WHETHER the word “colony” can be applied to the state of Scotland is debatable. What isn’t in doubt is that we were once colonialists ourselves.

While the classic definitions of a colony may not fit exactly, it cannot be denied that successive UK governments – and particularly the recent ones – have regarded Scotland with the eye, and treated Scotland with the mindset, of the colonialist.

Any number of disparaging and dismissive comments from Boris Johnson, David Frost and Alister Jack (who is of course still Secretary of State for Scotland) can be called in evidence – among others – to prove the point.

As can their contemptuous actions on matters as diverse as Brexit, Covid co-operation and overseas representation. The continuing refusal of all the Westminster parties to acknowledge and accept that the majority of the Scottish Parliament was elected on a promise to deliver an independence referendum confirms the fact.

Yet perhaps we recognise those things because of our own history of colonial participation, with which we need to come to terms – particularly when the dragon’s teeth that colonialism sowed worldwide continue to produce such a poisoned harvest.

I got to thinking about this when doing some research into the author, ballad collector, parliamentary reporter and journalist Allan Cunningham, the anniversary of whose death falls on Monday.

Cunningham was one of those extraordinary early 19th-century figures from a very ordinary background who was brimming with talent and who was attracted to others with similar gifts.

Born in Dumfriesshire in 1784, his father’s small holding was adjacent to Ellisland where Robert Burns farmed and as a youth he was taken to Burns’s funeral. He was originally apprenticed to a stonemason but in his mid-20s he went to London, where he lived for the rest of his life.

As a result of his work in Scotland collecting ballads – and writing his own – before he moved south, he already had a wide circle of literary friends including Scott and Hogg and he developed a similarly stellar list of companions in England – Keats, Lamb and Hazlitt, among others.

In addition to poetry, he wrote three novels and a comprehensive six-volume work on the lives of eminent British painters and sculptors.

The colonial connection lies in his children, all of whom had significant literary talent and three of whom went as military cadets to India where later they had different distinguished careers.

One was founder of the Indian Archaeological Survey, another was an authority on the Punjab and the third not only administered a large part of Mysore, but also found time to edit the works of Marlowe and Johnson.

Furthermore, one of his Indian-born grandchildren was the mathematician AJ Cunningham, after whom the Cunningham Project – a complex mathematical collaboration – is named.

It was Walter Scott who arranged the cadetships for Cunningham’s sons, largely because Cunningham could not afford to purchase commissons in the regular army for them. However, if they went with the East India Company, they would not require money behind them – indeed, they would be paid to do so.

Shorn of the literary and cultural connections, this is not an untypical story. The empire was seen to provide opportunity for those with ambition which was not possible to work out in the narrow society of 19th-century Britain. On two occasions I have visited the very moving Scottish cemetery in the centre of Kolkata and seen the overgrown graves of those from Scotland who had, over several generations, sought the chance to earn and excel, though they often fell foul of the conditions they suddenly experienced.

No doubt many of these young men – and women – were motivated by thoughts of bringing order, education, prosperity, democratic progress and of course spiritual salvation to the places where they were sent. No doubt some did good and deserve credit for it.

However, we also know that not only were those things often chimeras, but that repression, exploitation and cruelty were (and are) the more usual outcomes of occupation or annexation.

Those were not universal but they were commonplace and among the long-term ills arising have been divisions caused by the drawing of arbitrary lines on a map, which sundered and separated communities from each other and from their lands.

The endless cycle of violence in the Middle East which is being played out once again with such horrendous consequences for innocent people in Israel and Gaza has its roots in just such a process and in selfish, inconsistent policies from a variety of external players including the UK which held the mandate for Palestine from 1923 to 1948 – a mandate which was enforced at times with violence as well as often resisted – by Arab and Jew – with equally unacceptable brutality.

No nation and no individual can escape their history. Scots were part of that process just as they were part of all the colonial governance of that empire on which the sun never set. Scots were also slave owners and profited from slavery and that history has to be confronted too.

What appears to differentiate us is not in the past, but in the present. I sense a willingness now at both governmental and personal level In Scotland to acknowledge uncomfortable truths and set a course for our nation to ensure it not only makes amends but does better in the future.

So far, only Ireland and Spain among the EU states have called for a ceasefire in Gaza. Scotland’s government has also done so, and we would have added our voice to theirs if we were an independent EU member.

Both the UK Tory government and its Labour opposition should be doing so too, and demanding that both sides step away from violence, and the daily imposition of punishment and suffering on innocent populations.

Britain has been part of too many historic and humanitarian problems still affecting much of our world. Surely it should now be striving to secure a humane solution to at least one of them?