Walking in the footsteps of refugee histories

On Saturday 17 June, Radical Glasgow Tours led a group of people through the city on a walking tour to retrace refugee histories.  

By Shona McCallum, Refugee Festival Scotland volunteer  

Radical Glasgow Tours aim to reveal stories from the city’s past which have been hidden. Those of women, the working class, activists, and, of course, migrants and refugees. The group is run by David Lees, Henry Bell and Katherine MacKinnon, who is researching a PhD on asylum histories in Glasgow. 

To start the tour, we gathered in George Square, a place that is integral to so much of Glasgow’s rich history. It has been a meeting point for so many people, seen many rallies, and reflects Glasgow’s less hidden histories in its many statues.   

Katherine and David opened by explaining that the version of history most of us learn often reflects biases. It typically focuses on the perspective of the privileged few – those who have wealth and land, usually white, usually men. “People who didn’t have to hide a part of their identity to be safe. People whose national archives weren’t destroyed.”  

Radical Glasgow Tours try to uncover and tell the stories of those who do not have historic privilege. Each walking tour is carefully pieced together and extensively researched from sources such as oral histories, personal stories, and more niche archives. This ‘history from below’ reveals very different ways of understanding the past and also teaches us important lessons about the present day.  

We started with a statue of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet, and his comparisons to Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. We also learnt how Scotland welcomed Polish refugees during the Second World War, and how these new arrivals contributed to the politics of Glasgow and the City Chambers opposite the Square.   

Throughout the tour, we reflected on different communities that have come to Scotland fleeing conflict or persecution over the years. Migration is not a new process. What is happening today is no different from what has happened in the past. According to Radical Tours, “we need to remember this tradition of welcome.” 

But Scotland’s refugee histories are not all positive. We need to recall historic failures and learn from them, too. We turned our attention toward Sighthill Bridge, where in 2001 a Scottish man stabbed Kurdish asylum seeker Firsat Dag to death. This horrific incident, which took place shortly after Glasgow became a dispersal city for asylum seekers, represents a disappointing mood of intolerance and brutality towards new-comers.   

In a bitter coincidence, as we glanced toward Sighthill an Orange Walk started down the hill towards us. These parades, held by the Protestant Orange Order, are widely regarded as intimidating, particularly towards the city’s Catholic community, and can fan sectarian divides. For many on the tour, this was an embarrassing and uncomfortable sight. As David reminded us: “we still have rights to win and progress to make.”  

We continued to Nelson Mandela Place, a much more uplifting stop and a beautiful reminder of the years of picketing and peaceful protest by ordinary Glaswegians in opposition to the racist apartheid system. The site, formerly known as St George’s Place, once housed the South African Consulate. It was renamed in 1986 in an “admirably petty act” so that all the consulate’s mail would bear Mandela’s name. After his release in 1991, Mandela was given freedom of the city of Glasgow. He even visited in 1993, addressing crowds of people in George Square.  

Reflecting on this triumph, Katherine shared a resonant quote from a Glaswegian anti-apartheid activist, Isabella Porte, who said “if people ask ‘Will it dae auny good?’; everything you do makes a difference.” 

We then wandered toward the Scottish Refugee Council headquarters on Renfrew Street, remembering the work of ordinary people – both those born in Scotland and those who have moved here – who work to make this country a better, more open place. 

We continued toward the River Clyde, where Katherine spoke about Glasgow’s Jewish community who first settled in the Gorbals area in the early 1900s. They established a thriving culture and community, with Yiddish and Hebrew papers, shops, and libraries.   

We stopped at the statue of Dolores Ibarruri, known as ‘la Pasionaria.’ Dolores was a prominent anti-fascist activist, radio broadcaster, Republican politician and communist during the Spanish Civil War. She fled Spain in 1939 and Katherine shared that hers is the only named statue of a refugee in Glasgow, and one of few of a named woman. Dolores was not perfect, and in her involvement with the Communist Party of Spain was linked with numerous injustices, but it is important to remember all of this history.   

As we crossed the river, we learnt about the Glasgow Harbour Race Riots of 1919, which targeted Chinese and, in particular, Black African sailors. This violence was stoked by trade unions at the time. Again, we reflected on the complexities of struggles in Glasgow’s histories, and how we can make a more intersectional and better future for all. 

We finished our tour on the Southside of the river, a gesture toward Kenmure Street in Pollokshields. In 2020 this was the site of a renowned show of community resistance in solidarity with two men who were facing forced detention and deportation. Thousands gathered to peacefully block the path of the Home Office removal van and the men were eventually released. Katherine reminded us that history is made by ordinary people showing up for one another, and this is how we can make a difference.  

Overall, the tour was extremely eye-opening and engaging. Katherine and David brought so much knowledge, humour, and generosity to the experience. Many participants also shared their own experiences of Glasgow. The tour was incredibly hopeful and rewarding, revealing so much of Glasgow’s history – the good, the bad, and the hidden.  

You can find out more about Radical Glasgow Tours here.