FOR most people, Cuba is not the first country that comes to mind when considering Scotland’s influence around the globe.

Many Scots will think of countries such as Canada or America, where large numbers of Scottish migrants travelled to in order to find a better life.

Meanwhile, Cuba is better known for its rum, cigars and Salsa dancing.

But there’s more between the two countries than you might think as Glasgow has been twinned with Havana, the Cuban capital, for 20 years.

READ MORE: Fundraiser launched to reunite Cuban family living in Scotland after cancer diagnosis

And the much-loved Havana Glasgow Film Festival is still running strong, approaching its seventh edition.

Now, an academic from Stirling University is discovering the surprising bonds that tie Scottish and Cuban culture together.

The National:

Felix Flores Varona is a Cuban researcher living in Scotland, studying the history between the two counties

Felix Flores Varona is a Cuban who lives, works and studies in Scotland. He is a translator and researcher who wrote his PHD thesis on Scotland’s literary influence with the 11-million strong Caribbean nation.

It’s an influence so great, Varona says, that it stretches from the realms of Cuban education to its popular music, from the country’s novels to its national hero.

Despite this, Varona says it is an area neither country seems to have any idea of.

“Practically nobody knows how strongly related we are. There are a few examples, such as Cuba’s most popular international song Guananey. The lyrics mention thistles and nettles but nobody in Cuba knows what they are. We don’t have those here.

The National:

“There are many other things like that, such as Cuba’s most important novel being written after Waverley.

“The first translation of Waverley into Spanish was not done in Spain, in Europe – it was done by a Cuban.

“Our most important children’s literature book contains work by a Scottish author Samuel Smiles.

“And Jose Marti, a Cuban national hero, approached almost 25 Scottish authors who he translated, promoted, wrote about and criticised.

READ MORE: Carolyn Leckie: Castro's Cuba still offers us lessons for the future

“Scottish literature for sure has impacted on Cuban literature.”

Varona said education was also a factor, with educationalists in Scotland during the 19th century influencing the future education system of Cuba up to the current day.

“Josie Marti said the Scottish are my kind of people. That was said in the 19th century. That was one of the things that moved me to come here.

“I wanted to find out how similar the Scottish were to the Cubans and what inspired Marti to say these are my kinds of people.

The National:

“Supposedly, they weren’t so distant from our people and our culture. And I have found out there are a lot of similarities. We Cubans and the Scottish have historically been in a relationship with a powerful neighbour.

“I wanted the Scottish people to know that we are much closer than anyone can imagine.

“The relationship is very strong, it’s very deep. There are traces of Scottish culture in all our culture I’d say.”

Varona said many Cuban writers started to adopt Walter Scott’s model of writing, finding ways to express themselves.

He said there were many other Scottish authors involved in the relationship between the two counties, with mentions of most of the Scottish writers of the time.

Lord Byron too was an influential author for Cubans at the time and a key figure in the UK. Although regarded as English, Byron spent his early years in Aberdeen raised by his Scottish mother.

Varona continues: “There are a few authors such as Samuel Smiles and Edward Ramsay – you don’t hear about them much nowadays, even in Scotland.

“But they have great importance in Cuba, and I would say in most of Latin America at the time. Marti helped Scottish literature be read over Latin America.”

The National:

A senior Glasgow University lecturer said the history between Scotland and Cuba is vast.

Helen Yaffe, an economic and social historian at Glasgow University who specialises in Cuban development, said there is “so much” history between the two nations.

One example she cited was one of Cuba’s most famous medical scientists, Carlos Finlay, whose father was Scottish.

“He was so important that he identified that yellow fever is carried by mosquitos. In Cuba, one of their most important biotech institutes is called the Finlay Institute and they're the people developing three out of the five Covid vaccines Cuba has managed to create domestically and is the hope for the global south now.”

READ MORE: Scots get to connect with Cuba as festival goes online

There are also links between manufacturing in the two countries, with the rise of the sugar business in Cuba and immigration all playing parts in Scoto-Cuban history.

The National:

Helen Yaffe, pictured in Havana, said Scotland has enduring links in medicine and industry with Cuba

“There are all these inks between industry and migration. There were estimates at the beginning of the 20th century that there were 20,000 ‘British people’ in Cuba but a lot of them would have been Irish, from the Caribbean or Scottish.

“So there were a lot of Scottish engineers who went out there, along with manual workers building Cuba’s railways.”

And there’s yet more history to be made and discovered between Cuba and Scotland, with the search continuing with Glasgow University’s efforts to increase collaboration with the University of Havana, ranging from researching the legacies of slavery all the way to the future of biotechnology.