How slave trade in Scotland led to eviction of Highlanders

by Shirley Williams
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Sheep farming wasn’t that big of an industry until the rise of industrialization in 18th century Great Britain. England and Scotland had officially united in 1707 to become the United Kingdom of Great Britain. By 1750 wealthy landowners wanted to use Scottish Highlands to expand sheep farming interests, but in order to do it they used force to evict thousands of Scottish Highlanders.

Scotland’s depopulation and mass migration

These evictions came to be known as Highland Clearances, as about 5,000 residents in Northern Scotland were forced out of the region to find new homes. Some historians cite that nearly half of Scotland’s population was displaced over the next century. The land became taken over by slave owners who bought over one million acres to build an agricultural empire.

New historical insights

Researchers from Coventry University (Iain MacKinnon) and University of Glasgow (Andrew Mackillop) recently published their historical analysis of these evictions and migration in the nonprofit publication Community Land Scotland. Their research was further recently covered on the BBC current-affairs program Eòrpa. The study focused on the north part of the western Highlands, along with islands such as Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles.

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McKinnon and Mackillop found that some British plantation owners profited directly from slave labor. About a third of land in the western Highlands and islands region was controlled by these owners, who bought at least 63 estate purchases during the clearances. The researchers, however, were only able to find prices for about two-thirds of these transactions, as the estimated value of these properties was £120 million ($158 million USD) at the time. Due to the missing data, it’s possible that the value was much higher.

Most of these purchases occurred between 1790 and 1855. British slave trade was officially outlawed in 1833, which led to Parliament awarding about £120 million to slave owners to cover financial losses. Today that amount would command a value of $2.6 billion USD. Colonel John Gordon of Cluny, considered widely unpopular in Scotland, was given £2.9 million to compensate for his loss of 1,300 slave workers on his Caribbean plantations. He used the funds to purchase the Scottish islands of Benbecula, South Uist and Barra, which led to 3,000 more evictions.

Roots of systemic racism

The study on Highlander clearances has opened the door for deeper discussions on the history of slavery in Scotland. Mackillop hopes the findings will encourage debate on Scotland’s involvement in slavery to create a better understanding of how systemic racism developed. MacKinnon says slavery had a huge impact on ecological damage in the region. Scottish merchants particularly benefited from the labor of their slaves, who typically came from West Africa and the West Indies.

Uncovering this historical information contrasts with long-held notions that Scots were champions of the movement to abolish slavery. Scottish elites particularly exploited South African nation Guyana. The research points to a broader conclusion that wealth during the industrial revolution was derived from slave labor.

Many British institutions are in the process of investigating history to determine how to repair relationships with groups whose ancestors were affected by the slave trade. The University of Glasgow, for example, announced in 2018 it had received about £200 million from slave trade production. The University has opened a new center that collaborates with other institutions to study the history of Scottish slavery, which can be accessed from its website.

Scottish historian David Alston says that studying 18th and 19th century Highlands history isn’t complete without focusing on slavery, which he confirms was “where the money was made.” This long-term study comes at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement is raising awareness how systemic racism still exists in society, particularly in the corporate job market, financial institutions and the real estate industry.

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