CAREFULLY carved into the wooden tables at the Empire Cafe will be words and phrases by Scottish and Caribbean poets on the subject of slavery.

It sounds like a rather grim setting for tea and cake but writer Louise Welsh believes it is the perfect forum for a grown-up nation to discuss its past, whether for good or bad.

The event at the Briggait, Glasgow, from July 24 to August 1, explores Scotland's role in the North Atlantic slave trade, through coffee, sugar, tea, cotton, music, visual art, lectures, poetry, debate, workshops, historical walks, exhibitions, film and literature.

The furniture, hand-crafted by young trainees at MAKLab in Glasgow, will feature words from a poetry and writing anthology, including work by Millicent Graham, Alan Riach and Fred D'Aguiar that will be given to everyone who visits the cafe.

"The poets are really excited about it, more excited about the tables than the book," laughs Louise. "It's a gorgeous book, beautifully designed, and will have poems from great Scottish and Caribbean poets as well as an essay by historian Stephen Mullen."

The Scottish author's contribution to the 2014 cultural programme, with Jude Barber of Glasgow-based Collective Architecture, follows a previous joint project examining the city's links with the slave trade.

Much of the city's 18th century wealth was generated by the sugar and tobacco trades of the Americas, where most of the work was done by African slaves, owned and controlled by Scottish masters.

The team were intrigued by the complexity of Glasgow's involvement in the trade; it was a centre for abolitionism but also a city whose wealth was founded on slavery.

As well as Mullen, who wrote It Wisnae Us: The Truth About Glasgow and Slavery; also involved in the cafe will be Scottish artist Graham Fagen; writer James Robertson; Scottish poet and novelist Jackie Kay, as well as specially commissioned work from the Caribbean poets.

"The Commonwealth, of course, came out of the Empire and the Commonwealth Games was previously known as the Empire Games. This is still part of our legacy of involvement in Empire," explains Louise.

"It's not like we're trying to do some bad news story or undermine the joy of athletic achievements. It's really just saying, being part of a grown-up nation we've reached a point in our history where we can explore it for good and for bad."

A warm, welcoming place, the Empire Cafe, housed in the city's former fish market, offers a unique environment for discussion, music and poetry. Internationally acclaimed artist Graham Fagen is creating a new work for the project, and Edinburgh-based hip hop band Stanley Odd will be performing a new work.

It's not a place where you come in and hang your head for shame at what your ancestors have done," says Louise. "Many people were also involved in abolitionism too so there's things to be proud of as well."

She adds: "The Empire still affects us in many different ways and affects the buildings around us; as we walk around the centre of many cities we can see fantastic buildings that are a privilege to be around. We also have to think where they came from, how did they get here?

"The Empire Cafe will have walks, some led by Glasgow Women's Library, some led by Stephen Mullen, which will physically take people and then tell them about city buildings linked to the slave trade. I've done these walks and they're just a joy.

"Once you've done them you see your city and the streets you know really well with a different eye."

Louise stresses that inclusiveness of the cafe, it is open to all and finding the finance to carry out outreach programmes across Glasgow has been vitally important. This is a project for all ages, and for people from all parts of Scotland and the wider world. There is a link with Inverclyde Library and a community outreach worker will visit community groups to explore Scotland's slaving links.

Almost everything going on at the cafe is free, though some events are ticketed and others charge a small entry fee.

When it came to forging links with academics and writers, Stephen Mullen was an important link to introducing other historians in the field. Graham Fagen had already done work on a similar theme and James Robertson was one of the first to write fictionally about Scotland and its relationship with slavery, in the novel Joseph Knight.

"With the Caribbean poets we're bringing over, it is very exciting. We have had these long correspondences with them and now we are going to meet them. They will be in the city and sharing the work they've done with us and talking about what is a serious subject, but talking about it enquiringly in an interested way.

"They won't be pointing the finger at anyone, saying you should be ashamed, but saying we have to recognise what went on, we have to explore our past and everybody who walks through the cafe door will recognise the past doesn't stop in the past."

BBC Radio 4 will broadcast on three successive Fridays from the Empire Cafe with readings of new short stories, including work by Jackie Kaye.

"We are trying to engage with contemporary issues. Our last debate is called Scotland - Colonisers or Colonised? And we're thinking about the way in which we as Scots see ourselves and sometimes there is a temptation to see ourselves purely as being colonised and under the yoke or influence of a bigger nation.

"What are our responsibilities, should we look at the way in which we have gone out into the world and done things as well? If we don't do that, what does it say for our possibilities as an independent nation in the future?"

For more, visit: