Scotland and Slavery

Scots proudly played their part in the abolition of the trade. But for a time we misted over our role as perpetrators of this barbarism. Many of Scotish industries, schools and churches were founded from the profits of African slavery.

Scots proudly played their part in the abolition of the trade. But for a time we misted over our role as perpetrators of this barbarism. Many of Scotish industries, schools and churches were founded from the profits of African slavery.

Even Robert Burns was considering a position as a book-keeper in a plantation before poetry revived his fortunes. In 1796, Scots owned nearly 30 per cent of the estates in Jamaica and by 1817, a staggering 32 per cent of the slaves.

At any given time there were only about 70 or 80 slaves in Scotland but the country reaped the fruits of their labour in the colonies in the sugar, cotton and tobacco plantations.

Many Scots masters were considered among the most brutal, with life expectancy on their plantations averaging a mere four years.

Iain Whyte, author of Scotland and the Abolition of Slavery, insists we have at times ignored our guilty past.

He said: “For many years Scotland’s historians harboured the illusion that our nation had little to do with the slave trade or plantation slavery.

“We swept it under the carpet. This was remarkable in the light of Glasgow’s wealth coming from tobacco, sugar and cotton, and Jamaica Streets being found in a number of Scottish towns and cities.

“It is healthy we are now recognising Scotland was very much involved.”

These industries, which saw Glasgow and much of the country flourish, were built on the back of slavery.

However, Scotland also punched above its weight in the abolition movement.

The MP for Hull, William Wilberforce, and his great influence, abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, are heralded as the heroes who outlawed slavery.

But Scots too played a huge role in winning the slaves their freedom. In 1792, the year that produced the most petitions for abolition, there were 561 from Britain – a third of which came from Scotland.

Mr Whyte said: “We can be ashamed of our past but also proud of it. There were many ordinary Scots who gave a lot of time, effort and sacrifice in the cause of seeking freedom.”

The owning of personal slaves was banned in Scotland in 1778-229 years before abolition of the trade.

This followed the case of James Knight, a slave who won his freedom when the Court of Session in Edinburgh ruled Scotland could not support slavery.

This important precedent didn’t mean all slaves were freed, but did mean no person in Scotland could beheld by law as a slave, which wasn’t the case in England.

Slave sales were banned in Scotland although at times Scots had profited from bringing slaves in to the country.

Mr Whyte said: “That was part of the deal to train up slaves and then sell them.”

One was brought from Virginia to Beith in Ayrshire and trained as joiner so he could be sold later for a profit. He ran away from Port Glasgow and died in Edinburgh’s Tollbooth Jail.

In 1807, the slave trade in British Colonies became illegal and British ships were no longer allowed to carry slaves.

However, complete abolition of slavery did not come until 1833. The Glasgow Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1822 and the city was known as one of the staunchest abolitionist cities in Britain.

Wilberforce was heavily supported by Scots James Ramsay and Zachary Macaulay, who came from Inveraray.

Macaulay was repulsed by what he saw while working as an overseer in a West Indies plantation.

He founded the Anti-Slavery Reporter and eventually became governor of Sierra Leone, a colony founded by freed slaves.

The architect of the Abolition Bill was James Stephen, born of Scots parents and educated in Aberdeen.

But there is no doubt the profits slaves helped to create kick-started the industrial revolution in Scotland and brought it’s merchants and traders great wealth.

There were familiar names such as Scot Lyle of Tate and Lyle fame whose fortune was built on slavery. Ewing from Glasgow was the richest sugar producer in Jamaica.

The stunning Inveresk Lodge in Edinburgh, now open to the public, was bought by James Wedderburn with money earned from 27 years in Jamaica as a notorious slaver.

The Wee Free Church was founded using profits and donations from the slave trade. Even our schools have a dark history. Bathgate Academy was built from money willed by John Newland, a renowned slave master and Dollar Academy has a similar foundation.

For many years, the goods and profits from West Indian slavery were unloaded at Kingston docks in Glasgow.

Leith in Edinburgh and Glasgow were popular ports from which ambitious Scottish men sailed to make their fortunes as slave masters.

But Scotland was also home to slaves who were great instigators in winning their freedom. In his book, Mr Whyte chronicles the efforts of three black slaves who took their cases for emancipation to the Court of Session in Edinburgh.

One was Knight, another was David Spens, who in 1769 was baptised in Wemyss Church in Fife and claimed he should be freed since he was now a Christian.

Lawyers acted for him for free and his case became a cause celebre among ordinary miners and slaters in the area. Sadly, his master died before a legal judgement could be made.

