Lost Histories

I sometimes fear that
people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress
worn by grotesques and monsters
as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis.

Fascism arrives as your friend.
It will restore your honour,
make you feel proud,
protect your house,
give you a job,
clean up the neighbourhood,
remind you of how great you once were,
clear out the venal and the corrupt,
remove anything you feel is unlike you…

It doesn’t walk in saying,
“Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution.”
– Michael Rosen, “I Sometimes Fear…

I volunteer with a local heritage & arts group in Gourock: a wee forum where people who are interested in our Burgh of Barony’s past can discuss our history, culture, and future. This can range from the not-too-distant past of the 20th Century, all the way back to prehistoric times, and even the geological composition of the very rocks. Little stories abound, from the innovation of the original Red Herring, to the diabolical warlock Auld Dunrod, and the thing buried under St. Ninian’s football pitch featured on an episode of Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World.

There are stories that aren’t quite so delightful: the death of Mary Lamont and others in the “witch-mania of Scotland”; the sectarian violence which cropped up again and again; the expulsion of Rev. Macrae by the Synod. One of the many hazards historians must navigate in the sea of history is that dark side of humanity: no town is without its sorrows, its hatreds, its evils. It can be very easy to repurpose shame or horror from your past into denial and outrage towards others.

I was struck by this facet of the events in Charlottesville: it’s illustrative in showing how easy it is for things to go wrong.

At a talk given by the author and historian Edward Ayers, a Charlottesville city councilor, Kristin Szakos, asked about the city’s Confederate monuments. She wondered whether the city should discuss removing them.

People around her gasped. “You would have thought I had asked if it was O.K. to torture puppies,” she recalled during a 2013 conversation on BackStory, a podcast supported by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

The response to her comment was heated, and swift. Ms. Szakos said she received threats via phone and email. “I felt like I had put a stick in the ground, and kind of ugly stuff bubbled up from it,” she said.

By 2016, Wes Bellamy, another Charlottesville city councilor and the city’s vice mayor, had become a champion of efforts to remove Confederate monuments. At a news conference in front of the Lee statue in March of that year, he said the City Council would appoint a commission to discuss the issue.

“When I see the multitude of people here who are so passionate about correcting something that they feel should have been done a long time ago, I am encouraged,” he said to the crowd of residents in front of him. Some clapped. Others shouted, accusing Mr. Bellamy of sowing division.

That same month, Zyahna Bryant, a high school student, petitioned the City Council asking for the Lee statue to be removed. “My peers and I feel strongly about the removal of the statue because it makes us feel uncomfortable and it is very offensive,” she wrote in the petition, which collected hundreds of signatures.

The City Council established its special commission in May 2016. Later that year, it issued a report suggesting that the city could either relocate the Lee statue or transform it with the “inclusion of new accurate historical information.”

The addition of historical context might have been welcomed by some defenders of the statues. One group, Friends of C’Ville Monuments, said on its website that statues could be improved “by adding more informative, better detailed explanations of the history of the statues and what they can teach us.”

But in February, the City Council voted to remove the statue from the park. Opponents of the move sued in March, arguing that the city did not have the authority to do so under state law.

That court case is continuing, and the statue has remained in place. It was the focal point for a gathering held in May by the white nationalist Richard Spencer, who was among the demonstrators in Charlottesville this weekend. In June, the City Council gave Lee Park a new name — Emancipation Park.

 – The Statue at the Centre of Charlotteville’s Storm

(I discuss the use of the term “white nationalist” & its implications within and without the United States on indyref2.scot)

This is important, as it is a perfect example of how an evil cause can hijack ones that seem neutral, even noble, for their own ends. Many people value their history, good and ill, and take the view that even those memorials to those whose cause was ultimately evil should not be taken down. At best, they feel it is insincere political correctness, a softening of history in the name of not causing undue offence to people who are intelligent enough to understand historical context: at worst, they fear it a deliberate act of historical desecration & erasure. This is how they get otherwise reasonable, empathetic individuals to hold aloft blazing torches while marching and chanting “blood and soil.”

