Scotland’s Role in Slavery – 21 September 2023


Rebutting the suggestion that Scots were taken as slave’s is important, but more so is consideration of just what Scotland’s role was in that heinous trade. For like many, if not most, I’d once assumed it was little.

For sure the big houses and estates in the Highlands and elsewhere indicative of the wealth made by a few through enforced misery, but beyond that I exculpated both myself and Scotland. Insult added to injury, albeit sustained by others, in the vast sums paid in compensation to those who practiced the trade when abolition came. But the real crimes had come from the ports of Liverpool and Bristol, with complicity in it likewise elsewhere or so I’d thought.   

Of course, there were the “Blockade Runners” during the American Civil War but that I wrote off as just shipbuilders seeking to do what arms manufacturers everywhere did and continue to do. Duck and dive, make a buck or two but it wasn’t direct involvement. That Burns was considering heading to Jamaica was just a calumny against our revered Bard. Which it is, as he didn’t go and remained admired by the great abolitionists like Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

But those tales should raise questions, as they’re pointers that Scottish society and Scotland as a Nation did benefit. Those who headed to the West Indies and to Jamaica and Guyana in particular weren’t just the sons and daughters of the elite. Nor was it just second sons of the Lords and Ladies seeking their fortune there, rather than in the military or elsewhere in the Empire.

It went far lower in social class with Scots recruited to run the estates and to work in other skilled trades, all of which were required for the “Slavery Industrial” complex. It was those adverts which would have been seen by a humble ploughboy or frustrated excise officer. The Scottish names of modern Jamaicans testify to that, and it was rarely the plantation owner that they were named after.

Similarly, I came across a Dutch footballer called Dumfries. A quick check showed his forebearers were from Surinam, the former Dutch colony adjacent to British Guyana once a stronghold of Scots involvement in the slave trade. It’s not rocket science to see the link and the likely shift across empire boundaries.

Of course, with regard to the benefits for Scotland as a whole some of it could be described as “trickle-down economics”. Neither my own family nor indeed did most in Scotland benefit directly in any way. But Scotland as a whole did benefit, and in that way we all benefited.  

Glasgow University academic Dr Stephen Mullen has ably shown that in his book” The Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy”. The job adverts for the rank and file that nearly enticed Burns are detailed and more importantly the commercialization that was allowed by the wealth generated by slavery. Banks and financial institutions did remarkably well in Glasgow from it and from that wealth spun the industrialization that made modern Scotland, not just the houses and estates of the few.

The industrialization of Scotland also stands in contrast to Ireland. It wasn’t just down to James Watt and geography. Finance from slavery formed a large part of it.  That’s why Scotland as a whole, not just some families and institutions need to atone for slavery.