400 Years of An Enduring Liaison: the Russo-Scottish relationship13 min read
Amidst Russia’s annexation of Crimea and accusations of human rights abuses, relations between the West and Russia have charted an ever-diminishing trajectory. The relatively recent Salisbury poisonings attest to the decay in this relationship. With these recent events in mind, conceiving of anything resembling friendship seems to have most at a loss. Perhaps though, a staunch relationship has existed between Russia and one small western nation despite the political theatre.
From prolific 17th century migrants to shared fondness for fizzy drinks today Russia and Scotland have a long history of unique links. Sparse attention has been paid to the relationship spanning several hundred years, so the question is: Why is it now time to take stock of and draw attention to the Russo-Scottish relationship? On the surface, Russia and Scotland appear to be poles apart. You might even say they’re unlikely friends or conventional enemies. Could there be something unique in the relationship that sets Scotland apart from the rest of the West in its relationship with Russia?
Why the Russo-Scottish relationship should be on your mind
Scotland has its own parliament but many of its legislative powers are reserved to the government of the United Kingdom. Whilst Scotland can make informal links and friendships with states and their officials, it is not at liberty to pursue separate foreign policy officially. Lack of policy freedom has not been a strong enough barrier to the relationship between Russia and Scotland which links back to the 17th century before the United Kingdom existed in law.
What’s more, recent events show an intensifying of these links amidst diminishing relations with Russia and the West more generally. Recent polls have registered a record 58% of Scots in support for independence from the United Kingdom. As public opinion changes, could current building blocks of the relationship withstand the societal upheaval showing a uniquely cordial relationship between Scotland and Russia?
As two key actors on the world stage, reportage on UK-Russia affairs far out shadows Russo-Scottish associations meaning a deep dive into historic and current affairs beyond the political realm is necessary to bring Russo-Scottish relations to a focal point. The relationship has neither been deliberately obfuscated or purposefully neglected, yet under the surface the interconnections thrive.
Dr Dmitry Fedosov, an academic focussed on Scots in Russia, co-founded the Moscow Caledonian club in 1994 to promote Scottish culture in Russia. Fedosov has consistently argued that Scots and Russians have a great deal in common culturally. As someone, who has grown up in Scotland, stumbling upon Fedosov’s writing was both startling and enlightening, changing my point of view of Scotland as an insignificant piece of the European political stage.
As mentioned, the state of UK-Russian relations would have us believe that anything resembling friendship does not exist beyond the horizon. The reality of a historic liaison between the two is surprising as much as it is real. Investigating the ties between Scotland and Russia reveals a picture of, for the most part, mutual respect and a unique curiosity contravening the surface realities of the relationship between Russia and the UK at large.
Studies of Britain’s relationship with Russia have tended to focus on individuals instead of formal institutions and structures that propagate culture. It is surprising then that our understanding of the relationship has not been clouded by biographies but characterised instead by diametrically opposed political cultures. For Scottish children, the revolutions of 1917 are on the history curriculum but the paltry recognition of actually existing links between the two nations start and end with 1917.
We must be cautious though, the relationship is far from unicorns and rainbows. It has been dubbed an exchange of political and cultural co-opting referring to a history of political tension. Art and drama in both cultures, whilst appreciated, have had “no significant impact” on each other which again ratifies why the Russo-Scottish relationship is left out of popular discourse. UK government bodies impeded Scottish trade links to Russia in 18thcentury which marred relations slightly. Writing at the time where many prominent Scots emigrated Influential Scots thought Russians were enslaved under Catherine the Great. Despite this, plenty still migrated and decided to stay.
Looking beyond political ties allows us to dig into the rich history of cultural, migration and economic exchanges between Russia and Scotland, where a unique, vivid picture is unearthed of the largely ignored Russo-Scottish relationship that has existed for several hundred years.
On the surface, Scotland is a small star in the constellation of Western states that have lukewarm relations with Russia in common. Get close enough though, beyond the glow of the UK, and a more intriguing reality reveals itself. Is it possible that Scotland has a unique relationship with Russia not shared with any other western state? Finally, in considering the status of the Russo-Scottish relationship, should we make more considerations about a relationship separate from the UK and Russia? If so, what does this mean for both the UK-Russia and Russia-Scotland relationships?
