The true story of a free black man, kidnapped in New York, sold into slavery and ultimately beaten close to death, has already become the film of the year, touted for Oscars and described as "like a nightmare in broad daylight".

Among its many unflinching sequences of brutality is an interminable scene in which Solomon Northrup, the central character barely survives a hanging in a tree. It is also part, seemingly of a wave, of American cultural engagement with its guilty past of slavery: one that includes last year's Quentin Tarantino film, Django Unchained, and promises to bring to television screens a remaking of the ground-breaking television series, Roots. The US's dirty linen is being washed in public and it is caked in blood, cruelty and shame.

The fact that 12 Days A Slave is an American story (though directed by one Briton, Steve McQueen, and starring another, Chiwetel Ejiofor), may allow us to feel, yet again, that we had no part in all this; that this was their exploitation, not ours; that it was their country and wealth that was built on the work and suffering of slaves. But this is not true. Glasgow's merchant city was partly founded on the slave trade. Many of our most illustrious institutions have that money at their heart. Some 31 slave ships sailed from Scottish ports between 1717 and 1766. Scots, at one point, ran 30% of the slave plantations in Jamaica. This isn't just America's guilt, it's also ours.

Loading article content

Brad Pitt, who co-produced the film, has said: "It's strange it took a Brit to ask the question, 'Why are there not more movies on American slavery?'" But the question we should be asking in the UK is why, given that we so love our historical dramas in this country, has there been nothing that has dealt with our part in this horrible episode in our own past?

British film-makers up until now have chosen to tell the story of how we ended slavery - to make, as Michael Apted did, Amazing Grace. We like to paint ourselves as the good guys. Or, alternatively, here in Scotland, as the downtrodden. But 12 Days A Slave should remind us that this is not the full story. The director's name, McQueen, should make us pause and consider what part Scotland played in his family's back story. Both of McQueen's parents were from Grenada, his mother originally from Trinidad, and though I don't know the details of his ancestry beyond the fact that they were slaves, it seems to me that name should put us on alert. It should remind us that Scots were there and that Scottish names litter the island.

We know, for instance, that James MacQueen was the manager of a sugar plantation in Grenada around 1800, and that this man was also editor of the Glasgow Courier at a time when it favoured West Indian merchant interests and opposed any rights for slaves. Steve McQueen may have chosen an American tale to present to the world, but his own island of origin has a history with Scots written all over it.

That is not to say that there have not been great plays and books written about Scotland's part in the global slavery trade and our guilt. But they have always appeared more in the margins of our culture. There are novels - James Robertson's Joseph Knight, for instance, which tells the tale of a slave who was freed - but they are few. And you would have had to tune into BBC Radio 3 to listen to Jackie Kay's poem-play, The Lamplighter, about three female slaves, which was based on original testimonies.

So poor is our engagement with this section of our history that we barely tackle any aspect of our part in empire or the darker aspects of our colonising impulse within the mainstream. For sure, the National Theatre of Scotland tackled the Darien scheme - in the play Caledonia in 2010 - but that was another tale of "poor us" rather than "poor them".

And the great anti-foreign policy play of our times, Black Watch, managed to miss from the "Golden Thread" of its exploration of the regiment's history its colonial savagery in countries such as Kenya and Palestine. Its writer, Gregory Burke, has noted that this was cut from the original play. Burke has said: "Scotland pretends to have no part of exploitation, yet per head they produce more soldiers than any other part of the UK." But this colonial past, it seems, was one exploitation too far.

There is a reason our arts barely recognise slavery as part of our history: for the most part, the subject has been so buried. Our cultural lack of engagement has partly happened because we have erased it so thoroughly from our psyche - as neatly as the Glassford family, once slave traders and tobacco lords, managed to erase a black slave from a family portrait which hangs in the People's Palace.

The subject of slavery is barely taught in schools. It takes some prompting to make us aware of it, to draw our attention to the numerous Jamaica Streets that dot our cities. Jackie Kay recalls that when she was asked to write The Lamplighter, she had thought she knew the history, but only in researching found "how ignorant I was", and became aware of how little Scotland acknowledges its role.

"It seems almost un-Scottish," she wrote, "to imagine all those MacDonalds out there in Jamaica knocking back punch, porter, ale, cider, Madeira wine and brandy - this from a true account of a plantation owner's meal in 1775 - while enslaved Africans got whipped for sucking on a sugar cane."

But the fact that the definitive film about American slavery appears to have been made by a Briton shouldn't let us off the hook.

If we look to Britain more widely, we see a culture, in both television and drama, that tends to avoid its guilty past, to prefer the escapist halls of Downton Abbey, or the glamorous old-fashioned retail porn and romance of The Paradise to the ghastly stuff we've done both locally and abroad. British theatre, certainly has tackled the war in Iraq and war on terror (David Hare's Stuff Happens, Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo's Guantanamo: Honor Bound To Defend Freedom). But when it comes to historical drama, we seem to miss out on our own ghastly episodes. We are not good at getting our historical skeletons out of the cupboard. And we are particularly not good at dealing with any aspect of our past as Empire, so locked up are we in our enduring desire for the feelgood story about a time when we were great.

There have been moves in Scotland towards curing our cultural amnesia. Stephen Mullen's book on Glasgow's part in the slave trade, It Wisnae Us, was key in kick-starting our recognition. At this year's Commonwealth Games, one of the cultural events will be the Empire Café, run by novelist Louise Welsh, which will hold events exploring Scotland's involvement with the North Atantic slave trade. But these are all baby steps. For the most part we are still pretending it wisnae us. Anyone watching 12 Years A Slave should be thinking the opposite. This wis also us.