Bringing the Empire to Scotland

When thinking about the Scottish Diaspora it is important to recognise what diaspora actually means. Traditionally the word refers simply to the movement of people, i.e. describing the migration of Scots and other groups away from their homeland. More recently the term diaspora has primarily been associated with victimhood and forced dispersal from a homeland. Another important characteristic of a diaspora is the continued connection with the old world. This connection, however, works both ways: while many Scots resident in the diaspora were keen to maintain links with Scotland, many a Scot who stayed there was keen to learn more about the sites in which Scots had settled. For those whose family members lived abroad there was a very immediate reason for this interest, but even for those who had no personal connection, the new world was of interest. Throughout the nineteenth century, accounts from missionaries and explorers such as David Livingston were read widely, and the so-called magic lantern shows brought home to Scotland images of exotic places from all around the world. On a much larger scale to this were the international exhibitions held in Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

One of these exhibitions, opened by King George VI in early May 1938, was the British Empire Exhibition in Glasgow – the second international exhibition held in that city. The first exhibition had been the International Exhibition of 1888 held at Kelvingrove Park. 13 million people visited the 1938 exhibition during the six months it was on. Glasgow was not only Scotland’s largest city, and the second largest city in the United Kingdom, it also had a long history that directly connected it with the British Empire. This connection had existed ever since Glasgow’s tobacco lords rose to the fore in the eighteenth century, and, during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, extended both ways as products made in Scotland made their way to the Empire. Glasgow clearly was the second city of Empire. It was thus perhaps a very deliberate choice to launch the then largest ship in the world, the Cunarder Queen Elizabeth,  from John Brown’s Clydebank shipyard at the end of September 1938, right at the height of the Exhibition. For those visiting the Exhibition it certainly provided a vivid glimpse of Empire – Canadian maple syrup and all.

For a few more impressions check out this clip from the Scottish Screen Archive.

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