Scotland and the Commonwealth: ‘Before Commonwealth: Early Imperial Scotland’

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On 15th October 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome Dr Andrew MacKillop (University of Aberdeen) who discussed ‘Before Commonwealth: Early Imperial Scotland’. This lecture continued the ‘Scotland and the Commonwealth’ mini-series convened by Dr Lizanne Henderson. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Like Professor Finlay last week, Dr MacKillop stressed his talk focused on the pre-Commonwealth period, and Dr Henderson joked the seminar mini-series could be re-named ‘Prelude to Commonwealth’!

Dr MacKillop began his lecture with an outline of the historiography of Scotland’s role in the British Empire. In the last ten-to-fifteen years, the topic has completely transformed maintaining a high-profile in research; a turnaround that looked very unlikely in the 1980s. Speaking widely, this re-engagement with Empire began as a multi-disciplinary process that explored fears of globalisation through the proxy of Empire.

However, the Scottish experience has diverged from this model, with a greater focus on the ‘national’ question, perhaps at the expense of this global question, as well as other themes like ‘race’ and ‘gender’. Thus far, the study of Scotland in the Empire has attempted to reinforce or reformulate assumptions about the Scottish nation. Economics and magnate politics loom large in many of these studies, yet Dr MacKillop maintained a focus on cultural reactions to Empire throughout his presentation.

Conventional wisdom dictates that Scotland was an enthusiastic participant in the British Empire, perhaps the most fervent Imperial zealot of the British nations. The Empire was a point of consensus for all social backgrounds (whether a magnate, a Jacobite, or a dispossessed Gael) and took a defining place in cultural developments following 1707. In the 1720s, 40-50% of Scottish MPs had a direct Imperial connection, with around 30% linked to the East India Company. Proportionally, this completely outstrips England and Ireland (9% of English and 2% of Irish MPs had an Imperial profile).

The Statistical Account of Scotland shows enthusiasm lower down the social scale. A commentator from Moray in the Highlands claimed there was a ‘constant succession of adventurers’ seeking their fortune in the Empire. This idea was echoed by all the other shires in the 1790s. Scotland was ‘at home’ with the Empire.

Infamously, John Murray, 4th earl of Dunmore, built a house topped with a garish pineapple, blatantly intended to emphasise the wealth and fruitfulness of the Empire. In 1783, Sir Hector Munro employed his famished tenants to build a wholly incongruous recreation of The Gates of Negatpatnam, projecting a consciously Imperial image.

In direct contrast to this overt celebration of the Empire–which Dr MacKillop argued was actually ‘atypical’–were the intense anxieties many Scots felt about incorporation with the Empire (and indeed the Union). Scots were not ideologically opposed to the principle of Empire-far from it!-yet they feared their small, increasingly de-populated country would be overwhelmed by the burden of Imperialism. Scotland would not be able to cope with the ‘threatening flood of Asiatic luxury’. Exacerbating these fears was the anxiety about whether Scotland was a mere colony or province of England. Furthermore, the Imperial MPs, mentioned above, were viewed like Caesar or Pompey, i.e. out-of-touch statesmen who spent ‘too long in the provinces’.

The response to these fears was an ‘almost evangelical belief in improvement’: rapid commercialism coupled with civic virtue. Imperial angst was assuaged by civic investment, and the wealth generated from the colonies was ‘domesticated’: converted into projects that embodied ‘Scottishness’. Hector Munro, builder of the infamous Indian gates in Ross-shire as mentioned above, paid for the rebuilding of the tollbooth in Inverness, perhaps recognising his earlier project was frivolous in the extreme. Dr Gray’s Hospital in Elgin, built in 1818, and Edinburgh’s ‘Old College’, built in 1787, were two other ‘classical’ buildings funded by Imperial wealth.

Dr MacKillop convincingly argued that the Empire was made to disappear into stone in the city, and was ploughed into the land in rural areas. Many returning Imperial governors invested their new wealth into their old landed estates. Despite the Imperial background of these new developments, they were made to look like ‘authentic’ Scotland. Essentially, the presence of the Empire was disguised.

Concluding, Dr MacKillop argued Scots felt a deep ambivalence about the Empire. The national response was ‘culturally sensitive’ effacement, which eventually led to a reconciliation with both the Union and the Empire. They began to see the benefits the Empire could offer. While the later post-1818 period has received far greater attention from historians, knowledge of the 18th century is absolutely vital to understanding the legacy of Scotland in the Empire.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Our seminar series continues with Prof Jim Hunter’s (University of the Highlands and Islands) ‘Learning to love the marquis: A family story from clearance-era Sutherland’. This will be held on Tuesday 22 Oct in Room 407 of the Boyd Orr Building at 5.30 pm. Please note the change of venue! All welcome.

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