16 September 2020

S5M-22614 Museum for Human Rights

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-22614, in the name of Stuart McMillan, on a museum for human rights. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes its agreement to motion S5M-22004 (as amended) on 10 June 2020 (Official Report, c.133), which agreed that the Scottish Government would work to create a national museum to highlight Scotland’s role in the slave trade and colonialism; further notes that there are various locations across Scotland whose history in the slave trade would merit consideration for such a facility; highlights the link that Inverclyde has with the triangular trade and the sugar, tobacco and cotton industries and the financial wealth that was generated for merchants; notes that Inverclyde was reported to be the world leader in the sugar trade, which ensured that vast wealth was created both during and following the abolition of the slave trade in 1833; highlights the building of the historic sugar warehouses at the James Watt Dock in Greenock, which were opened in 1886, and notes the view that, with its existing transport and historical links, in addition to the educational and economic opportunities that could be created for future generations, Inverclyde should be the location for such a museum.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I thank Stuart McMillan for the opportunity to discuss this important subject. In passing, I will comment on the 1820 martyrs, to whom Mr McMillan referred. Our colleague Gil Paterson had a members’ business debate on that on 5 December 2001, which happened to be the third debate in which I participated after I joined the Parliament. Of course, that subject was important to me, because John Baird was my great-great-great-uncle.

However, to the matter at hand. There are many places across Scotland that we could consider for a museum, but the sugar warehouse in James Watt dock in Greenock is perhaps one of the most significant symbols of Scotland’s relationship with slavery and would, as such, be a perfect site, because it would juxtapose the brutal human costs of slavery with a symbol of Scotland’s economic wealth.

It is hard for a modern person to recognise our connection to that time. However, my grandfather was an infant when Abraham Lincoln managed to abolish slavery in the United States, so the temporal distance might be shorter than some of us care to imagine. The human psyche has a habit of distancing itself from unpleasant things—all the more so when the subject is something as violent and abhorrent as slavery. The brutal legacy of much of colonialism belongs to us as much as anything else does.

There are many places where a museum on the topic could be sited, including in the north-east, which I represent. We need only consider the Powis gates in Aberdeen, which were built by Hugh Fraser Leslie in 1834. The gates feature carvings of slaves, making direct reference to the several coffee plantations that he owned in Jamaica.

The connections do not end there. Former students of Marischal College became involved in the slave trade. There were people who inherited wealth from the trade and even some who were involved in the abduction of slaves from Africa. No matter where a person is from in this nation, they will have at least some connection to that dark part of our history.

A museum will give us the opportunity to take some responsibility, but it will be far from the only and final step in doing so. Rather, it will be a first and very useful step. It represents a new chapter in our maturation as a nation and as human beings.

We have a responsibility to uphold the human rights of all people in the present and to recognise our failings in the past. We should not pretend that the unpleasant past never happened by simply trying to erase it. There have been interesting comments made in that regard. I share the belief that we should not tear down statues, but should instead rewrite the context in which they exist, because they remind us of a dark past that we should not seek to erase.

A museum could represent a signal that we have come to recognise the iniquities of our predecessors, and to recognise that our society should reward honesty, growth and knowledge. However, the benefits of a museum will go much further than that and will force us to look at the truth of our past brutality. If we are anything as human beings, we carry compassion. I hope that, when a museum is established, we will share responsibility for our history through it, and that it inspires us to be compassionate and to be the best that we can be. I hope that such an establishment will be a light to guide us out of darkness and ignorance.

I congratulate Stuart McMillan on his championship of local interests and of the interests of his constituency. That is exactly the exemplar that all members should look to. I am happy to support his efforts.


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