Slavery’s legacy in the Highlands explored in new programme

Slavery’s legacy in the Highlands explored in new programme

Slavery’s legacy in the Highlands and Islands is to be examined this week in a programme on BBC Alba.

The stories of Highlanders who profited from colonial slavery are now coming to light and are investigated in the first of a new series of BBC Alba’s European current affairs programme Eòrpa.

Reporter Ruairidh MacIver asks how the history and legacy of slavery should be marked in the Highlands in the light of the recent Black Lives Matter movement, which has already generated intense debate – and direct action – across the world in an attempt to get wider acknowledgement of this history.

Eòrpa speaks to campaigners who want to advance this debate and to public bodies who seek to re-assess the Highlands’ place in this history.

Dr Iain Mackinnon from Coventry University will discuss the research undertaken by him and Dr Andrew Mackillop, of Glasgow University, into Scotland’s links with slavery in Thursday’s episode.

They reveal that over one million acres of land, around one in every three acres, that was purchased in the West Highlands and islands from the 18th century to early 20th century was paid for with funds derived from slavery.

Historian and author Dr David Alston from Cromarty has been researching this issue for over two decades and also features in the programme.

His research has shed light on the lasting, complex connections between the Highlands and slavery and has exposed how places like Inverness were so dependent on the trade.

Most of the profit came from where Guyana is now – the three British colonies of Demerara, Berbice and Essequibo.

Dr Alston said: “The more I’ve studied this I think that you really don’t understand the history of Scotland or the history of the highlands unless you understand the importance of the slave trade in that history.

“The history of the highlands in 1700s and 1800s isn’t complete without mentioning slavery – it’s where the money was made.

“There was a flood of young men to Berbice they were creating new cotton plantations along the coast and there are about 40 place names from Inverness to Helmsdale that are replicated along the coast that were replicated along the Berbice coast – Nigg, Alness, Inverness, Kildonan which is such a marked sign of Highland involvement in Guyana.

“Whatever the wrongs of the ways people have been treated in the Highlands and elsewhere in Britain it is not the same as chattel slavery and it’s a profoundly misleading parallel. The horrors of slavery are so terrible that people want to distance themselves from it and I think that’s one of the ways people distance themselves but it’s really something we have a moral obligation to resist – it’s false.”

He added: “There was a strong interest in this part of Scotland in not seeing the abolition of slavery, some of that was because Scottish salt herring was being shipped to the Caribbean as a cheap protein for slaves.

“It was also the export market for the hemp bagging that was being produced here and rough linen cloth, known as slave cloth, so there were petitions from places like the Black Isle and Cromarty opposing the abolition of slavery because there was a direct financial interest here.”

Eòrpa airs this Thursday, November 12 on BBC Alba at 8.30pm.

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