Are our arts institutions and universities ‘colonised’ or is it a case of the ‘cringe’


Dr John Robertson examines the long-running debate about whether our carious governing institutions are ‘colonised’ by outsiders? Should we care?

Can we talk about the people leading Scotland’s institutions and ask why there are so few Scots-born folk among them? First, let me get the data for you

One of my best friends used to know a family who lived in a house formerly occupied by an English family. Well one of them had English parents, so don’t call me a racist!

Dr John Robertson
Dr John Robertson

In the Herald newspaper on 16th May 2016, tucked away at the bottom of page nine in the print version, there’s an awful wee piece titled ‘Arts quango comes under attack from former Makar Lochhead’. In the online version it’s: ‘Former Makar Liz Lochhead launches savage attack on Scots arts world and political establishment’. Both versions have this:

‘…people should be allowed to ask whether enough Scots are working in the National Theatre [of Scotland] without being “accused of being racist”.’

Readers will struggle to find any savagery in the article despite the headline for the online version.

Readers might also remember the much more prominent front page coverage of Alasdair Gray’s equally not-savage attack, in 2012, on arts administrators in Scotland. He referred to them as being mostly ‘colonists’ and ‘settlers’ with little interest in encouraging Scottish culture or staying long for that matter:

‘Alasdair Gray attacks English for ‘colonising’ arts’ (Scotsman, 16th December 2012)

Days later, James Kelman, the only Scot to win the Booker Prize, came in to support Gray, but interpreted helpfully by that well-known pro-Scottish organ, The Daily Telegraph, with:

‘Imperialist English are ‘in control’ of Scottish arts.’ (Daily Telegraph, 23rd December 2012)

Alasdair Gray
Alasdair Gray

Needless to say, both Gray and Kelman had been more nuanced in their arguments than these headlines suggest. Helpfully, the Observer’s Kevin McKenna, appeared in print on the 23rd December, to try to explain and not to shout. His article appeared under this frankly inane headline: ‘Scotland should thank the English settlers’

McKenna’s article bears little resemblance to the sentiments in the headline, thankfully, and is one of the better explanations of the ‘situation’. The reference is below.

There then followed in 2013, a flurry of accusations of racism and, specifically, ‘anti-Englishness’, directed at, in particular, Alasdair Gray. I’ll leave you to find and read this rubbish, if you’re interested.

Of course, all of the above was fuelled by impressions and not by empirical data. I’ve often watched the Scottish news and been struck by the many English accents I hear but I know how impressions can deceive, so empirical data are required if we’re to reveal a problem of any kind, if there is one. To get us started, here are some quite old data about the dominance of the arts, in Scotland, by non-Scots, in one key context. What do you think is the answer to this question?

‘How many of the 67 directors of the Edinburgh International Arts Festival, the biggest arts festival in the world, have been Scots?’ 

Go on. You guess. It’s………………… NONE!  Nearly all have been English, and most of the early ones have been aristocrats. Am I over-reacting here? Can you imagine a major arts festival in Dublin, in Copenhagen, in New York or, indeed in any European city where none of the directors have even been from that country? Here’s the source.

In some ways the presence of non-Scots arts administrators has been aired quite well already and it would seem a bit creepy for me to try to count just how many there are, often in quite low-level roles. So, after a quick look at the top level in the arts, I’m going to widen the debate to other institutions such as leadership of higher education, sport and the police force. I’m going to count how many Scots there are at the top of the key Scottish institutions.

I’ve widened my survey beyond the arts because of my own experiences in higher education, my impressions (only that) when I listen to representatives being interviewed for TV news and because of Gray’s suggestion that the ‘situation’ is more widespread:

‘I think Scottish folk in other professions will know settlers and colonists with similar attitudes.’

Before I present my own data, I thought I should present any prior research, as you do. I could find anything. It’s not surprising. If you want an academic career in a Scottish university (more of this below), an interest in the absence of Scots in Scottish institutions (such as in university management) would mark you out for failure if not speedy removal. Back in 2004, when I wanted to submit for a funding council audit (RAE), a piece of research I’d published in the reputable Edinburgh University journal, Scottish Affairs, my Egyptian-born  Vice-Principal for Research privately told my Dean: ‘John is too Scottish!’ My reaction was deemed ‘not appropriate’ by my Dean.

Let’s try the arts councils and other bodies using public funds to promote the arts, first. We’ll start with Liz Lochhead’s recent targets, the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) and Creative Scotland.