Now, I’m not a United States citizen, nor do I have a particularly deep knowledge of the United States’ civic history. I honestly can’t comment with much detail on the nuances of post-Civil War relations, the Reconstruction, the history of Confederate monuments, the Civil Rights Movement, or anything pertinent to the discussion.* However, I can talk about Scottish history, and how even a wee town in Scotland thousands of miles from Africa and America can get caught up in it all.

Per pale: dexter, Or, a point dexter and a point base Gules, surmounted of a fess chequy Azure and Argent, and in sinister chief a dexter hand couped Gules grasping a skean Azure; sinister, per fess wavy, in chief Argent, a three-masted ship issuant Sable, sails Proper, flagged Azure, accompanied by two oak trees eradicated Vert, in base undy Azure and Argent, a demi-man Sable holding in his dexter hand a skean Or.
(Roughly translated: right, gold, with red corner, surmounted with a glue and white check pattern, in top-left a red right hand cut-short holding a blue dagger; left, divided horizontally with a wavy line, top-right white, a black three-masted ship emerging, sails open, with a blue flag, accompanied by two uprooted green oak trees, on bottom-right, blue and white wavy lines, the top half of a black man holding a gold dagger in his right hand.)

This is the coat of arms of Gourock, the town that’s been my home for almost all my life. Each emblem has significance to Gourock’s story. The two halves reflect two of the major families of Gourock. The left features the “fess checky Azure and Argent,” surmounted by the red hand wielding a blade, both representing Clan Stewart of Castlemilk; the right quadrant features the three-masted ship and two oak trees, with a man bearing a skean in his right hand emerging from the sea – the emblems of Clan Darroch:

The new coat of arms was granted on 1st December 1954, based upon the Burgh Seal of 1892. Duncan Darroch, the legend goes, was a poor boy who tended the cattle on the hills of Gourock: he so loved the hills of his home that he vowed, one day, to make his fortune, and buy the lands of Gourock himself. After seeking, and finding, his fortune in the West Indies, Duncan Darroch did exactly that: in 1784, the Stewarts of Castlemilk sold the land of Gourock to Duncan Darroch for a princely sum. The town’s motto, “Avant and Be Watchful,” combines the Stewarts’ and Darrochs’ motto together.

Most of the charges are fairly common to Scottish heraldry: plenty of weapon-wielding hands, ships, and trees to be found all across the land. What isn’t fairly common is a “demi-man Sable.” Who is this man?

Above is a demi-negro holding a dagger in his right hand… the other devices bear witness to the fact that Duncan Darroch, the original purchaser, spent many years of his life in Jamaica, the ship indicating his voyages, and the negro is emblematic of the slavery which in his day was in full vogue on the American continent and in the West Indian Islands.
The Town Council Seals of Scotland: Historical, Legendary, and Heraldic, Alexander Porteous, 1906

Scotland’s role in the British Empire is, predictably, complicated. So it is with slavery. The recently opened Inverclyde Heritage Hub has lots of great information & artifacts from the area’s past (and books, so many books, you guys), but for a sensitive guy like me, it can be extremely tough reading.

An entire wall told the story of Scotts of Greenock’s blockade runners: six ships – Elsie, Ivanhoe, Kenilworth, Marmion, Redgauntlet, and Talisman – who were tasked to break through enemy lines to relieve beleaguered ports, such as Charleston, Richmond, & Wilmington. Some achieved success, & even survived to the end of the war. That war was the American Civil War – and the six blockade runners were aiding Confederate ports. While Scotland’s Confederacy links can be viewed as a subset of the British Empire’s “hostile neutrality” in the conflict, Scottish heritage has long been an inspiration for the United States, and especially the South.

Another wall was dedicated to the Greenock sugar trade, including the story of one particular slave ship, the Hannover – one of nineteen ships which sailed from Inverclyde to the Americas with African people as their cargo. Page after page showing the indignities suffered upon our fellow human beings for want of profit and capital and prestige: pictures of chains, shackles, manifests, diagrams of holds where people were crammed like sardines, whose lives were considered about as valuable as those fish. What kind of a legacy, what kind of a heritage, is that to leave for our children? All the beautiful buildings & great inventions, inextricable from these atrocities?

