We are all Scots here

Linda Colley

  • The Scottish Empire by Michael Fry
    Tuckwell/Birlinn, 580 pp, £16.99, November 2002, ISBN 1 84158 259 X

How is empire to be understood in an age that takes nations and nationalism for granted? For those who were once invaded by empires which have since become defunct, this rarely seems a problem. For the majority of Indians in regard to the British Raj, as for one-time satellites of Soviet Russia, empire is simply the dark before the light, an episode of alien oppression now triumphantly shrugged off. Nor in practice have those current Great Powers which are still in essence imperial found coming to terms with empire difficult. China, for instance, continues to retain territories that were conquered by Chinese emperors long after the Spanish and Portuguese invasions of the New World, and does not always do so with the conspicuous consent of the governed. Yet, as has happened with some other Great Powers, conquest and colonisation have been glossed over by an exercise in rebranding. China remains an empire, but it now trumpets itself as a nation, a People’s Republic.

Empire has proved a more intractable subject for those Western Europeans who once swarmed greedily over large stretches of the globe, but whose dominion has become one with Nineveh and Tyre. For the English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish, as for the French, Spanish, Danish, Belgians and Dutch, empire now generally evokes guilt, or mild nostalgia, or most commonly a determined forgetfulness. Thus virtually every history of Ireland contains (quite rightly) copious details about the national struggle against rule from London. But the fact that the majority of white troops in British India were for a long time Irish, as were a fair number of the Empire’s administrators, adventurers and traders, is usually – and wrongly – left out of the story. The Scottish response to lost Empire, too, is often a calculated amnesia. Imperial relics are confined to the basements or attics of museums and galleries; or the Empire gets reimagined as an indulgence merely of the English. Yet, as Michael Fry argues in this vast, contentious volume, alongside the Reformation, the Treaty of Union and the Enlightenment, Empire was ‘one of the great formative experiences’ in Scotland’s past.

The Scottish Empire is a remarkable book that could probably have been attempted only by a freelance writer like Fry. He has travelled across the world accumulating material, and the list of secondary works he has consulted is staggering. The book ranges across every continent, contains 38 chapters and includes some invaluable maps and illustrations. Anyone interested in Britain’s Imperial past and in Scottish history will need to read it and will learn a great deal. There are, however, some major problems. For many, the biggest difficulty will be Fry’s tone and approach. He is an unapologetic Tory, currently a rare breed in Scotland, and sometimes appears eager to anticipate criticism on this score by richly deserving it. His book focuses almost exclusively on dominant white males. Scottish working-class emigrants and soldiers only occasionally get a look in; and the single Scottish woman to receive cameo treatment, the missionary Mary Slessor, is gratuitously and in defiance of her photograph described as ‘plain’. As for those non-whites on the receiving end of busy Scottish Imperial activism, they tend to feature only as ‘dusky millions’ or as a ‘babbling crowd of Africans and Arabs’. There is another, less manifest difficulty, however. This is a book about Empire written by a fervent nationalist.

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