New research reveals extent of historical links between plantation slavery and landownership in the west Highlands and Islands

Scores of estates in the West Highlands and Islands were acquired by people using the equivalent of well over £100m worth of riches connected to slavery in the Caribbean and North America.

Many would go on to be leading figures in the Highland Clearances, evicting thousands of people whose families had lived on their newly procured land for generations.

These are amongst the conclusions of a research paper titled ‘Plantation slavery and landownership in the west Highlands and Islands: legacies and lessons’ published today, by two university academics – both from Hebridean backgrounds.

It shows how 63 estates were bought by significant beneficiaries of “slavery derived wealth”. The majority (37) changed hands between 1790 and 1855, the main period of the eviction of thousands of people. Almost 1.2m acres were involved covering 33.5 % of the West Highlands and Islands.

It is an independent study, but is being published by Community Land Scotland, the representative body of Scotland’s community landowners such as West Harris, Knoydart and South Uist as part of its discussion paper series on ‘Land and the Common Good’. It comes at a time when Scotland and the rest of Britain struggle with past involvement in the slavery economy. The new paper builds on the work already done by Professor Sir Tom Devine.

It has been written by Coventry University-based Dr Iain MacKinnon from Skye, and Dr Andrew Mackillop, a senior lecturer in Scottish History at Glasgow University, who is originally from Harris.

It provides the first systematic analysis of the location, size and monetary value of estate purchases financed by directly or indirectly acquired slavery money. This came either from a highly profitable involvement in the slave trade and/or the plantations themselves; through marriage into families of such wealth; or from the compensation paid by the British Government when slavery was abolished in most of the British Empire

An Act of Parliament in 1833, provided £20m compensation to slave owners (none to former slaves), over £16 billion today. The equivalent of over £120m of that figure was spent buying the Highland estates studied.

The authors stress that certain traditional landowners who had inherited their Highland land, also benefited from slavery money

The Mackenzies of Gairloch, Macleod of Macleod and the House of Sutherland, had married into slavery-derived wealth. Meanwhile Cameron of Locheil and Mackintosh of Mackintosh “appear to have been directly involved in the plantation economy in Jamaica.”  In the 1880s these families together held at least 690,313 acres in the counties of Ross and Inverness.

The paper argues that those who had been involved in slavery brought some of the same attitudes to bear on their newly acquired assets in Gaelic Scotland.  The paper calculates that at least 5,000 were cleared from the land by this new slavery elite, although the figure would have been far higher across the whole of the Highlands and Islands. This immediate study was restricted to the Hebrides from Islay northwards and the western coast of the counties of Inverness and Ross.

Examples of evictors are given such as Colonel John Gordon of Cluny who cleared more than 2,900 people from Uist and Barra.

It is also argued that not only did slavery beneficiaries play an active role in the Highland Clearances, they helped develop the idea of the Highlands and Islands being a playground for the rich to hunt, shoot and fish.

Dr Iain MacKinnon said: “It is now clear that returning wealth from Atlantic slavery had an important impact on landownership change in the West Highlands and Islands in the 19th century, and contributed significantly to the development of extractive and ecologically damaging forms of land use – whether this was commercial extraction through sheep farming, or status extraction through membership of what has been called the ‘hunting cult’ of the Victorian era in which many social elites were involved. Of course, empty glens and cleared communities went hand in hand with both forms of the extractive economy.”

Dr Andrew Mackillop said: “The report highlights how events, peoples, and places that are distant to us in time or in geography are still closely intertwined with Highland history and the present-day condition of that part of Scotland. The report provides important new evidence of the sheer scale of links between estate purchases in the region and individuals or families whose wealth depended to a greater or lesser extent on Britain’s system of colonial slavery.  It demonstrates how this intersection between slavery-derived wealth and landed property and power was particularly evident during the most intensive phase of the Highland Clearances in the 1830s to 1860s. In pointing out this connection the report is seeking to encourage informed debate over the tangled legacies of Scottish society’s substantial and sustained involvement in slavery within the British Empire.”

Dr Calum MacLeod, Community Land Scotland’s Policy Director, said: “The report is an important contribution to our collective understanding of how slavery-derived wealth helped sustain and shape the pattern of monopoly private landownership in the west Highlands and islands that persists to this day.  Its findings are a timely reminder from history of the need to ensure that land in the Highlands and Islands and throughout Scotland is owned and used in ways that satisfy the public interest and achieve the common good.”

The authors will discuss their research paper on BBC ALBA’s European current affairs programme Eòrpa on Thursday, November 12 at 8.30pm.

Full paper: Plantation slavery and landownership in the west Highlands and Islands – legacies and lessons

Summary paper

Annex – data and references