Inheriting privilege

So far, Noisybrain is full of “privilege”.  This is what I think about it.

At the bottom of this posting is a list of recommended people’s family / history stories chosen in part because they differ from my own initial postings here. First, a surprisingly long discussion:

  1. The modern meaning of privilege (with an aside about institutional patronage and those angry, annoying, patronising internet cartoons and discussions).
  2. A  genealogical perspective, both specific and general, on why this topic is so relevant and helping in augmenting and interpreting the bare binary bones of family tree ancestry: family history people are generally pretty interested in the loss and acquisition of privilege down the generations.
  3. A nod to the much broader genetic or population perspective.
  4. The Scottish context, with a little history of the Highlands, Lowlands and Ireland, and a reminder that there are a variety of the ways in which an ancestor’s lack of privilege plays out for their descendants. Obviously us Scots are not all the same, but less obviously privilege can vary a lot even within a single family.
  5. A change of perspective, to the continuing diversity in privilege within contemporary Scotland, with a focus on the “Glasgow Effect”, one of the negative legacies of our economic and social history (which seems set to continue).
  6. A brief reminder that one of the national legacies of the British Empire and European colonialism has been, from a global perspective, Scotland’s relative privilege.
  7. A conclusion that reminds us there is diversity everywhere, even in a homogeneous family, while stating the obvious fact that there are far more extreme examples, and that it’s the latter that are more important in contemporary society.
  8. The links to blogs, books, podcasts and so on.

1. Introduction


Smug or snobbish people (and some very nice ones) used to use “privileged” instead of embarrassing alternatives like “wealthy” to politely claim for themselves (or those they thought their social betters) all sorts of positive social and personal experiences that made them qualitatively superior to the majority. The word conveyed that people of wealth were not merely relatively rich or the consumers of expensive goods: they were privileged. People of quality. Awfully nice they would be about it too. Noblesse Oblige.

It was a holistic situation, a good thing. A privileged upbringing was something which people should aspire to (if possible). Implicitly the situation was: what money in the family can buy is better than what it can’t. Without privilege you are “less fortunate”. Privilege also brings desirable responsibilities such as charity and patronage.

Most people with money eventually work out all this is at best simplistic and at heart, false. False, because money Can’t Buy Me Love. And where would any family be, without love?

Image result for can't buy me love beatles
Say you don’t need no diamond ring and I’ll be satisfied.
Tell me that you want the kind of thing that money just can’t buy.
I don’t care too much for money: money can’t buy me love

Parameters of Privilege

“Privilege” has now flipped perspective, to encourage us to focus on social groups who are unlikely to be able to make such a mercenary mistake in the first place, due statistically to their lack of group power or wealth (plus a general lack of social mobility). A lack of privilege can also arise from social prejudice against aspects of individual identity that are relatively inalienable (like sex, age, class, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, skin-colour, disability, etc.) while others have a strong element of personal choice (like political belief and lifestyle).

Everyone has some privilege. No longer is it all about the holistic “privileged few”. It’s about the various ways everyone has privilege, and lacks it, on multiple dimensions. Some dimensions are more weighty than others. And some people have privilege on more dimensions than others. (Also, people live within multiple social structures, in which the rules are different in each. And parameters not relevant to mainstream Western urban societies can be crucial and life-defining, or aspects of privilege entirely flipped or different in importance, in different societies internationally.)

Also important are two more ideas. One is that that most of us are not aware of all our privilege, and many are not willing to accept that they have privilege. Such unwillingness is especially apparent when (as individuals) people see no evidence that a putative group privilege has brought any tangible benefits to them as an individual.

Image result for privilege
A rather easy-to-understand didactic presentation with contemporary cartoon and dialogue elements to make it more appealing.

The related term “entitled” picks out people who lay claim to privilege, perhaps unconsciously, for example by accepting the existence of inequity. Maybe they think this is merely realpolitik: if there is no level playing field provided by history, and no realistic chance of creating or maintaining something approaching it, then… hey-ho. Entitled people may even think their privilege is deserved, in which case presumably they ought to argue that society should enable those with privilege to preserve or increase it, rather than to enhance the meritocratic opportunities for individuals of any background.

For example, on learning that there are not merely hereditary but ecclesiastical members of the House of Lords in the UK (and only from the Church of England at that), some citizens argue it’s A Good Thing. But it’s an entitlement that many (most?) people think is wrong. The “gender pay gap” issue on the other hand is an example of a current topic of lively debate where opinion is less one-sided.

So… like other members of the general public, over the last decade or so I have come around to understanding “having privilege” (rather than “being privileged”) as meaning “being a member of a relatively large, powerful, stable group within society” (or similar). Membership may provide direct quantitative personal and social benefits (from physical health to financial health), or enhanced means for self-determination in life.

Access to success

It can also result in qualitatively enhanced personal characteristics like self-reliance and self-confidence which often are beneficial for the individual (ignoring the problem that privilege may also lead to burn-out and expectation-based mental health problems). The term is sometimes used to identify very broad targets indeed (like “men”) or ones with rather more focus (like the three parameters that collide in MAWMs, or middle-aged white men). Unsurprisingly, there is wide-spread resentment or rejection of the privilege label by relatively under-privileged members of such groups.

As for the old usage… it is a rare occurrence indeed for me to hear privilege used as an accolade these days. Having a “privileged upbringing” no longer means what it used to! (No longer only means.) Used by someone about themself, “privileged” is increasingly often for younger people an admission, not a boast. It’s not a cultural cringe, but a wider and more neutral acknowledgement. On the other hand, a dearly-loved friend used the word just this week in the old-fashioned way (with respect to fee-paying schools) and I would hate them to feel criticised by what I write.

Other sorts of privilege (off-topic)

In searching for a pithy cartoon to convey privilege, it was easy to find all sorts of antagonisms and arguments. I’ve seen many claims also that any time an individual denies group-culpability, this leads the woke power-crowd to yell “check your privilege” in an unconsciously ironic manner, but I agree absolutely with the cartoon above that this is hardly pandemic. Amazing but true: “shut up and listen” has always been good advice for those used to talking. Po-faced advice and virtue-signalling are also easy to find,* but they are hardly pandemic either.

