Settlers and Colonists by Alasdair Gray
Settlers and Colonists by Alasdair Gray
Published here 20th December 2012.
A news story of 16 December created a sensation around this essay. In five days many outlandish things have been said and written about it (chiefly by people who have not read it), and the author has been widely derided for the views it is said to express. Very recently, more edifying and reflective debate has begun to emerge.
Alasdair is 'surprised and entertained' by this reaction, but now wishes the full text to be accessible online - in addition to appearing in the Word Power Books publication Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence (alongside 26 other essays).
The Unstated collection assumes in advance 'that the views of individual writers [will] be managed, "storied", inflated and filtered in various distorting ways' during the independence debate, on both sides of the argument. Some things are inevitable.
But it remains possible - and relatively simple - to circumvent all that. Unstated aims 'to construct a space in which the questions, priorities and histories likely to be studiously avoided in the official campaigns [can] be properly explored'. Uncomfortable reading comes with the territory. So does tactical inconvenience and vulnerability to mischaracterisation. The vital thing is to secure a space where we can read - or check - what the writers actually wrote, on their own terms.
The past few days have underscored the need for such a space. Other essays in Unstated - notably those by Denise Mina, Margaret Elphinstone, Kevin MacNeil and Christopher Whyte - resonate all the more powerfully after the vehemence of recent commentary.
I am determined to let the essay speak for itself, because that is the point of the book to which I asked Alasdair to contribute. Neither does the author need defending. But I will make two brief observations before getting out of the reader's way.
First: there is no doubt that this essay, viewed 'within context' and free of distortion, is provocative. Many dismayed reactions to news reports about this essay will apply to the essay itself. So long as we are debating what Gray actually wrote, and not something else, so be it. I do not think the essay is inflammatory or irresponsible in its rhetoric.
Second: the burden of proof does not rest with Alasdair Gray to demonstrate that he is not a racist, an Anglophobe, a bigot, or a disgrace. A lifetime's worth of art is there to be examined for anyone who cares to look. The burden of proof rests with those describing the man and his work in such terms.
Finally, and in case of doubt, neither the publishers nor myself knew of the 16 December news story prior to its appearance. This has not been a publicity stunt. Many other contributions to Unstated deserve the wide, informed and thoughtful discussion we hope Gray's essay will now receive.
Settlers and Colonists by Alasdair Gray
A Scottish wordsmith said, 'Outgoers and incomers made, make every land'. Yes. Both kinds can be divided into Settlers or Colonists. The Irish tribes who brought Christianity to what we now call Argyllshire and gave Scotland its name were incoming settlers. So were the Anglo-Saxon invaders who gave England its name, though for a while King Canute regarded England as a province of his Danish empire - a province rather than a colony, because the Danish settlers who supported him were mingling well with what were now Anglo-Saxon natives. For centuries Norwegian kings regarded Iceland, Orkney and Shetland as provinces of their empire, but had to treat the Western Isles and Sutherland as colonies before natives there, helped by Scots kings, won free of them. The Dutch empire for a while contended on three continents with the British empire, but in Malaysia English colonists supported by their Royal Navy soon ousted the Dutch, and in America (despite old New York being once New Amsterdam) Dutch settlers were overwhelmed by those from England, though together both European incomers expelled American natives. Only South Africa had enough Dutch settlers to dominate the native majority, and survive the Dutch empire's extinction, and after stout resistance become a British empire protectorate on their own terms.
Colonists and settlers may start with the same homeland and some loyalty to it, a loyalty dependent on support the homeland gives them. The difference between these two sorts of invader becomes obvious when they have subdued the local natives by exterminating many of them, as in Australia, driving them away, as in North America, enslaving them as in South America, or (more rarely) giving some of them equal rights, as may be the case in New Zealand. As soon as incoming settlers in these lands no longer needed the government, army or navy of their homelands they were on the way to self-government. But for roughly two centuries most subjects of the British empire were ruled by native Britons employed directly by the London government. They were colonists, not settlers. They regarded marriage between themselves and the local natives as almost unthinkable, calling it going native. Hardly any thought of uniting with those they ruled. If successful in one part of the empire they could be sent to work for it in another before finally retiring to the land of their birth, where some even took part in its government. The Duke of Wellington, a successful Irish general in the Indian army, was sent to fight Napoleon's empire in Europe and afterward had a spell as Britain's Prime Minister.