Prominent migrants and Russo-Scottish roots
Exchange of peoples has been largely one sided. More is widely known about Scots who went to Russia than vice versa and nowadays, only low numbers of Russians are reported in census data for Scotland. Speaking from my own experience, I hadn’t met a Russian citizen until embarking on my undergraduate course at Glasgow University. Paying attention to some key historical figures helps tell the story of how a lot of Russians today can trace their roots back to Scotland.
Recorded history shows a migration history stretching back to at least the 17th century predating the existence of the United Kingdom itself. In popular discourse, the Scots who established roots are lost amongst the cacophony of stories from migrants who laid roots in Australia, North America and Canada which are still popular tourist and migrant destinations for Scots.
At its inception, migratory history consisted of Scottish nobles who rose up through the ranks of the military, medical and engineering fields. Alexander Leslie and Patrick Gordon fought for Peter the Great and Gordon was even one of his principal advisors. Sir James Wylie went on to become the court surgeon under Alexander the 1st and later Nicholas the 1st. Given the language and culture differences, great determination to adapt and convalesce on both sides is obvious. Many who went to Russia not only lived, but in fact thrived in careers inaccessible to most Russian citizens themselves.
Charles Cameron was the court architect under a stretch of Catherine the Great’s rule and brought over craftsmen to help bring his designs to life. Baturyn Palace in Ukraine and Pavlovsk Palace in St. Petersburg as well as buildings in Tsarskoe Selo are amongst Cameron’s most well-known and fervently visited landmarks. Cameron’s classical architecture hired for his expertise but let go soon after Catherine the Great’s Death. Although revered by royalty, his work was not universally adored amongst Russian aristocrats. More recently, the administration in Rostov-on-Don has looked to Scotland’s biggest city for inspiration for city planning. Militarist Samuel Grieg found himself in the Russian Navy’s employ as an admiral. Grieg invited Charles Baird of Stirlingshire to create an arms factory for the Russian Navy building on the links already made. Baird’s career at the renowned Carron Works in Falkirk in central Scotland was not the conventional traineeship that graduates might find themselves heading to Russia for today.
Potentially one of the most prominent of these migrants was Barclay de Tolly, who operated in Russia during the Napoleonic Wars. Born into a Scottish emigre family in 1761, he distinguished his military prowess in the battle of Eylau and later fighting against Sweden. De Tolly was distinguished as a Count under Alexander I and was later anointed prince. Whilst his story may be unique in its lofty social climbings, its importance lies in its place as yet another marker of how Scots managed to penetrate the highest echelons of the social strata.
Scores of incipient immigrants never returned to Scotland and chose to remain in what was the Russian empire instead. Scots left their country in droves to escape poverty so why is emigration to Russia noteworthy?
As a result of this migration, a great deal of Russians have Scottish roots and choose to explore this through the Moscow Caledonian Club co-founded by Dr Dmitry Fedosov. The huge popularity of Moscow’s own Highland Games and Highland Dancing clubs brings home the fact that there are many Russians eager to explore their Scottish roots even despite the distrust characterising contemporary state to state relations. Moscow’s first Highland games took place in Znamensky Stadium in 1997 and are still active as well as the Highland Dancing Club.
Highland games are a central tenet of the Scottish cultural calendar. Having only learned about established episodes of Russian history like the Russian revolution and the spectre of Rasputin in school, the thought of Russians attempting the caber toss or shot put in a kilt was bewildering to a Scot to say the least. Regardless, these links are important to focus on. Whilst political relations between the UK and Russia have been capricious and unpredictable as the two states move closer apart, cultural ties specific to Scotland and Russia have flourished.
Cultural and symbolic gestures have pervaded the story of Russo-Scottish history. Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom bequeathed the title of Colonel-in-Chief of a Scottish regiment to Tsar Nicholas the 2nd as a wedding gift in his marriage to Alexandra Feodorovna and memorials in Scotland pay tribute to the Russians who lost their lives in WW2 after being based in Scotland. These significant symbolic gestures signalling the friendship and respect existing between the UK and Russian empires. The gesture also demonstrates how Scotland’s relationship with Russia has operated aside from that of the UK-Russia relationship.
There also exists a practical implication here. The links that this research presents, shows that Scotland and Russia already have a foundation from which closer cultural ties may flourish in future. That they have done so despite the dicey UK-Russia relationship, is testament to the strength of that foundation.
