The Darien Scheme and Irn Bru




There’s a very different Latin America bubbling somewhere, where the Spanish is replaced by an Edinburgh brogue, where the vineyards are forgotten and a pub built in their place, where ginger is the mode, and freckles, in the faces on the street, form and cloud and collide. Burns Night is a Barranquilla staple. The haggis is cut with plantain. All this, we can assume, if Scottish attempts to colonise Panamá had been successful.

The Darien Scheme is the key example of how colonialism, absolutely no joke, can throw up an ironic aside, with Scotland losing its independence as a result of its greed abroad. It’s on the Gulf of Darién that the founders of the Scheme have chosen their base, a stretch of coast famous for mosquitoes and, by 1690, one of the few parts of Central America without Europe’s fingerprints on it. Scotland, back home, is in a bad way, with famines and a flash neighbour to the South. Seventeenth-century Alex Salmond decides that a colony is needed, and founds New Edinburgh on a bit of land that, he reckons, Spain doesn’t want anyway.

The cost is – well. Sometimes you have to make an investment. And, with half of Scotland’s GDP, a group of soldiers set off on a jolly. They write home of course, to say that everything is fine, but it soon becomes apparent that everything is not fine at all, that settlers are dying at a rate of ten a day, that indigenous people are less than willing to trade for trinkets from Europe; that the only food is sea turtle, with most men too weak to hunt. This because a set of epidemics are making merry with the troops, and by 1691 three of their leaders have already clocked it.

New Edinburgh looks, by this point, worse than Old Glasgow – the yam they tried planting hasn’t stuck, the whole place is boggy and the Spanish, next-door in Colombia, are none too happy with their neighbours. They threaten invasion; the colonists, after two years, are forced to leave their capital behind. Scotland is bankrupted and, as the trade in plush Nessies is yet to take off, looks to its old friend England.

England is horrified that its best mate has lost all of its money and, being horrified, is drawing up plans to help it with its debt. All Scotland needs is to surrender its sovereignty, which it duly does, with the Act of the Union in 1707. The result of Scottish Colonialism is a loss of self-governance, and while it’s saved from financial wreckery, it doesn’t make it out of Great Britain until the Referendum of 2016.

Still, in small-town Colombia, department of Huila, young men and women take their meals with a soda a shade of Scottish orange. It’s sold as Condor Cola, but to those in the know, who spent their childhoods in Scotland, the harsh taste of factories and dodgy holidays is hiding in that Cola. It’s Irn Bru, a drink so filthy it sells nowhere other than Scotland. It’s Irn Bru that Colombian youths are drinking with their banana soups. And somewhere in Panama, or under a pile of Union paperwork, a Darien settler is rubbing his hands.