Pride and Prejudice: Scotland’s Complicated Black History


Steven McKenzie (BBC Scotland Highlands and Islands reporter) writes about Scotland’s complicated history with slavery. He writes:  “October is Black History Month, an event first marked in the UK 25 years ago. Scotland has close associations with the black African and Caribbean communities it celebrates.”

Shipwreck survivors

On the bottom of in Eddrachillis Bay near Drumbeg, in Sutherland, lie three cannon and part of a wooden hull of an age-old ship. Archaeologists believe it could be the remains of a Dutch vessel that got into difficulty off Scotland’s remote north-west Highland coast between 1650 and 1750.  One theory is that the vessel was owned by the Dutch East India Company, also known as VOC. Founded in 1602, it was the world’s biggest and most powerful trading company until it collapsed in financial ruin in 1799. Its vessels regularly sailed around the north of Scotland because of the favourable winds and also to avoid the English Channel, particularly at times of war and tensions in Europe.

The cannon could have been used by the Drumbeg ship’s crew to ward off privateers, privately-owned armed vessels commissioned by a state to attack an enemy’s shipping. And it has been suggested some or all of the crew may have survived their ordeal. There is possible evidence of foreign sailors setting up home in the north of Scotland after their vessel foundered off the Sutherland coast.

The First Statistical Account of Scotland published between 1791 and 1799 records how the climate of the area was pleasant enough for “natives of the East and West Indies” to live there. Philip Robertson, a Historic Scotland marine archaeologist, told BBC Scotland in March that the origins of the Drumbeg crew, and their fate, was still unknown. But he added: “The wreck gives us a unique window into our history and, interestingly, the trading activity off the Scottish coastline and across the world.”


Scots were heavily involved in the slave trade of the 18th and 19th Centuries, something which leading historian Prof Tom Devine has accused Scotland of ignoring today. Men and women were put to work in Scots-run plantations in the colonies. Female slaves were also sexually abused by their owners. An exhibition on slavery held in 2011 involving the Centre for History in Dornoch and Edinburgh Beltane organisation featured correspondence detailing the keeping of sex slaves. The letters were sent by Highland owners to relatives in Inverness and their contents were described as “graphic” and “disturbing” by researchers.

Scotland’s slave past is also recorded in other sources. In 2007, historians were intrigued by a mysterious black figure who appears in a tapestry depicting the Battle of Culloden of 16 April 1746. Some at experts at the National Trust for Scotland had a theory that he may be a Jamaican servant of an officer on the government side. Little is known of the 18th Century needlework, and the trust said it was not clear if the tapestry was a true depiction of a scene from the battle, or one featuring later influences.


[. . .] Records detailing compensation paid by the British government to slave owners after slavery was abolished mention Gen Sir James Duff, an army officer and MP for Banffshire. He was awarded £4,101, more than £3m in today’s money, to compensate him for the 202 slaves he was forced by law to give up on the Grange Sugar Estate in Jamaica.

David Alston, a local historian and Highland councillor, has also examined slavery. He was drawn to the subject after discovering that fossil hunter, geologist and writer Hugh Miller sat next to a black pupil in the school he attended in Cromarty. Dr Alston said: “I gradually noticed more and more local connections with the Caribbean, including references on gravestones. “Slowly it became clear just how many Highland Scots had connections to slave-worked plantations and how many children were born to these Highlanders and either enslaved or ‘free coloured’ women.”

Further research led Dr Alston to find that almost every prominent school in the Highlands had black pupils on its roll at some time between 1790 and 1830. He said: “I keep my research very focussed on the three former Dutch colonies which later became British Guiana, now Guyana, on the north coast of South America. “Almost everyone will recognise the name of one of the colonies – Demerara.  “I have now identified almost 450 people with Highland connections involved in the plantation of Guyana before emancipation of slaves in 1834.”

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One thought on “Pride and Prejudice: Scotland’s Complicated Black History

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