The USA has made all such imperialism a thing of the past. It does not exploit foreign lands by planting settlers in them, as Britain did in Canada and Australia, or sending in their own governors and civil servants, as Britain did in Kenya and India. In South America, the Middle East and Africa it used bribery to destroy governments who resisted its trading terms, usually with British support. It surrounded the old Soviet Union with American air force bases from the Arctic Circle round to Turkey, including nations in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation - NATO. These are almost wholly manned by American servicemen commanded by the USA, and are a new kind of colonist. Like those manning the American nuclear submarine base off the Firth of Clyde, they were at first meant to defend the rest of the world from attack by the Soviet Union, and are now supposed to defend it from international terrorists. In the 1970s the USA withdrew their air force base from Greenham Common, partly because a lot of brave English folk, the most notable of them women, protested by camping round it. The NATO base on the Isle of Lewis has aroused no local protests the British press and broadcasters think worth reporting. The local economy must be slightly boosted by these colonists.
Scotland has never had more than a tenth of England's population but the proportion of Scots leaving to settle in other lands has been notorious for centuries. In the Middle Ages the French said, 'Rats, mice and Scots can be found everywhere'. Adventurous people in poor countries have often sought a better life in richer ones, even when not driven from their homelands by famine, as in nineteenth-century Ireland, or by greedy landlords in the Scottish Highlands. Our most famous emigrant was James VI of Scotland who became James I of England, when the Catholic Irish were yet again trying to throw off English government. Mainland Britain was most open to Irish invasion across the narrow straight between Galway and Galloway - between Ulster and Scotland. By force of arms Jamie drove Catholic landowners out of Ulster and offered their properties to Protestant settlers from Scotland and England, a settlement that led to future civil warfare. Many more Scots than English took advantage of his offer because more Scots saw that leaving their homeland was a way to enrich themselves. And like King Jamie, Tony Blair and other politicians, Scots have prospered by settling in England. This was made possible for many Scots because till recent times the northern nation had a higher standard of public education for its poorer classes. Doctor Johnson voiced strong anti-Scottish opinions, but most of those he employed to his make his dictionary were Scots.
The rulers of rich countries have often tried to get richer still by invading poorer lands, hence Boss William of Normandy's conquest of England, and the conquest of Ireland by his descendants. The many clans and peoples north of Hadrian's Wall only became one nation through resistance to continually renewed efforts by the southern government to subdue them. In 1707, during what is now called a severe economic depression, the main owners of Scotland were paid to become a tenth part of England's parliament. For over two and a half centuries colonists and settlers from Scotland - and Ireland - helped the London government to establish and administer a British Empire. Meanwhile throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century the Scottish lowlanders cultivated their most fertile districts and used local deposits of iron and coal to develop their own industries, and made Scotland a centre of world trade, exporting more manufactures than its people. Those in the Highlands and Western Isles were unluckier for more reasons than can be mentioned here, but landlords who (sometimes helped by the army and police) evicted most of their tenants were mostly guilty, at first because they made more money by using their estates for sheep, then by renting them or selling them to wealthy southerners who enjoyed shooting and fishing there. After north Britain became reachable by railway and steam ship many southerners began coming here, and have been coming ever since.
But after 1918 they came to a Scotland managed by folk who increasingly thought of their homeland as a province, as eighteenth and nineteenth century industrialists, scholars, scientists and authors had not. This was because the Scottish iron and shale oil deposits were exhausted, and a generation of brave and intelligent new minds had been killed or damaged in the First World War. After the Treaty of Versailles came more and more unemployment. This was worsened by Scotland's potentially strongest administrators and publicists going to work in London or overseas, leaving their homeland to those who had no confidence in any local who was Scottish, unconventional, and proposed or wrote things London might not appreciate. This did not discourage immigration into Scotland from what were or had been parts of the British Empire, and Ireland, and most of all England. By the 1970s the long list of Scots doing well in the south was over-balanced by English with the highest positions in Scottish electricity, water supply, property development, universities, local civil services and art galleries.
Immigrants into Scotland, as into other lands, are settlers or colonists. English settlers are as much a part of Scotland as Asian restaurateurs and shopkeepers, or the Italians who brought us fish and chips. The colonists look forward to a future back in England through promotion or by retirement. Said Scott Fitzgerald, 'Start with an individual and you may end with a type. Start with a type and you may end with … nothing'. I will speak of individual immigrants known to me. Because I am a writer in Glasgow they are all associated with literature and the arts, but I think Scottish folk in other professions will know settlers and colonists with similar attitudes. I will start with a colonist.
