We’re All Jock Tamson’s Bairns

smiling girl in front of exhibition picture

Thanks to Clara Massie we are ending the year with words and pictures from an inspiring exhibition celebrating the great contribution migrants make to the cultural wealth of Scotland. The exhibition is over – for the time being anyway – but the impact remains.


‘My friends and I were standing in the shop when a cop walked in. I’d never seen an Asian man in a police uniform before.’ Irfan

Where to start? Each story stops you in your tracks. Different tales of war, persecution, loss, love, courage and determination to survive and succeed are all the more moving because they are told with unsentimental simplicity.  What they have in common is the search for a new life in Scotland.

Here’s David, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, a translator at the Nuremberg trials who ‘looked Hess in the eyes’. David eventually made a new life in Edinburgh running a cleaning and valet service next to the Empire Theatre. Here’s Kasia who remembers the light going on in her homeland when the Berlin Wall fell and ‘Poland went a little mad with excitement’. She’s busy making a creative new life in Edinburgh too. And here’s Irfan, who defied unwritten rules and set his heart on becoming a policeman after seeing that cop in a London kebab shop when he was a kid. He made family history – and a career in Lothian and Borders Police.

Peter: “Scotland has changed so since the 1970s. When I first came here, people wouldn’t sit next to you on a busy bus. Not now. Why I’ve even met Prince Charles.”

These are just a few glimpses of Jock Tamson’s Bairns, a photographic exhibition created for Previously Scotland’s first Festival of History in November. The aim was to explore notions of identity and belonging and the impact was something of a revelation. Here in the Axolotl Gallery in the heart of Edinburgh’s New Town was a startling reflection of Scotland’s vivid multiculturalism.

“A snapshot of a dynamic multi-cultural Scotland” as the exhibition literature puts it: “ We have shared Italian, French, Polish, Ghanaian, Chinese, Pakistani, Russian, German and English accounts. Their journeys have not been without encounters of racism and prejudice. We could have added Irish, Scandinavian, other African and Caribbean, Indian, Flemish, Lithuanians, Gypsies/Travellers and a rainbow of Refugees and Asylum Seekers.”

The exhibition is over now. But the message lingers on. We’re all Jock Tamson’s Bairns – the old Scots saying recognises that people are essentially all the same and that seems especially important at a time when some politicians seem set on looking for differences.

The festival was the inspiration of Susan Morrison, a Leith based comedian with a passion for history and a talent for storytelling.  The exhibition was the idea of another Leither, festival producer Ian Harrower and further stroke of inspiration was asking Clara Massie to be the curator. A warm and welcoming presence in the exhibition (that’s her with long dark hair slightly to the right of the picture), Clara is a third generation child of Russian and Italian migrants. As a photojournalist with a portfolio of work from publications like Heat and Sunday Mirror magazines she is well used to working with people and pictures.

“But I had never curated an exhibition before,” she says with enthusiastic astonishment at what she achieved.  Rather than presenting a history of migration, Clara chose the challenge of telling stories of people here and now.  In six short weeks she gathered nine case studies, working against time to find people who were prepared to tell their often deeply moving stories. They came,  “By word of mouth, through family, friends of friends, searching through mailing lists.” Fascinating images came from National Museums Scotland and the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre in Glasgow.

Together Susan and Clara interviewed the volunteers, Susan meticulously documenting accounts to be displayed alongside sympathetic and expressive portraits taken by photographers Albie Clark and Jenny Wicks and printed by Edinburgh Signarama – everyone freely giving their time and talents to create the collection.

And the result was a huge success, attracting people from across Edinburgh – and many other parts of Scotland – to share memories and make discoveries. As one frequent visitor tweeted afterwards, “The exhibition is so moving I can’t read the panels without tears!” A highlight of the collection was the DVD of Scottish Italian family picnics which were great social events in Glasgow and Edinburgh between the 30s and 50s.  One day Clara noticed a woman wiping her eyes as she watched the film. “She told me she was the little girl with the huge bow in her hair, she could pick out her whole family.”

Words and pictures are safely packed away for now but the stories have left a lasting impression and Clara is exploring ideas for developing the collection and perhaps taking it on a tour of Scotland.  If comments in the visitor book are anything to go by the exhibition will cause a stir wherever it goes. To end with just one:

Wonderful exhibition with moving stories & great portraits. Brought my 11 yr old son who’s studying WW2 at present & he found it very interesting. Would be great if this exhibition could tour schools, as it’s extremely educational!

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