Yes, I had to look up “woke” in a dictionary. I’ve culturally appropriated this bit of Americana. My choice. I think. Though perhaps I’m guilty of enabling cultural imperialism. Is it OK for me to do that to myself? Hmm. Are people like me allowed to joke about this stuff or is that not appropriate? Is irony just defensive? Am I being too knowing, or not knowing enough…? 

Anyway… I was interested to discover that I just could not find a pithy, relevant image or cartoon about privilege for the top of this piece. Hence The Beatles.

The internet is of course full of cartoons. There were many worthy, sarcastic, pro- and anti- cartoons, focusing on privilege in terms of gender, race- and identity- politics and mostly referencing the particular interests and concerns of the USA, like most of the Anglosphere. (Thanks Mark for that word). I found most privilege cartoons to be unpleasant, dull and/or worthy… and irrelevant to a family tree blog. The one above from RobotHugs is one of the least annoying, and most informative, though I found I could not read it all without getting the dry boaks and feeling, frankly, patronised.

I had nearly used this “narrative of privilege” graphic, which came from a partially-relevant blog-post by Peter Gordon at on contemporary institutional cronyism and the privilege of official institutions in Scotland relative to other stakeholders. The author reposts a piece by Walter Humes at the Sceptical Scot blog who says

“official Scotland exhibits many of the worst features of narrative privilege, bureaucratic defensiveness, professional protectionism and the abuse of patronage”.

It is at It makes some reasonable criticisms, and is well written. I am enough of an institutional beast through my career to recognise a few of the irritant and aggrandising properties of the perpetual troublemaker (enacting the narrative of the heroic outsider/underdog) and making complaints like this, as well as to agree that there is indeed an easy appeal of patronage in a system of privilege. Patronage appeals to those who can exercise it and to those who might benefit from it. Prejudice and privilege are similar – except because “prejudice” is by definition negative, nobody will admit to it. Privilege is heading that way now.

As for “narrative privilege” in institutions… we all should promote a cycle of renewal and a culture of transparency, whether arising from external and novel criticism or spontaneous internal processes, but we also should remind ourselves of the benefits of social and institutional stability.  But this is going totally off-topic.

2. Privilege and privileged families

The Elephant in the Drawing Room

What then is the relevance for a family tree blog of my lip-smackin’, half-hearted, wikipedian, social median, auto-didactical pop-sociological posting about privilege?

The point I guess is that with family stories (and I’ve seen this in other genealogical sites presenting a middle class family history): inherited social privilege (or the lack of it) is an elephant in the room. To me, after writing about a bit of my family, and reading a bit, privilege just seems an obvious issue to address when presented with swathes of similar, related, and socially-related people. A family history can embody and evidence privilege (or the lack of it) rather well. Yet I’ve not seen this discussed as explicitly as I am trying to do here.

Ignoring the individual

What I said at the top was not an admission (nor a boast), but it was a pretty sweeping generalisation: So far, Noisybrain is full of privilege.

Using the P-word** denies the individual their right to to be seen as an individual. It also denies disenfranchised groups the specifics of their own situation by lumping them all in together as “lacking privilege”. Individuals are already somewhat lost in family trees: their most intimate life moments – their life stories – are second-hand (at best) and dumbed down. If there even are any stories. Go a few generations back, and an individual’s entire human experience might be reduced to a handful of key dates: birth, marriage and death. Even apparently reliable place-names refer to streets, villages, parishes and towns that no longer exist as they once did and can’t be compared across the centuries. Loving relationships are replaced by a few diagrammatic lines linking someone to their siblings, parents, children, partner.***

However, a family tree is a great place to see social privilege. Or the lack of it. Or how it ebbs and flows. Or is seized, or lost. It depends on the family.

My paternal side appears pretty stable, generation after generation, marriage after marriage, year after year. It’s not really a case of “clogs to clogs in three generations“. (Though who knows about five generations!) It’s not really a random choice from “Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, Rich man, poor man, beggarman, thief“. It’s more “Lawyer, doctor, doctor, doctor, Teacher, businessman, missionary, judge“.

The 19th century privilege was accrued, I think, mainly by one or two individuals. It may go back further. This is a topic for further research but also for the choice of protagonist in the story-telling. For sure, it was augmented and has been passed on. Not meaningfully as photographs and heirlooms, and arguably not even primarily as wealth (cash-money or property), but as a set of processes, behaviours and beliefs. As a context. As a social network. As exemplars of positive life-stories. As implicit expectations and assistance.

Oh, the ease of certain choices, the lack of certain sorts of worries and decisions! Here are childhoods full of education, good health, comfort and safety.

These factors are internalised psychologically as an entitlement no matter how ethical the upbringing, or how often the parent reminds the child explicitly “how lucky you are”. (We are not I think a family of an explicit “how deserving we are”.) Though some individuals will actively rebel, or “fail”, or just fail to fit in comfortably; privilege is a property of groups so I am using it about everyone.

The consecutive lifetimes of a parent and child can span a century and more. For a family, things change slowly.

Society, society, society

Privilege is not centrally about the tree of ancestors, the binary-branching genetic path. It’s primarily about the extended family, and the people our direct ancestors grew up with, socialised with, married, and did business with. It’s about the people they knew, especially those who they thought of as their equals. It’s about their neighbours, and their friends.

This social side of a stable family is likely to be relatively coherent, which is why privilege is likely to be inherited.

  • Privilege attracts privilege.
  • Privilege begets privilege. 

Individual adults experience great variety in their lived experience. Most of us undergo  extremes of joy and despair, fear and comfort. We are nearly all bereaved. We all are born and die. Most of us love. A tree exemplifies generations of unique individuals in terms of these key and universal human experiences; men and women alike. The breeding of couples (and the nuclear and somewhat extended) family is the focus of a tree, because it formalises those particular results of birth, love and death (in a shared community). Each node represents a unique personality, but in the most stripped-down manner. Each link represents a fundamental type of relationship, but is typically drawn from a limited, formalised and universal set of specific options. (Atypical relationships don’t feature well.)

For the less-well defined group called the “family”, context is as important – and can be more important – than nodes and links. Who we love and live with, who we care for and who cares for us. Our social network. Not just BMD and those very few GEDCOM-standard links to other “relations”. The informal or ill-fitting details in the notes: they matter. The long binary-branching vertical chain of links matters less, let alone the infinite chain of linkages that connects us all, than our lived experience with close family and non-family.  But those longer, fankled chains can perhaps help quantify an extended family’s privilege.

History matters too – destabilising forces can come breenging in to destroy or disrupt.

So, in a family tree, privilege and entitlement don’t determine an individual’s key life events, nor their involvement in dramatic historical ones, nor do they guarantee good or bad luck in life or love. To some extent however they predict the life course and the effects of history on individuals through the individual’s long-lasting familial and social context (and the enhancement or diminution of these opportunities relative to other people). Also, in a group of siblings, not all will be identical – some will “marry up” into more privilege, others not. Over a longer timescale, variation in privilege is easy to observe when an individual or two suddenly acquire wealth or status, while other siblings remain relatively disenfranchised, and the new privilege is enhanced and inherited.

I’m not even going to talk about the different lives of men and women – it’s too obvious. Nor will I discuss the many people who don’t have children or formal life-partners: the focus is on ancestors, and the past.

3. The Bigger Picture

Common ancestors, and posh ones

Almost as obvious: far back in time, we are all descended from the survivors of plague, famine, war and pestilence. Chance events led to our individual existence. We are all Jock Tamson’s bairns. Grasping the chance aspects of survival and creation is central to the sense of perspective which genealogical thinking brings. I’ve seen widespread awareness of the role of chance in family tree blogs. You very quickly accept that without this chance event, or that… as an individual, we would not exist.

The appreciation of the role of privilege is far more skewed. In some ways it is parallel to the change in the term’s meaning. The genealogical storytellers who have the most to say on the topic seem to come from families who until more recently lacked privilege. Maybe it is just me that finds what they write to be more enthralling as stories. It’s not the standard financial drama of rags-to-riches, or the peasant hero slaying the dragon and marrying the princess. The stories are often more about someone finding or earning an emotional or social treasure by reclaiming knowledge and creating a history from next to nothing. About understanding the past and the pressures our ancestors faced. About a family member finding or gaining privilege for themselves and their family through self-respect. People work out what happened, to who, and where, in what anyone would see as an ordinary family. And the events can be as dramatic and tragic and romantic as any dragon-slaying.

On the other hand, tragic stories of loss of privilege tend to be told only when later generations have regained some of their lost ground, or are told by personal victims because the tragedy has happened to them. A (family) story of multiple generations of life in an underclass does not gain anything through a reference to a prior loss of privilege a few generations back. The people involved may not be internet story-tellers anyway. Perhaps that’s why I have not encountered such stories of loss of privilege.

The Privilege of Emperors

There are swathes of non-narrative family trees featuring famous or privileged ancestors somewhere in a tree. Little can be learned about privilege from those, even when there are famous ancestors like monarchs and aristocrats. Well, there is one lesson. It arises because so many people can claim to be descended from a few high-ranking men, and not so far back in history at that. In a 2015 Y-chromosome genetic inheritance study in Asia (cf. papers in the European Journal of Human Genetics or Nature), around a dozen high-frequency clusters were found, indicating a common ancestry for a genetic pattern the survival of which was enabled by social power and privilege. We even know the names of two of the men responsible: Genghis Khan (1162-1227), from whom over 16 million living men are descended, and Giocangga (d. 1582) from whom 1.5 million living men are descended. Another family tree is dated to a man alive around 850CE. (Another example of male hegemony comes from early medieval Ireland.)

The lesson in privilege is that these men used their power to father many, many children, with multiple women, which ensured that they passed on their genes. The others, who lived “between 2100 BCE and 300 BCE existed in both sedentary agricultural societies and nomadic cultures in the Middle East, India, southeast Asia and central Asia. Their dates coincide with the emergence of hierarchical, authoritarian societies in Asia during the Bronze Age, such as the Babylonians.”  I wonder what they would think about the “Can’t Buy Me Love” lyrics?

By the way, if I find out that me and Ghengis are DNA-buddies, I’ll be posting. Like most people, I do have some glamorous and infamous and tragic relations, and I’ll be mentioning them, no worries.


About a year after writing, I spotted a news article (in about economic research exploring the probate records of titled families in the UK. Drs Matthew Bond and Julien Morton found that “On average, Britain’s 600 or so aristocratic families are now as wealthy as their Victorian forebears at the height of Britain’s imperial expansion.”

Labour MP Chris Bryant was also quoted. He has written A Critical History of the British Aristocracy (2017) and he told i: “For more than a century, the landed aristocracy have been moaning about their terrible impoverishment. Ostentatiously sitting in dilapidated drawing rooms with buckets and pails catching drips from the beautiful but bowed stucco ceiling, they have extended the begging bowl. Yet the last century has seen many do remarkably well. The end result is that the great old landed, crested and hallmarked families of the United Kingdom are still in possession of most of the land and a large part of the wealth of the nation.”

Making Connections

I am reminding myself (and any readers, hullo!) to explicitly consider my paternal family’s privilege over a couple of centuries, and its contemporary repercussions. When reading my family stories, think about their 19th C. contemporaries and their descendants. Imagine, invent, and search for something different. Especially remember the contrast with people they would have known only as strangers, particularly those subjected to systematic poverty, institutional injustice, exploitation, and all the rest. So few people were free to be fully human and to have a life that could be shaped by character, opportunity, talent and luck, rather than living a path destined by inherited and rigid social structures! It is after dealing with that context that it is easier to say “they were and we are privileged” with some simple pleasure. In my view, there is baggage, but once it has been carried for a while, it can be set aside for a while.

My “carried for a while” in this blog is exemplified by this long piece, but who can predict when empathy and sentimentality push the buttons of pride, pleasure, relief, empathy, responsibility or guilt? We may be thinking about the lives of those relatives long gone; catching up with our current relatives and friends; reading the stories of strangers, both real and fictional; watching the news (always bad); or just thinking about our fleeting place in the human experience. We may be alone or in company; talking or thinking or just in a dwam. At home, or somewhere new, or in a bucket-list location. Sometimes you hear a bit of disembodied music, sometimes you catch someone’s eye for a fleeting moment. Sometimes you get a surge of something or an emptying of everything else. And there is some kind of perspective, slipping away before it is even apprehended.

Meanwhile, there are people who actually do useful stuff. They get my highest respect. Some of them are written about here.

4. The Scottish Context

There is more than one Scottish family

Noisybrain features specific stories about some of my relatives. The ancestors I know about were almost all Scottish. I am not writing about the global or historical role of Scots or the paths of Scottish and European history. OK yes, some context is thrown in, here and there, but it’s not the star of the show. From far away and long ago, it might appear that Scotland is a small, homogenous place. Yes, and no.

An extended family of ancestors and their spouses appear here. Not all branches of the tree should be labelled privileged in their own context, in their own time. Some were more privileged than others. It would be nice for them to be able to express their relative differences, to add to picture I can create here and now. If from a global and historical perspective, us descendants were given one label, then yes it would be “privileged”. Without a moment’s doubt. Even in our own Scottish context, I would say that the palpable 19th C. privilege and wealth of some of my ancestors is a general property of the entire contemporary family of descendants, if we are viewed as a single unit, without bleaching the meaning of the term too much, and without pointing either at individual exceptions or individual exemplars. I am not evaluating individuals, but taking an average.

In terms of global history, any Scottish family tree might appear to the rest of the world to provide a very narrow and homogeneous sample. And it does. From within, things appear more diverse, because even small individual differences can be important to the people involved. More of this sort of diversity will appear in future posts. Given what I know about my ancestor’s families during the relevant couple of hundred years, future content will be more diverse from my perspective too… yet far from representing the breadth of Scottish families’ histories.

So far, for example, nobody features who

  • was ripped out of their home community by emigration, exile, or repatriation
  • was part of a socio-economic underclass that suffered from multiple deprivations
  • was identified mainly as having a distinct (minority, low-status) ethnicity

But such individuals will appear, even if they remain under-represented in comparison to the professional middle class missionaries, doctors, society housewives, ministers of religion, educated children, lawyers and entrepreneurs. And such individuals will be relatively exceptional. The latter types are commonplace in my father’s half of the family tree over a couple of centuries.

More diverse groups will appear, but diversity is relative. Nobody at all will feature, I think, who had genetic ancestry from Asia, Africa, Australasia, or the Americas, and damn few from England or elsewhere in Europe. So stories involving such people and places will be minimal, or absent.

Deprivation and privilege in Scottish ancestry

It’s unlikely that any individuals to be discussed in Noisybrain were part of a group who was systematically persecuted, enslaved, or exterminated. Frankly, they were more likely to be part of a group who perpetrated such inhumanities or benefited (in)directly from them. But even these polar alternatives can be approached more from the perspective on individuals who survived, and their descendants. As time and the generations pass, the variation in the historical outcomes for survivors and perpetrators of injustice even of the most extreme types might eventually wipe out all practical traces of such history, or our origins might be reflected in weaker terms. Even if explicit awareness is lost, weak patterns of inheritance can remain within social groupings of peoples after centuries and even millennia, as culture. Or in genetics. But the focus here is on relatively recent history, not the privileged few and the marginal many among the ancient Celtic kingdoms or under the Roman Empire.

The Highland Clearances, however. Now, there’s a thing that can come up in Scottish family conversations about the old days; perhaps more in émigré ones. It’s clear to me that the clearances and other aspects of highland and rural Scottish history, and the effects they had, exemplify lack of privilege. At the very least, various Scottish groups’ human rights were breached though socio-economic exploitation and fine-grained ethnic bigotry in relatively recent times. People suffered and died, for generations. Mild, small, localised and short-lasting though these episodes were compared to the European nations’ perpetration (structurally endemic or epidemic) of slavery and genocide at home and around the world, they are significant enough to be taken into account. The friends and family of my grandparents’ grandparents were there. It’s not so long ago.

I am setting aside national, local and religious warfare, assuming those as universal, though we are actually privileged on this island. Large land battles have not been fought in Great Britain since the civil wars of the parliamentarian / republican revolution in the mid 17th Century. Our villages, towns and cities have not suffered occupation on a scale that is painfully fresh in living memory on continental Europe for a very much longer time.

One point in time familiar to many people interested in Scottish genealogy and history is however the failed revolution of the Jacobite succession (1745-1746). Subsequent government policy against Jacobites which had the explicit intention of suppressing Highland power and to destroy the indigenous way of life caused an additional decline in the use of the Gaelic language and culture. It contributed to pressure on the indigenous rural Celtic population to move to the towns and cities, or to emigrate.

A rising rural population in a remote area with limited industry, farmland or fishing was hard to sustain, even without external pressures and explicit persecution. The ultimate depopulation was severe in many places, as communities disappeared and a living culture was nearly wiped out. On the fertile Isle of Lismore, where my maternal grandfather’s family comes from, the population is now a fraction of its 1831 peak of 1,497. It had fallen steadily to only 558 already by 1891. Just over a century later, the population stood at just 146, rising at last, in the 2011 census, to nearly 200.**** My maternal grandmother’s home island of Benbecula currently has a population (2011 census) of 1,330. I can’t find its historical population (as distinct from South Uist), but in most of the Highlands and Islands, the last two centuries have brought no prosperous stability, and no local wealth or urbanisation on the scales seen even in European countries beset by war. The remoteness from an increasingly urban and industrial economy, without sufficient social and technological infrastructure to compensate, meant that the life choices of those living there were, and are, limited. To live in these places is usually a conscious and effortful decision. To move away likewise. This is not privilege.

The penalties for wearing “highland clothing” … were “imprisonment, without bail, during the space of six months, and no longer; and being convicted for a second offence … shall be liable to be transported…” No lesser penalties were allowed for.

from Wikipedia on the Act of Proscription (1746- 1782)

See also the National Archives e.g. Laws to control Scotland, Wikipedia on Jacobitism, and Wikipedia on Gaelic language, which includes a typical view that:

[Gaelic] suffered under centralization efforts by the Scottish and later British states, especially after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, during the Highland Clearances, and by the exclusion of Scottish Gaelic from the educational system

The Highland Clearances” is a useful label, but note that commentators at one extreme opt for the hyperbole of this being a genocide that is specifically Scottish, while a smaller camp at the other extreme opt for denial that anything happened beyond pan-European industrialisation. This East Lothian source on family history seems to express the more balanced, received wisdom:

Scotland lost 10% to 47% of the natural population increase every decade in the 1800s. Until about 1855, a number of the emigrants from the Highlands were forced to leave the land because of evictions. In the Lowlands, emigration was almost always the outcome of wanting to improve one’s living standards.

The eviction of Highlanders from their homes peaked in the 1840s and early 1850s as the Highland economy had collapsed, while the population still rose.  … The poorest Highlanders were evicted but crofters who were capable of paying rent were retained. The Emigration Act of 1851, however, made emigration more accessible to the poorest, with the Highlands and Islands Emigration Society set up to manage the process of resettlement. The main exodus occurred in the islands, particularly Skye, Mull, the Long Island and the mainland parishes of the Inner Sound. After 1855, mass evictions were unusual and emigration became more a matter of choice than compulsion. Between 1855 and 1895 the decline in the Highland population was actually less than in the rural Lowlands.

Historians have commented on the ‘high quality’ of early Scottish settlers, particularly in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. These emigrants were from middle-class backgrounds, among them doctors, merchants, farmers and a selection of other ‘middle-class’ occupations. However, the social status of emigrants underwent a significant transformation: increasingly, emigrants from the Highlands were landless peasants and from the Lowlands unemployed craftsmen, labourers and small farmers.

The decline in population was mostly due to a permanent migration south, although a significant number left for North America. Those affected by the evictions of the 1840s and 1850s generally refused to move to Lowland Scotland. They opted to settle in places such as Ontario and Nova Scotia (New Scotland) in Canada where they could work on the land and continue their style of life. In the first half of the 19th century, 59% of [Canadian?] settlers from the UK were Scots-born. From 1853, however, 50% of emigrating Scots chose to settle in the United States, and by 1850 Scots made up a quarter of the population in New Zealand. 

None of this really matters here in the context of a discussion of family privilege, both because the people subject to the events at the time had (next to) no privilege, and because the situation of their descendants varies so wildly.

There is no generalisation. Some stayed; some joined the British urban working class; some emigrated to the colonies of the British Empire or the USA or New Zealand. Without reference to evidence, we can guess about the statistical tendencies for wealth accumulation among those who remained as opposed to those who survived emigration. It’s easy to find lists of notable, famous and rich Scots and their descendants who “made it” overseas (USA, Canada and elsewhere) but less easy to find comparable lists for stay-at-home Scots or immigrants. One popular impression is therefore one of emigrant success, while at the same time there are many lists of famous Scots (inventors, authors, scientists, poets, politicians, philosophers, entertainers, entrepreneurs etc.) that are full of Scots-born and Scottish-resident people. But beware – those that emigrated to achieve success were often poor, while those that achieved success in Scotland often came from a privileged background. It should be relatively easy to find out the family biographies of these people – hopefully someone has done it.

Emigration has led to a worldwide Scottish ethnic diaspora of descendants said to be around 28-40 million (presumably including people with relatively few Scottish ancestors in the mix), compared to an indigenous population of under 5 million in Scotland itself. At present, none of those emigrant stories are planned to form part of this site, but my own distant cousins are located in the usual places: Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Canada. Please tell your tales!

Meanwhile, in the lowlands

The early Industrial Revolution in central Scotland led to urbanisation including the giant city of Glasgow (and its hinterland), which was continually able (as a city) to exploit new opportunities and recover from setbacks (like the American Civil War, or competition from Liverpool and Manchester). Various phases of growth concentrated on:  wool, linen and manufactured goods; tobacco, sugar and cotton; and heavy manufacturing. These formed the core of Glasgow’s international trade, establishing and maintaining its identity as the “Second City of the British Empire”. Internal links by canal then steam railway and the rich deposits of iron ore and coal in central Scotland provided markets, natural resources, and labour.

Glasgow was an industrial city of international significance, until the beginning of the end became unstoppable after the mid 20th Century. Until then, a growing immigrant (rural and international) and locally-born workforce supplied unskilled and highly skilled labour and generated gigantic profits for both a privileged minority and those who could and did exploit new opportunities for social mobility. Brilliant engineers and inventors partnered with industrialists and politicians in the early 1800s to transform the shallow river into an industrial artery for the Steam Age and the modern era. Between 1870 to 1914, around a fifth of the world’s heavy modern ships were built on Clydeside.

A typical eulogy for the city (from before 2007) reads:

These were heady days, in which Glasgow ranked as one of the finest and richest cities in Europe and acclaimed as a model of organised industrial society. Grand public buildings and a host of museums, galleries and libraries were built. Glasgow had more parks and open spaces than any other similar European city, along with a regulated telephone system, water and gas supplies. Little wonder that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in 1857: “I am inclined to think that Glasgow is the stateliest city I ever beheld.”

Glasgow’s pride in these great achievements was openly displayed in two Great Exhibitions of 1888 and 1901, both held in Kelvingrove Park. Glasgow was now unquestionably the “Second City of the Empire”.

Available in an updated form (in more measured terms) at

Progressive approaches to urbanisation and industralisation did occur, as in the “model” industrial weaving village of New Lanark, founded in 1786, and powered by water. But the rarity and originality of Robert Owen’s social vision, as well as its factories being ahead of their time, explain why New Lanark is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of just six in Scotland (the only other industrial one being the Forth Bridge, opened in 1890). The more general industrial inheritance is one of pervasive social deprivation (see below). Early industrialisation and its exploitation of the work force in new social conditions is presumably a factor in a national identity informed by left-wing politics and a desire for greater social justice.


Compare all this however to Scotland’s neighbour, Ireland. The immediate consequence of the Great Famine (1845-1849), which killed a million and led immediately to the emigration of a further million or more (to the USA, the Commonwealth, and to Britain), was that the population plummeted in absolute terms by around 25%, not just that the population growth was slowed. The famine was followed in the 19th Century by decades more of even more extreme emigration. Ireland regained its independence from the UK in the 1920s as its population stabilised, but it only reversed its population falls at the end of the 20th Century. A total of around 9-10 million people have emigrated from Ireland. As Wikipedia puts it:

“After 1840, emigration from Ireland became a massive, relentless, and efficiently managed national enterprise. In 1890, 40% of Irish-born people were living abroad. By the 21st century, an estimated 80 million people worldwide claimed some Irish descent, which includes more than 36 million Americans who claim Irish as their primary ethnicity”. 

Irish (left axis) population in comparison to European population (right axis). From Wikipedia.

But in Noisybrain, the focus is my own family. So the privilege and deprivation of economic migrants of people starved to death or cleared from Ireland, the Scottish lowlands, or the Scottish Highlands is not the issue here. And the topic is privilege. So the point is that a Scottish-resident working class 19th/20th C. family and its Scottish-resident descendants do not have the privilege that my paternal family, in Scotland, does.

5. Privilege in Scotland

How does privilege pan out in Scotland? Does it mean greater safety in the face of criminal or institutionalised murder, racism and sexism?

Recall that phrase: Clogs to clogs in three generations. It seems to sum up the  idea that when one clever or lucky individual escapes from a deprived social group by, for example, making their fortune, the relief is temporary. Though their children benefit, their grandchildren will be back to where the family started. This is the precise opposite of privilege, a protective situation which cossets weaker and less successful individuals, and protects a generation or two from a lack of ability or opportunity.

Taking a broader perspective, it should be acknowledged that in global terms, Scotland as a whole has been peaceful, safe, educated, democratic and healthy compared to many parts of the world for generations, and is increasingly so. Even those stuck with clogs have privilege in comparison to their ancestors, and when compared to the parts of the world that feature repeatedly in the gloomiest news reports.

But, as I said above, privilege is relative. Compared to the rest of the UK or Europe, since 1950, and paying particular attention to certain factors in Scotland as a whole, there is apparently national deprivation. A lack of Scottish privilege. The Scottish Effect is a term given to the (unexplained) additional mortality in Scotland not otherwise attributable  even to Scotland’s higher levels of general (UK-wide or EU-wide) deprivation.

However, the Scottish Effect is not of course universal, affecting us all. It is concentrated in the major conurbation centering on post-industrial areas in and around Glasgow. Higher levels of deprivation in the city have led not just to explicable high levels of mortality, but excess mortality. Presumably this is due to the loop of inherited deprivation, but the specific reasons remain unclear and an ongoing topic of research.

This situation is therefore more commonly called the Glasgow Effect.

This is because it is mainly people living and born in or near Glasgow (as opposed to other, similar cities) who suffer worse health and a lower life expectancy at birth. And this geography is a proxy for a lack of socio-economic privilege. And it is this localised deprivation which means that Scotland as a nation has the lowest, and slowest improving, life expectancy in Western Europe. Premature mortality (death before 65 years) in Scotland is 20% higher than in England & Wales; it is 10% higher for deaths at all ages. This is, unsurprisingly, a major ongoing focus for public health in Scotland along with specific topics like obesity, alcohol abuse, physical inactivity, drug dependency, poor diet, unplanned pregnancies and smoking, which lead to high rates of cardiovasular diseases, diabetes, cancer, suicide, etc. (These factors in public health are primarily social. Multiple Sclerosis, however, appears to be a specifically Scottish problem for reasons that are more geographical/genetic than socio-economic.)

If you want to explore where deprivation (and privilege) can be found geographically today in Scotland, try surfing the maps in the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD), where you can enter post-codes to see their official socioeconomic decile ranking. It’s rather a blunt instrument, and neither it nor other similar policy tools are really aligned with the discussion here, but it is worth mentioning.

SIMD maps need to be used with care. If you look up e.g. Newarthill (S01011446), you will see a current SIMD ranking for the village in the 6th decile. That relative score represents neither my great-grandparents James and Mina in 1913, nor their ancestors, nor their  descendants. The modern SIMD values for the areas in which their children’s homes were located would tell a more appropriate story. Currently some are in the 9th/10th decile, e.g. Bearsden (Manse Road, border of S01008545 & S01008544), and Morningside (Hermitage Drive, S01008626).

6. The Colonial Legacy

It was I think mainly European and British Imperial history plus industrialisation, that enabled my father’s ancestors and their social groups to gain their privileged position. So for me it is normal to assume that people “like me” can choose to own houses,have professional jobs, be university educated, and so on. A left-field example is that the local school in Edinburgh my children attended is named for a snuff-tobacco merchant (James Gillespie, who lived frugally and died a rich bachelor, leaving his fortune to endow the school). Snuff tobacco was not grown in Scotland.

More in line with the discussion above, during my father’s early years, he would have known that his family’s privilege was bound up with their position in a vibrant industrial economy in a country establishing then exploiting a giant empire to provide a comfortable social infrastructure and interesting opportunities for people like him. I was brought up in a more impoverished Glasgow and less confident Britain nearly 50 years later. Even then it was both a city with plenty enough wealth thanks to some of the same factors that have led in the contemporary context to the Glasgow Effect, and “the worst slums in Europe”.

The negative side of all this wealth transfer was, of course, much worse elsewhere in the Empire and the colonies.

As noted above, in passing, the earlier sources of Imperial wealth had included tobacco, sugar and cotton as well as manufactured goods. Streets named for and buildings owned by the people controlling such trade are common landmarks. Such trade systematically included the African / North American / British slavery trade routes, the use of slave labour in the colonies, indentured emigrant labour (including forced transportation), the use of warfare and legalised exploitation to establish and protect the Empire’s access to natural resources and trade routes, and so on. Britain’s “National Interest” was peace, prosperity and somewhat wider privilege at home. Later on, when wealth came to the privileged from more local industrial concerns, British and European colonialism provided increasing amounts of natural resource, labour, markets, or consumers. All this activity provided some of the infrastructure for the professional careers so often adopted by my father’s ancestors and their families, as doctors, missionaries, and lawyers. No wonder there are calls for a museum of slavery in Glasgow. What is inconceivable is that some people object that it is “not our history”. Not only is it a history relevant to many people in modern, diverse Scotland, it is the history of Scotland’s majority indigenous ethnic populations, and the Scottish diaspora.

Finally,  I will not consider the land-grab and genocide our Scottish ancestors and their descendants carried out in North America and Australia in anything more than the briefest terms. I name these places because I think those places are the examples that justify being called “genocide” most clearly, but they are not alone. The self-belief of Scots in their white racial (and religious) superiority ran deep. Emigrants (and the relatives of emigrants and the beneficiaries of the system) thought they had the right to take whatever they could from what they saw as land empty of human civilisation: or even, at the most extreme end of racism, of humans. Even if they did not think it was morally right (and I bet most of them did, looking at what people still believe nowadays), they did what they thought was necessary and legitimate. In their time, in their system, they may even have been upstanding people who never stepped outside the law. (In our time, we have our own legal, institutional, social and personal arguments to have.) Though at the start of that journey most of these people had few choices and little privilege, it’s hard to compare their personal suffering and loss with the suffering of the indigenous peoples and cultures they helped wipe out. It’s hard to not take just the simplest of lessons, because it stares you in the face when you consider the average contemporary group privilege of the descendants of the victims of genocide versus the descendants of those who benefited. In the USA, poverty, unemployment, early mortality, and death at the hands of law enforcers are negative factors that affect Native Americans and Blacks more than other American minorities, and reflect their continuing lack of historical privilege.

7. Conclusion

Internal diversity, diverse privilege, or a world-wide perspective?

In this essay I am justifying the identification of variable levels of privilege within my almost entirely Scotland-located Scottish family history over the last couple of centuries (i.e. between my families and their social contemporaries), aimed at a non-Scottish audience who thinks “we” (aka “the delightful Scottish people” or “fucking Jocks”) are all the same. Straightforwardly white Scottish people like me have things to talk about, some historical and some contemporary, which people interested in their own experiences in life or family histories can read, or not. I’m also reminding a Scottish audience that viewed as a nation, Scotland is and has been for some time a land of privilege, or a land of under-privilege, depending on who you compare us to, and what you focus on.

The big points are thus

  • People with common ancestors are not all alike, and nor specifically are people with a majority Scottish ancestry or a primary Scottish identity
  • People living in Scotland are not the same as people with similar ancestry living in other places
  • All people are a mixture, though they and others may not see or care about it
  • Some aspects of ancestry are likely to kill you or cause you harm, some and others

Having a go at writing about these big issues usually (in my experience) discussed from alternative national and international perspectives was interesting (for me) and provided me with some perspective. From here, it is easy to go to expert, authentic and enthralling sources to find out more. It is also possible to do something, if that is your wont. I have been strengthened in my belief that small local differences matter, for the people who experience them, within their own context. But many of these experiences are relatively trivial compared to what people used to endure, or be victims of, in my country’s history. Or still do suffer from, in parts of it, let alone elsewhere. Some of us are safe, and have privilege, and as someone in that position, the telling of family history stories is one of the ways I connect with contemporary misery and loss (and achievement and joy). Hopefully not too in too sentimental or nostalgic a way. There is still war and famine, illness, poverty and death. It’s hard work sometimes to remind ourselves that the world is a better place than it has ever been. Here’s just one example relevant to the timescales of my family stories: two centuries of growth in primary schooling, world-wide. Despite everything, we should be optimistic.

The percentage of children enrolled in primary education. Based on the World Banks’ World Development Report 2018: LEARNING to Realize Education’s Promise (from

There is still hatred, overt exercise of prejudice, and systematic internal and international exploitation. Even in the richest countries, some identifiable groups of people still die young, suffer ill-health and lack opportunities due to poverty, and the innocent are still killed by entitled law-enforcers out of prejudice, or through their inability to resist or escape powerful criminal sub-cultures. On the other hand, for so many people, social prejudices around a whole range of aspects of our identity used to cause misery and self-loathing, but nowadays can be brushed off and our diversity can be celebrated. Fewer people’s lives are destroyed by systematic abuse and exploitation. That type of privilege is something that everyone should, and could, have.

Seeking extra diversity

Some extra variety is needed, I think. For my own interest and convenience, I’m listing some links to blogs (in English) or story-based sites (etc) telling 19th Century and early 20th Century family histories very different to the ones told by me. Often they are stories about the authors’ grandparents and their grandparents, thus just on the edges of living memory rather than being purely archival. Stories that resonate with me personally. Ones that otherwise I might lose track of. They are recommendations, and I’ll try to add to them and keep them up to date.

We can all read novels by great writers on these topics, but there’s something spicy and touching about real people telling their own family stories, just as there is in listening to the contemporary voices of those giving up a little bit of themselves to be archived forever, e.g. in The Listening Project.

I might add one or two other links more about privilege and Scottishness just in case anyone ever reads the material above and is interested and wants to know more. Like I probably do (though not yet). One of the joys of writing this stuff is finding out how much there is out there to learn. One of the difficulties is to learn when to stop writing.

8. Links

Historically Black (podcast: iTunes | Stitcher | TuneIn | Spotify | Google Play), e.g. an episode trailed by the Washington Post here (on Medium), a story about Wilson Wood, sold as a slave in the  USA in 1862, the year in which my great-grandparents (who were still living when my father was in his mid-twenties) were already 10 years old.

Who do you think you are? (TV show, BBC from 2004 and 17 other versions internationally since 2008). Favourite episodes include Olivia Coleman (for the documentation and the story), …

The Boys on the Ice (story, BBC magazine and Stowaways graphic novel). In 1868, some boys from Greenock who stowed away on The Arran regretted their adventurous decision.

Photographing Multiracial Families In Scotland (blog, Medium). Describes a photographer’s project “Girls and Their Mothers”, part of the larger Exottish. “Instead of questioning their ancestry or scrutinizing their appearance, I chose to photograph girls and women of mixed heritage and their mothers with an intent to question social perception.”

The Search for my Grandparents (blog, Medium). The author’s grandparents immigrated from Italy to New York City. But suddenly it transpires that they did not, in fact, die in a fire in the 1930s. So… what happened?

Compelled to Share. (personal history, Medium). One comtemporary American’s view on his mixed heritage.

Masterson/Inglis and many others. (Genealogy and family history blog by Alison Hepburn, Medium). The specific story linked-to here is about a married couple and their surviving children’s families. James Masterton (b. 1866 in Earlsferry, Fife) was the ninth of eleven children. His father was a hand loom weaver.  Agnes Cecilia Inglis (b. 1867 at 100 High Street, Portobello, Edinburgh) was the fourth of nine children. Her father was a journeyman joiner. Their life is vividly and compassionately portrayed through document-rich genealogy.

Faces of Auschwitz. (Website of colourised photos and brief personal biographies of a few of the victims of the Nazi Holocaust at this specific extermination and torture centre. There are nearly 40,000 sets of records that survived attempts to destroy them. Just a few of those photographed survived too.)

Legacies of British Slave Ownership. (UCL database with website access.) Visual mapping of nearly 5000 UK locations of slave owning families, estates and institutions, and other resources.

My Journey through the Generations. (Genealogy and family history blog by Trisha, WordPress). “I grew up in a small town in Northeast Arkansas and family has always been an important part of my life.  I read Alex Haley’s Roots with my Granny when I was 12 years old.  That book introduced me to oral history and family ancestry.  It wasn’t until I was in college that I put together my first family tree for a class project about my family health history. Eight years later, I was with my then, six year old son, going through some family photos when he began asking questions about the people in the photos.  But I didn’t have any answers for him.  So in 2011 I started my genealogy journey so that I could answer any and all questions my son would ever have about our family.” For a typical evocative and beautifully-written post that makes a great intro, see some people collect stamps I collect funeral programs.

On racism, white saviors, and being honest with ourselves. A 2019 blog piece from the USA by CJ Hartwell which discusses the white experience of evaluating responsibility, and cites the position that “Racism is the collective actions of a dominant racial group.”

Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass. (Book by Darren McGarvey, Luath Press). This is not a family history, but might fit the other themes somewhat. I’ve added this to my reading list, having heard Darren (aka Loki) on the radio yesterday (June 2018). Here’s a review.

Home Front. (Radio drama incorporating real events, BBC). Unfolding in “real time” 100 years on from the events it draws on, this soap opera explores social history, family, and the changing aspects of women and social class structure in England in around 600 12 minute episodes: “Read more about First World War history that features in Home Front“. Home page here.


* Uh-huh, I know! And check the next paragraph!

** Using this construction (specifically here “P-word”) is a way to claim victim-hood. I’m doing it knowingly, and with a % of irony somewhere between 1 and 99.

*** We will mostly all suffer the same fate, the internet notwithstanding. This blog is not me. My CV is not me. My tree (upwards or downwards) is not me. Even for those who live public lives and leave an extensive digital footprints, if the data survives it will be no more than a few dumb soundbites compared to their lived experience. That’s why stories, including fictional ones, matter. The good ones capture a little bit of the human essence.

William Villalongo, e.g. at

**** This footnote will get replaced by a link to a blog-page at some point discussing a book that just came out – Robert Hay (2018) How an Island Lost its People: Improvement, Clearance and Resettlement 1830–1914. Islands Books Trust. [link] An essay by Bob Hay on the island’s website on depopulation of the township of Baligrundle in the early 19th C. details that 9 households of 41 people in 1841 organised around arable farming were reduced to a population of just 2 by 1861: a shepherd and his widowed sister-in-law. [link]

9 thoughts on “Inheriting privilege

Add yours

  1. Definitely privilege is one of the elements I have not yet managed to address. Nor have I been game to address the consequences of the role my forebears played in the settlement of Australia and in their role in the British Empire more generally. I haven’t really got my head around it quite yet. It is a complicated story. However, I think you put the issue of privilege very well. Regards Anne

    Liked by 1 person

  2. First off I want to say superb blog! I had
    a quick question in which I’d like to ask if you do not mind.
    I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your head
    before writing. I’ve had a difficult time clearing my mind in getting
    my thoughts out there. I do take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the
    first 10 to 15 minutes are lost just trying to figure out how to begin.
    Any recommendations or hints? Many thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m addicted to this and have no trouble starting… the problem is stopping. When it comes to writing, I edit a lot. I read what I wrote previously, and change it many times until it says what I reckon I mean to say, and loses repetition or awkward sentences that a reader will stumble over.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

A Website.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: