The Empire Café

Louise Welsh

“People who care nothing for their country’s stories and songs… are like people without a past – without a memory – they are half people.”

Poor Things, Alasdair Gray

Whenever my boyfriend and I go to Loch Fyne in Argyll, we take a walk past some ruined houses that were abandoned by those forced to flee during The Clearances. You’ll forgive me for seeming melodramatic, but there is a sadness that looms over this forgotten place – these ruins are the broken pieces that remain of once happy homes, stolen from innocent families. On our most recent trip, my boyfriend noted the history of The Clearances was often forgotten and rarely acknowledged. It was only then that I realised that no one had ever taught me about this part of my country’s history. Anything I learnt about The Clearances as a child, I learnt from reading Kathleen Fidler’s novel, The Desperate Journey. It is not a topic widely taught in Scottish schools – or at least, not the schools I went to, nor any my friends attended. It seems to lie dormant, overlooked in favour of the likes of Bonnie Prince Charlie, William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. It is sad to think that children are kept ignorant of certain parts of their own country’s history. Arguably, it is also very dangerous.

With this notion in mind, I introduce The Empire Café.

Created by author Louise Welsh and Collective Architecture’s Jude Barber, The Empire Café means to explore Scotland’s relationship with the North Atlantic Slave Trade, attempting to disseminate the reality of the country’s involvement in what is arguably one of the greatest scars in the world’s history. During the Commonwealth Games, The Empire Café will be based in Merchant City for a week, focusing on Scotland’s relationship with slavery. In the same vein of our attitude to The Clearances, this is a part of Scottish history that is missing from school curriculum. It is evident all around us, yet we very rarely interact with it.

Situated in the Briggait, the venue will be set out like a typical café, but will be furnished with intricate and subtle symbols and hints in relation to the slave trade. Led by Welsh, the café will host a series of events including readings, films, debates and workshops, all themed around Scotland and slavery. In addition to this, there has also been poetry anthology commissioned with The Scottish Poetry Library and Scottish PEN. This anthology will compile pieces from both Scottish and Caribbean poets and will be available for free in the café and in selected libraries.

This creative venture is an encouraging step towards diminishing Scotland’s alienation with its own history by removing the barrier of ignorance. As a country, we need to accept and study the past so that we can learn from it (please excuse the well-meant cliché).

Confucius says: “Study the past if you would define the future.”

There are some of us who are hoping to make changes in Scotland this year. Considering previous failings and the growing hope that change will prevent a repeat has been the biggest inspiration behind this.  We must consider the mistakes of the past to make sure that we do not likewise fail in the future.

The café will open on 24 June and encourages visitors to interact with a part of Scotland’s past that perhaps before was considered inaccessible. Come along for some tea and Jamaican loaf.

Karyn Dougan
National Collective

Photograph of Louise Welsh by annie_c_2


About Karyn Dougan

Converted Yes voter. When not writing, editing and reviewing for your pleasure, you can catch Karyn causing mayhem over at @missnovocaine

There are 3 comments

  1. Richard Cain

    Discussion, and teaching, of Scotland’s history in schools is appalling, and improvement of this is one of my great hopes for independence. I learned about the Clearances in High School, not in History, but in English, reading translations of Sorley MacLean. Similarly, I found out about the ’45 by studying a book for English class. That was the only Scottish history that I ever learned at school. “History” only ever dealt with other peoples’ histories; the subliminal message being that Scotland didn’t matter.

    1. Catrìona

      I agree. ‘That rich comic pageant known as the Scottish education system’ is something not to be proud of. Gaelic medium education is all very well, but is involved in delivering the mainstream (.i.e English-language) curriculum through the medium of Gaelic. Pointing out the weaknesses and flaws in the education system isn’t to be equated with talking down Scotland’s schools and teachers, although talking as a teacher, I think many of them should be talked down.

  2. Tocasaid

    Scottish education is already independent and has for the most part got over the cringe of 30+ years ago when Gaelic was beaten out of kids and the Clearances never mentioned.

    Don’t talk down Scotland’s schools or their teachers. Even better, send your kids to a Gaelic medium school or campaign for one in your area. I can assure the kids of today know about the Clearances only too well.

    Er…not hidden. I’m sure there are versions in the Queen’s Engerlish too.

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