Dawyck Botanic Gardens is 28 miles south of Edinburgh at Stobo, near Peebles. To visit it was totally unplanned – by me anyway – a wonderful surprise for the day. I went to the Peace and Justice Wednesday morning meeting, today’s meeting about slavery in Scotland, listened to a really interesting talk and then when leaving R invited me to join herself and M on a trip to Dawyck to see the snowdrops. They had planned their trip ages ago. I nearly didn’t go, having lots to do, but then thought that I had just heard a talk about loss of freedoms which have been in the past and continue in different contexts in the present. For some reason this meant that NOT taking opportunity when it arises, especially as I am indeed free to do so, is just silly. Quite. What a beautiful place it is.
If you are interested in thoughts following the inadvertent juxtaposition of Research into Slavery, Iain Whyte‘s talk and his book, and a beautiful garden, here goes. First, the Palmerston North Library book group once upon a time had a theme of Slavery. I remembered a particular novel by James Robertson, called Joseph Knight which revolves around a slave of this name who won his freedom in Scotland. From that and Iain’s talk it is so heartrendingly clear that the ‘system’ then slavery, now ?bankers?corporate-profit?whatever? , is complex, not simple, and that nearly everyone is somehow involved. Just like now, e.g. I can’t get a ‘clean’ pension and no way am I doing without it! Most of the ‘Occupy’ protesters are probably involved somehow too, which is not to downgrade their attempt to bring about change. Getting started (against exploitation, discrimination, unfairness, cruelty, wrong…) seems often to be working against one’s own interests, indeed probably is working against oneself in a some way or other.
Getting rid of slavery in 1807 – in Britain – was the passing of a law against a particular trade. It didn’t say people wouldn’t wear clothes made from cotton …, it didn’t say people couldn’t treat other people like objects or exploit them any way they felt like. It didn’t say how difficult it is to make change as so many parts of society are interconnected (read Robertson’s book). It took an awful ot of work and courage and determination. In the garden I thought: establishing this garden was not cheap. I wonder where the family who started it made their money. In the year 1807, this wonderful garden was already over 150 years in the growing, there are trees, and plants, from many parts of the world, as well as the snowdrops we had come to see (300 varieties in Scotland according to a leaflet but I would not know if they were all visible today at Dawyck). Wandering around, I began to wonder if the Veitch family or their successors, the Naesmyths, had been goodies or baddies in the slave trade. Goodies or baddies in any context? Maybe someone can tell me, because google was not able to offer advice on this matter – slavery for or against. (A question not answered by google – oh boy, what next??) In the 20th century the house and garden was owned by the Balfour family – then the garden was gifted to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, who now care for it.
So my thoughts are that I am glad the garden is there. It lifts the spirit. That it exists, lifts the spirit, so many people have cared for it and many have also enjoyed it. But the talk from earlier in the morning is threaded through, those who worked for the abolition of slavery had courage. It was not always physical courage which was needed. I think one of the least vaunted kinds of courage is the emotional sort, standing up for what you think is right, standing against what you think is wrong, even though many, maybe your own family, or your colleagues, think you are an idiot for making a fuss. Dealing with your anxiety that maybe you are just making a fuss, or being foolish, the world’s like this innit?
Well the people who fought slavery stepped out of line in small or big ways, and the people who created a garden also stepped outside the ordinary. We can do with both.