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Why Scotland must face up to slave trade past

IT has long been a hidden part of Scotland's history:

Author Louise Welsh, above, is running the Empire Cafe project with architect Jude Barber Picture: Colin Templeton
Author Louise Welsh, above, is running the Empire Cafe project with architect Jude Barber Picture: Colin Templeton

now the debate over how the country should recognise its past links with slavery is to be reignited as part of a Commonwealth Games cultural project.

The Empire Cafe will open its doors on July 24 to explore Scotland's relationship with the North Atlantic slave trade, using music, visual art, academic lectures, poetry and historical walks.

Among the highlights is a discussion between museum experts and historians on whether it is time to establish a permanent memorial devoted to Scotland and slavery.

Dr Michael Morris, a lecturer in English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University, who will chair the Untold Stories, Buried Histories debate, said a permanent "feature" was long overdue.

He suggested a museum or a series of public artworks in areas of Glasgow built on the wealth of traders, such as the Merchant City.

Morris said: "It would stand in the best traditions of this city to fully acknowledge the enormous debt it owes to Atlantic slavery, and to seek ways that we might begin to repair an old wound that has never been allowed to heal.

"We should have a full, honest, and permanent feature. In fact, we should have several all over the country - Glasgow is only the most obvious location."

Graham Campbell, joint co-ordinator of cultural events group African Caribbean Cultures Glasgow, will be curating a Caribbean-style street theatre play called Emancipation Acts, which will start at the Empire Cafe and tour five locations in the city.

It is believed to be the first time an event is being held in Scotland to mark Emancipation Day - a national day of celebration in many former Caribbean colonies to mark the British empire abolishing slavery in 1833.

Campbell said he would like to see something "cultural and ongoing" to mark Glasgow's association with slavery, but said it did not necessarily have to be a museum.

He added: "It is important for Afro-Scots now, as a lot of people are relatively new to this city, and knowing their ancestors played a big part in building the city from a long time ago, and that they really do belong, it is an important thing to tell them."

Leading Scottish author Louise Welsh, who is running the Empire Cafe project with architect Jude Barber, said the links to Scots in Caribbean nations should be embraced as much as the American, Canadian and Australian diaspora.

"We are connected through language and the names," she said. "People in the Caribbean know we are connected - are we going to be like one of those families who say, 'let's just not talk about it?'."

She added: "It wouldn't be inappropriate to have a [slavery] museum. Other places with similar histories have faced up to their histories, why have we not?"

The Empire Cafe, which is part of the Glasgow 2014 Cultural Programme, will be based at the Briggait in Glasgow's Merchant City from July 24 to August 1.

Visitors will be able to pick up a free copy of a new anthology of poems by Scots and Caribbean writers which has been specially commissioned as part of the project.

Barber, of Glasgow-based Collective Architecture, said: "Untold Stories, Buried Histories will be an important debate about how do you represent difficult challenging parts of your cultural history."

l The Untold Stories, Buried Histories debate will take place on Tuesday, July 29, at the Empire Cafe.

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