Regular readers will know that my family roots for generations are in the peat and crofts of Skye. My own parents were the first of their line to venture permanently from their villages to seek livelihood elsewhere. They were representative of thousands who sought economic security and prosperity away from the straths and glens of their upbringing. In the years after the wars of the 20th century echoes of emptiness began to fill once vibrant places. My parents were part of the so-called ‘Highland Diaspora’ which formed in the cities of the central belt and most especially Glasgow. Indeed, my late mother used to say that she heard more Gaelic spoken on the Dumbarton Road in Patrick than in her own home village. So much so that my earliest memories are filled with recollections of ceilidhs, song, poetry and entertainment which almost became a weekly ritual of re-connection, a binding back to home and a renewal of identity. What they found in their newly adopted city was a place of welcome, a people open with practical ways of making you feel that you belong, neighbours able to catch hold of hurt and offer healing, a place willing to learn from the stranger and change when it was needed, a community moulded by warmth to make the stranger feel at home.
But despite a real sense of belonging, I also always felt in my parents a sense of dislocation and tension. They loved Glasgow and it’s in your face realness and freedom, but they also ached for the abandonment of hills and the warmth of Hebridean belonging, they yearned for the familiarity of language and dialect, for the predictability of the changing landscape of their childhoods. They were in every sense of the word migrants in a city of tenement and sandstone, and maybe it’s not surprising that their friendships were often with those who knew the rhythm of their own heritage and sensed the timbre of their own tale. It is maybe not surprising that my mother especially formed friendship so easily with those who came new to the neighbourhood, regardless of which part of the world they came from. In their eyes she saw the sense of yearning but also the desire to belong.
It is I suspect because of the sense of being the child of those who had not fully settled, those who felt at first strangers amongst the people around them that I have always warmed to the experience of the incomer, the migrant, and the new arrival.
A lot of those emotions came back to me last week when I received an email from someone I know who works in a care home. She is Polish and with her family has made Scotland her home over the last decade and a half. Her letter was one of both gratitude, sadness and anxiety. Like many others in our care homes during Covid19 she has gone above and beyond in compassionate care for those who she supports. She is no less committed to ensuring the dignity of residents today than she was at the start of the year. But what has changed is a growing sense within her that she is increasingly not welcome, not by her colleagues, her community or even her nation. Rather she expressed a deep concern about the implications both of the Brexit negotiations and also what the new measures on UK immigration might mean for others she knows. She described a growing media rhetoric and political tone which has made her feel she is not needed, not wanted and not welcome. I find it deeply sad that she is so unsettled by a political environment which has created such uncertainty, division and at times xenophobia. The contribution which she and so many thousands of others have made over the years to making Scotland into the place I call home can never be under-estimated. Over 6% of our care workforce in Scotland come from countries in Europe other than Scotland. They have shown themselves to be the best of us, full of life and love, compassion and care, a living example of how you build community by having an open door rather than a closed gate. Yet in recent weeks and months so many have been made by others to feel unwelcome and unwanted.
Next Friday, the 18th December, is the United Nations International Migration Day. It is a day to recognise the astonishing contribution of those who leave their place of birth to go elsewhere. It is a day to affirm their human rights.
In a very real sense, we are all of us the inheritors of the courage of those who despite all the odds moved from their own place to go out and to seek a better future and a new life, some because of little choice, many because of the ambition of their humanity. Scotland perhaps more than any other nation is a nation of migrants.
The mark of any civilised society is the extent to which you prepare a place of welcome for the migrant. It is a descriptor of the nature of true community which we are increasingly called to protect and advocate for. The UN states that today more people than ever live in a country other than the one in which they were born. While many individuals migrate out of choice, many others migrate out of necessity. In 2019, the number of migrants globally reached an estimated 272 million, 51 million more than in 2010. One of every ten migrants is under the age of 15.
As the son of those who were strangers in a new place, and as I remember those from my widest family who left these shores to go to distant parts of the earth to make their own beginning, I recognise both the ache and the loneliness of their experience, but I also acknowledge the vibrant, ingenuity, contribution and skill brought about by those who together seek to create a new community and a new nation. The Covid19 experience has taught us all how connected we are one to the other across the globe. It has shown that the solidarity of compassion is stronger than self-interest.
Today as I write this blog there is real uncertainty over the future of our relationship with the European Union as Brexit talks go to the wire. But regardless of the traumas ahead one thing I remain convinced of, and that is that to be strong, creative, contributive and compassionate, we need to hear voices that are not our own, dialects which are new to our ears, ideas which challenge our practice, innovation which upsets our predictability – in other words we need to be a nation that welcomes the migrant and the stranger. It is only as we weave together the threads of our common humanity into shared purpose that we create true community and a modern nation.
Years ago, I spent time reading the stories of those who had been immigrants from Europe into North America. Many of these were Scots and I remember looking for my family name on the etched memorial stones of Ellis Island and searching for ancestors amongst the stories of arrival in Canada. Their memories resonated with the feelings of my own parents and forbears who left Scotland.
In Halifax, Nova Scotia, where so many from Skye arrived as strangers, there is a tremendous collection of poetry written by the new settlers, some at that moment, other years later. I end with one of these because its simplicity shows what we gain by being a place of welcome, by having an open door to the world. It shows that what our care sector has cherished the most from its international workforce, is not solely an economic or physical contribution, but rather the dedication of individual hearts which is daily given to create new community. We dare not lose this.
It was a
delayed by fog
Four of them
of this land now
the sole survivor
this place bearing
an act of courage
on fragile paper
& on the surface of
a human heart.
A poem written by Harry Howie, a Scottish Immigrant, who travelled aboard the Aquitania, arriving October 1948 in Pier 2, Halifax.