National Theatre of Scotland:  Two directors since inception, neither Scots

Creative Scotland CE (Chief Executive): not Scots

Edinburgh Festival Fringe CE: not Scots

National Museums Scotland DG (Director General): not Scots

National Galleries Scotland DG: Scots

These facts seemed to matter quite a lot to Alasdair Gray and to Liz Lochead. When you combine them with the complete absence of Scots from the history of the leadership of our biggest arts festival, it does seem anomalous.

Ken MacQuarrie: The Scot at the head of BBC Scotland
Ken MacQuarrie: The Scot at the head of BBC Scotland

Let’s try the mainstream media – Scottish newspaper and TV, chief executives and editors:

BBC Scotland CE: Scots

BBC Scotland Head of Drama: Scots

BBC Scotland Head of News: Scots

STV CE: English-born but Ayrshire from age 6 so Scots?

STV Head of Drama: Scots

STV Head of News: Scots

Daily Record Ed: Scots

Glasgow Herald Ed: not Scots

Scotsman Ed: Scots

Scottish Daily Mail Ed: Scots

Scottish Sun Ed: Scots

Scottish Daily Express Ed: not Scots

So, the top people in Scottish TV and Scottish press are almost entirely Scots-born. Now, taking what might seem quite leap, Police Scotland’s leadership is of interest I think.

Chief Constable: not Scots

Previous Chief Constable: Scots

Coverage of the appointment of a non-Scot at the end of 2015 was accompanied by evidence of something strange in Police Scotland, reported in the Daily Record on 11th December: ‘Police Scotland jobs set to go to English cops due to a shortage of Scottish staff’. The shortage in question was is that of potential applicants who have completed ‘a training course enabling them to step up.’ Given the different legal systems in Scotland and England and the marked geographical differences between Scotland’s more rural area and much of England, it’s puzzling that a training course can trump lack of experience in these, for non-Scots applicants.

Football is a major element in Scottish working-class culture. Are the top football administrators and managers Scots? See this:

Scotland Manager: Scots

Scottish Football Association Chief Executive: not Scots

Scottish Professional Football League Chief Executive: not Scots

Celtic: not Scots

Rangers: not Scots

Hibs: not Scots

Aberdeen: Scots

Hearts: Scots

The top five here are the biggest in terms of support and wealth. Given the lack of an English presence at the top of the game there, with no English managers at all among the top eight in the Premier League and only four in the whole league of 20 teams, the lack of Scottish managers in our top five is probably not that significant. The chief executives of both the English Football League and the English Football Association are however both English.

What about the other big sports in Scotland?

Scottish Athletics Chief Executive: not Scots

Scottish Swimming CE: Scots

Scottish Golf CE: Scots

Scottish Rugby Union CE: not Scots

Notably, SRU Chief Executive, Mark Dodson has described himself as a ‘pure-bred Englishman!’  We’ll need that quality to succeed, I’m sure.

On to the Scottish university principals, now:

Edinburgh: not Scots

Aberdeen: not Scots

Dundee: not Scots

Heriot-Watt: not Scots

St Andrews: not Scots

Stirling: not Scots

Napier: not Scots

Queen Margaret: not Scots

Robert Gordon: not Scots

West of Scotland: Glasgow: not Scots

Glasgow: Italian-born but in Glasgow from childhood, so Scots?

Strathclyde: Scots

Abertay: Scots

Caledonian: Scots

So that’s eleven or twelve out of the fourteen who are not Scots. Is that unusual? Let’s look at Denmark with its comparable population, equally big neighbour with a very similar language, Germany. Denmark has eight degree-awarding institutions with rectors who are:

Aarhus Rector: Danish

Aalborg Rector: Danish

Copenhagen Rector: Danish

Southern Denmark Rector: Danish

Roskilde Rector: Danish

Technical University Rector: Danish

Copenhagen Business School Rector: Danish

IT University Rector: Danish

That was a fascinating exercise. Place of birth was never listed but all were clearly products of the Danish (not even Scandinavian) education system. That none listed their place of birth tells us that they see it as either not a relevant factor or, perhaps, that they take for granted that rectors of a Danish university are normally products of that system. Promotion from within is clearly the norm in Denmark and rectors seem to be far more collegiate, less careerist, figures than Scottish principals. None of the Danish rectors are products of the neighbouring, enormous and linguistically familial, German system. Two of the Scots principals are Germans. I suppose it has only been quite a short time since Germany last invaded Denmark. What about the USA? Here are the nationalities of the presidents of the top twelve universities:

Harvard: US

Stanford: US

California Berkeley: US

Princeton: US

Columbia: US


Yale: US

Caltech: US

Cornell: US

John Hopkins: US

Chicago: US

MIT: not US (Venezuelan)

