Book review: New Scots: Scotland's Immigrant Communities since 1945, by TM Devine and Angela McCarthy (eds)

In most parts of the world, the idea of ethnic purity is a myth or an illusion. This is certainly the case in Europe. Few can trace their family tree more than a few generations back, but even this limited span is likely to reveal an immigrant or foreign-born ancestor or two. All European nations are mongrels. The early mediaeval Kingdom of Scotland was peopled by Picts, Scots, Britons (or Welsh) and Angles. In the 12th and 13th centuries Norman-French and Breton immigrants came to form a new governing class south of the Highland Line. An English chronicler then declared that the recent kings of Scotland 'professed themselves to be Frenchmen'. Later immigrants were Flemings from Flanders, Norsemen from Scandinavia, and of course Englishmen. The 19th and early 20th century saw large-scale immigration from Ireland, both Catholic and Protestant. Meanwhile Scots emigrated '“ to England, the Americas, and what used to be called the White Dominions. Douglas Young, professor of Greek, poet and early member of the SNP used to claim there were more than 20 million Scots in the world.

Sir Tom Devine PIC: Greg Macvean
Sir Tom Devine PIC: Greg Macvean

People still leave Scotland, but since 1945 there has been a surge of immigration, and the pattern of this has changed. Its nature is examined in this interesting and one may think necessary collection of essays edited by Sir Tom Devine and Angela McCarthy. By far the largest group of immigrants are from England; that is to say, people born in England. Many of these will undoubtedly have Scottish antecedents or connections, this on account of the number of Scots who have moved south of the old Border at least since the 1707 Treaty of Union. In general integrating the English-born has, for obvious reasons, been comparatively easy, free of anything worse than occasional mild resentment, expression of anything more than this often being provoked by alcohol.

In general none of the immigrant groups described here –English, Jews, Pakistanis, Indians, Poles, Chinese and Africans – has experienced great hostility and discrimination – far less than immigrants in some parts of England, far less than the Irish suffered in 19th and early 20th century in Scotland. This isn’t, as these studies show, because we Scots are more tolerant and moral than the English, or indeed our own ancestors. It is first of all a question of numbers , and secondly of location. If large numbers of immigrants from England have been easily accommodated it is, first, because differences from the host nation are few and superficial. If other immigrants have been equally fortunate it is because there has seldom been a huge and disruptive concentration of them in a particular place where fears that they were undercutting native labour or taking jobs from “our people” have made them unpopular.

If Scotland has successfully absorbed immigrants from a diversity of unfamiliar cultures, it is partly because many of them have engaged in service industries, shop-keeping (especially convenience stores), retail trade, restaurants and cafes, while others have found work in the public sector, some in administration, many in the NHS which, as is generally recognised, would be in severe difficulties without immigrant doctors, nurses, technicians and cleaners. So immigrants are often easily accepted because their value is recognised.

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    Another reason for the comparative ease with which Scotland has accommodated a rise in immigration might have been given more attention. The authors do stress the political welcome extended to New Scots, the result no doubt of benevolence, but also the recognition of the need to refresh an ageing population. They might however have paid more heed to the consequence of the weakening of religious belief. Hostility to Irish immigration was sectarian rather than racist: Catholic immigrants were threatening the Protestant settlement. Now that Scotland can no longer be called a Protestant country, may even scarcely be a Christian one, except in the broadest sense, tolerance, which might more properly be termed indifference is more easily extended to incomers.

    These essays, some agreeably free from number-crunching, all adept at putting their investigation of the experiences of particular immigrant groups in a wider context, are both useful and illuminating. They tell us much that we don’t know about ourselves and the country we live in, and, equally usefully, sometimes tell us that what we think we know is wrong.

    New Scots: Scotland’s Immigrant Communities since 1945, by TM Devine and Angela McCarthy (eds), Edinburgh University Press, 272pp, £19.99. Sir Tom Devine is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 19 August.