I have just returned from a research trip to the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh. Given that the week before the country was holding a referendum to decide whether it wanted to be part of the UK at all, I initially wondered what my newly minted Scottish visa might look like. Alas, 55% of Scots decided that we were better together, so I will never know. I was visiting to look at the archives of the Bruce family, Earls of Elgin and Kincardine, because the 8th Earl and his brother Lord Bruce were both leading diplomats in China from 1857-64. As usual for an archival research trip I found some fantastically useful material among a much larger volume of fascinating anecdotes that simply aren’t useable in my project. Two things struck me. The first was the importance of family archives, even for historians of foreign relations. I had sensed, for example, that Lord Bruce did not much care for his counterpart Michele Kleczkowski, head of the French legation in Beijing in 1862, from his formal reports to the foreign secretary. I did not know, as he felt free to write to his brother, that these were not merely diplomatic disputes and that on a personal level he found his colleague to be a ‘dirty, intriguing liar’! The forcefulness of the breakdown of this personal relationship brings some clarity to why Anglo-French divisions appear to have almost healed overnight when Kleczkowski was replaced.
My second observation, a direct result of the topical circumstances of my visit, was just how significant this Scottish family were to Britain’s place in the nineteenth-century world. The Scottish Socialist Party were campaigning on the main thoroughfare outside the archive with banners proclaiming ‘Still yes!’, attempting to co-opt disillusioned independence voters. The papers of the Bruce family, however, point to a complex relationship with the Union. The descendants of King Robert the Bruce, who famously defeated the English at Bannockburn 700 years ago, by nineteenth-century and in one generation served as the top British representatives in India, China and in the US. The 8th Earl not only negotiated the Treaty of Tianjin but also served in India during the mutiny. It is hardly surprising then that despite their ancestors gripes with the English crown, the current head of the Bruce family said no to independence. The union remains, for now.