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Slaves and Highlanders: Silenced Histories of Scotland and the Caribbean

Review by James Robertson

A Review by James Robertson

David Alston
Edinburgh University Press (2021) £14.99

This is a mighty book, the product of more than twenty years’ research by David Alston, who has over that time generously shared his findings on a website, also titled Slaves and Highlanders ( It is a book that

reshapes our understanding of Highland and Scottish histories, and - as the subtitle indicates - places those histories in an international context. It is a major piece in the emerging jigsaw that shows the extent of Scottish involvement in the slave trade and especially in the slavery-based economies of the Caribbean. More than this, it enlarges the existing narrative to include the stories of the enslaved, of free people of colour, and of mixed-race children who had to negotiate hard paths between countries, classes, cultures and social attitudes. It interweaves global history with local history, and while it interrogates in great detail the available evidence, it does not shrink from asking broader questions. What is the relationship between what happened in the past and how we find the present? What moral obligations, if any, does this present inherit from that past? And what long-held myths (such as ‘it wisnae us’, or the notion of Scotland as an oppressed colony of England - the two are not unconnected) and false comparisons (plantation slavery with, for example, the Highland Clearances) must be challenged?

David Alston quotes the Caribbean writer Jan Carew (1920-2012), who was descended from both slaves and Highland slave owners (his mother was a Robertson) on the Kiltearn plantation in Berbice (like neighbouring Demerara and Essequibo, a former Dutch colony ceded to Britain in 1815, and now part of Guyana). Carew’s great-grandmother had said, ‘There are ghosts in our blood and we’re lucky because the lowliest, the ones who suffer most in the world of the living, are always top dogs in the spirit world.’ This idea shaped Carew’s own understanding of how to interpret the mess that is history: ‘The ghosts are always there talking their conflicting talk until there’s a Tower of Babel inside your head. So you’ve got to listen well and search out the kindest, the strongest, the most human of these voices and make them your own.’

David Alston concludes his book with a fresh affirmation of this idea. His motivation, I think, is simply to say, this is what happened, and it had consequences and legacies that are still tangible. If we are to understand Highland and, by extension, Scottish history at all, we must see it in its entirety, and that must include the exploitative, wealth-generating engagement of several generations of Highlanders in every aspect of the slave-based economies of the Caribbean.

Anybody who knows the Highlands will experience a perhaps surprising, certainly unsettling sense of familiarity as they read of the individuals and places that feature in, for example, the chapters on Guyana (where the Highland presence was especially strong). As well as Kiltearn, we find plantations named Alness, Brahan, Cromarty, Dochfour, Kintail and Lochaber, and innumerable planters, traders, financiers and other facilitators with Highland names.

What should be no surprise is that the entire system of slavery was founded on control and forced compliance, the reduction of humans to chattel status and therefore the removal from them of basic familial and individual rights. Underpinning everything was violence - both the threat of it and its application in grotesque and extreme forms, from abduction in Africa to flogging, torture, mutilation, rape and murder. There is scarcely a page on which reference to this terrible truth is not either explicitly or implicitly made. The hands of few of the Scots in this book were clean, and some were horribly bloodied.

‘It would be absurd,’ David Alston writes, ‘to claim that any individual living today bears a personal responsibility for the evils of British colonial slavery. But does that mean that…we have no obligations and responsibilities - no moral relationship - to this past?’ In a fascinating chapter, he examines this question. We cannot deny this past, he says, while at the same time enjoying the reflected sunlight of more positive aspects of Scottish history, such as the Enlightenment.

In any case, slavery and the Enlightenment were not separable and distinct episodes, as the ongoing arguments about the reputations of Henry Dundas and David Hume illustrate. You can take your history whole or you can be selective, but the latter course leaves you open to accusations of hypocrisy and myopia. Quite rightly, David Alston has no truck with a civic nationalist exceptionalism which, however well intentioned, sidesteps these issues. My own view is that modern Scotland’s political journey of self-determination has helped towards a deeper, more questioning reading of the country’s past. It is true, though, that some prefer either to ignore the role of Scots in every aspect of British imperialism or to see it as a kind of aberration from the true path of Scottish history.

A few years ago, University College London’s massive Legacies of British Slavery project published a database of those who were compensated when slavery was abolished in the British  colonies in 1833 (compensation, it should be stressed, was paid to slave owners, not to those who had been enslaved). I searched the database to see if my forebears, the Robertsons of Kindeace, had been compensated, and great was my relief when I found no mention of them. But why the relief? I had never felt any loyalty to or empathy with these ancestors, but I sometimes wondered how I would have acted in their shoes, in their time. Perhaps the relief lay in not knowing. What I do know is that in the late 1700s five brothers of the family died overseas. Two were killed in the service of the East India Company, while the other three - a merchant in New Orleans, a planter in Jamaica and a planter in Demerara - succumbed to yellow fever. Like so many Scots, they took up opportunities offered by the burgeoning Empire. These Robertsons may not have been slave owners in 1833 but they were managing plantations forty years earlier, and were closely connected, in some cases by marriage, to other Ross-shire families, mentioned in this book, who were deeply invested in the Caribbean. If blood links me to Easter Ross it also links me to the colonial slave system. Those people are in my ancestry as surely as there were Robertsons in Jan Carew’s.

David Alston’s extensive research delivers a study loaded - in places, almost overloaded - with statistics and biographical information. Yet the main themes are not obscured by this detail. The book’s achievement is twofold. First, it presents a vast array of material which other historians can explore further, thereby enhancing our understanding of this complex past. Second, it draws real, human stories from the mass of facts. We see Highland Scots striving, succeeding and failing, some becoming rich beyond imagination (the Gaelic poet Robb Donn wrote of ‘am fear a tha ’n Seumeuca’, ‘the man who is in Jamaica’, returning with gold enough to fill a flagon), some losing everything, including their lives; we see the enslaved surviving, resisting, rebelling and sometimes winning freedom; we see a small but not insignificant number of freed people of colour, especially women, using whatever means was available to improve their status and situation; and we see the tangled relations among indigenous Caribbean people, planters, soldiers, colonial administrators, the enslaved and those, the Maroons, who escaped the plantations and established new communities in the bush.

All these lives were shaped by slavery and often by the geographical and familial ties between the Caribbean and the Scottish Highlands. By showing this so clearly and incontestably, Slaves and Highlanders makes for a sobering, challenging but thoroughly compelling read.

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