Despite the deep integration of the US system with other parts of the globe through global corporations, research projects, student exchanges and….oh, yes….invasion, US-born academics dominate almost completely at that level. Hmm….let’s go back to small again? First Ireland then Belgium will be enough for our purposes. Here are the nationalities of the seven Irish university provosts or presidents:

Trinity College Dublin: Irish

Dublin City: Irish

Maynooth: Irish

National Galway: Irish

University College Cork: Irish

University of Limerick: Irish

University College Dublin: not Irish (Australian)

Like the universities of Denmark and the US, home-grown talent seems to be the thing for the Irish universities. Unlike in the Scottish universities there’s a notable lack of English talent. You do have to wonder how they cope.

Here are Belgium’s top nine universities and the nationalities of their rectors. I’m sure there must be some French or Dutch talent, crossing over easily, in what is the heart of the EU. At least some of these are elected rectors. Now there’s an idea that would be popular among Scottish university staff!

Leuven: Belgian

Ghent: Belgian

Free University of Brussels: Belgian

Antwerp: Belgian

Vrije Universiteit Brussel: Belgian

Louvain: Belgian

Liege: Belgian

Vlerick Business School: Belgian

Saint Louis, Brussels: Belgian

All nine of these rectors were born in Belgium and, perhaps of greater interest, all of them are the products of the Belgian education system. I could go on but I think the pattern is clear. Scotland’s universities and probably those of Wales and Northern Ireland are almost certainly unique in being repositories of, as Alasdair Gray put it, ‘settlers and colonists.’

What about the business and employment world in Scotland? Do we even have a word for entrepreneur? I tried an on-line, English-to-Scots, dictionary and got this: ‘Sorry no translation for entrepreneur. Try Again!’ It sounds like we need help. Let’s see how just much help we need.

Scottish CBI Director: Scots

Scottish Enterprise CE: Scots

Scottish Chambers of Commerce CE: Scots

Edinburgh Chambers of Commerce CE: Scots

Glasgow Chambers of Commerce CE: Scots

STUC General Secretary: Scots

Oh no! Boy, are we in trouble. No need for the very best ‘foreign talent’ in the world of business then, you think? That’s the one area where I could be persuaded that the opposite was true.

Liz Lochhead
Liz Lochhead

Overall, this looks like quite a varied picture with only some sectors dominated by those born outside of Scotland. As identified by Liz Lochhead, at the beginning of this piece, the arts in Scotland do seem to be disproportionately managed by non-Scots. The same can be said of the police force and, to a lesser extent, sport. Leadership in the Scottish media (press and TV), seems to be dominated by Scots and the same is true in business organisations.

By far the most striking case of a form of colonialism in Scottish institutions is in our universities. In no other country in my sample, is there such evidence of domination by a larger neighbouring country or even of a presence in a large one (USA) of openness to foreign talent. It either means that Scottish applicants for senior posts are consistently inferior to their mostly English competitors or that there is a discriminatory process deeply embedded in the system. The evident failure of English academics to penetrate other European and North American higher education sectors tells us all we need to know.

So, in the arts and in the universities, in Scotland, is this evidence of the survival of the so-called ‘Scottish Cringe’ where interview panel members have an unconscious sense of inferiority to the sound of an English voice and feel the need to submit to it by appointing the confident user of it? Does this, in turn, lead to a lack of Scots on the selection panels themselves, with all-too-predictable outcomes.

Research into the effect of accents on success in getting jobs across the UK does not seem to suggest that a Scots accent is a problem in any general sense but can actually be an advantage. Research by the Aziz Corporation in 2012, put a Scots accent in third place only after ‘Home Counties’ and ‘American’ with most English accents well below the rating for Scots. Perhaps this explains the presence of non-Scots in senior positions in Scottish universities and in the arts as the result not of a cringe regarding Scots but rather of a kind of class-based preference for the perceived authoritative tones of the ‘Home Counties’ accent? After generations, such a process will, of course, become self-perpetuating and embedded as those on the panels with that accent unconsciously recognise and approve of new applicants using the same voice. The presence of one the allegedly less attractive English regional accents (Essex?) among senior managers in Scottish sport, is another matter, beyond my explanation here. Ear, wotyu getting at mite?

Over to you dear reader.


Alasdair Gray attacks English for ‘colonising’ arts, at:

Former Makar Liz Lochhead launches savage attack on Scots arts world and political establishment at:

‘Scotland should thank the English settlers’ at: