Review: SLAVES AND HIGHLANDERS; Silenced Histories of Scotland and the Caribbean, by David Alston, Edinburgh University Press

Published October 2021

This is a proof copy. The final printed version may well have a different cover.

This is one of those books which leaves the reader thinking. It raises many questions, mostly about slavery and the British – which yes, means Scottish and English – responsibility for slavery, as well as the French, Dutch and other European nations who ran slave plantations. But this is much more. It is thought-provoking, and I make no apology for this rather lengthy review. This book really does deserve serious consideration and I only hope I can do it justice.

It is not a huge book. My version (a pre-publication proof copy without Foreword or Index) weighs in at a reasonable three hundred and sixty five pages, of which three hundred and twenty four are text, the rest notes. The main thing about it is, it is written by a master. The sentences flow and it is astonishingly easy to read and absorb for such a difficult subject.

I have often mentioned that I usually prefer to pick up a book by a dead historian than a modern one. Why? For the simple reason that people like Hoskyns and Finberg knew how to tell stories. Their books were not dry history, they were wonderful stories that took the reader back into a different time. They were above all dedicated to inspiring and enthusing others. Historians in the past knew that they had to fascinate readers. Modern writers all too often write quick history to prove that they are worthwhile to the university. If they don’t publish enough, they may find their funding reduced – or removed. And there are too many historians who are in reality agitators for one or other political theory, and will twist and distort the truth in order to promote their own views. It makes for tedious reading.

But there are exceptions to this rule: Ian Mortimer and Geoffrey Marsh, for example. Now I have to add David Alston to my growing list of authors I not only rather like reading, but whose work is genuinely gripping.

I will take the first couple of paragraphs from this book to demonstrate what I mean:

“Only a few minutes’ walk from my home in the small community of Cromarty in the Scottish Highlands, a seventeen-year-old black student was stabbed during a brawl outside the local school. A recent immigrant from the Caribbean, he had been shunned by other students, and often carried a knife, which he had previously brandished in confrontations with older boys. This time his opponent – who was younger and claimed to have been hit first – retaliated drew his own knife, jinked to one side and stabbed the black teenager in the thigh.

“Both boys were from troubled backgrounds. The black student was probably an illegitimate child sent to Scotland for education, with no close family in a strange country. His white assailant, at the age of five, had lost his father in an accident at sea, the family had struggled financially, his two sisters had died …”

So far, a rather unremarkable story. Stabbings are all too common, after all. However:

“… I know you will not have seen it reported in the media. It happened two hundred years ago, in 1818.” 

I read that last sentence with real surprise. I was reading this while relaxed, and was assuming that the story presented was a modern tale. Alston goes on to say that “The white student was sixteen-year-old Hugh Miller, who after being thrown out of school started work as an apprentice stonemason but went on to be a leading figure in Scottish public like as a journalist, geologist, writer and churchman.” He was a church reformer who helped create the Free Church of Scotland. His history is well documented.

But who was the black victim? Why was he there in that small town – was he the only black student? Were there many? What would have led to him being uprooted from the Caribbean and dropped into Cromarty? These questions plagued Alston, and he began to research the boy’s life. In the late 1990s, when he set out on his investigation, “Scotland was confidently telling itself about its involvement – or lack of involvement – in the sordid business of slavery and the brutal regimes of slave-worked plantations in the Caribbean.”

From this beginning, Alston has become an expert on Scottish involvement in the slave trade, slave ownership and the slave-worked plantations in South America, the Caribbean and beyond. This book is a firm rejection of the revisionist history that pretends Scotland had little or nothing to do with slavery.

As he demonstrates, a quick look at the historiography shows that “major works in Scottish history at the time [the 1990s] were a catalogue of silence.” Michael Lynch’s Scotland: A New History (1991), The Open University and University of Dundee’s Modern Scottish History (1998), had no mention of slavery in their indexes. Thomas Devine’s The Scottish Nation (1999) and other books only mentioned slavery in so far as there was Scottish involvement in arguing for abolition. It makes it seem as if that there has been a determined effort to revise Scotland’s history – perhaps due to the independence movement, to try to emphasise a non-existent Scottish separateness, a kind of Scottish exceptionalism; that to be Scottish is to be kinder, nicer, more humanitarian. 

Why was history being rewritten in such a manner, to demonstrate that Scotland and the Scottish had nothing to do with slavery? Alston suspects an unconscious bias. He mentions the Museum of Scotland. Originally, according to Dr Sheila Watson, “the curators had expected that the collections would lead the story. However, during its planning stage the curators were told to make the collections fit the narrative – the story of the Scots people over time.” 

As a result the section on Scots in the British Empire implies a solely benign or positive influence. As Ian Jack said, “If a museum in England imitated the Edinburgh Museum’s treatment of Empire … there would be a lynch mob at the gates.”

