Interview with Lisa Williams
RedHanded was able to sit down with the Founder of the Edinburgh Caribbean Association, Lisa Williams, to discuss her work and her recent appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Williams has created a name for herself within the Edinburgh community as she works with the National Trust of Scotland and has connections with the major museums such as the National Portrait Gallery, the National Museum and the Writer’s Museum. Williams does a lot of educational outreach within schools in Edinburgh and the surrounding areas as well as the Walking Tours of Edinburgh to highlight and educate people on Scotland’s connections with Black History. Recently she was invited to go to the Edinburgh International Book Festival for the first time and she gives the inside into what that was like.
To start us off, do you want to tell us a little bit about yourself?
I grew up in England originally, in a mixed Caribbean-British household. My dad is from England and my mum is from Grenada in the Caribbean and then I moved to Grenada when I was 22 and stayed there for nearly 20 years. [I] had my family there, and then came to Edinburgh 10 years ago and I set up the Edinburgh-Caribbean association about 5 or 6 years ago. Just to get people together - I kept finding people from all over the region that had been here for years and were really isolated. I have done a bunch of events from film nights to poetry and a lot of educational work as well. Then I started the walking tours which we operate from the centre of Edinburgh from the New town to the Old town.
We have gone into schools to do a day or two normally in a secondary school where we introduce teachers and the students into Caribbean culture, and the connections between the Caribbean and Scotland. We come in with a live musician all the way from Jamaica, a dance teacher, a chef and then we do poetry and history, so we make it a really fun day for everybody, quite memorable. Then I started these Black History tours of Edinburgh about 3 – 4 years ago. I am basically trying to pack 500 years’ worth of Black History Edinburgh into two hours. It has had a very good response so far which has been great, and it’s allowed me to work a lot with the heritage organisations across Scotland as well.
Tell me a bit more about the Edinburgh Caribbean Association.
Well basically we started it to really be an organisation for socialising, just to stop that social isolation. We have people living in Scotland who come from probably about 20 different Caribbean nations. So everyone, every place, has their slightly different culture, their own unique culture and food and language and so on. But there is a commonality of course. And many of these places have quite deep historical links with Scotland as well: Jamaica particularly, Grenada. We have got a good range of ages from children through to people in their 80’s which is really nice because it is a very Caribbean thing to get together and have a multigenerational event. Then we have also attracted a lot of people who do not have a Caribbean background, but they are really interested in Caribbean culture, and they want to come along and learn and be part of what we are doing.
So we did a lovely project in June and July where we teamed up with the Edinburgh Festival Carnival called ‘Masked Words’ where basically we got together poets and authors and literary tutors of Caribbean background and who are based in Scotland, or from around Scotland. We did an online series of events with young people of Caribbean heritage living in Edinburgh or close by, between 14 and 22. We put them through a whole set of different workshops; we did creative writing, performance skills, and also learning about traditional Caribbean carnival culture and what those particular costumes and masquerades mean and then link it to Edinburgh’s Black History. So, it is quite ambitious but it worked really, really well. And then the National Trust Georgian House opened up for us, the National Museum of Scotland opened up for us after hours. And also, the Writer’s museum opened up especially for us. We could actually go in and film those performances of the young people. Which has been brilliant. And then we have phase two which will happen on 30th October which will be in the National Museum of Scotland, and we will have young people do pop-up performances throughout the museum on that afternoon.
We have done quite a few events over the last couple of years with Scottish Book Trust and Scottish Book reads; we have another event with Alex Wheatle, who is a YA author, and he has just written a book set in Jamaica called ‘Cane Warriors’ and we will look at doing a collaborative historical YA literature tour together at the end of October. So very exciting!
The Edinburgh Caribbean Association does a lot of outreach within schools, tell me a little bit about that.
