Continuing from the previous article supporting the case that genocide was perpetrate in Scotland, this article addresses the question of the English colonisation of Scotland. Beginning with definitions it advances into historic and present examples.
Previously, in our discussion on The Scottish Genocide, we set out the legal and historical definition of genocide and laid out the case that the Highland and Lowland Clearances in Scotland were indeed acts of genocide perpetrated against the Scots Gaelic and Lallans populations. It was concluded that only through the lens of a highly distorted and reductionist understanding of the crime of genocide can it be argued that these people were not in fact the victims of a racially and ethnically motivated systematic genocidal programme throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Now we must turn to the question of responsibility. It is true, as much the criticism of the original article rightly pointed out, that the immediate perpetrators of the violence against the Highland and Lowland peasantry were themselves largely Scots lairds, landowners, and their appointed factors, but we ask here if this irrefutable fact absolves Westminster qua the British imperial establishment of mass murder as a consequence of its imperial and colonial ambitions in Scotland.
As was pointed out in the previous instalment of these notes, Professor Jill Stephenson (retired) of the University of Edinburgh refuses to accept that Scotland fits “any definition of a colony.” Again we are confronted with this tactic of questioning definitions as a means of closing down discussion. This in itself – the denial of history – may well be argued to be a product the colonised mind (Brown, 2008). As Stephenson is an historian by academic discipline, and not an expert in colonialism, we shall give her the benefit of the doubt. In the popular imagination – likely a more recent development within states guilty to historical imperialism and colonisation – the ‘colony’ has been reduced to the process of land seizure and the plantation by the invader of a portion of its own population. This is a form of colonisation, and it conforms to British colonial behaviour in Ireland, Australia, North America, and elsewhere, but it is far from a comprehensive definition of colonialism.
Perhaps the best definition of colonialism has been offered by Ronald Horvath in his 1972 A Definition of Colonialism:
It seems generally, if not universally, agreed that colonialism is a form of domination – the control by individuals or groups over the territory and/or behaviour of other individuals or groups. (Colonialism has also been seen as a form of exploitation, with emphasis on economic variables, as in the Marxist-Leninist literature, and as a culture-change process, as in anthropology… The idea of domination is closely related to the concept of power. (Horvath, 1972)
In providing this definition, Horvath finds examples of both inter- and intragroup domination in British history; in the “domination of the English over the Welsh, Irish, and Scots” as an example of intergroup domination, and the construction of a rigid class system by the ruling élite over the dominated classes of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.
This definition, rather than the simple model of the revisionists, is made up of a number of elements, those being: (a) the control by individuals or groups over the territory and/or behaviour of other individuals or groups; (b) a form of exploitation, with emphasis on economic variables; and (c) as a culture-change process. Any number of these defining elements may be found in the popularly imagined ‘colony’ of Stephenson and others, and they may also be found within the internal imperial-colonial behaviours of the hegemon within a given polity – in this case England over and against its own dominated classes, and over the Welsh, Scots, and Irish and their dominated classes.
Political union in Britain, itself a contradiction of Scots law, was from the outset viewed by England as a means of securing domination over the Scots (Pittock, 1997), and as a method of insuring the acculturation of Scotland to England as part of a wider process of safeguarding English cultural dominance over the whole of Britain (Defoe, 1706). Westminster has always understood its own Act of Union with the parliament of Scotland as the absorption of Scotland into itself own domain, and the lack of parliamentary parity between the two states in the British polity has made English domination an effective reality.
Exploitation is the second key ingredient in the definition of a colonial relationship, and there can be no dispute that the exploiter in the Anglo-Caledonian union has been and is England. Krishan Kumar in The Making of English National Identity (2003) spells out the nature of England’s relationship with Britain’s “Celtic fringe” as one of “dependence, inequality, and exploitation in the relations between core and periphery.” Scotland, like Wales, and Ireland, was a source of cannon fodder in the expansion of England’s British Empire; signed in blood by the Scots in their first deployment as members of the union against their French allies. The movement of minerals and other natural resources was always north to south, and the export of Scottish manufactured goods was solely to the benefit of England’s revenue.
This entire process of resource and revenue exploitation has only been perfected since the discovery of Scottish oil and natural gas in the North Sea. While Scotland has become the only oil producing nation in the world to become poorer since the discovery of these resources, the City of London has financialised itself on the back of Scotland’s oil. The movement of the maritime boundary between Scotland and England northward, prior to devolution, was merely another example of the exploiter looking after its own economic interests.
What then of the process of culture-change – the role of the coloniser’s power and dominance in effecting the cultural assimilation of its colonies to itself? In many respects this is the easiest to see in modern Scotland. The fact that we now speak English is the big give-away. It is no surprise to anyone living in Scotland that this process of Anglicisation is still ongoing. By way of a personal example, in my own school in Ayrshire we were chastised for speaking Lallans Scots as “bad English” by teachers who then took it upon themselves to impart on us the meaning of Burns’ vocabulary, and yet who now – without the least hint of irony – drink from mugs that say “Aye” or “Naw.”
The assault on Gàidhlig was much more intense. Without going into the awful history of the suppression of the language, we need only think of recent times when Gaelic speaking children were denied their language in schools and bullied by teachers.
When Jill Stephenson claims that Scotland doesn’t fit any definition of a colony, she is quite wrong. Scotland fits almost every definition of a colony. All that her claim does is highlight something more about her and her positionality than it does of anything in Scotland’s historical or present reality. This is the illusion of education: Quite without merit it creates the impression of authority, and in Scotland this too has been central to our colonial experience. It is certainly not the case that everyone has the ability to gain a PhD in history or become a professor of the subject, but it is by no means beyond the gasp of many more than currently hold such qualifications.
Instead, other barriers such as opportunity and wealth are put in the way – ensuring, in one way or another, that in the main only a certain class of person will become the authority. This is little more than a reproduction of the same social dynamics that were at play during the Clearances, where the dominated fragment of the dominated Scottish upper class were placed over and against the lower, inferior classes. Looking more broadly at how colonialism worked around the world, this is no different from the creation of native ruling élites by the British conquerors to control larger native populations. So, yes, the lairds, landlords, and factors do share in the guilt, but they were merely cogs in a colonial machine that was forever powered by London and a Westminster agenda.
Brown, Molly. “Towards reclaiming the colonised mind: the liberating fantasies of Duiker and Ihimaera.” Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature 18, no. 2 (2008): 35.
Defoe, Daniel. An Essay at Removing National Prejudices Against a Union with Scotland. To be Continued During the Treaty Here. Vol. 1. printed [for B. Bragg] in the year, 1706.
Hickey, Michael. “The Acts of Union and the Shaping of British Identity.”
Horvath, Ronald J. “A definition of colonialism.” Current anthropology (1972): 45-57.
Kumar, Krishan. The making of English national identity. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Pittock, Murray G. H. Inventing and Resisting Britain. Macmillan Education UK, 1997.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Colonialism and neocolonialism. Psychology Press, 2001.
Withers, Charles W. J. “Education and Anglicisation: the Policy of the SSPCK toward the Education of the Highlander, 1709-1825.” Scottish Studies Edinburgh 26 (1982).