Photo of Jean Besson reproduced with permission of Jean Besson
By Hannah McGurk
Many students recall several positive experiences of Edinburgh and Scotland at large, from the stereotypically friendly Scottish nature, to enjoying social and academic student life. We can also see how these experiences are shaped firstly by class, then gender and race. Jean Besson recalls making friends easily, particularly with some British girls she lived with – “The British girls were very friendly: two invited me to spend a few days in their family homes elsewhere in Scotland and another became a life-long friend” – and also had similar experiences with her accommodation officer and a few tutors who invited her to their homes.
However, there were also slightly less harmonious relationships which Besson puts down to cultural differences on both sides – “I think the sisters from Skye (who dried our sheets outdoors despite the snow) thought I was a little odd as I strove to adapt to the differences in climate (1962 had the worst UK winter in 99 years and there was no central heating), Scottish culture and food.” Besson also acknowledges that she came to Edinburgh in relatively good stead, with two male Jamaican cousins already at the University, and she soon made friends with a girl from Togo – “who I only discovered was the daughter of the President of Togo after she went home amidst a blaze of publicity when her father was assassinated.”
Geoff Palmer also reflected how students of colour were given “special treatment by the community” due to their temporary status as residents, so they were no threat to the society, with this seemingly changing once many began to settle and start lives in Edinburgh. This was also true of Kenneth Ramchand, who had earned the Mackenzie Scholarship to study in the UK, and settled into life in Edinburgh with relative ease, avoiding overt or violent instances of racism – “in the liberal atmosphere of an ancient university one can always avoid violence by not walking too late at night […] Last summer, a Jamaican student returning home late at night from a visit to some domino-playing friends was assaulted by a gang of youths.”
Though this statement is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it echoes a popular sentiment that Caribbean students did not find Edinburgh a particularly difficult, violent or uncomfortable place to live, though some of their experiences would be described as microaggressions today. Besson noted she “experienced a few derogatory remarks about my ethnicity and gender but on the whole the Scots were kind to me.” Ramchand wrote, “One may be safe from violence, but one is exposed to a more subtle variation of the colour bar.”
Besson also acknowledges that, “I am a light-skinned Jamaican (mixed European-African-Taino descent, with a Scottish maiden name, McFarlane), so this may have influenced Scottish attitudes towards me.” This deepens our understanding of how not just race but colourism and perceived proximity to whiteness, or Scottishness, influenced the experiences of Caribbean students in interacting with Scottish society. In these ways we can see how experiences of Edinburgh society and student life was defined and framed by intersections of class, race and gender.