Scotland The Brave

Janet Street-Porter, the occasionally controversial and always visible British writer, broadcaster and panel game member has launched an interesting documentary on the Scottish independence referendum that is now less than one hundred days away. Combining her broadcasting talents with her well known love for walking she has, like many others at present, tried to assess what the vote might be.

The answer is, of course, who knows? But the debate rages with figures from the near-past like Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling taking sides, and Prime Minister David Cameron making interventions that suggest Downing Street (not Porter) thinks that the answer might just be “yes”. Debate ranges from what might be termed the “Braveheart” nationalistic standpoint at one end, through to the economically rationalist at the other as proxies for Yes and No.

A fascinating feature of the Street-Porter report is the number of people whose attitude is “we might as well give it a go just to try something different.”

That seems scarcely the way to determine the future of what might be yet another European nation and one, incidentally, that would face a tortuous and complicated access into the EU. The timing of that possibility is exquisite: the Parti Socialiste in France got massacred at the EU elections by the Front National made famous by Le Pen pere et fille, while across the ditch in Great Britain the Tories and the Lib-Dems were routed by UKIP, another Euroskeptic lot fuelled mainly by strong views on immigration.

A Scotland entry into that mire would simply add to all the other complexities of becoming sovereign: currency, foreign affairs, defence and all the rest.

But one dimension to all this remains seriously under-investigated. Around the Anglo-globe of the former British Empire in both its formal and informal guises, the Scottish presence and contribution was enormous. The jute mills in Calcutta were dominated by Scots engineers, for example, and those engineers were found around the world as the Scottish education system pumped out skilled people in great volumes. The Scottish regiments were to be found everywhere, as were Scottish soldiers in the overseas regiments from the eighteenth century onwards.

All of that was augmented in huge form in the mid-nineteenth century when the infamous Highland Clearances saw massive numbers of Scots head off to North America, the Antipodes, South America and anywhere, really, in search of a better life.    As the economic pressures arose in wake of those clearances, that process continued.

Among them was my great grandfather, Thomas Stoddart who arrived in Dunedin, New Zealand early in 1874 with his wife and two children under three, another about to be born, and my grandfather would arrive later. They spent months sailing around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Southern Ocean, past Fiordland and Invercargill to arrive at Port Chalmers and then be transported into Dunedin.

Even then, Dunedin was known as the Edinburgh of the South, a clear indication of its strong Scottish foundations. A long time later, though, one Scottish comic thought that a nonsense term because no denizen of Edinburgh would live in the wooden houses that proliferated in the city. Even now, timber far outweighs stone in building use, a far cry from the tenements of the Old and New Edinburgh.

Mosgiel 1My great grandfather had arrived to be a spinner at the new woollen mills founded by Scottish entrepreneurs over the hills from Dunedin in the even more remote Mosgiel. As all these and other names (like Coldstream, Tarras, Outram, Roxburgh and Alexandra, for example) suggest, this was Scotland at the other end of the earth. Newspaper reports from the time often had reporters go to Mosgiel to report on the Scottish dialect/s to be heard there at full blast.

T.S. StoddartThe Scots were everywhere in New Zealand as they were everywhere else around the world. One of my great grandfather’s female cousins married in Scotland, then ended up living in the North Island. One of her sons, Thomas Stoddart Lambert became one of the colony’s leading architects and designed several major churches and other civic buildings, even if he did have financial issues along the way.

That Scottish strain persisted. One of my favourite uncles was a lifelong contributor to his local pipe band, and somehow along the way I learned the bagpipes, with one of my teachers in small town Ashburton being one Donald Bain (a great Scots name, of course) who was one of the world’s champion pipers. Pipe bands and Caledonian societies are still ubiquitous in New Zealand and around the world – seeing and hearing a pipe band entertain tourists in a Roman amphitheatre in Jordan  remains among my most surreal travel moments.

My point here is that the Scottish diaspora quite possibly holds the key to what happens to Scotland after the September referendum, and most especially if the vote is “yes”.

There are probably in excess of fifty million people around the world with some claim to Scottish ancestry, and they have been to the fore in the family history boom of recent years. (If you doubt the power of that, zip down to a newsagent, and among the dwindling numbers of magazines available there rather than online, you will see a surprising number catering for “ancestor hunters” as they are sometimes known). Four or five years ago it was reckoned that “ancestral tourism” was worth over £60 million annually for Scotland, and growing.

Scotland has already catered for that through a site known as ScotlandsPeople.  For a fee, over one million registered users can trace their Scots heritage among the millions of digitised records that go back as far as the fourteenth century in some cases. What would have once cost time and travel expense can now be traced in a matter of minutes or hours on a computer. It started with Births, Deaths, Marriages and got onto wills and the census data, but is already pushing into other areas. I found a lot of later eighteenth century tax records in the Scottish National Archives a few years ago – they are now accessible on ScotlandsPeople. This must be one of Scotland’s great revenue earners beside oil and golfers.

Among other things, those records show whether or not a citizen of Selkirk in the Borders (from whence came my ancestors on that side of the family) paid dog, horse or window tax. That last is lovely – the tax was payable only if glass was found in the windows. Come tax time, naturally, some eighteenth century niggards removed the glass, winter or not!

But what is all this to do with the referendum? That starts with those one million plus users, and travels via India and Malaysia. I can sense confusion, so hasten to explain.

Malaysia has a “Malaysia My Second Home” scheme whereby foreigners can gain a residents passport by buying property in the country. That gives them free access to the country and all services, and many have taken it up to take advantage of cheap but excellent medical care. Places like Penang now have a minimum investment level above the average because of the scheme’s popularity. This has added substantially to the national revenue stream.

Some years ago, India set up a visa category known as “Non-Resident Indian” to tap its huge diaspora and the funds contained therein. Silicon Valley types flooded back to take advantage, further fuelling the hitech industry in India. As in Malaysia, the revenue stream has been substantial.

So why would an independent Scotland not want to take advantage of those millions around the world with a Scottish heritage? Some bright Scot (and there are a lot of them) must surely devise a scheme allowing for residency rights in return for a contribution of some kind? It will work even if the vote is No, it seems to me, although Cameronian Britain’s stance on migration generally is so appalling that it will find a way to block initiative.

The point is this: if the Scottish state is looking for ways to enhance income, increase a workforce and encourage entrepreneurialism like that which Scotland itself has exported for so long, then this would be something to consider, strongly.

2 Responses to “Scotland The Brave”
  1. Very interesting, Brian, and what a potentially fantastic money spinner. Interesting also on Scottish ancestry. No doubt you can recall when the Scottish hooker was called Laidlaw as well as the NZ scrum half. Here in Glasgow I have been shown the street in which McGill of Canadian fame was born. Also Carnegie who made a fortune in USA in steel educated half the world, but left none of his fortune to his children believing it would do them no good.

    The Scott’s did try to colonise somewhere in Central America in 19(?) century but went ill-equipped with all sorts of winter clothing, etc etc, and had to return. This diaspora has its parallels in Ireland and for similar historical reasons.i browsed at a book by EV Thompson called “Homeland” a novel based on the clearances.

    The Plantagenets have a lot to answer for here with Longshanks hammering the Scots in 1300s after practising on the Welsh first. Then Mary Queen of Scots and her cousin Elizabeth1 fell out rather badly, only for the latter to bequeath her ‘kingdom’ to James VI, aka James I, depending on which side of the fence you are on.

    Personally I believe Alex Salmond is just after leaving a legacy he can call his own. But be careful what you wish for one might say here. Tony Blair tried that one in Afghanistan and Iraq and those two are not legacies I for one would want to bestow on my worst enemy. It would do him no good!

  2. Ah, E.V. Thompson, ex-teacher in India and father of the great E.P. Thompson who was also on the left.

    The history is long and complicated, as you say, and with a modern twist. The 700th anniversary of Bannockburn celebration was cut from 3 days to 2 and even those are selling poorly, which raises some issues re the Braveheart factor.

    This has a way to go yet, with more surprises to come I think

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