Scotland, Slavery & Land: ‘Follow the Money’

In 1833 the British owners of slaves were compensated for their loss of their investments to the tune of £20million which today would equate to £16billion.

Official medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (1795)

The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 was a follow on from the 1807 Slave Trade Act and abolished slavery in parts of the British Empire.

As part of the deal slave owners were compensated for the loss of their investments, a massive payout by the Government which didn’t end until 2015. UCL has compiled an extensive data base Legacies of British Slave-ownership

So what did the ex-slave owners do with their compensation now that slavery had become such a toxic issue?

Plantation Slavery and Landownership the West Highlands and Islands: Legacies and Lessons was an insight into the issue as it pertains to huge swathes of rural and island Scotland hosted by Community Land Scotland. The talk was recorded and can be viewed here: Community Land Scotland Vimeo

Chaired by Peter Peacock a panel of speakers comprised of: Dr Iain Mackinnon (Coventry University), Dr Andrew Mackillop (University of Glasgow), Dr Jennifer Melville (National Trust of Scotland) and Dr Calum MacLeod (Community Land Scotland).

Dr Iain Mackinnon and Dr Andrew Mackillop were authors of the Paper on which the discussion took place.

You can access the Paper here: Plantation Slavery and Landownership the West Highlands and Islands: Legacies and Lessons

Extensive research was conducted on the use of wealth derived both directly and indirectly from slavery. The beneficiaries used the money to invest in railways, industries and in huge swathes of Scotland – by buying up land. The peak of these purchases occurred in 1834, one year after the compensation payments legislation was enacted. These were significant purchases of land, explained Dr Mackinnon and led to a ‘revolution in land ownership’ as described by historian Tom Devine.

Dr Mackillop described how this wealth was used as a ‘laundering of slavery derived wealth’ by the more ‘acceptable’ use of purchasing large tracts of land in Scotland. This was done as :

  • Displacement – moving capital from one sector (slavery) to another in the Highlands and Islands an area where the economy was vulnerable and lacked economic reslience.
  • Disguise – ownership of land becomes more acceptable than that of slaves
  • Distraction – The image of the Highlands as ‘wild’ and basking in the ‘virtue in association’.
  • Display – transforming the land and the conspicuous building of mansions and setting up hunting and fishing estates.

This influx of wealth, said Dr Mackinnon, especially from 1820 – 1850, is ‘trophy on display’ by turning the land whole scale over to hunting and fishing using colonial derived wealth.

The process included the clearance of people off the land. The Clearances were facilitated by wealth from Empire, said Dr Mackinnon.

The panel also looked at the relevance of these issues to us today. Calum MacLeod commented that it was a complex set of threads and dimensions and highlighted the importance of education and the school curriculum on History and Heritage. ‘Whose heritage is being interpreted?’ he asked.

Calum MacLeod explained that this monopoly of land ownership continues in Scotland today.

Dr Jennifer Melville described how the National Trust of Scotland was examining the ‘stories’ surrounding their properties and the training of guides in being able to relate them to visitors.

‘Scotland had one of the most powerful landlord classes because of the structure of tenure’, explained Dr Mackillop, an acceptance of which has become ‘normalised’. We need to challenge ‘landlordism’ he said.

The Scottish Parliament on 4th of February 2021, debated the published report by Dr Mackinnon and Dr Mackillop.

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

Related articles:

Orkney and Slavery–‘I have at present 36 negroes, besides stock…’


The Rousay Clearances

The Rousay Clearances Part 2

1 reply »

Leave a Reply