Shame? White Guilt? Why be ashamed or guilty for something I had no part in? Yet my heart absolutely ached simply knowing that these injustices happened, as surely as I felt a knot of anguish seeing the tapestry commemorating the children lost in the Greenock Blitz, the senseless loss of hundreds of young men in a futile action, or the tragedies on land and sea which took lives away. “White guilt” perpetuates the false narrative of “whiteness,” that I consent to the fiction of a “white people,” and, by extension, racialism: my feelings are more akin to mourning for lost humanity.

As ever, Robert J. Sommyne is eloquent and poignant in his analysis:

While the Highland Clearances were afoot many landlords needed to maintain a source of income, buy the sheep and invest in other means to ‘improve’ the land once the tenants were evicted. Slave money was important to tide the lairds over while they reinvested in the cheviot and other breeds of sheep. While the African slaves worked in the heat of the sugar mills the many dispossessed in Scotland were either driven into the new growing grey cities of industry or abroad to seek better lives colonising the corners of empire. So you see we are all connected black and white or Scots and African. You could not have the clearances without the profit of white gold and you could not feed the demand for sugar without a merchant industrial class. It is two parts of the same story. This elegant point was made so succinctly in the play, ‘The Chievot, The Stag and The Black Black Oil’ where the narrator switches from the Highland clearance and directs the audiences’ minds to the international significance and connection of their story. “And all over Africa, men were being brought to heel”…
On this lies my argument, for surely it makes more sense for us not to be guilty but to be angry. Guilt is worthless in this debate and advances nothing for the future of Scotland or our relationship with other parts of the world. But anger raised in justice can bring forward demands and actions much needed. David Olusoga pointed out that the compensation given to slaver owners after emancipation in 1833 was the biggest bailout by the state to any private concern until the 2008-9 banking crisis. Let that sink it and marinate, the injustice of yesterday forming a despicable pattern today with the same people being exploited black or white. And doubtless many of the few that own so much of Scotland’s land or the super rich and powerful still ruling over us are descendants of  those compensated. The reaction of the man or woman on the street surely should be centred on this fact. That hundreds of years ago the poor ancestors of these citizens were forced to pay out of taxation, compensation to someone else for their largesse and exploitation. That’s what I would be mad about, that is what I would want to not be ‘sorry for’ but to distance myself and my future governance from.

Yet there’s another, strange feeling I have seeing that black man on our town coat of arms. I look to the statues of slave owners, the monuments built on the broken backs of the dispossessed, the eulogies and honours bestowed on those whose fortune was made on human property. They commemorate the masters, not the slaves. In depicting a black slave as the charge, the Darroch Crest and Gourock Coat of Arms acknowledge their existence in a candid, public manner, in a medium where normally they are completely excluded. And, indeed, it’s entirely understandable why many modern townsfolk would have great problems with the crest: I’ve seen it “retouched” to resemble Neptune, or a miscellaneous Merman. But the Darroch Sable-man is not a caricature, a grotesque, a gargoyle: he is simply a man.

Perhaps part of our collective reconciliation with our history involves facing up to our visual representation. In Gourock, perhaps erasing the Sable-man is just compounding the long ignorance of Gourock’s connections with slavery, continuing the erasure of black people’s enforced contribution to our heritage. The history of Africans and Scots have intertwined for a long time, and Scotland’s links with Africa are foundational to our very nation. It seems appropriate that we should talk about them beyond the horror of slavery, and look into the positive, willing, contributions they have made.

