The Society of Writers to His Majesty’s Signet is an incorporated body of Scottish lawyers known as WS, with over 500 years of heritage: one of the oldest incorporated bodies in Scotland for public benefit. Today, WSs are solicitors in law firms or in-house in the private or public sector. They take an oath before the Keeper of the Signet, committing themselves to high standards of competence and integrity through the association with the historic seal of Scotland’s monarchs, known as the Signet. The neoclassical Signet Library, by St Giles’ Cathedral, is a treasure chest of Scottish history.
I trained and practised as a lawyer specialising in rural law — anything outside the 30mph speed limit. The practice I built up in Perth was demanding, mostly acting for farmers, estate-owners, and foreign clients buying Scottish estates. I got to know families very well, and became their trusted adviser over generations, and travelled on the mainland and the islands.
It was a time of great change professionally: increased regulation, increased specialisation, pressure on fees, and the move to computerisation. As the managing partner, I suffered a bout of depression, which led to me taking a part-time job and doing an M.Sc. in the origins, history, and contemporary impact of globalisation.
Globalisation’s happened for thousands of years: the Greek and Roman Empires; Christianity; Islam; British colonialism; Nazi Germany; contemporary Russia; as well as industry. My dissertation was on the effects of globalisation on a developing country, and I chose Sarawak [on the north-west coast of Borneo] because of my family’s connections there.
The White Rajahs’ rule from 1840 to 1946 was early globalisation. Perhaps the benefits of the suppression of piracy, the introduction of legal and civil systems, health, sanitation, development of natural resources, and jobs outweighed the disadvantages — but hydro-electric dams supplying mainland Malaysia have destroyed villages, and palm-oil plantations have decimated the rainforests.
If globalisation proceeds without effective checks and balances, it’ll spiral out of control, bringing more wealth to the West and more poverty and misery elsewhere. And let’s not talk about climate change.
I’ve always been proud to be a member of Clan Grant, and have worn the Grant kilt since I was 13. I wrote a family history, Sugar, Slaves and High Society, so that future generations would understand their past. As a child, I heard stories about the White Rajahs and the Elgin marbles, and can just about remember the museum in my grandparents’ house, with blowpipes from Sarawak, pistols from Jamaica, and an African suit of armour, a marble chair, marble busts, and portraits.
John and Francis Grant, the brothers who made their fortunes in Jamaica, helped their sisters financially, but they were already comparatively comfortable. Francis and his son John made charitable gifts, but Francis made his known in the newspapers. Was this an attempt to ease his conscience?
A painting by Guercino hung, from 1820, at John Grant’s home, Kilgraston: The Vocation of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, who devoted his life to helping the poor. That principle was clearly important to the third Laird, but didn’t seem to influence his moral position about the slaves in Jamaica. His inherited wealth was used to support an extravagant lifestyle.
My eldest son married Melanie Viljoen from Cape Town. Her family were forced out of District 6, which was populated by freed slaves in 1833, and relocated to the Cape Flats. She benefited from globalisation: her accountancy firm in Cape Town sent her to London, and the rest is history. She’s possibly the first person from the Cape Flats to have been appointed a non-executive director of a London listed company.
I’m not sure that there’s a “proper” response to such family stories. History can’t be turned back, and we can’t reach moral judgements in 2023 on what happened over two centuries ago. Until 1834, it was legal to own slaves in the colonies. The Government encouraged the sugar industry and prevaricated on the abolition of slavery. The Church was complicit in the continuation of slavery. In the Code Noir, on which John Grant adjudicated, conversion of slaves to Christianity was encouraged in the hope it would make them less troublesome to their owners.
I don’t think it’s appropriate to apologise for the actions of others. Regret, however, is appropriate. The lens through which I look at the achievements of my forebears has been adjusted, particularly the paintings of Sir Francis Grant and sculptures of Mary Grant, which wouldn’t have been possible without their privileged upbringings.
There are calls for reparation, but on what basis, and to whom? Education, health, and infrastructure projects might be more effective than sums of cash, but as owning slaves was permitted until 1834 by the UK Parliament, it must be for them to decide about reparations or compensation, taking advice from experts from the countries which were affected by slavery.
It’s easy to focus on the past and not on present injustices. Who sets the ethical standards? Is “ethical” the same as “just”? Hegel opined that what is legal is not necessarily just.
Today’s slavery and trafficking is impossible to police on a national, let alone international basis, without global joined-up thinking and effective enforcement. And with the strength of nationalism in the UK and elsewhere, the plight of refugees shows no sign of easing. A knowledge of history might prevent mistakes being made — and enacting legislation swiftly and effectively.
I had a happy childhood in the Scottish countryside a few miles from my father’s knitwear business. I had an older sister; a Labrador which needed long walks; and a maternal grandmother who shared her love of history and nature with us. Boarding school wasn’t a happy experience, but at least I was reasonable at sports. Even if we’d been able to afford to send our own children to boarding school, we wouldn’t have done.
My wife and I live in the lovely Scottish Borders, where I walk our Labrador or plan family visits. Classical music and opera are essentials. Being president of the oldest Natural History Society in the UK takes a lot of my time. My four grandchildren make me happy.
Attendance at church was part of early family life and school, and my wife’s father was a Scottish Episcopalian priest. Sunday services, prayers, and, I suppose, grace before meals.
I can’t say I’ve knowingly had an experience of God. I became disillusioned with the Church — its factions, its inability to adapt quickly to changing society, the same old services, with no opportunity to stick my hand up and express my disagreement. With church closures, a shortage of priests, building repairs, and ageing congregations, it’s easy to become despondent about the modern function of churches.
Rudeness makes me angry. And misreporting in the media. Social media; not thinking before speaking or writing. Lack of respect and common decency. Punctuation. Salaries paid to footballers and TV personalities. Politicians.
I love the “peewee” of the lapwing, now worryingly rare; or the curlew’s cry — to me, a sign of spring. And the final trio of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, in which all three characters express their different stages of life. That music has become ever more wonderful as I’ve got older. Or Schubert’s Sonata D.959, where the surface of the music is barely ruffled, as if looking out over an eternity of peace and calm. I think Schubert knew he was very close to death.
The next generation seems to be more tuned into responsibilities, and there’s more hope for the planet, which has taken a battering from decades of irresponsible behaviour.
When I’m in church for an occasional service, or to admire the architecture, windows, or to listen to music, I reflect on my life and others’ in a safe, quiet space. I’m thankful that so many churches were built to the glory of God, but, increasingly, I get disillusioned by the vast sums spent on them.
I’d considered Richard Holloway to be locked in a church with. He’s taken quite a journey since I attended Old St Paul’s Church in the 1970s, where he was priest; but I’d possibly have trouble keeping up with him. As my wife and I now visit as many cathedrals as possible on our journeys south, and we always take Simon Jenkins’s books with us, I’ll choose to be locked in a cathedral with him.
Richard Blake was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
Sugar, Slaves and High Society is published by Buskin Books at £25; 978-1-3999-4352-9.