Why Scotland’s welcome for 1000 Syrian refugees should be a matter for pride but still kept in context

welcome-to-scotlandBy Professor John Robertson

Scotland has attracted and found a home for its 1000th Syrian refugee. The Scottish and, in some cases, the English, mainstream media have reported on this and praised Scotland for taking one third of all the Syrians arriving in the UK despite having less that one tenth of the overall population.

The Guardian, the Independent and the Telegraph (Greenock Telegraph that is) were fulsome in their praise.  Needless to say, London’s Daily Telegraph missed the story.

The Daily Mail has yet to move on from its nasty little tale of unhappy Syrians in Rothesay, apparently suffering from an over-generous water supply.

You’d think the local authority was water-boarding them with rain. Only days before hearing of the 1000 Syrians, I’d been reading of two earlier refugee crises and the tolerance of the locals receiving them. Both stories popped back into my mind as I read of our 21st Century equivalent.

In the first case it was a very much earlier story. As Athens burned at the hands of the Persian Empire, in 480 BC, its civilian population fled to neighbouring states.

‘Every nervous mother arriving in their city was given public welfare, every child free education.’

Reading ‘Persian Fire’ by Tom Holland, a section on how one Greek city of Troezen (the setting for Euripides’ tragedy Hippolytus) treated Athenian refugees, nearly two and a half thousand years ago, brought home to me, the appalling meanness of some of our contemporary politicians.

Ironically, what is now Syria was then part of the Persian Empire which was attacking Ancient Greece. Readers will remember the film 300 with its strangely Scottish-accented Spartan warriors and equally strangely homo-erotic Persians. At that time, the city states of Greece – Athens, Sparta, Corinth and many more – were in a state of constant and often very violent conflict and so, the kindness of the Troezenians seems even more remarkable. However, it probably tells us that, other than their aristocratic warrior elites, the common people were no less compassionate then, than we moderns often think we are now.

Much more recently and closer to home, the people of Glasgow, in the 1840s, took in roughly 1000 refugees every day, fleeing the Irish Holocaust or the Great Famine as it was known. See this:

That so many people of one race could move more or less peacefully to another country where among other things, the religion was diametrically opposed to that of the majority of their own, must surely be a tribute to the Scot’s understanding, forbearance and tolerance. Many unkind things have been said about the lack of such qualities in Glasgow and Central Scotland, yet when compared with other nations where there have been similar displacements, they have certainly prevailed in Scotland.  The ingredients for violence were all there, but it was never to erupt. Yet there were moments of open hostility, times of tension and trepidation when the bubble almost burst but didn’t.

These words are from ‘Irish: A Remarkable Saga of a Nation and a City’ by John Burrowes (Mainstream Publishing, 2003, page 129). I’ve only just finished reading it, after reading two other Christmas book token purchases – a History of the Balkans and a History of the Arabs. I read it last because I thought I knew more about its content than the others.

I did know more, in a general sense, of what was in the story but I hadn’t known the sheer scale and intensity of what was in it. I found, reading the other two books, among much interesting detail, that the histories of the Balkans and of the Arabs were saturated with waves of blood-letting, with staggering cruelty and with endless suffering of the innocents, especially women and children.

Fans of TV’s Game of Thrones have seen nothing worse and much, much less of it. It all reminded me of the quote from the German philosopher, Hegel, that: ‘History is a slaughter-bench!’ However, reading the quote above from Burrowes, prompted me to think that there might be something inspiring to say about Scotland at a time when our national media, especially BBC Reporting Scotland, and celebrity ‘experts’ such as the odious Neil Oliver, are so determined to cast such dark shadows over our spirits and to sneer, so venomously, at our aspirations for democratic change

Before I go on to try to make favourable comparisons, it’s probably important that we remember the sheer scale of the challenge Scotland faced, in the middle of the 19th Century and afterward, to cope with the consequences of the ‘Great Famine of Ireland’ or as it’s better described, I’d say, ‘The Irish Holocaust’. I hadn’t known and was shocked to read of it. Again, see this from Burrowes:

‘It was worse than any world catastrophe of recent years, worse even than those horrific television images of calamities in Africa which have so shocked the word.’


