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Review: Scottish Colonial Literature: Writing the Atlantic

Review: Scottish Colonial Literature: Writing the Atlantic, 1603-1707 by Kirsten Sandrock

On the face of it, Kirsten Sandrock’s Scottish Colonial Literature: Writing the Atlantic, 1603-1707 is an academic text of the highest calibre on an all but forgotten period of Scottish literature. However, as many now accept that climate chaos is a by-product of colonialism, honest reflection on the ways colonialism has shaped us remains urgently important. In this study, Sandrock sheds light on the workings of Scottish colonialism when Scotland remained an independent country. In so doing, she provides us with the tools to dismantle some of the Scottish colonial myths which hold even to this day.

Scottish Colonial Literature charts the course of Scotland’s colonial ambitions through the literature which proposed, normalised, and promoted them. What Sandrock finds is that, from its inception, Scottish colonialism was invested in narratives of Scottish victimhood and exceptionalism. Commonly, the colonial literature of the period pointed to the poverty in which large swathes of Scotland’s population lived and proposed the theft of First Nations land as a solution to economic and climatic hardships. Scottish colonisation of Mi’kmaq and Maliseet land (now known as Nova Scotia) was justified through reference to the ‘“decayed”’ Scottish economy. As one anonymous poet put it:

‘The Countrey now will be at ease,

the tender Mothers will no more

their Sons Uncertain Fate deplore;

And Indian Gold shall soon release

The Nation from Its Tempral Poverty Grand Disease.

What, of course, goes unspoken in these texts, as Sandrock highlights, is that the poverty of Scots was only alleviated through the impoverishment of indigenous peoples.

Sandrock is in her element deconstructing the utopian character of colonial literature in which the Atlantic is ‘picture[d …] as a holistic reform plan for seventeenth-century Scotland.’ In this way, Sandrock demonstrates how the media can play an active role in the formation of an ideology which is not just immoral but which has lost its grip on the reality that we live in a world with finite resources, in which utopia, which literally translates as ‘no place’, is just that – a non-existent place. The apogee of this attitude is to be found in Scotland’s best-known colonial undertaking – the Darien scheme, in which the Company of Scotland attempted to establish a trading route connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific through Tule land. The mission was funded by investments from nearly 1500 Scots, men and women from a range of backgrounds who were inspired by promotional material which promised ‘“easie Wealth”’. The reality of the situation across the Atlantic was quite different from what such projectors promised and, as is well rehearsed, the Scots were ill prepared for the undertaking. Many of the settlers either abandoned the attempt or died.

The effect on the Scottish economy was grim and played a significant role in the passing of the 1707 Act of Union with England. As part of the union settlement, investors were compensated for their losses and even received a 5% return. But the myth of Scottish dispossession held, mutating to cast the Scots as noble victims in contrast to disloyal English opportunists. As Sandrock demonstrates, ‘[t]he mythologisation of Darien as part of Scotland’s “victim” history is part of a rhetorical strategy that diverts blame from Scotland and directs it towards England.’ Scottish protagonists at Darien came to be mythologised in the literature; the ‘“Sorry Poor Nation”’ of Scotland was set against English ‘“Traytors” and “Enemies to the Kingdom of Scotland”.

Scottish Colonial Literature isn’t just about the colonial myths of the past – as Sandrock points out, these myths have endured across the centuries. For instance, the Darien scheme is still commonly referred to as the Darien ‘disaster’ or ‘failure’. But, Sandrock asks, what is success according to this value system if not the destruction of other peoples, lands, and cultures? And what does it say about our ability to take accountability and learn from past mistakes if, in 2021, we still view perhaps our most determined independent colonial undertaking from within this framework?

I read Scottish Colonial Literature during the fortnight in November 2021 in which Glasgow hosted COP26. A recurring theme of the COP was that the climate crisis is both the legacy and continuation of historical colonialism. Colonialism persists in our extractive attitude to people and planet. As a result of global inequalities created by colonialism, the people in the twenty richest countries in the world create eighty per cent of pollution, whilst communities in the Global South are by far the most commonly displaced or killed by climate chaos. That these same communities contribute least to global pollution is a cruel irony. During the COP, there were repeated calls for reparations (not ‘handouts’) from both the governments of the Global North and the big oil companies. And yet, in the weeks that followed, Alex Salmond couched his defence of plans to drill for oil at Cambo in terms of Scotland’s bid for independence. And so the justification of the dispossession of others through the myth of Scottish dispossession continues.

