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Shame of the Highlands's slavery connections revealed in new documentary

By Calum MacLeod

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Reporter Ruairidh MacIver at Glenfinnan Monument.
Reporter Ruairidh MacIver at Glenfinnan Monument.

A new documentary examining the stories of Highlanders who profited from slavery will draw on two decades of research from a Black Isle historian.

Historian and author Dr David Alston from Cromarty is among the contributors to the first of a new series of BBC Alba’s European current affairs programme Eòrpa looking at how the history and legacy of slavery should be marked in the Highlands in the light of the recent Black Lives Matter movement.

Reporter Ruairidh MacIver speaks to campaigners, historians and to public bodies who seek to re-assess the Highlands’ place in this history.

Dr David Alston's 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 what is now Guyana, 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.”

Historian and author David Alston has been carrying out research into the Highlands' links with slavery for two decades.
Historian and author David Alston has been carrying out research into the Highlands' links with slavery for two decades.

Dr Alston added that there was a strong interest in the region in opposing the abolition of slavery, and not only from those with a financial interest in the plantations. Scottish salt herring was shipped to the Caribbean as a cheap protein for slaves and it was also the export market for the hemp bagging and rough linen cloth produced in the region.

"There were petitions from places like the Black Isle and Cromarty opposing the abolition of slavery because there was a direct financial interest here,” he said.

However, the programme also reveals a more positive Black Isle connection from local singer Eilidh Mackenzie, who is originally from the Isle of Lewis, and has composed a song telling the story of Caribbean-born Eliza Junor, who lived much of her life as a free woman in Fortrose.

Also taking part in the programme is Inverness Black Lives Matter campaigner Jack Shehata, who has a mixed race/Islamic background, and Dr Iain Mackinnon from Coventry University, who will discuss research conducted with Glasgow University's Dr Andrew Mackillop into Scotland's links with slavery. This revealed that over one million acres of land, around one in every three acres, purchased in the West Highlands and islands from the 18th century to early 20th century was paid for with funds derived from slavery.

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

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