Scotland and slavery opinion: Replacing street names linked to the slave trade would hide Scotland’s gruesome past

09 July 2020
Glasgow's Buchanan Street
Iona Kelly (aged 17) argues that replacing street names linked to the slave trade would hide Scotland’s gruesome past.

Iona writes: They say “People make Glasgow” but what about the people who actually made Glasgow? 

There it lies. On a slight angle and perfectly slated. The picturesque buildings and their residents that are worth millions lining it. You stroll up it, purchases in hand avoiding the elbows and bags of the hundreds that surround you. You look up to see the iconic black and white sign aware of its need for a lick of paint and read ‘Buchanan Street’, blissfully oblivious to the horror that lies beneath your very feet.

When researching our own ignorance, I found that there were no statistics to demonstrate our country’s lack of awareness on the inhumane foundations that allowed the much loved city of Glasgow’s success. So why, is our patriotic nation selfishly hiding from this ‘dark secret’? 

I first found my love of history when I entered the classroom as a nervous first year and my teacher transported me into a world of wonder. From that day onwards I've persistently hounded my parents with facts and figures I've learnt, but my amazement hadn’t come from the stories themselves. Instead, they have come from my confusion as to how this was real life at one point.

Disconnecting from reality

When studying the slave trade at National 5, I watched the documentaries with my eyes closed trying to block out the screams and horror as I put my hands over my ears disconnecting myself from reality. I failed to believe that this was thousands of innocent peoples inevitable calling. It was so astoundingly devastating that it had to be a gruesome story, it couldn’t possibly be real in my eyes.

Each and every ounce of pain, fear and heartache was undeniably undeserved we can collectively agree. So, do we not owe it those who wrongly suffered to commemorate and remember them with the street names, as opposed to forgetting their suffering and sweeping it under the carpet? If we proudly pay respects to those who fought for our freedom in the war, should we not also acknowledge those who suffered as a consequence of slavery, and allowed us to live as a first world country with the simple luxuries we now have? 

Glasgow's links to slavery

It took me 16 years before I was aware of Glasgow’s links with the slave trade. Like many others I walked the streets with no knowledge of the names other than the shops that occupied their residency there. Although I studied the Atlantic slave trade when studying National 5 History, the course mainly focused on Great Britain’s involvement and without an obligation to focus on Glasgow it therefore omitting our own heritage.

However, in an attempt to deepen my knowledge my history teacher opened my eyes to the true horror of Glasgow’s connections, and I instantly felt so embarrassed and ashamed. How could a country I was so proud to be a part of engage in something so undeniably cruel and wrong?

25,638 people and counting have signed the UK government and parliament petition to ‘Teach black history in history lessons’. So, should we not be furthering our young people’s education by providing evident links and impacts of the slave trade within our own streets? Is it not contradictory to have people petitioning to deepen our children's education and awareness on ethnic minorities history, yet simultaneously wishing to remove and block out the street names that hold so many stories and facts?

Changing attitudes

Children’s own intentions in a classroom are to succeed and grade well. When they learn the information it’s not a case of thinking deeply into the knowledge itself but remembering it, so they recall it under exam conditions. We have such a great opportunity to change this attitude, by bringing our streets alive with history the facts no longer become the enemy as kids struggle to remember the masses of knowledge, but instead a reality that they can relate to.

By keeping these names alive, we’re not only allowing our young people to deepen their understanding, but simultaneously engage with slavery on an emotional level as the statistics and facts are no longer words on a power point, but impactful on their everyday lives and they can recognise this for themselves. 

I am not proposing that ‘tobacco lords’ such as Andrew Buchanan who robbed the lives of thousands in their selfish merchant trade should rest as heroes. Instead, I ask that we use our gruesome and barbaric past to educate and help mould our society into a racism free future.

As inhumane and erroneous as the slave trade was, we unfortunately can’t change it. No money, power or secrecy can hide such a momentous part of Glasgow’s history. So, if we can’t change our history then surely, we owe it to the racial equality movement to learn from these events and prevent the same severe inequalities from rising again? Buchanan Street is one of the most iconic streets in Glasgow city centre. It’s known and loved by tens of thousands, we should use this immense platform to inform the masses on the real roots of our city.

If these streets are so widely recognised, then let us commemorate the undeserving slaves alongside these iconic names and signs. Let’s allow people to see the blood that lies on the pavements they walk.

After all, “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.