When we have gone into primary schools, it has been very much about fun for those little ones, it is a lot of dancing and singing, and fun and looking at connections and even seeing the kids dressed in National Jamaican clothes, they go ‘oh I am wearing tartan and it is just like us!’ And they get really excited about how the flag from Jamaica is like the Scottish flag but just different colours. It was a Scottish minister that was there and they said; ‘what kind of flag should we have?’ He replied, ‘well why don’t you base it on the Scottish flag and just change the colour?’
I have worked with primary school kids in different museum settings, working with four different groups of primary 7’s; they asked some really good questions, they were not frightened to ask anything by that point.
We have worked a lot with James Gillespie’s High School, and the young people there now are thinking about changing the name because it is named after someone who made their profits from slave-produced tobacco and so on. Then the young people who have chosen to come out on the tour with their school, because they are interested in the history, will ask a lot of questions and they will make specific connections with the US black history they have been taught in school and then connect it up with the Scottish one, so it is important for them to root the history in the place that they are in.
What organisations do you work with?
I do a lot of work with national heritage organisations, like National Trusts and the V & A Dundee. I am about to work on a project with the Museum and Galleries in Edinburgh, specifically, so I am operating at lots of different levels. I am in a bunch of different advisory groups and a lot of them are with Museum Galleries Scotland and we are looking at advising the Scottish government on how heritage organisations should connect with this kind of history.
But having said that, I also try to work with students at Edinburgh University where I have gone in and done a talk to student organisations. These could be people with a specific interest, like the African Caribbean society or the history society. I try to offer, sometimes free or at least with a good discount, to people who are unemployed or students who are on a low income, so you are not shutting people out because of income. I think the online talks that I have done have been really good for reaching out to a much broader audience. People that would not necessarily come across it and of course people who are in other areas of Scotland or maybe have issues with access or responsibilities and so on. I think it is important to keep the online talks going as well for that reason.
I have worked with the Score Scotland youth group recently where they are training to be art curators. I did a special tour for them, where I wrote little mini scripts for the different characters and then it was like a lottery, they had to grab an envelope, open it up and then act out that particular person. And even if they were quite shy at the beginning, I had managed to encourage them. So about half way through the tour, they all started really getting into it. And they were all going away and saying right I want to do more research, I want make a little film over this: they were really engaged which was great. I love working with that age and to see where they go. I have done quite a bit of outreach community work at certain events, across at Wester Hailes or different areas of the city which are not central.
Tell me about the Walking Tours that you do, what is your general route?
So normally we begin right in the centre of St Andrew Square, underneath the Melville monument. That is our meeting spot. We look at some of the statues in the buildings; you can tell a lot of history right in St Andrews Square itself. And then we make our way normally down George Street which again has lots of connections with Black Speakers who were here, like Frederick Douglass. We stop at a graveyard just at the end of Princes Street which is one of the only people definitely buried in central Edinburgh that we know of with a marked grave who was originally enslaved and there is a woman’s story that we know quite a lot of about, partly because one of the descendants of the family who actually brought her here at the beginning of the 19th century has done loads of research; they got in contact with me and we have managed to see paintings of her when she was a young woman, watercolours that she did.
I talk about the African people that were in the castle in the 16th century that we know of. And normally from there, we will head up the Mound and stop outside the Writer’s museum because there was a young black teenager living in there in the 18th century. Particularly for teenagers when I am taking school groups around - they get very intrigued learning about young people that were here and learning about teenage years and living in the centre of Edinburgh and what that might have been like for them, they ask a lot of questions. And then we normally head along the mile and go past the David Hume’s Statue so we can talk about Scottish Enlightenment within all of this. Parliament House because that had a lot of really important legal cases and then we will wind down past what used to be a tabacco and sugar shop and then we will normally end up back at the National Museum because there is a lot of exciting stories you can tell.
What prompted you to create these tours?