‘They died at work in the fields, they dropped dead by the roadside, they passed away in their sleep in their homes. Entire villages were found where everyone had died, virtually overnight. In proportional terms, the Great Famine of Ireland was the most ravaging national tragedy ever recorded. It was to virtually wipe out half the population [three out of six million] of the whole island.’

To be accurate, the genocide of the indigenous people of North America and of Australia resulted in even greater losses with in excess of 90% mortality. The only case of 100%, therefore ‘true’ genocide I’m aware of, was the complete removal of the indigenous Tasmanians. The latter were of course hunted to extinction by the descendants of earlier waves of ethnic cleansing in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands. Burrowes is correct in saying that the Great Irish Famine was a greater catastrophe than those in recent years, but we need to remember the even greater earlier catastrophes in these now haunted places.

It would be wrong on so many counts, to compare the Irish Holocaust too closely with the Jewish Holocaust. The 20th Century, calculated, cold-blooded, systematic murder with mass popular complicity of most of Europe’s Jews and, in smaller numbers, Europe’s Roma, its homosexuals, people with disabilities and those with mental health problems, its socialists and its communists was different from the cold-hearted but more callous than deliberately-caused deaths in 19th Century Ireland. I don’t mean this qualification to excuse in any way of course the responsibility of the British elites in causing the Irish Holocaust. Damn them to Hell!

So, that’s it, a tragedy of unimaginable proportions only miles from Scotland’s shores. How big then was that challenge for these close neighbours in Glasgow and surrounding districts? According to Burrowes, in just ten days of August 1847 11,080 immigrants arrived in the Clyde. That’s roughly a thousand every day in a small city of around 270,000 souls. By 1851 the Irish-born made up 7.2% of the Scottish population but only 2.9% 0f the English population.

Remember too that this was an early Victorian city with little social infrastructure to help these people settle, other than that of the Kirk. Yet, despite these huge challenges there was no significant violence other than sporadic small-scale cases, by the indigenous local Protestant Scots against the immigrants. The only incident of any size was the so-called ‘Battle of Partick Cross’ which was in fact a conflict between two Irish Catholic political factions with other immigrant Protestant Irish ‘Orangemen’ exploiting and exacerbating the situation.

In the same period, those Irish immigrants who had chosen the United States of America over Scotland were to find themselves in much more volatile, disadvantageous and hostile circumstances. In New York and in Philadelphia in the 1840s, for example, there were large-scale riots involving the use of firearms and resulting in the burning of Catholic churches. Militia were called in on several occasions to quell the violence.

Similarly, in the middle of the 19th Century, as the Ottoman Empire began to lose control over the Balkans, population movement and competition for resources between ethno-linguistically-similar and formerly peaceful neighbours, separated only by religion – Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosniaks – resulted in full-scale civil war and the massacre of tens of thousands. Yet these population movements were often quite small scale by comparison with the Irish migration to Scotland. After nearly a century since these Balkan migrations and decades of relative calm under communist rule, the same area was to erupt, in the 1990s, in genocidal massacres between the same groups.

In marked contrast, the massive migration of Irish poor into Scotland was to result in the complete absence of serious conflict and a slow but gradual progress toward complete equality for them. By 2015, Scottish Catholics were 2% more likely to have university degrees and postgraduate qualifications than were Scottish Protestants and were 1% more likely to be earning in the higher income brackets (over £30,000 pa). It is important to recognise however that this development took a very long, disgracefully long, time – more than 100 years – to achieve.

More recent arrivals such as Jews (48%), Hindus (52%), Muslims (34%) and Sikhs (33%) were actually much more strongly represented in the more affluent, managerial, directorial and professional sectors of Scottish society and economy than were the Secular (25%), Protestant (24%) or Catholic (23%) groups. I am a confirmed secular atheist, thank God [ahem], so I’m relieved to see that we’re beating those Christians on this, if only by 1%. The source material is here: http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2015/05/5191/5.

In England the pattern was, recently (2012), similar for all of the above groups other than the Muslims who were commonly much less successful and much less affluent than the white population (Catholic, Protestant or Secular). I couldn’t find directly comparable figures for England but this research from Birmingham University offers a reasonable equivalent: http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/Documents/research/SocialSciences/Key-Facts-Background-Paper-BPCIV.pdf.

I appreciate the limitations in these latter comparisons, given the small size of all the Scottish minority groups, the much larger size of the English Muslim population and their differing regional, class or caste origins.

I feel I’ve missed some immigrants out, here. Let me think. Who could they be? Oh, yes the biggest migrant group of all at 8.1% of the population or around 400 000, well ahead of Muslims currently in third place at 1.4% or even the Irish-born at 7.2%, are … the English-born! See these sources for 2001: http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/scotlandshistory/20thand21stcenturies/englishimmigration/index.asp  and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_in_the_United_Kingdom

Now, I do know the English-born have suffered here. You only had to see the back of the road sign, at the top of the ‘Rest and Be Thankful’ in Argyll, with ‘Settlers Out!’ scrawled across it, to sense the bitter hatred. Fortunately, some enlightened soul had written ‘Rennies In?’ underneath.

I first saw this back in the Seventies so it can’t be anything to do with Willie Rennie of the Lib Dems. Some of my best friends know people who know the neighbours of English-born people, so you can’t call me Anti-English. Seriously though, has there been any large-scale and significant anti-English behaviour in Scotland to damage my thesis here?  I found this, in http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2002/05/14608/3653:

The term racial group has been held to include the English and our research found several prosecutions which were brought against accused using anti-English language. Our informants felt that this was an appropriate use of the racist crime provisions.

So they found several prosecutions eh? Seriously though, I can find no actual evidence of anything much here. Do contradict me if you find anything.

So, is this fair? I’m not sure if it’s a completely persuasive set of evidence I’ve offered here. I mean this to start a conversation and not to finish it so don’t get angry if you think I’ve in some way offended any of the ethnicities mentioned here. However, I do feel that it does suggest that there may be something good or at least nae bad here which we can take a little pride in and use as an inspiration to go on and to achieve greater things.

Finally, what’s happened to the Syrian families settled in Rothesay on the Isle of Bute? The Facebook Page, Bute Welcomes Refugees is active and full of signs of good-hearted locals with comments like:

‘Wonderful to see lots of weans [children] playing together last night and as always the biggest smiles were on our new residents’ faces.’

On the Facebook page of the local newspaper, the Buteman, there’s not a sign of trouble of any kind. Try Googling any combination of words to expose something negative about this and if you find the slightest trace, other than that of the single person, not from the island, arrested for offensive Facebook posts in February 2016, let me know.

Never mind our martial glory, is this maybe something we can take a wee bit of pride in as Burns himself might have? Does Scotland, especially in Glasgow and the West of Scotland, have a unique record, admittedly troubled, but ultimately big-hearted, of accepting and integrating poor, huddled masses? In the last year, Scotland has taken in 1000 refugees from Syria. We can be proud of this but not too proud perhaps.

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4 thoughts on “Why Scotland’s welcome for 1000 Syrian refugees should be a matter for pride but still kept in context

  1. Independent England

    Good on Scotland! If, after Brexit Scotland declares independence and rejoins the EU maybe the City of London will move its bases to Edinburgh. Along with it a few million people from overcrowded SE and other parts of England. So get buliding thoses houses. Scotland might even need to relax its green belt laws. An increase in the Scottish population to say 15 or 20 million plus all the EU migrants coming over. Oh and maybe Heathrow can cancel any thoughts of a third runway. Given Edindurgh’s new found importance, a massive expansion of Edinburgh airport might be in order. Enjoy!

    1. Willie John

      Careful. Scotland may start using the points system so beloved of certain brexiteers. Bankers may not qualify!

  2. Pingback: Scotland takes nearly 26% of Syrian refugees settled in UK with only 8% of the UK population | speymouth

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