In the mid 1980s I met Michael Goldberg, an English talks producer in BBC Glasgow who was going to broadcast my story Five Letters From an Eastern Empire. He told me he had been an advisor on science broadcasting in London BBC until 1979, when a referendum looked like giving Scotland its own parliament. Since this would have enlarged the scope of Scottish broadcasting, he had been sent here with others to take charge of it. But a clause in the referendum bill (inserted at the last minute by a Labour MP) resulted in the majority voting for a Scottish parliament being too few to get it. Unlike the others he remained in Glasgow, and was now in charge of broadcast talks. He asked who I would like to read my story, which is told in the voice of an oriental poet laureate. I said it would be easy for Bill Paterson. Mr Goldberg said, 'But the speaker is supposed to be the poet laureate of a mighty empire and Bill Paterson has a Scottish accent!' I agreed with him but explained that my poet was a mandarin, and the Scots also had a mandarin accent used by many of our headmasters and heads of departments, accents quite different from those of Oxbridge. Mr Goldberg did not understand that, so my story was broadcast from London by an English actor using the Queen's English.
Today Scotland has the parliament it did not get in 1979 and certainly the London BBC has taken firmer control of broadcasting here. When members of that parliament suggested Scotland should have its own news broadcasts the BBC chief here said Scotland (whose population equals that of Denmark and Israel, is larger than that of Norway and the Irish Republic) does not generate enough news to justify such broadcasts. The British Broadcasting Corporation certainly wants to make sure that it never will.
Mr Goldberg was a colonist. Had he not died in a train crash when commuting between Edinburgh and Glasgow, he may have become a settler, though one who regarded Scotland from a London perspective. Many Scots have the same view of their country, especially those in the New Labour Party, who invited English administrators north when Margaret Thatcher's government made Glasgow Britain's first European City of Culture.
Glasgow had staged four great international exhibitions between 1880 and 1937 in which the city and Scottish culture were strongly represented, but in those years Scotland had not been thoroughly provincialised. For 1990 the Labour Council that had ruled Glasgow almost continuously for sixty years hired the best English arts administrators money could rent, and gave them control of Glasgow's main concert halls, theatres and galleries. They could have staged a drama festival of successful plays by Glasgow-area authors - Bridie's Mr Bolfry, McLellan's Jamie the Saxt and Ena Lamont Stewart's Men Should Weep. Archie Hind's Scottish version of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists could have been staged with its original producer, David Hayman. They could have got an original stage play by commissioning John Byrne and Peter McDougall, successful stage and television authors, to co-operate with Billy Connolly to create something new, as the Great Northern Welly Boot Show was created. They could have arranged shows of paintings from those late nineteenth-century artists called The Glasgow Boys through the school of colourists around J.D. Fergusson, taking in the best work of those twentieth-century individualists John Quinton Pringle, James Cowie, Robert Colquhoun, Robert MacBryde and Joan Eardley. But these transient administrators knew or cared nothing for these local achievements and were employed by equally ignorant or careless town councillors. To both sorts the city's past was mainly rumours of gang violence and radical Socialism, both of which should be forgotten. New Labour wanted the City of Culture to attract foreign tourists and investors, so performances and shows were brought from outside Scotland. Hardly anything Glaswegian was presented in Glasgow's Year of Culture.
But other arts administrators were invited to Scotland by the Scots, stayed longer but were still colonists, not because they eventually retired to England or were promoted to other jobs there, but because their work for institutions originally created to encourage art in Scotland actually depressed it.
When Yeats and Lady Gregory established Dublin's Abbey Theatre they were not interested in Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw's plays which did well in London's West End. They started a tradition of Irish playwriting which still flourishes, so that Ireland (as an American told Roddy Doyle) 'punches well above its weight' as a centre of international literature. Before the Second World War there were many unsuccessful Scottish efforts to follow the Abbey Theatre's example, and immediately after it the playwright James Bridie thought the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre had achieved this. Subsidised by Glasgow City Council it successfully produced Scottish plays by Bridie, MacClellan, Joe Corrie and others between great plays by Shakespeare, Ibsen, O'Casey, Brecht, Frisch and Irishmen from Synge to Friel. That Citizens' also gave a start to fine actors, Duncan Macrae and Helen Mirren among them. In 1969 Giles Havergal became director and for thirty-four years produced excellent plays that drew full houses, only two of them plays by Scots with Scottish settings. This policy of exclusion was supported by Jan McDonald, a member of the Citizens' board and lecturer in drama at Glasgow University, who was outspoken in her belief that Scotland would never produce a good dramatist. Nor did the theatre under Giles promote Scottish acting, since out-of-season he planned and auditioned for his productions in his London home.
When the Scottish Arts Council started after World War Two its chief members were James Bridie the playwright and the novelist Naomi Mitchison who had alternate meetings in hotel rooms in Glasgow and Edinburgh, with a secretary as almost their only bureaucracy. There is no room to describe how the Council became bigger and operated from Edinburgh but in 1974 it funded The Third Eye arts centre in Glasgow with the director Tom McGrath, playwright, musician and one of the team behind the success of The Great Northern Welly Boot Show. Under his guidance it became (said the Guardian) 'a shrine of the avant-garde'. Exhausted by promoting the work of Scottish artists and writers while introducing others from abroad, Tom retired after five years to concentrate on his own art. The Arts Council then appointed Chris Carrell who, after a brave beginning, made his job easier by putting others with English qualifications in charge of the centre's exhibitions - people without much knowledge of, respect for the art here, so no local artists spoke up for The Third Eye Centre when Chris directed it into bankruptcy in 1992. However, he gave work experience to English arts administrators who went on to jobs in the south.
