Professor Tanja Bueltmann: ‘Scotland’s Global Diaspora: A Story of Migration, Identity and Ethnic Association’

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Blog Author: Katharine McCrossan

On Tuesday 1st December 2020, the Centre was delighted to welcome Professor Tanja Bueltmann (Chair in International History at the University of Strathclyde), who delivered the seminar ‘Scotland’s Global Diaspora: A Story of Migration, Identity and Ethnic Association’. A historian of diaspora and migration, Professor Bueltmann’s research concerns global outward movement from Scotland and Britain from the middle of the eighteenth century onwards, with a particular focus on immigrant community life and ethnic associational culture. In her latest project, Professor Bueltmann combines both roles as academic and campaigner by offering an examination of the role of associations in influencing EU citizens’ collective action in relation to Brexit. 

In her opening remarks, Professor Bueltmann outlined how Scotland’s present global standing, as now contextualised by Brexit, raises questions over how we might further investigate Scots abroad. Scots have always shown great wanderlust, and in the period between 1825– 1930 around 2,300,000 million made the journey across the Atlantic or to the Antipodes. Questions, however, remain over how diaspora can be measured and conceptualised. While migration plays a foundational role in the formation of diaspora, does this include internal migration? Similarly, is there a difference in terms of proximity and moving relatively close to home? Is there a discernible impact on behaviour based on migration to Paris as opposed to Auckland? Or based upon the reason behind the movement (for example, whether migration was the intended outcome or as a result of trauma)? How, ultimately, can diaspora be measured?

One way, as Professor Bueltmann explained, is through the examination of ethnic associations, clubs, and societies. For the near diaspora, Scottish migrants in England, patterns of employment and industry often facilitated the creation of associational links. The Scots Box, established in London during the mid-seventeenth century and formalised in 1665 as the Scottish Corporation, was created with the purpose of assisting Scots through a mix of charity and mutual aid. Though similar associations were established elsewhere in England (such as in Tyneside and Bristol), the Scots Box was the first association to utilise ethnic background in this way. While it gave wealthier Scots an opportunity to ensure that their poorer countrymen were supported, the resulting networks and connections forged also proved helpful in business.

By the late eighteenth century, similar charitable associations were established throughout North America with the key aim of helping fellow Scots. Though this type of association was not restricted to Scottish immigrants, they were, in many cases, the first to organise. While these societies, such as the Montreal St Andrew’s Society and Illinois St Andrew’s Society had a distinct social function (in hosting annual St Andrew’s Day balls, for example), their main purpose was to give back, with philanthropic endeavours ranging from poor relief to social provision. Other organisations, like the Sons of Scotland, differed significantly from these somewhat elitist groups and were based on mutual benefit instead of charity. This type of association, comprised of working-class Scots, chose to reject the charity of the wealthy under the principle of mutualism and operated, effectively, as insurance companies. 

Professor Bueltmann went on to highlight how different forms of associations were present elsewhere. For sojourners or those posted overseas in Asia, ethnic associations provided something of an anchor. This was especially true for one individual, Sir Charles Stewart Addis. Sir Charles was born in Edinburgh and worked for HSBC in London before being transferred east to various locations including Beijing, Calcutta, and Shanghai. In each destination, Professor Bueltmann noted, he was a member of the local Scottish society. Similar to the charitable associations found in North America, the membership of these societies was generally well-off, though the absence of adjacent working-class Scots rendered a philanthropic focus unnecessary. Instead, they primarily pursued the social aspects of association (though there are records of charitable contributions being sent to Scotland, including Scottish hospitals during the First World War). While in Australia and New Zealand, too, the charity element of ethnic associations was somewhat smaller, its ultimate role was no less relevant. Indeed, associations here were involved in a range of activities relating to charity and sport, which played a significant role in the development of sporting culture and maintained strong connections with Scotland.

In concluding, Professor Bueltmann stated that it is clear Scots have been global and expressed their identity abroad positively for centuries, and reflected on the stories of two individuals. The first, John Jack, was born in Edinburgh and moved to Wellington, New Zealand, to settle with his family. A global Scot until the end, Jack, upon his death, made headlines for being the first person cremated in New Zealand in order for his ashes to be returned to the family vault in Dundee. The second, Alexander Falconer, was sponsored in 1904 by his employers to return to Scotland from New Zealand after falling ill. He returned to his wife’s birthplace in Shetland, though a lack of funds meant that his wife would not be able to accompany him on his journey. To compensate for her absence, Alexander kept a diary and sent detailed postcards describing his visit, demonstrating that there was a very well connected global Scottish world, even at the beginning of the twentieth century.

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