John Nicolson: The Scottish people extend a hand across the seas


Categories: News

I went to a local playgroup recently. It was full of toddlers from Ukraine, their mothers chatting while keeping a watchful eye on them.

They looked happy, but I detected a certain vigilance – more than the usual parental watchfulness. How could it be otherwise given what they’d endured?

“So how are you finding Scotland?” I asked. “Are people being welcoming? Are you and the children managing to settle in?”

“The children are completely at home now” one mother told me “and they’ve already got Scottish accents.”

“People are so lovely in Scotland” another mother said. “They quite often ask me if I need land to grow potatoes. I think they assume that’s what we do in Ukraine. But I’m a doctor in Kiev. I’ve never planted a potato in my life.”

I suppose it’s the thought that counts.

The Ukrainians join a significant number of Syrian families who fled the bombing horrors there, and now live in my constituency.

I’ve often wondered why people in Scotland seem to be so warm towards folk who come to seek sanctuary on our shores.

Why do so many immigrants say they find a ready welcome here? I wonder if it is because we are a land of emigrants?

Generation after generation of Scots have had to leave home. Most, in recent years were economic migrants – to England, to the rest of the European Union, and to Commonwealth countries.

I was one of them. I left for London in my twenties to pursue work in journalism.

But, of course, emigration took much darker forms in our country’s history in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Clearances saw huge swathes of our country brutally emptied of people who were forced on to boats, never to see their homeland again.

Piles of stones scattered throughout Highland glens to this day bear testament to the cruelty of landlords who preferred sheep to people.

I didn’t know until recently how many Scots ended up in Argentina. But I’ve become friends with the Argentine Ambassador. Javier Figueroa is a clever and charming man.

And Argentina has recently been enjoying a fascination with all things Scottish because of Alexis MacAllister, their star football World Cup player.

Ambassador Figueroa has fallen in love with Scotland. He reminded me that the now famous MacAllister family were only one of thousands of Scottish families who found a new home and language in his country during the 19th Century.

And we brought something in return – football when Alexander Watson Hutton taught it to Buenos Aires schoolboys. I think it’s fair to say they’ve become almost as good at the game now as us.

These days Argentina has the largest number of Scottish descendants of any country outside the English-speaking world, with their own traditions including schools, churches and Scottish country dancing clubs.

They’ve assimilated. But they’re still proud of who they are and where they came from. And doesn’t that create the perfect mix?