How Scotland erased Guyana from its past


[The Guardian] The mangrove-fringed coast of Guyana, at the north-eastern tip of South America, does not immediately bring to mind the Highlands of Scotland, in the northernmost part of Great Britain. Guyana’s mudflats and silty brown coastal water have little in common with the lush green mountains and glens of the Highlands. If these landscapes share anything, it is their remoteness – one on the edge of a former empire burnished by the relentless equatorial sun and one on the edge of Europe whipped mercilessly by the Atlantic winds.

But look closer and the links are there: Alness, Ankerville, Belladrum, Borlum, Cromarty, Culcairn, Dingwall, Dunrobin, Fyrish, Glastullich, Inverness, Kintail, Kintyre, Rosehall, Tain, Tarlogie, a join-the-dots list of placenames (30 in all) south of Guyana’s capital Georgetown that hint of a hidden association with the Scottish Highlands some 5,000 miles away.

As a child, I knew little of my parents’ country Guyana. I knew that it was part of the British West Indies and the only English-speaking country in South America. I knew that my parents, as part of the Windrush generation, had answered the call for labour in postwar Britain. My father, aged 19, travelled by ship from Trinidad in 1960 and enjoyed a long career with the Royal Mail; my mother arrived by plane a couple of years later, to work as a nurse at Rushgreen hospital in Essex.

I had visited Guyana just once at nine years old (our only plane holiday as children) when my mother’s youngest sister was getting married. My memories of that time are fragmented and rather strange: the scorching heat; the propensity of people to douse themselves with Limacol (“breeze in a bottle”); the glossy rubber leaves the size of dinner plates that were used to serve sticky balls of rice at the wedding dinner; the constant nag of insects – mosquitoes, cockroaches, spiders, flies – magnified in size and more vicious than any I’d seen in the UK; the pain and humiliation of getting sunburnt for the first time (“wha’ happ’n wid de gal face”); and finally my aunt looking demure in a white lace wedding dress for the Christian wedding ceremony, then transforming into a Lakshmi-like vision in a red-and-gold sari for the Hindu nuptials.

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