Slavery Derived Wealth in Scotland Today

At the beginning of the 21st century at least 450,000 acres in the western and northern Highlands and Islands were owned by families with historical connections to transatlantic slavery. The revelations show the origins of landed power in Scotland’s elite. Iain MacKinnon reports, with additional research by Andrew Mackillop.

Last month Andrew Mackillop and I published a report disclosing connections between landownership in the west Highlands and Islands of Scotland and the profits of plantation slavery. The full report, published as part of Community Land Scotland’s discussion paper series on ‘Land and the Common Good’, is available here (“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.”

The report detailed research that discovered at least 63 estate purchases made by direct or indirect beneficiaries of slavery in the years between 1726 and 1939. These purchases covered more than 1.1 million acres of the west Highlands and Islands and the majority took place during the main period of the Highland clearances, with a peak occurring in the years immediately following the award of £20 million – £16 billion in today’s terms – compensation for slave-owners for loss of their slaves as ‘property’ when slavery was abolished.

Including traditional families who already owned land in the area, slavery beneficiaries have owned a total of around 1.8 million acres in the west Highlands and Islands – amounting to more than 50 per cent of the area’s land-mass, and approaching 10 per cent of the entire landmass of Scotland.

Our report was a historical account, although it referred to some of the consequences of these historical developments on the area today. During an interview that Andrew and I gave to the BBC Radio Scotland Out of Doors programme about our report we argued that our findings have the potential to be the beginning of an important, if at times uncomfortable, discussion involving landed proprietors about the importance of slavery derived wealth on the nature of landownership and use in the Highlands today, of which private estates are still a major part.

The Out of Doors team took us at our word and approached Scottish Land and Estates, a representative body for large landowners and country businesses, to get their views. Their chief executive told the programme that ‘it is a bit of a stretch to leap from a review of social history and ancient connections to slavery as being a reason why communities should own land today.’

What follows is a response not only to the factual aspects of the statement from Scottish Land and Estate but a questioning of its underlying assumptions. Beginning with the latter: strictly speaking, the ancient period is that time in history before the medieval, and its end is generally dated at around 600AD. Our account of slavery beneficiaries buying land in Scotland is almost entirely late modern history. In the wider historical understanding, this is as close to contemporary history as it gets.

Over and above the statement’s telling attempt to put chronological distance between current landholding structures in the west Highlands and Islands and British slavery, there is the one-dimensional understanding of history. Landlords consistently seek to benefit from the historical traditions and stories associated with their land and with their houses and castles. Past connections are readily, and understandably, utilized by Scottish Land and Estates to enable heritage tourism and generate a particular version of the Highlands and indeed Scotland in general. Dismissing one element of the past as irrelevant while promoting and deploying another version as key to the contemporary economic and revenue basis of many landed estates is not conducive to a fully informed and effective discussion of land, land use and community in the Highlands.

Then there are matters of accuracy. In the statement SLE’s chief executive added: ‘Indeed the authors of this paper admit themselves there are few if any families in the area who are major landowners today and who have any past connection to slavery.’

For the record, we didn’t say this and it is not true.

Our report did not detail contemporary ownership by families with historical slavery links. However, in response to SLE’s inaccurate representation of our work, and drawing on Andy Wightman’s research published in 1996, we estimate that at the beginning of the 21st century at least 450,000 acres in the western and northern Highlands and Islands were owned by families with historical connections to slavery. For the avoidance of doubt, here is a list of landowners and acreages:

House of Sutherland 83,239
Cameron of Lochiel 76,000
Wills in Applecross 62,000
Duke of Argyll 60,800
Mackenzie of Gairloch 57,600
Burton of Dochfour 48,000
Macleod of Macleod (Dunvegan and Glenbrittle on Skye) 30,600
Schroder (Dunlossit on Islay) 16,500
Ellice (Invergarry & Aberchalder) 15,000
Martin of Husabost 5,200
Maclean of Duart 300

The only landholding in this list that is not taken from Andy Wightman’s work is the Maclean of Duart estate on Mull which includes the clan seat of Duart Castle but which is too small a holding to feature in Wightman’s analysis. The landowners given here don’t map directly onto ‘the west Highlands and Islands’ as defined in the report, as we have added the Duke of Argyll whose main landholdings today are in mainland Argyll and the House of Sutherland whose holdings are today all in Sutherland. However, both families owned land in the nineteenth century in the west Highlands and Islands as we defined it in the report, and the Argyll family still hold some land there today. Further research may well confirm indicative evidence that the descendants of other families currently holding land in the Highlands were connected to the economy of enslavement.

We have not closely studied recent land transfers in the area, but understand that there has been relatively little movement of land among families connected with slavery since Andy Wightman’s book was published. The late Lord Burton (who was actually a member of the Baillie of Dochfour family whose eighteenth and nineteenth century history is saturated by slavery) sold substantial west coast estates early in the twenty-first century, although the family are still major landowners elsewhere in the Highlands. It is understood that the although the representative of Martin of Husabost family died in recent years, the estate is still in family hands. However, the wider point remains. It’s likely that somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 acres of the western and northern Highlands today are in the hands of families which have benefitted from the profits of slavery.

That is not an insignificant amount. Indeed, it is that not much less than the acreage owned by the entire community land sector across Scotland at present. This comparison is one of many reasons why these important if uncomfortable discussions about the ways in which slavery derived wealth has shaped the current structure and patterns of landownership, and use, in Scotland need to take place. Contributions from landed proprietors are not only welcome but are an important element in such debates. But this input should be based on a holistic rather than selective understanding of the past and needs to be based on the facts.



Iain MacKinnon is a researcher at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University. This article does not reflect the views of Coventry University.

Andrew MacKillop is a senior lecturer in Scottish History in the School of Humanities at the University of Glasgow. This article does not reflect the views of the University of Glasgow.

Comments (19)

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  1. Cathie Lloyd says:

    Remember what Karl Marx said about primitive accumulation of capital in Das Kapital vol 1? He was right on the money then.

  2. Dougie Blackwood says:

    Regardless of the slavery issue, most land in Scotland was stolen. Particularly in the highland areas the land was common land where tribes(clans) subsisted mostly by raising cattle. They fought and squabbled but mainly there was a settled population that managed to co-exist.

    This changed when the tribal leaders found that they could lay personal claim to large tracts of land by getting lawyers to file claims in the courts. Land was then a commodity and as the slavery profits came along estates changed hands. The rights of the indiginous clansmen were diminished until the coup de grace with the coming of sheep and the clearances.

    What happens now? Some small patches have gone back to the communities but in the main we have rich men’s playgrounds where the land is denuded of natural trees and wildlife to shoot grouse and deer. Time we made these estates bear the real cost of ownership and encourage wider more diverse land use.

  3. Foghorn Leghorn says:

    I doubt think there can be any doubt that Scotland’s economy is ultimately built on the capital accumulated from the mercantile operations that involved the slave trade. Confiscating the wealth produced by that economy and returning it to its rightful owners (the descendants of those whose lives were the seeds from which it grew) would only be just, based on the bourgeois notion of justice as [commercial] fairness. This would include wealth in the form of proceeds derived from the commercial operations of landed estates, publically owned or otherwise.

    1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

      Such is the absurdity inherent in the bourgeois conception of justice as fairness.

  4. Russell Willis Taylor says:

    Well done for following up with informed truth rather than peevish pr. Great original article as well.

    1. Thank you Russell, we are indebted to Iain and Andrew for their input. Quite odd that there has been less response.

  5. John B Dick says:

    We don’t need to address this issue we can put the past aside and look to the future.

    If the current use of land is in the public interest, there are other problems to be dealt with. If not, there is a simple solution: LVT banding, including negative rates.

    Are you opposed on principle to private schools? Do you see them as an asset to the nation if they specialise in Sport and nurturing potential Olympic champions? Do you want to remove charity status without an instant financial detriment shock?

    Do you want to counter ‘nanny-state’ allegations about banning things like fracking? Or maybe ‘sport’ hunting? Then allow it, at a rate which compensates for any loss or disbenefit to the community. Open cast coalmining could produce a sinking fund for reinstatement under the control of government, not the company.

    The banding rate for a class of activity can be increased or reduced to compensate for the downside or benefit to the community and discourage or encourage the activity. We could have celebrity TV debates and voting to advise the Cabinet Secretary for Finance whether to move the banding of a class of activity to the next higher or next lower level starting from the next budget.

    It’s a bit like the tale of Bernard Shaw and the actress,

    Shaw: Madam, would you sleep with me for a million pounds?
    Actress: My goodness. Well, I’d certainly think about it.
    Shaw: Would you sleep with me for a pound?
    Actress: Certainly not! What kind of woman do you think I am?!
    Shaw: Madam, we’ve already established that. Now we are haggling about the price.

    1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

      Or return ‘land’ in the economic sense to the commons, charge rent to anyone who wants to use it (including the government), and distribute the revenue raised to everyone as an unconditional basic income.

