A few years ago I was commissioned to do a study on the demographic distribution and occupational characteristics of the Scots in Canada using the Canadian census. Censuses are interesting things. Sometimes they are set up in such a way as to confirm the view a country already has of itself. Canada, for instance, prides itself on its multiculturalism and the ‘ethnic’ question on the census was clearly designed to reflect that. The question allowed you to pick up to four ‘ethnic or cultural origins’ and reported more than 200 ethnic groups living in Canada.
‘Scottish’ was, and is, a favoured response to the point that it was subsequently used by Statistics Canada as an example of how the ethnic question is supposed to work. 568,510 people stated that their only ethnic origin was Scottish. 4,151, 340 gave a response which included Scottish with one or more other ethnic origins. I liked the flexibility of Canada’s ethnic question. It made room for people born in Scotland, those with some form of Scottish descent and even those who imagined themselves to be Scottish: all equally weighted and all equally welcome.
The census showed that the Scots were distributed across Canada with the highest provincial percentages in Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia and the highest raw number in heavily populated Ontario. Concentrations of Scots could be traced by a mapping device which used shades of red – the darker the red, the heavier the concentration of Scots in that area. It is commonly said that Scots don’t form ghettos when they emigrate but the mapping exercise showed that they tend to cluster in areas with high average incomes – a kind of reverse ghetto if you like. Occupational analysis revealed that some Scots got their big houses in much the same way as they might have at home – from highly paid professions like law or medicine. But there were other ways too: a Highland carpenter forming a successful construction company when he discovered that houses in British Columbia were framed in wood; the descendents of an Aberdeen blacksmith becoming a major supplier of steel.
The last two examples weren’t actually from the census. They were people I knew and interviewed in an oral history programme called ‘The Scots in British Columbia’ which was conducted at the same time as the census study and put human faces to the bare stats. Subjects included the Lieutenant Governor of the province, a former premier, a head of pacific fisheries, CEOs of various companies, teachers, broadcasters, joiners, lawyers, small business people, firemen, sailors: too many occupations to list. The one question we asked all of them was: ‘Why did you leave Scotland?
The answers to this were as varied as the respondents. They cited aspiration, glass ceilings, adventure, curiosity, family (as in getting away from), sectarianism, Canadian Government inducements, sexuality, weather, and so on. The curator of the local golf museum told me that she didn’t really know why she left though she did recall sitting in a packed Canadian Consulate in the early 70s when two young men came in. Drink had been taken and one scanned the waiting crowd before saying to the other: ‘Aw fuck it, let’s just go tae South Africa’.
When I happened (belatedly) on Margaret Curran’s ‘Good Morning Scotland’ interview on the subject of the Scots in England, I had high hopes for it. She came on air armed – if that is the right word – with statistics cribbed from the 2011 UK Census which sounded broadly similar to the ones that initially revealed the complex story of Scots in Canada. Her Scots in England were all Scots by birth rather than descent or affinity, but I anticipated some kind of nuanced analysis. She pointed out that the census now allows you to discover how many Scots live in Southend (where I once lived) and Milton Keynes (where my sister lives now). Sadly, that was about it.
In fact, the Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland only had two things that she really wanted to say. One, there are a lot of Scots living in England. Two, if Scotland becomes independent these Scots will be living in a foreign country. Her son, she added, went to university in England and ‘he’s now a foreigner’. The interview degenerated from there with Curran reduced to a prolonged haver by clarifying questions that almost anyone could have anticipated – including one about the role played by her own party in deepening the inequality that is generally seen as a driver of out-migration. There was a late intervention by Professor Tom Devine to the effect that this ‘new’ information had been around for centuries, family would not be disrupted by what was essentially a legal change, and the ‘foreigner’ argument was ‘badly misplaced’. Devine’s authority seemed to uncouple the last carriage from Curran’s train of thought and she was reduced to calling him ‘great’ and saying that she had a copy of his book.
All of which could simply be written off as seventeen minutes that neither Margaret Curran nor anybody listening to her will ever get back. However, the interview left a bad aftertaste. The words ‘foreign’ or ‘foreigner’ are in the wrong hands in Britain just now and have taken on the quality of swear words. It ill-behoves the Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland to contribute to that. Further, the same definition that makes the Scots in England the foreigners of a possible future makes the Scots in Canada the foreigners of the present.
The one area of consistency in the interviews I conducted was that interviewees often referred to Scotland as ‘home’. This was true of those who were born in Scotland and have never returned even to visit and those who visit regularly. It was true of those who expressed reservations about their new life in Canada and those who seemed most settled there. It was true of those who were descended from Scots and those who lived in the Scotland of the imagination. Safe to say that none of them will welcome the news that the Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland now regards them as foreigners.
‘Diaspora engagement’ has been transformed since Devolution: there wasn’t even a term for it before the Scottish Parliament was restored. It is now moving into another phase made possible by the internet with social networks for Scots and ‘affinity’ Scots springing up everywhere. An application has been submitted – I’ll declare an interest here – for a .scot domain name which, if successful, will be available to ‘the worldwide family of Scots’. Family was never defined so broadly, foreigner never less applicable.