My original degree was in psychology and African and Asian studies and that was looking quite a lot at Caribbean History, and then thinking about how different that was from my own school curriculum experience. Living in the Caribbean and knowing a lot of the Scottish connections – there are so many people even in a place like Grenada, with Scottish surnames, there are Scottish place names everywhere. I went to a talk by Sir Geoffrey Palmer, several years ago, which made me really think about and open my eyes to the extent of the links with Scotland and Edinburgh. I wanted to research that more. Then I went on a tour that was originally developed by Stephen Mullen in Glasgow and thought how come no one is doing this in Edinburgh? Because Edinburgh has so much of this history, it does not make any sense. But Edinburgh’s history is just that little bit more hidden. So I went away and did my research. I came across this amazing thesis by Dr. June Evans in Scotland. She has done a lot of work around this as well and then it just snowballed from there and I thought right, I am completely determined to do this.
I completely immersed myself in the research probably for about three years quite solidly. I did some test runs with friends who are historians and authors, and I really valued their viewpoint on it, and artists. And then I figured out a route that would be central and easy for people to get to, fairly accessible but a route that would be able to bring in all these really important themes over a historical period. A little bit of trial and error in the beginning and then deciding on a route that can also be changed: let’s say if the National Gallery of Scotland is open like the portrait gallery. There is a really interesting exhibition that has a lot of paintings that link to Scotland’s role in Empire and Caribbean slavery so I could go in there and actually tell a story quite easily from about five different paintings inside there, and it gives people a chance to get warm and sit down.
Where is a preferred spot that you always make sure to go to or to linger?
I think one is that graveyard because I think it brings home the strong emotional impact on some people that are there because of the setting. And there is a certain reverence that comes with just being there and actually seeing a marker of someone’s life in that way. It also means that you are coming off a busy street, and you are coming into somewhere that has trees and grass and it is somewhere quiet. So it has a different atmosphere already. It also means that after, we can walk through Princes Street Gardens which allows people to decompress for a bit from the emotions of the journey. At the beginning of the walk, I warn everybody, it is going to be quite an emotional journey for a lot of you in lots of different ways, so be prepared for that. I anticipate some of the potentially awkward questions that might come at the beginning which can maybe derail the conversation and I deal with those at the beginning which makes it a lot easier.
You got involved with the Edinburgh International Book Festival for the first time this year, how did that come about?
It was Tamara Zimet, the deputy director of the festival who had been following my work on twitter and various other places. She said ‘I really like your work and I would love for you to get involved’. So, she just reached out to me one day and we sat under the Melville Monument and had a coffee and a chat about things and she said ‘I think it would be great because Alex Renton’s book is coming out soon and we think a conversation between the two of you where you chair it would be really interesting and you would work really well together’. So, I was like wow, that would be great because I had been actually going to the festival for the last six years as a reviewer - so I am passionate about it and it was always my favourite thing to literally just go and camp out for two weeks and fan girl around all the authors and just review. But to actually be invited to be a part of it was a dream this year, it is amazing.
So, one, to do the event and, two, to do those two tours as part of it. And maybe reaching people that I may not have reached. I started the tour outside the art school and walked backwards, we did not go all the way to St. Andrew Square because we had elderly people going more slowly, and also we just did not have the time, and we ended at the Writer’s museum instead. We had an hour and half and that worked really well, and again nice, really good conversations. For a lot of them, the information was completely new and I think as well, quite shocking for them to learn about Scotland’s role, not just in the British empire but in other empires as well like the Dutch and in Brazil.
What was your favourite bit about being part of the festival?
I really appreciated having that platform to deliver stories to people who maybe would think there was no black history here to speak of at all. Just to further the conversation in a way that is reaching a lot of people not just in Edinburgh but also, the tour particularly, reaching people globally. They connect with Frederick Douglass, but they do not necessarily know the Scottish connections or the Caribbean in the same way. So, I know quite a few people from the Caribbean who did tune in to that talk as well. I felt very excited and very honoured really to be a part of that, I mean that is the biggest book festival in the world and it is just such high quality. It is great. Bit nerve-wracking!
Lisa Williams is a central figure in the historical scene of Edinburgh as she ties Scotland's roots together with the Caribbean and introduces a rich history of Edinburgh few of us know. Bookings for her Walking Tours are available on her website.