Highland and Island connections with slavery

I cut my last post short (Some more names we should know – 6 December) and now I’m glad I did because I’ve been doing some more reading recently on slavery issues related to the Scottish Highlands.  Having watched the first of the new series of Eorpa on BBC Alba, I then found 3 bits of media related to a research paper on slavery-derived land ownership from two excellent young men  –  one from Skye and one from Uist.

The Eorpa programme was broadcast on 12 November and is episode 1 of series 28 on iPlayer.  Though billed as an examination of the legacy of slavery in the Highlands and Islands, it wandered off-topic and off-site a couple of times: there were rather too many shots of street names in Glasgow (though Councillor Campbell was making important points about ex-Highlanders going on to exploit black Africans and native peoples overseas) and the experiences of contemporary black Scots living in rural areas is surely important enough for a separate episode. 

Having got these minor girns out of the way, I’m saying it was worth watching.  It featured a historian called David Alston who’s been researching slavery-funded estates in the Highlands for some time now.  He found that a number of plantations along the coast of what is now Guyana had placenames such as Nigg, Cromarty, Alness and Kildonan.  A Calum Munro was able to buy Balnain House in the 18th century; an Alexander MacDonald bought the estate where the Glenfinnan monument was erected; a John MacLennan, who was involved in the sugar trade and was not only a slave-owner but also an “advocate” for slave owners, bought Lynedale on his return to Skye.

Hugh Junor was a carpenter from the Black Isle who went to Guyana and made enough money to buy a woodcutting plantation near the Essequibo river.  He fathered at least two children there with a woman whose name and status are now unknown, and in 1816, his daughter Eliza came to live in Fortrose aged about 14, along with her brother William; they went to school in Fortrose and both are recorded as having won prizes.  William went to live in Argentina and Eliza became a governess in London where she had an illegitimate daughter.  She returned to Fortrose and died there in 1861, just after a visit from her daughter.  Does Mr Junor get any credit from us today for acknowledging, supporting and educating his  multiracial children?  I suppose so, given the standards and attitudes of his time.

Some folk on the Black Isle got up a petition to oppose the abolition of slavery.  David Alston points out that they had a “direct financial interest” in its continuation: their salt herring was being shipped to feed the enslaved people and they were making rough linen to clothe them.  Some local families such as the Barklys from Mount Eagle and the Davidsons of Cromarty however benefitted greatly from the compensation that was handed out to slave owners after abolition so it was no ill wind for them.

For a contemporary response from the Cromarty community, see http://www.inverness-courier.co.uk/news/slavery-shame-spurs-payback-219479/ and for more information about the programme, see http://www.ross-shirejournal.co.uk/news/ross-shire-slavery-links-laid-bare-in-new-documentary-217988/

Dr Iain MacKinnon appeared in the Eorpa programme, as he did along with his colleague Dr Andrew MacKillop in a Scotland Outdoors podcast on slavery derived wealth and landownership in the Highlands and Islands, first broadcast on 2 December but available for a year on https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p0908hjr.   These are the two researchers I referred to in my opening paragraph.  The Radio Scotland presenters of Out of Doors (buried in the schedule on a Saturday morning from 6.30 to 8.00am)  –  Mark Stephen and Euan McIlwraith  –  are second only to my favourite radio partnership of Stuart Cosgrove and Tam Cowan on Off The Ball; they are equally enthusiastic, interesting and knowledgeable, just not quite as funny. 

Anyway, the podcast looked at how the big Scottish sporting estates came into being and how some of the new owners brought new attitudes towards the productivity of land from their plantations overseas.  Many of these estates were bought between 1790 and 1855 by men with no historical or family connection to the land, but the first slavery-related purchase was that of Islay and Jura in 1726 by Daniel Campbell who traded in sugar, tobacco and slaves.  From 1833, government compensation to the slaveowners financed many of the purchases; £20 million was paid out (the equivalent of £16 billion today) and as taxpayers, we did not finish paying off this money until 2015.  Buying land was a way of changing the “problematic nature of their wealth” during times of support for abolition; they were ‘laundering’ their new money and trying to make themselves respectable.

Iain MacKinnon made a distinction between direct beneficiaries  –  those who had been slave owners and traders  –  and indirect beneficiaries  –  those who had married into slave-owning families and their descendants.  Over a million acres of land was bought by beneficiaries, up to 1 in 3 acres of the Highland land mass. 

Large estates were coming on the market because the Highland economy was struggling eg the kelp industry which had helped to support a mixed economy was collapsing.  The new owners with their “cold prioritising of property” and everything seen in “productivity terms” could do to their tenants what the old landed families could not have done.   Dr MacKinnon makes the important point though that the Highland population was not being treated in the same way as the enslaved people had been treated but that these new owners were taking an “extractive attitude” to their land.

The clearance of people and the shift to sheep farming or fishing or hunting brought about a loss of diversity and the rise of the “barren landscape” which we still see today.  At the same time, following the vicious reprisals after Culloden and the ‘civilising’ of the Highlands, there came a romanticising of the Highlands through the popularity of James Macpherson’s Ossian poetry, the Waverley novels of Sir Walter Scott and Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen, helping to turn much of it into a playground for the rich and those who wanted to be so.

The authors of the research paper had expressed a hope that their work, which fully acknowledges previous work done by Tom Devine and Andy Wightman, would cause certain land-owning families to think “humbly and seriously” about their historical connections and would start off “acknowledgements and uncomfortable conversations”.  For the podcast, Scottish Land & Estates were contacted for a reaction which duly came in tone-deaf fashion and included the sentence: “It is a bit of a stretch to leap from a review of social history and ancient (my italics) connections to slavery as being a reason why communities should own land today”.

