate snuff boxes, Indian daggers, ox-tail brushes and more medals. In the lower halls, posters and rolls honour the men of the Empire, and you see how the MacRae’s found a home in every corner of the world under British control, from India to Australia, Africa and the Caribbean, names proudly listed under the crossed Saltire and Union flag. 

Nationalists like to claim the moral high ground. Claiming that they are watching the sunset on the British Empire, they absolve themselves of its sin and use it to vilify the English further and to cast themselves as romantic revolutionaries. Yet, this denial is shameful beyond measure and in insult to those who indeed suffered under the British Empire. 

Scotland had a very active role in that Empire, and its brightest and best were foremost among the “empire builders”. Scotland was there in the slave trade; it was there during the Indian uprising of 1857; it was there during the scramble for Africa, and it was there during the Opium Wars.

In 2018, Poland attempted to pass a law criminalising any attempts to hold portions of its population and government as being complicit in the war crimes perpetrated by the Nazis during the Second World War, in an attempt to “defend the good name of Poland“. As with that populist government, the current Scottish populists attempt to deny Scotland’s complicity, by using propaganda in the form of graphics and memes to distance themselves from the British Empire and its legacy which they still benefit from to this day. 

Nationalists love portraying themselves as victims — as the colonised — to suit a grievance-driven agenda that detaches them from any responsibility to face reality, facts, or the hard truths of history. Those of us who value history, who acknowledge the impact of the British Empire on the world today, accept all that was and is a product of it, both its atrocities and its achievements. 

The fact is that the British Empire was as much Scottish as it was Welsh, Irish and English. We were not the colonised: we were the colonisers. 

It may be an inconvenient truth for Nationalists that Scotland was so active in the British Empire; it may not suit their perpetual vilification of the English; and it may not fit the romantic idealisation of their place in the world. Still, it is their history, it is our history, and no amount of whitewashing and whataboutery will reverse that. 


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Written by Angus Robinson

I am a lecturer at a UK university. My research is focused on Central Asia where I study warfare and culture. Most of my work includes the study of nationalism and as I see the same poison take hold here I want to do all I can to counter it.

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Michael Stensh-Brown

The real, underlying reason for defending the Union is to defend the RULE OF LAW. That was what we have been doing together since 1707. It was the irreducible essence of our struggle against Louis XIV, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Napoleon, the landed franchise pre-1832, the Kaiser, Hitler, Comrade Scargill et al and the Kremlin from Lenin to Putin. It is, or should be, why we are bracing ourselves for defence against President Xi and his capitalistic totalitarian imperialists. I have written a book about this, citing Scotland as a specific case, but with a view to a wider application in… Read more »

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