A rich history of cultural and economic exchange
Poetry has also overcome borders in the works of Robert Burns. Burns is widely considered the national poet of Scotland and perhaps surprisingly, also celebrated in Russia. Burns poetry was unique in Russia as it was introduced in the 19th century and was still taught on curriculums throughout the lengthy period of state sanctioned art. The University of Glasgow has spearheaded activities in this cultural link. In 2017 Russian pupils attended a series of lectures at the university to explore Burns in more detail. Incidentally, the first Russians to study in the UK did so at University of Glasgow in the 18th century.
Do these cultural gestures matter? A desire to keep the cultural candle glowing in both Scotland and Russia brings a reality to the fore. There is a cultural component in relations between Scotland and Russia that cannot be claimed by Russia and the UK at large. These cultural ties strengthen the historical migratory links too.
Unique trade and consumer relations are preceded by a rich economic history beginning with Archibald Merrilees and Andrew Muir amongst a slew of Scottish merchants who decided to make their money in Russia. Merrilees and Muir made a name for themselves in St. Petersburg then moved their business to Moscow, founding the first department store in Russia which we now know as the iconic TsUM.
Scotland’s trade links with Russia have fluctuated in tow with other Western states in response to the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and hampered further still by the Salisbury poisonings. Russia skirted the idea of a 5-billion-pound trade link with Scotland and in July 2020 Andrei Kelin Russian ambassador to the UK advocated for increased trade links between the two nations.
Amidst the blustery political backdrop, something unique has weathered the storm. Scottish exports to Russia are currently worth around £215million with a significant chunk of that in food and drink. In 2007 one company seen a 300% increase in sales of Tartan in the space of a year and The Scottish Tartan authority created the Russo-Scottish Tartan honouring two prominent figures in Russia, Mikhail Lermontov and Michael Barclay de Tolly both with unfaltering claims to Scottish Heritage. Now more than ever, Russians are seen to be pursuing their Scottish ancestral roots and view this as a positive characteristic.
Another notable export is Scottish soft drink IRN BRU which is, ask any Scottish person, very essentially ingrained into Scottish culture. The number one Scottish soft drink was introduced after 1990 and continues to be sold in Russia taking its place as one of the top 10 selling soft drinks across Russia. There are almost 100,000 members on the VK.com social media page and IRN BRU’s trademark viral marketing campaigns have seen Russian versions broadcast to domestic audiences. That products so essentially Scottish should be popular in Russia demonstrate at the very least, a kindred curiosity between nations.
End of a shared history or a bump in the road?
One of the most recent developments in relations between the two countries has been Russia’s accused meddling in the 2014 Independence referendum. Russia Today launched its Sputnik HQ in Edinburgh and some have accused the news outlet of trying to influence public opinion. Russo-Scottish political relations have been strained in the past few years because of this which can explain why the solid foundations are yet to support a house. We can understand then, why cultural connections have recently remained piecemeal as well as why Russia’s attempts in recent years at strengthening trade links with Scotland have been rebuffed.
None of this detracts from the distinct cultural, symbolic, migration and consumer links between the two states. Closer relationship building in the future remains up in the air but there is no getting past the fact that there is a distinct relationship between Scotland and Russia. The rich relationship is constituted by elements independent of the other countries of the United Kingdom and for the most part, outside of politics at large.
Whether attending lectures on Robert Burns, ordering family tartan or taking part in Moscow’s highland games, the importance of the increase in Russian’s pursuing their Scottish roots cannot be overstated. That, combined with Scotland having more reason than ever to consider its place on the world stage, there has been no better time to consider the rich, existing relationship between the two nations.
Developments towards Scottish independence, the aftermath of Brexit and the ever unpredictable relationship with Russia and the West may all crystallise the Russo-Scottish relationship more intensely or let it melt, leaving it to evaporate. The connection that blossoms in spite of the political fallout makes Scotland a unique Western outpost of Russian interconnection and arguably a key relationship in the contemporary European political order. To say that Scotland is fated to inevitably follow the same path as the UK and other Western states would be to ignore a distinct relationship, the existence of which is a borderline anomaly.
The prospect of a Russo-Scottish relationship may bewilder some and dismay others. Palpable links are conspicuous today, existing beyond the domain of history books. Above all though, the process of accumulating the story of Scottish-Russian relations has been confounding as much as it has stoked intrigue and engendered a new deep seated desire to see what comes next.