      1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

        That us, ‘…equally to everyone…’

  6. Gilcky says:

    A very sobering piece of work. Obviously it’s not confined to the north west. I came to find myself in a holiday cottage in the north east only to discover something similar…I’ve refused to return since but I have made my views clear to family.

  7. Chris Ballance says:

    It’s not just the Highlands. I recently discovered that the Carbeth Estate, including the hutting lands, was bought in the early 1800s by sugar plantation owner, John Guthrie, who developed the land with money from his Grenada plantations. The big house on the estate, Carbeth Guthrie is still named after him.

    There’s a further study needed into how much land across Scotland was bought and sold in the period 1780-1820 ish on the basis of slavery money, and compensation money paid on the abolition of slavery. The biggest estates may well have been in the Highlands, but I would expect to find that slavery money turned into Scottish land, hugely inflating its price, all over the country.

    1. Thanks Chris – important to share these findings as part of a national conversation

    2. Iain MacKinnon says:

      I agree with you Chris. This was a national phenomenon. There are particular factors that made land in the Highlands particularly attractive for slavery and imperial wealth generally in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but it’s clear that these purchases were happening all over Scotland. Although my focus has been on the west Highlands and Islands, I’ve been noting those that I came across in other areas too, and I will add John Guthrie at Carbeth to the list. Many thanks.

  8. Hector says:

    What about the continual and deliberate theft of tenant farmers capital by landed estates?
    John Innes rented durris estate and invested £90,000 around 1800 in improving the land.
    He was evicted without compensation in 1819
    This is one of the biggest cases, most were much smaller, but it was relentless and continues today.

  9. SleepingDog says:

    It is certainly true that if you trace your rights to land ownership back to the proceeds of British slavery, you make your claim built on proceeds from one of histories greatest moral crimes, the racialised chattel slavery system. Primitive aristocratic ancestor-worship is hagiography not history. And land claims based on historic moral crimes have been regularly overthrown.

    What about Royal estates? While English Queen Elizabeth I may have kicked off the system of racialized chattel slavery in these isles, the Scottish Stuart royal family set up the Royal African Company:

    With the vast wealth of royals (and aristocrats often rewarded for colonial crimes), and the post-colonial poverty in the Caribbean islands whose population are most harmed by Scottish involvement in slavery, why not strip these modern landowners of their proceeds of crime and use this for funding community buyout schemes throughout the Caribbean, giving land to the landless? Subject to due process and agreement.

  10. Paddy Farrington says:

    This is impressive work which deserves to be read widely. Including by the residents of Morningside in Edinburgh: many of the streets there are named after the landholdings of the Gordons of Cluny, who feature (infamously) in the full report linked to in the article.

  11. Wul says:

    It is quite striking that the kind of “circle of infinite wealth” enjoyed by our Masters & Betters of old is still playing out today. They have a knack for making the lumpen proles pay endlessly for their own subjugation. It is really quite a skill. There should be a name for it.

    We see it in the above example; Toff steals actual people, steals other people’s land abroad, uses profits to acquire power back in Scotland, steals land from commoner Scots, makes them pay him rent for their own land, makes them pay increased rent for their own labour and investment in their tenancy, makes them pay compensation to him when slavery is abolished, uses profits to buy/steal more land….repeat for generations…then makes us pay again to buy back the previously stolen land “at market value”, makes us pay for tax breaks in land sale profits, and again when profits are stored offshore in a tax haven with beneficial ownership kept secret by UK law.
    We only finished paying for the slavery compensation in 2015. That means that black people in the UK paid into the wealth of the families who enslaved their own ancestors.

    We see it in the Banking Crisis of 2008 when we had to pay to bail out private companies, pay bonuses to their bosses, pay to have RBS destroy local businesses, then pay again with our own poor health for the austerity caused by casino banking.

    They are at it again with Covid; We pay to have money removed from our public purse and gifted to hedge fund owners who can’t deliver a working paper mask. We will then be asked to foot the bill, with more austerity, for the plunder of our own country.

    1. Wul says:

      Funny. We did Slavery and The Tobacco Lords in 3rd year History at school. None of this was mentioned.

      A grateful thank you to the authors for this important piece of work.

      1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

        Aye, I had the opportunity to study Glagow’s sugar and tobacco trades when I was that age too. I even went on a school trip, in an auld red pit-bus that doubled as the school-bus in the heady days of municipal socialism in Scotland, to Glasgow to see the streets and buildings had been built on the proceeds of these enterprises. It’s curious how the link between the flourishing of Glasgow and the slave trade comes as a surprise to so many people; I can never quite believe their protestations of ‘We didna ken!’ Ignorance is no excuse.

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