Mr Whyte said: “There were slaves who struck out for freedom in Scotland and prepared the ground for abolition.”

Lord Auchinleck, a judge in the Knight case, said: “It may be the custom in Jamaica to make slaves of poor blacks but I do not believe it is agreeable to humanity nor to the Christian religion.

He is our brother, and he is a man.” The fact there were fewer black slaves in Scotland gave Scots a greater sense of their individuality. In one case in Glasgow in the 1760s, slave Ned Johnson was brought from Virginia and then saved by neighbours when he was hung up and whipped by his master in a barn.

Mr Whyte said: “The neighbours heard his cries, cut him down and took him to the magistrates to free him.

“These slaves were part of the community and that made it more difficult for people to hold on to slavery.

“There was a feeling in Scotland that something was wrong, which is not to say we didn’t let it go on for 300 years.”

But there was a deep-rooted fear in Britain that the wheels of commerce would grind to a halt without slavery.

It was only when economists like the Scot Adam Smith suggested slavery hampered freedom of enterprise that the argument took hold that it was no longer financially viable.

However, Mr Whyte argues: “It was about economics, but in many ways, like the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, it was also about ordinary people standing up to be counted.”

By Annie Brown


1799 is when local slavery was abolished in Scotland as in white Scottish slaves working coal mines there’s lots of info about it out there, odd but true, and I’m not talking about the red shanks in Barbados either, off course I’m not comparing it to the scale of the African slave trade, but it broadens it out further from strictly race issues

Heh Heh why did scotland get involved?

My grandmother told stories to me as a child. She lived up the way from the Edinburgh dockyards where black Africans worked on ship building. The country was impoverished and it’s economy relied on ship building. This was around 1910. Her mother put the fear of death in them never to go down to the dock yards. That’s where the black men were. One day she and her sisters did. the played on the timber logs on the river and her sister Catherine rolled under the logs, losing her tammy and nearly her life. They nearly didn’t manage to drag her out. When they slipped her in home back in their tenement house with the shiny brass doorstep, she was dripping wet and they were terrified that their mother would find out where they’d been. She didn’t. My grandmother had learnt to swim on a school chair all in rows in class and of course, never learnt to swim in water as a result. Her teacher would whip their hands if wrong answers were given, with talons attached that would flick around the other side of her hands. One day a boy was hung from his feet outside of a window on the second floor by his teacher.

Scotland’s history of Oppression in Ireland has also been hidden.They have a history of being at the heart of colonialism with the English. Yet it is a testament to their character that they have managed and still do to present as under dogs and act as if they have suffered like the Irish… Orange order is a good example of their history and shines a light on the truth. The recent election have all those characteristics in play. I ask why and realise that Scotland has no interest for most people. They attach themselves to the Irish culture by saying we share Celtic past. But there culture is no different to English same religion and very little difference. They hate the English which is distortion of their truth but allows them to present as not being associated with colonialism. The Irish language culture music dance is not Celtic but Irish culture and known all over the world. But Scotland has a lot of images it portrays but very little substance in daily life. The majority of middle class English have Scottish roots. There is a great book being written at the moment which looks at this.

Scotland’s history of oppression is hidden behind their untruthful approach to history presenting as oppressed. They were at the heart of colonialism yet they promote a hatred of the English to hide behind. They have and still have awful history in Ireland but as they have shown skillfully absolve themselves of any wrong doing. Orange order allows the truth to be seen and I would suggest you read about them in Ireland and look at what they have done with divide and rule. They use the word Celtic to promote a culture that is non existent but like to say is similar to Irish again allowing a distorted smoke screen to truth. Being the oppressor and promoting themselves as the Oppressed is good example of their nature and history. I hope the focus to explore this will continue.

Some sweeping statements made by Finoula. You would have anyone reading believing that everyone in Scotland is a member of the Orange and that we all hate the English. The Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland has about 50,000 members. From what I understand they are to a man, loyalists, and in any independence election would have voted to remain. Slight contradiction there! There is a minority of Scottish people who identify with the Irish culture, you will usually find them at Ibrox or Parkhead on a Saturday afternoon. A minority of this minority will be flying the Red Hand of Ulster or the Irish Tricolour while spewing sectarian bile. I think you find the majority of Scots find this connection to Irish culture through terrorist organisations abhorrent.
As for religion I think you need to educate yourself on the differences between the Kirk and CoE, and then there is the fact that that over 40% of Scots do not identify with any sky fairy.
During my time in school we were taught about the oppression of Scotland by the English as well as Scotlands part in colonialism and its part in the slave trade. I do not feel I have any connection to the Irish culture or hate the English, nor do any of my family (apart from my paternal grandmother, who was a bit nuts) or my friends. I get the impression that someone from Scotland may have wronged you in the past, I will apologise on their behalf and assure you that we re not all the same.

Finoula you clearly have no idea about the history of Scotland. Scotland has been populated for a very long time since the late iron age after the last ice age by the people known as the picts and had their own culture and identity before the celts had made foothold in the country and before it had taken the name Alba or Scotland.

You also seem to forget that Scotland was under the oppressive foot of the Roman Empire and was subject to their slave trade. Never mind the Vikings who classed the British Isles as their source for slaves.

As most scots would say , yer full ae shite

How does one find out the names of the slaves held by the Scottish. I have been searching on ancestry for my Great Great grandparents and their name keeps coming up in Scotland. I dismissed the hints because I did not know that Scotland had slaves.
Every time I ran a search it took me to Scotland, I then googled slaves in Scotland and was astonished to find out that Scotland had slaves.
It is very hard to find the names of the slaves.
Does anyone know how to get the names of the slaves and the children of the slaves???

Dear Deena,
A number of children of slave owners and West Indian women were brought back to Scotland in the 1700s and early 1800s and there are a few articles on this. I’ve found four of five families of siblings that ended up going from West Indies to Scotland to Australia in the first half of the 1800s, all with West Indian ancestry.

Just follow those hints…
Good luck,


My family surname comes from the Scottish background. It is Paulk. I been doing a bit of research into Scotland involvement in the slave trade myself

Even the very design of the Jamaican flag is Scottish.

Stuart white people were never slaves in America, Irish or Scottish or anyone else. It’s a racist myth perpetuated by white Americans. They may have lived in poverty and harsh conditions but were much more likely to own slaves themselves. Won their privileged place in American society by pushing down and distancing themselves from the African Americans. Read How The Irish Became White.

I believe my 4 x great grandfather was a slave or son of. I can only find him on marriage records and birth records for his children. His name was Bristol Nero (derived from negro?) Any suggestions of where i might find more info

My maiden name is Hyslop and I am told that is a Scottish surname. I am assuming that it was a slave owner’s name that was used by my ancestors. I have just begun my research. This is a very helpful article.

Well my family went to Jamaica from. Scotland this was the 1600s. They weren’t slaves they were black they went to Jamaica to set up sugar plantations. Found documents that they had many. They came from Scotland so Scotland already had black people her also known as Moores. So not all black people put into slavery were from Africa it was also their own poor black people.

Re: “The owning of personal slaves was banned in Scotland in 1778-229 years before abolition of the trade. This followed the case of James Knight, a slave who won his freedom when the Court of Session in Edinburgh ruled Scotland could not support slavery.
This important precedent didn’t mean all slaves were freed, but did mean no person in Scotland could beheld by law as a slave, which wasn’t the case in England.”

I hate to offend any proud Scots, especially as I’m half English, but the Somerset decision in 1772 outlawed slavery in England and thus predated the Edinburgh decision by six years. Nonetheless, as that would make Scotland the second country in the world to outlaw slavery, that is nothing to be ashamed of.

Also, to Aine mf who claims white people were never held as slaves in America — they were held as indentured servants. Given that you were legally owned by a master for seven or more years who could, among other things, flog you, indentured servitude was a state as damn near close to slavery as possible. As for white people being more likely to own slaves — that is wrong. There were always many more indentured servants than slave owners, the last of whom were never anything other than a small minority in America, even in the South.

I’d avoid books such as How the Irish Became White like the plague if I were you. Pure ethnic grievance mongering at the expense of genuine history.

Culloden Battlefield artifacts on display, white Scots were enslaved, sent to Britain and sold on the auction block. These were not indentured servants but slaves. Noted Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. confirmed this on Finding Your Roots.

to Finoula, There were plenty of bScots who were never pro-British. Much like Ireland, there were people who wanted to remain Catholic and separate while others wanted to jin the British. Many Scottish were forced and you can see how they were hung, quartered, beheded, raped, and tortured if you read the history. Before the British took over, Scots were Roman Catholic.

Before the Great Schism in 1052 when Catholics were excommunicated from the rest of Christendom, all of the British isles were either part of the Early Orthodox Church or pagans. There’ currently a small revival of people going back to the first Christian faith of Orthodox Christianity.

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