For as much as some Scots contributed to slavery and its causes, other Scots were among its fiercest opponents. Our own Robert Burns had strong sentiments on the matter. George Thomson first met William Lloyd Garrison while campaigning in Scotland. The great American abolitionist Frederick Douglass travelled to Scotland to build support for the cause, and remarked upon the people’s response:

I have never seen a people more deeply moved than were the people of Scotland, on this very question. Public meeting succeeded public meeting. Speech after speech, pamphlet after pamphlet, editorial after editorial, sermon after sermon, soon lashed the conscientious Scotch people into a perfect furore. ‘Send back the money!’ was indignantly cried out, from Greenock to Edinburgh, and from Edinburgh to Aberdeen.

As I say, the question of what the people of the United States do with their history is their own affair. But for Scotland, I feel that we must acknowledge all our history, even the parts that seem too horrible to bear remembering. We can, and must, do this, in the knowledge that even in the eras of the cruellest of injustices and grimmest of times, you will always find people who are helping. We must find the helpers in ourselves.

Build up the plinth bold & high
Let history moan & touch the sky
And shame in every cornered hall
In minds of men & privilege fall
Oh do not take the butcher down
To save a weakness of your frown
But construct other heroes in
Your nation – who have lesser sin
Jet black Devils with Lilly hearts
From depths of darkness in their start
Do not drag to earth their masters
Crowned in ermine, bronze and plaster
Carve from minds of moral new
What you could not from the few
And bury deep within the soil
The memory of these slaves who toil
Each and every scar you bear
Wear it with a kinder care
And honour flesh once moistly torn
With a lash – imperially born
Oh do not say he haunts us still
Is lines of progress made of steel
Admitting that his patient tracks
Still lay with omen upon your back
Give up anguish weighed in gold
Build a new to recast the old
 – “Construct,” Robert J. Sommyne

History’s a lie that they teach you in school
A fraudulent view called the golden rule
A peaceful land that was born civilized
Was robbed of its riches, its freedom, its pride

*My friend Jeffrey Shanks, a National Park Service archaeologist, scholar, and historian, has written a fine piece on Confederacy & heritage, which he’s kindly let me publish as a guest post.


8 thoughts on “Lost Histories

  1. Hugh Wallace says:

    Scotland’s history & connection to the slave trade are not widely enough known here. I moved to Lochwinnoch last year & started researching the local history. The very geographical location & layout of this village is linked to slavery & the architectural remains of the rich estate created with slave money, vast amounts of money (£85 million in today’s money by certain measures), lie not 50m from where I sit right now & the land & slave owner’s grave is less than 1/4 of a mile away. But I’d bet you that the vast majority of the inhabitants of the village don’t know any of this & until fairly recently the written history of the MacDowalls glossed over this bit too well.

  2. So good that you are taking part in passing down our Heritage & Arts to future generations, making sense of our past makes sense of our present and can help our future to have more sense.

  3. coiteachan says:

    Great post, thank you.

  4. Jamie MacDonald says:

    That is a great post Al, as always, well measured and so very informative..
    Hand painted sign writing is my thing, so the heraldic terms took me right back to college days..(sinister-lol)
    I feel there has been so much swept under the carpet and do my own historical reading – I started with a passion for my country, and a love of architecture and old things, with recent times I am finding out more about the history of the union.. The clearances, the slave trade, and the many incidents in Scotland in this period which demonstrated ‘ the unsettled will of the people ‘ for a union at all..
    Reading up on the compensation received to an Ayrshire estate near where I live, finds the descendants of said beneficiary still residents.. Between then and now there were many coal mines opened and exploited on ‘their’ land.. Most likely exploiting the very folk they kicked of it!!
    But .. Angry ??
    You are bloody right I am!!

    Scotland FREE ..or a desert..

    When are we marching??

  5. […] Jeffrey Shanks for allowing me to publish this piece, which I think complements my recent post on lost history: I think it neatly fills in the gaps in my knowledge regarding Southern/Confederacy heritage. It […]

  6. Janet says:


    I am a Darroch on my mother’s side. Very interesting.


  7. […] Working Group: Gourock Coat of Arms Public Consultation. I have written on the Gourock Coat of Arms before, and I have a deep personal interest in it stemming from an early age. Therefore I felt it would be […]

  8. […] The question becomes, what now for the Gourock Man? […]

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