3.2 Colonialism and Empire

The story of modern Scotland is threaded with the themes of colonisation and empire.  In the earlier part of the modern period, Scotland had overseas colonies of its own and some of these, like the Darien or New Caledonia colony on the Isthmus of Panama, have seen archaeological work (Horton 2009; Horton, Higgins & Oswald 1987).  After the dynastic union of the Scottish and English monarchies in 1603, Scots had a strong presence as planters in Ireland, not least in Ulster, where a Scottish Plantation settlement has recently been excavated (Horning 2004).  From 1707 and the political union of Scotland and England, Scots played a prominent part in the British Empire: as soldiers and sailors, administrators, colonists, merchants, producers and workers, farmers and shepherds, plantation managers, slave owners, and missionaries.  As a result, there is a globally-dispersed archaeology bearing material witness to the lives of modern Scots and their colonial and imperial interactions with others.

But how can research be undertaken within Scotland which comments upon the global themes of colonialism and Empire?  How can, in the words of Johnson (2006) “the tide be reversed” to consider colonialism here in the metropolis?  What stories might be told about the local foundations for and effects of empire building?

Scotland’s industrialisation has to be understood, in no small part, in terms of the processing of raw materials from the colonies and the production of goods for export to those new markets.  The Delftfield Pottery in Glasgow, for example, was set up by a consortium with interests in the New World and it produced ceramics for export, not least to the tobacco colonies of Virginia and Maryland with which Glasgow was so closely connected (Denholm 1982).  The Delftfield – considered to be the first industrial pottery works in Scotland – had James Watt as an investor and technical advisor and produced tin-glazed earthenwares (or ‘delftwares’): a type alien to the Scottish ceramics tradition and, to produce which, the Delftfield had to import skilled workers from London and other established centres of the delft industry.

Relationships between Scotland and the colonies/Empire were not confined to matters of industry and economy.  In this period, Scottish merchants and others took the profits of their global ventures – sugar production on Scottish-owned plantations in the Caribbean, trade in tobacco with Virginia and Maryland or in opium in the Far East – and invested them in the creation of new lives for themselves, as members of the Scottish country gentry.  Many Scottish country houses, designed landscapes and estates of the period owe their origins to such circumstances.  Beyond understanding the colonial origins of the capital invested in these projects, one might consider the material character of such Scottish-yet-colonial buildings and landscapes.  How was the material environment used by emerging mercantile elites to establish their position within Scottish society?  Were material forms and practices of estate management and organisation imported from the colonial plantations alongside the cash returns of slavery and trade?  Did Scottish forms of place and landscape inspire and inform the construction of colonial settlements and estates?  Research can provide concrete answers to these questions, as has been indicated by recent studies of the history of the Malcolm of Poltalloch Estate in Argyll (Macinnes 1998) and of ‘colonial’ estates around Glasgow (Nisbet 2009) and by recent work moving back-and-forth from Scotland to Australia to consider parallels between colonial Sydney under Governor MacQuarrie and the buildings and landscapes of Argyll (Casey 2010).

What these examples show is the scope for archaeological research within Scotland to contribute to our understanding of the story of colonialism and Empire.  Research of this sort takes advantage of archaeology’s capacity for investigating specific locations, their material character and the practices through which they were inhabited as workplaces, homes or public domains.  Knowledge of such localised detail, when placed in its wider context, provides a springboard for understanding the ways in which global developments permeated life and took on form in specific circumstances.  Colonies, empires and global economic structures inflect the trajectories of particular lives, but they are also constructed from and made possible by myriad localised actions and interactions.  Archaeology can explore the human-scale history and meaning and the material practice of colonialism and Empire.  Archaeology can connect widely-dispersed places and populations through their networks of material exchange and social interaction.

See also the ScARF Case Study: A Trans-Atlantic Archaeology



A painting of a busy townscape showing people on a cobbled street with an industrial 6 storey building in the backgroundCase Study: A Trans-Atlantic Archaeology