Friday, 14 November 2014

The Scottish Diaspora: An Interview with Tanja Bueltmann

Tanja Bueltmann is Principal Lecturer in History and Director of International Development and Recruitment at Northumbria University. Tanja’s research interests are in diaspora and British World history, especially the cultural and social history of Scottish, English and German immigrant communities and their associational life. Tanja is currently working on the project “European, Ethnic and Expatriate: A Longitudinal Comparison of German and British Social Networking and Associational Formations in Modern-day Asia” funded by the ESRC. The project investigates the role ethnic and cultural organisations play in British and German expatriate social networking in Asia.  Below Randall Stephens interview Tanja about her latest book, Clubbing Together: Ethnicity, Civility and Formal Sociability in the Scottish Diaspora to 1930 (Liverpool University Press, 2014).

Randall Stephens: What first got you interested in Scottish associationalism and ethnic identity?

Tanja Bueltmann: Perhaps I should first explain how I got interested in the Scots in the first place. That was the result of an Erasmus exchange I went on when studying for my MA in Germany (in those days that was the default degree, there was no BA). For that exchange I got the chance to study Scottish History at the University of Edinburgh, and that got me interested in Scottish ethnicity and ethnic identity. Initially I focused on developments in Scotland, however, writing my MA thesis (back in Germany) on the National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights (NAVSR). Quite a name! From that stems my interest in associations: why do people come together in groups, formalising a club or society, for a particular aim? In the case of the NAVSR it was pretty obvious as it was a political organization. But how about clubs that had their roots in cultural activities, particularly ethno-cultural activities? These were questions I found fascinating when writing about the NAVSR as it had connections with Scottish groups abroad that pursued such aims. So I thought it would be a great project to explore those groups further for my PhD. By coincidence and with some luck that brought me to New Zealand to examine the Scottish immigrant community there. That's when I realized how important ethnic identity was for them, and how they expressed it through a variety of associations.

Stephens: Is it true that historians have not been as attuned to the Scottish expat experience as to the experiences of other ethnic groups?

Bueltmann: I wouldn't actually say that in quite this way, certainly not in terms of migrants from the British Isles: in scholarship focused on the movement of people from there to destinations in North America, Australasia and Africa, the Scots and their migration generally have received a good amount of attention. The point is perhaps more that this is a fairly recent development. So in that sense there is certainly currency in the point made in this question. First and foremost there is one basic problem, in some geographical contexts in particular, namely that the Scots are sometimes hard to identify as such. In much of nineteenth-century Africa, for example, available census records or colonial reports that might provide details on migrant origins often speak only of "British" migrants at best (equally often just referring to "Europeans"). In such cases where numbers of Scots are difficult to establish, it is also more difficult to examine their experiences. Secondly, and related to this point, a good number of scholars have also used the category "British" for their analysis. In that sense, as Campbell rightly noted, the experiences of the Scots (and Welsh and Irish for that matter) in their
The McRae family in highland dress about to attend
a Caledonian Society sports meeting. Courtesy of the Museum Victoria.
national distinctiveness were written out "in favour of an all embracing 'Britishness.'" White settlers were lumped together for a long time in the scholarship of many locations where Scots settled as a result of this focus. And that explains why, in more traditional scholarship, historians have been less attuned to the Scottish experience. After J.G.A. Pocock's famous plea for the new subject of British History - one with a four-nations approach - this has changed, however, so a lot of new scholarship is being published that shows clear recognition of the Scots and their distinctive experiences.

Stephens: How would you describe the key argument of Clubbing Together.

Bueltmann: The book provides the first global study that captures the wider relevance of Scottish ethnic associations. When people think about Scottish clubs and societies they mostly think of Burns Nights and Highland Games. Yet while such activities were critical, they often served a wider civic role in the respective host society. Within that wider context the book's key argument is that associations and formal sociability are a key not only to explaining how Scottish migrants negotiated their ethnicity in the diaspora and connected to social structures in diverse settlements, but also how these associations, as sites of civility (in its original sense of civic-mindedness), actually operated beyond their ethnic remit. The book reveals that the structures offered by Scottish associations engaged directly with the local, New World contexts, developing distinct characteristics that cannot be subsumed under one simplistic label—that of an overseas ‘national society’.

Stephens: Could you say something about how the Scottish diaspora differed from one country to another?

St. Andrew's Society Ball, Windsor Hotel, Montreal, QC, 1878.
Courtesy of the McCord Museum.
Bueltmann: The critical points to make is that this depended on the type of migrant, and the time of arrival. Let's stick with associations for an example of what this means in terms of differences. North America was an early destination for Scots to venture to. While a good number of them were able to make a good life for themselves in the early days of settlement, things got tougher when larger numbers of migrants arrived from the early eighteenth century. It was then that the traditions of Scottish associations really flourished. And this was because of their principal focus: the provision of relief and support for immigrants in distress. In North America this benevolence was the principal pillar of Scottish ethnic associationalism. Fast-forward to New Zealand in the mid-nineteenth century and the story is a very different one. Those Scottish migrants who made it there were, by and large, migrants by choice, and reasonably well-off. They did not need the same type of benevolence that was critical in North America. So their associations focused instead on the provision of Highland Games, developing them in such a way that they became critical in the establishment and consolidation of field athletics in New Zealand. So you see that in both these cases the timing of migration and the background of migrants directly impacted upon quite diverse developments. While Scottish ethnic associations are a key characteristic of the Scottish diaspora, it was as a result of these factors that developments were distinct in different locations. And that's, ultimately, why the Scottish diaspora differs from one country to another. Ethnic associations are only one example there, similar points could be made for the economic impact migrants had and how they shaped wider society.

Stephens: What are you currently working on?

: I am currently working on a project entitled "European, Ethnic and Expatriate: A Longitudinal Comparison of German and British Social Networking and Associational Formations in Modern-day Asia." Asia, while having seen a substantial degree of outmigration in recent years, has consistently received its share of European arrivals since the seventeenth century, and, given the region's economic growth over the last two decades, continues to witness an increase in their number. For many of these migrants, thrust into an alien cultural environment, ethnic associationalism and social networking are among the most common responses to life in the new home. By utilising such formal and informal strategies of sociability, they are building on an enduring tradition that has long since been part of the migratory chain. Yet despite its long history, the persistence of ethnic associations and networks among migrants in the Far East has received little attention, particularly when it comes to the new generation of expatriates. By moving beyond the traditional focus on Anglophone cultures in the former British Empire in Asia, this project compares contemporary migrant community life of expats from the British Isles and Germany, throwing up the prospect of better understanding both groups and exploring intercultural differences in expatriate social networking. The project concentrates on how social networks in the two communities are channelled by different ethnic and cultural organisations, including ethnic societies, such as St Andrew's societies and German clubs, but also cultural organisations like the Goethe Institute or the British Council, and diplomatic missions, recognising their quasi-ethnic associational roles. The project's overall aim is to unravel what expatriate social networks can tell us about present-day migrant life and identity in Asia, and shed light on the reasons behind the continued importance of ethnicity in migrant communities.

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