‘Heritage is a bridge that connects me to my South Asian and Scottish identities’
I was born and raised in Scotland. My parents, who had lived through the partition of India, left Pakistan for the UK. Taking the time to learn about my own family history and build connections with Scotland’s heritage through its natural landscapes is central to my life.
I’m the co-founder of Boots & Beards, a Glasgow-based organisation that helps everyone access Scotland’s outdoors – especially people from South Asian communities, who can find Scotland’s heritage and culture hard to access.
Building bridges through heritage
I value South Asian Heritage Month as a reminder to take time to ponder over my family roots and to pass on what I learn to my children. This month is also a time to be generous in sharing my Scottish-Pakistani culture with others and be open to learning new things myself.
Practising this curiosity and respect for other cultures makes us better neighbours in our global village. Without tolerance, it’s impossible for different cultures to live side by side peacefully.
I believe that natural heritage offers a good neutral background to start to build connections with other people. The outdoors is for everyone. When you’re out walking you have time to make conversation with other people – it’s good to hear an interesting story or learn something together. We create a positive atmosphere when we’re out in nature because respect is part of the experience. We respect each other and we respect nature.
Building Scottish-South Asians’ connection with Scotland
Exploring Scotland’s natural landscapes connects me to Scottish history and culture, something I can struggle to do with ‘traditional’ types of heritage. Castles and grand houses often feel alien and unwelcoming to me. I do not feel any connection to an opulent castle or the family that lived there because their lives were totally different to mine. The main way I react to these heritage sites is to think about their darker histories of building fortunes from empire.
While Scotland’s built heritage is often intertwined with colonialism, its natural heritage provides places I feel at ease. There we can celebrate a positive Scottish identity and give Scotland’s outdoors a new shared meaning.
Boots & Beards’ Outdoors For All project, which is receiving National Lottery support, takes this principle as its starting point. By supporting people to explore Scotland’s natural heritage through guided walks with rangers, historians and conservation experts, you teach them new things and skills that make Scotland’s heritage meaningful to them. While walks are our main tool, guided conservation activities such as path-clearing are also part of our activity programme.
Tackling barriers to engaging more people with heritage
The project was prompted by curiosity I saw from walkers. They wanted to find out more about Scotland’s natural landscape and its features, from cairns to castles. However, a major barrier to South Asians to take the step from curiosity to learning is that most of the people who can share this knowledge do not look like us.
There are not enough role models of colour working or volunteering in heritage as guides or walk leaders. This perpetuates the idea that our historic spaces and our natural landscape are only for certain types of people.
Training and recruiting people of colour breaks down these barriers, but progress is slow – it requires a lot of knowledge and experience that people of colour are at a disadvantage to acquire. I’m still to see this gain momentum in Scotland, it’s something that is slowly changing, but heritage sites could do more. I’m hoping to play a small part in making progress on this issue through Outdoors For All.
Ideas for action
For organisations looking to involve and welcome people from South Asian backgrounds, consider how you can:
- Remove barriers to people accessing heritage, such as providing transport to help people living in urban centres get into the countryside.
- Look for ways to encourage conversations between different cultures. Food is a great neutral place to start a conversation with someone who has had a very different life experience to you.
- Make the effort to meet communities where they are. Some heritage venues have a dark past which they cannot erase nor hide. They need to work hard to open their doors and build fruitful relations with diverse communities, such as consulting with communities to see what would attract them to their venues.
- Make the heritage workforce more diverse. Do not underestimate how much of an effect a diverse workforce of staff and volunteers can have on making people of colour feel more welcome at your heritage site.
- Work with allies, including organisations like Boots & Beards. Use their expertise on how to engage directly with people of colour.