Burns and Slavery – 26 January 2023


Bravo Sir Tom Devine not only is he Scotland’s foremost living historian, but he’s had the courage to speak out against the nonsense of equating our National Bard with slavery. The suggestion that the National Galleries of Scotland were planning to reference Burns with the heinous trade was rightly described as “historically illiterate” by the learned academic. The proposal which hopefully will be buried after the outcry is not only wrong but a calumny against a great man, despite his many personal failings.

Even Dr Stephen Mullen who has researched extensively Scotland’s role in slavery, and which does remain far more significant than we’d like to accept, was minded to state on social media just no, he didn’t go, so that’s the end of it.

Of course, Burns did consider going to Jamaica, when as Sir Tom Devine stated financial ruin forced him to consider it. But the success of his first anthology brought respite and stay he did. But to then equate that and him with slavery is nonsensical. Are thoughts from long gone by now a crime? This isn’t PC nonsense, it’s a libel.

That’s not to deny of Scotland’s involvement in slavery. Grand houses across our land and not just in the Highlands confirm the wealth that was made. It wasn’t just the Lords and Ladies, as many poorer Scots did as Burns considered, explaining the huge Scottish contingents in Jamaica and Guyana. The Nation itself was enriched through the capital obtained by many, even if for most, including Burns, the benefit would have been through an early form of trickledown economics.

But to equate Burns with it is absurd and disgraceful. Maybe the Galleries should look instead at the how the wealth of many of their benefactors over the years was obtained. They could perhaps reference how arguably the world’s two greatest abolitionists in Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were devotees of the great man. The latter even visiting Burns Cottage and meeting his surviving sister decades after the Poets death and when on a speaking tour for his great cause. He went to pay his respects not berate the man.

The National Galleries should get its facts right and hang its own head in shame.