If sexual intercourse began in 1963, the Scottish diaspora began in 1999. And if the former was rather late for Philip Larkin, the latter was rather late for the last great wave of Scottish emigrants who left in the post-war years and were almost past their prime before we discovered them.
Since the reconvention of the its parliament however, Scotland has been pedalling furiously to catch up. We now have diaspora engagement plans aplenty and a Scottish Centre for Diaspora Studies at Edinburgh University for the parts that government-led initiatives don’t reach.
In 2009 Chris Dolan made his own remarkable contribution to our knowledge of the Scottish diaspora with a documentary entitled Barbado’ed: Scotland’s Sugar Slaves. He sought out the descendants of Scots sent by Cromwell to the West Indies as indentured labourers.
These were the ‘Redlegs’ who couldn’t handle the sun. Dolan’s interviews with their descendants are as fascinating for the ravished ‘Scottish’ faces as they are for the way the subjects struggle to explain their connection to Scotland and the dire conditions they find themselves in today.
This is potent stuff and it is no surprise that Dolan has chosen to return to it in a novel, albeit with a somewhat different angle. Here his protagonist Elspeth Baillie is a young Scottish actress recruited to Bar-bados by one Albert Lord Coak who owns a sugar plantation there. To deliver her story, Dolan uses the well-worn device of finding a manuscript in an old plantation house that does the telling for him.
If that is fairly standard, a male author choosing a young female as the chief actor is still unusual enough to require some courage. Even the Lewis Grassic Gibbon ran into problems with some women readers who thought that Chris Guthrie’s frequent naked self-examinations before the mirror smacked of male voyeurism. Dolan too gives us an early look at Elspeth in the all-together. Her patron Coak demands she audition naked which turns out to be a plot device of sorts but initially seems gratuitous and a little unnerving.
Elspeth passes the test and heads for the Caribbean. There a brief love affair with Coak’s son George is an even bigger test for the author. Again, it is a bit of a struggle and lines like ‘she could no longer discern what moisture belonged to the shower and what was her longing for George’ are more inclined to curdle the blood than to fire it.
Fortunately, help is at hand as George makes an early exit courtesy of a hurricane and more characters arrive or develop to take the pressure off Elspeth who by now has become the female power on the estate. First among these maturing characters is Coak’s factor Captain Shaw whose great-great-grandfather was a Barbado’ed Jacobite. Shaw wants to create a New Caledonia free of miscegenation, a problem made more acute by the recent emancipation of slaves. To that end, Elspeth suggests that they import women from Scotland to encourage white males to settle on the plantation and mate with them. A kind of supervised eugenic dating service ensues with tropical abortifacient potions administered when people stray from the truth.
The arrival of more women in the story not only has the paradoxical effect of taking the heat off the female lead but is also a turning point in the novel. From here the style is that of a documentary with characters assigned particular roles and driven towards what seems to be a pre-determined conclusion. Without giving too much away, it is not that far away from the relatively optimistic view of the mixed race couple who were the subjects of the final interview in the televised documentary in 2009.
Embracing the dark side of the Scottish diaspora is suddenly in vogue and may eventually offset the self-congratulatory whae’s like us school, heady and enduring though it is. It shouldn’t really be a surprise that a successful colonial power would leave a mixed legacy and there is no shortage of downside to explore. Within a few miles of where this is being written in British Columbia, there were various plans to replace local Japanese fishermen with Scots. Up the coast, a First Nations band most of whose members share the iconic Scottish surname Wallace inhabits one of the poorest postal codes in Canada. The loss of their Indian names was the first step to removing everything else that they valued.
These are difficult things and it is to Dolan’s credit that he has taken on the story of the Redlegs not once but twice. The documentary is by nature more clean lined than the novel and the former better served the poor whites of Barbados. It is not just the hazards of female sexuality in male hands that are distracting, the novel is also weighed down by Scotland. Comparisons flow like – well – the Clyde. Thus yellow-breasted waders in Barbados cackled like an act Elspeth once saw in Scotland where a man tapped out the whole of ‘Scots Wha Hae’ on his chin; or the aftermath of a storm is ‘like a Glasgow barroom after a brawl’; or love comes ‘like Scottish drizzle that appears from nowhere’. While there is no lack of evidence to suggest that Scots emigrants like to contextualize things in familiar ways, it is overdone here to the point of irritation.
The author’s note at the end of the book reveals that it was conceived twenty-one years ago when Dolan was working for UNESCO in Barbados. The long gestation period is testimony to the effect that the plight of the Redlegs must have had on him. There is an occasional escapee from poverty to further complicate matters – Sir Kyffen Simpson one of the richest men in Barbados is of Redleg descent, so too Rihanna though she an Irish ‘Fenty’ – but generally speaking theirs was (and is) a desperate struggle. Perhaps an imperfect novel isn’t the wisest way to follow up a perfectly good documentary but the story of the Redlegs is one that needs to be told.
VAGABOND VOICES, 248 PP, £12.95. ISBN: 978 1908251077