It’s this reaction which gave rise to Iain MacKinnon’s article on the Bella Caledonia website – see https://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2020/12/08/slavery-derived-wealth-in-scotland-today/  It’s a belter, as not only does it contain more interesting stuff, it gives readers a direct link to the research paper on the Community Land Scotland site.

In their response to the BBC, S L & E also wrote that “Few families who are major landowners today …. have any past connection to slavery.”  Well that’s more havers because there are at least 450,000 acres of land owned in the north and west of Scotland by families “with historical connections to transatlantic slavery”.  And you’ll never guess who’s at the top of the list!  Yes, it’s the House of Sutherland with their 83,239 acres.  I can’t say I’m surprised but I didn’t know before of this further charge on their sheet.  (see “If I go there will be trouble And if I stay it will be double” – July 2020)   

Others on the list include the Mackenzies of Gairloch and Macleod of Macleod whose ancestors were indirect beneficiaries through marriage, while the family of Cameron of Lochiel was directly involved in Jamaica.  

Dr MacKinnon rightly takes issue with Scottish Land & Estates’s use of “ancient” to describe the families’ connections to slavery, pointing out that in historical terms ancient is used for the period up to 600 CE and the 19th century is regarded as part of the modern period.  He also reminds us that some owners revel in the ‘history’ of their land and take advantage of it when it suits them for commercial purposes.

The research paper titled Plantation slavery and landownership in the west Highlands and Islands: Legacies and Lessons on the Community Land Scotland has 3 sections: the discussion paper, a summary paper and an annex of data and references.  See http://www.communitylandscotland.org.uk/2020/11/new-research-reveals-extent-of-historical-links-between-plantation-slavery-and-landownership-in-the-west-Highlands-and-Islands

Although the focus is on landowners, the authors point out that “Gaels of all social classes and backgrounds benefitted from transatlantic slavery” through the export of previously-mentioned dried fish and rough cloth, plus through the consumption of  imported products made from sugar, tobacco and cotton grown and harvested by enslaved labour.  In addition, young men went from the Highlands to get better-paid jobs  such as overseers and bookkeepers on the plantations.

We learn more about the slavery-derived wealth that came into the Sutherland family.  Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland, was an indirect beneficiary and through their marriage, so was her husband the Marquis of Stafford.  Elizabeth’s mother was Mary Maxwell and she had inherited £5,000 from her father, William Maxwell from Preston, which came from “trade and plantations in Jamaica”.  This might not sound like much today but it was more than the £4,379 which the family took in rent from the whole estate in 1802.  One of Elizabeth’s greatgrandfathers,  William Hairstanes of Dumfries, was one of a group of traders who brought a shipload of tobacco into Kirkcudbright in 1734.  We all know I hope of the clearance activities of Elizabeth, and of her husband – who stands high above Golspie to this day.

The well-known Osgood Mackenzie of Inverewe Gardens also features.  His mother, Mary Hanbury, was a “slavery heiress” and she bought Inverewe estate for him in 1863, knowing that he was not in line to inherit Gairloch.   Fitzroy Maclean bought an estate on Mull in 1910; his grandfather had been compensated for the ‘loss’ of his slaves on Barbados and his greatgrandfather had had slaves on St Kitts.  In 1929, the Wills tobacco family bought Applecross; pre-civil war, most of its tobacco was grown on plantations in the American south and recently the University of Bristol has been looking into the renaming of its Wills Memorial Building.

Finally, high up on any list of infamy has to be George Rainy who, like the Sutherlands, was an enthusiastic clearer of people on his Raasay estate.  His father had been a Church of Scotland minister in Creich, Sutherland but by the age of 18, young George was already in Demerara, Guyana.  There he prospered, financially if not morally, becoming a partner in a sugar-trading and ship-owning company for which his brother and an uncle also worked.  He had two daughters, born in 1828 and in 1830, their mother or mothers being ‘free coloured’ women  –  see http://www.spanglefish.com/slavesandhighlanders/index.asp?pageid=604811

For the slaves he owned in Guyana, he received £50,000 in compensation.  In 1846, he bought the islands of Raasay, Rona and Fladda for £27,000 from the last Macleod of Raasay who, because of his debts, was about to emigrate to Tasmania.  One of the ‘rules’ (remembered from Guyana?) he introduced on Raasay was that none of his tenants should marry and testimony to the Napier Commission shows that he had followed up any breaches with harsh action: a John Macleod of Arnish was put out of his father’s house and then Rainy demolished the sheep cot where he had taken refuge and put out his fire. “…. neither friend nor any one else dared give him a night’s shelter.  He was not allowed entrance into any house.” (from the evidence of Donald Macleod of Kyle Rona, at Torran, Raasay on 22 May 1883)

Doing the research for this article and now writing it has made me want to head out to Caulders to buy a pitchfork so maybe it’s as well that I’ve got a batch of Nigella’s Christmas Rocky Road to make for my guardian angel.  I’ll just say well done to these two young Highlanders  –  Iain MacKinnon and Andrew MacKillop  –  and may their work spark off not just all kinds of conversations, the more uncomfortable the better, but also lead to forms of reparations and genuine change for land in the Highlands.









One thought on “Highland and Island connections with slavery

  1. Pingback: Cauld kail het up – Splendid, Bella!

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