The century bookended by the Union of Crowns and the Union of Parliaments has sometimes been seen as lacking in literature worth studying. Sandrock’s monograph proves why this century is one worth looking directly in the eye. Her approach is informed by the decolonial theories of Ania Loomba and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, yet grounded in good old textual analysis. In lucid, readable prose, she sets out to illuminate Scotland’s complex relationship with its colonial past and achieves something with resonance far beyond the academy. Indeed, she gives us a new way of historicising well-worn aspects of Scottish culture, revealing the shadow side of what is often referred to as Scotland’s ‘“lack of self-confidence”’. Scottish Colonial Literature represents a tour-de-force for the field of Scottish literary studies, as well as an important book for our own particular historical moment, in which it is as pressing as ever to undo colonial myths before they can do any more damage.

Comments (10)

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  1. Wul says:

    Very interesting.

    Surprised there aren’t more comments. Maybe we don’t like to think on our own colonial aspirations.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Wul, my comment (supportive) and question (if there were any pre-Physiocratic elements in Scottish literature at the time which might have preferred staying home and ‘improving’ the land) seems to be languishing in moderation limbo.

      1. @ SleepingDog says:

        There was a trend among Scottish landowners to promote better tillage and cattle-raising following the Restoration, but this investment was hampered by a lack of capital. Scotland’s colonial adventures were largely schemes to develop this capital through trade.

        The limits of subsistence economy, whereby the wealth of nations derived solely from land and agricultural production, were thrown into stark relief by the ‘seven ill years’ that led to severe famine and depopulation in the 1690s, during which up to 15% of the Scottish population (and, in some areas, as much as 25%) died of starvation.

        This disastrous experience is probably one of the reasons that physiocracy didn’t catch on as an economic theory in Scotland during the 18th century as much as it did in France, and why the likes of Adam Smith secured the generative source of a nation’s wealth in its labour rather than, as the likes of François Quesnay did, in its land.

    2. BSA says:

      Quite happy to think on our colonial past but happier to ignore the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’ visited on seventeenth century folk and the relish with which it is used to reinforce some pretty worn out and hostile judgements of folk up to the present. ‘Scotland’s victim history’ is not really history.

      1. @ BSA says:

        “‘Scotland’s victim history’ is not really history.”

        Very true. Scotland has been as much the coloniser as any other European power; Scots have been at the forefront as agents of Western globalisation. The fact that so many Scots still cheapen genuine liberation movements all around the world, by likening them to our own independence movement, is sickening; especially when any future prosperity that an ‘independent Scotland’ enjoys will be premised on our past exploitation of those whom we dispossessed both before and after 1707.

        1. BSA says:

          The ahistorical anger, guilt and self loathing you promote is an obstacle to understanding, acceptance and progress. I don’t know anyone who fits your description of ‘cheapening’ and ‘sickening’ and neither do you. People in Scotland will necessarily play the hand they are dealt by history, in good faith, with no disrespect to victims of colonialism, and smearing Scottish aspirations in that context is pretty silly. Btw, your quotation marks round ‘independent Scotland’ are really quite redundant. Most folk understand the limitations on 21st century sovereignty. They focus, constructively, on how states can adapt and grow under these conditions and everything so far in the Scottish independence movements indicates that Scotland will do exactly that.

          1. @ BSA says:

            And yet the Twittersphere and blogosphere are cacophonous with braveheart independentistas who wallow in Scotland’s colonial victimhood and draw parallels between their own struggle for independence and the genuine liberationist struggles of the peoples on whose colonial exploitation Scotland’s current and future prosperity is premised. THAT’s what so insulting to the victims of our colonial heritage.

  2. Niemand says:

    I also wondered about the lack of reaction. I thought it might be the stark point that the apparent Scottish dispossession by the English as a result of Darien scheme is a myth, i.e. untrue and those involved actually received a return for their losses.

    1. @ Niemand says:

      Ah, that will be the famous English gold with which the parcel of rogues was bought and sold.

      1. Niemand says:

        Indeed, the myth and point being to explode it.

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