With Scottish Arts Council help the National Theatre of Scotland was founded in 2005, with its main office in Glasgow. Vicky Featherstone, its first artistic director, may be leaving in 2013 for work nearer London. That is my only reason for thinking her a colonist. But for at least forty years before our National Theatre was created several theatre companies, many theatre productions and many literary magazines depended for their existence upon Scottish Arts Council subsidies, which were withdrawn by a well funded bureaucracy that never thought to economise upon itself. In 2010 it gave way to a Quasi Independent Non-Government Organisation called Creative Scotland which aims to invest in
Scotland's arts, screen and creative industries
It's our job to help creativity shine at home and abroad.
The appointed director was not Scottish, admitted to knowing nothing of Scottish culture, but said he was willing to learn. Ain't Scotland lucky? And if you feel these former remarks are full of anti-English prejudice, remember that these colonists were invited here and employed by Scots without confidence in their own land and people.
Let us think of settlers here who became more effectively Scottish than most born natives. One was Edward Dwelly, a Welshman who learned Gaelic, wrote the first reliable and complete Gaelic dictionary, and raised the money for publication in 1911 after typesetting and printing it by hand himself. Another was Frank Newbery from Devon, the director of Glasgow School of Art who got Mackintosh the commission to design his greatest building, and supported him when he was ostracised by other Glasgow architects. Still here is Timothy Neat, the Cornishman who lectured on design at Dundee College of Art. By writing books, committee work and original film production he has promoted and commemorated the works of Hugh MacDiarmid, Hamish Henderson and Sorley MacLean - strong Socialists often disparaged when not deliberately ignored by Scotland's media and officialdom because the first two were also ardent Nationalists and the last a Gaelic poet. Timothy's film The Summer Walkers, inspired by Henderson's collections of contemporary folk song, beautifully records a phase of twentieth-century working life in Scotland before it passed away, as such life always passes, but it is too modern to be mere nostalgia. Timothy has also promoted the work of John Berger, another Socialist and European author, for his interests are worldwide.
David Knowles and Sharon Blackie, he a former air force pilot, she a psychologist, became crofters on the Scottish west coast. In 2006, using laptop technology, they started The Two Ravens Press to publish books they liked; I met them because they successfully published two of mine. In May 2012 they brought out the first number of EarthLines, a thoroughly professional good-looking magazine (price £4.99) devoted to articles and fiction about Nature, place and the environment. This magazine is for readers throughout Britain, but their croft in Lewis is not a hobby. David has dug drains that channel their sanitary waste into the soil. In plastic tunnels Sharon grows their vegetables. David has learned Gaelic and is working with others in nearby crofts to fence off the huge area of common moorland allowed them by the nineteenth-century Crofting Acts. Crofters in the past have lost control of land because they did not co-operate to assert their rights to this common property.
David and Sharon probably came here because a Scottish croft cost much less than an English smallholding. The comparative cheapness of Scottish property has led other southerners to run small businesses here, mostly in catering. Some annoy nearby caterers by service that attracts more customers. This must lead to improvement. Years ago an official enquiry into Scottish catering declared that many owners 'had an almost suicidal disregard for their customers' wishes'. I do not know or care if the true settlers I have mentioned will vote for Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum, as I certainly will. Their work here is good for us.
Only one question should be asked by that referendum: Do we who live in Scotland want an independent government? The present state of Britain is bad for many in the south as well as the north. Although the Tory and Labour parties in London who brought this about still pretend to differ from each other, both unite in wanting to keep control of Scotland. Their Ministries of Information and Misinformation are already working openly or subtly to divert us from that one question. To ask us if an independent Scotland should keep its NATO bases is trivial and irrelevant. In Washington the countries in NATO are jocularly called 'Snow White and the Twenty-Seven Dwarves'. Recently three of the dwarves (the German, Dutch and Belgian governments) suggested that Snow White remove her bases from their soil. With the backing of Britain and other NATO dwarves, Snow White said she would not. Before Scotland has an independent government, whether it sides with Germany, Holland and Belgium in this matter is irrelevant.
(C) Alasdair Gray, 2012
As will be apparent, Gray's essay was written during the summer of 2012 prior to recent developments in Scottish politics and the arts.
Here is an archive of responses to Alasdair Gray's essay, in the press and on Twitter