All these quotes are from the first chapter, which works as an introduction to the book, setting out why Alston was so interested in this aspect of Scottish involvement in slavery and how historians have, for the most part, tried to ignore the more negative areas of Scotland’s past. To close on this, he quotes Professor Ewen Cameron’s proposal for a discussion of Scotland’s history, and the imaginative view that Scotland was a “colony” of England.

“Nor is the identification of Scotland as a downtrodden colony any longer confined to the margins of political debate …The distinguished historian Linda Colley – English-born but based at Princeton University in the USA – recently expressed her surprise at the number of Scots who believe Scotland’s relationship with England to be a colonial one … This is not only largely nonsensical as history, but offensive and insulting to many non-white, non-European peoples who did, in fact, find themselves oppressed or even dispossessed by the ‘British’ Empire.”

After this introduction, Alston goes on to look at specific areas. The first part of the book covers “The African Slave Trade, The English ‘Sugar Islands’ and Scots in the Expanding Empire” and demonstrates that the Scottish were involved in the trading of slaves around the Caribbean and the Americas. When the French ceded the islands of Grenada, Tobago, St Vincent and Dominica, there was a “disproportionately high number of Scots who seized the opportunities” available to them. He looks at the fortunes of several families, for example, the Frasers of Boblainy, who were not rich, but who became slave owners, and profited from the expulsion – Alston describes it as “ethnic cleansing” – of the indigenous peoples.

The second part looks at “Northern Scots in Guyana on the ‘Last Frontier’ of Empire”. These four chapters look at Demerara, Essequibo and Berbice, and Scottish involvement there. Again, when territories were taken by the British, Scottish slave owners, overseers and managers were quick to take advantage. Even when the British Empire had abolished slavery, these areas flourished because of their Scottish owners’ continued use of slavery.

The most shocking – and to me disturbing – element in this story is the question of how a very small white population managed to subdue much larger populations and hold them as slaves: deliberate terrorism. It was clearly due to “the centrality of terror in the operation of large-scale plantation slavery.” The fiscals’ and protectors’ records demonstrate this. As Alston notes, it was “Not simply fear of punishments – which included branding, nose slitting, gelding, whipping and pickling (rubbing salt into the wounds) – but spectacular displays of violence whose effects were believed to extend into the afterlife.” These included beheadings, bodies left dangling in chains for vultures to feed on.

Planters like Colin Macrae from Inverate explained the crucial importance of his engineer, a head boiler [for boiling his sugar cane] or his leading man, for without any one it would have been very difficult to control his up to three thousand slaves. His nephews Alexander and Farquhar Macrae later wrote manuals on management of plantations. This section, especially the chapter “Guyana – Voices of the Enslaved” makes for harrowing reading. 

The third part is “Entangled Histories – The Legacies of Slavery in the North of Scotland”. This is where Alston gets into the meat of Scottish involvement away from the managers, owners, overseers and others who worked at the coalface of the industry. This looks at the money made by Scottish investors and how it was spent: on improvements to agricultural land, manufacturing and even the fisheries, as well as finance and banking. However Alston develops this theme. “Control” and “accountability” were soon to be watchwords in Scottish business, and as concepts of modern accounting practices grew, “rooted in the rationalism of the Scottish Enlightenment”, Alston follows Thomas Devine’s The Scottish Clearances, in which he considers the dispossession of so many small farmers. The smaller farmers could not compete with the larger, and many were deprived of their livings. “The same educated and increasingly professional class of estate factors and surveyors … sought the control and accountability which was simultaneously being pursued, of necessity, on the plantations.” From this, he goes on to consider whether Scotland was “Colonial or Colonized?”

Finally, in the fourth part, “Reckonings”, he looks at a series of questions that we should all be considering. “How should we understand this history and how should we respond to it? What responsibilities do we have for the past? Should we apologise? Make reparations?”

More than that, he asks “what might be the particular responsibilities of historians?” to that, I am happy to answer that, so far as I am concerned, the key responsibility of all historians is to the truth.

This has been a lengthy review because I believe the history, the research conducted, and the questions raised about the rewriting of history and the “reckonings” from this period in Scottish history should be considered more widely. 

The subject matter is admirably clearly set out. The research is comprehensive and compelling. The multiple histories are fascinating and at times harrowing. But the writing is superb. David Alston has produced a very timely, extraordinarily easy book to read that I will be referring to regularly.

In case you need to ask – I’d say this is very highly recommended indeed.

5 Responses to “Review: SLAVES AND HIGHLANDERS; Silenced Histories of Scotland and the Caribbean, by David Alston, Edinburgh University Press”
  1. ThemisAthena says:

    I know you’re reluctant to read other authors’ works — at least when it comes to historical fiction and / or mysteries — but as it does look so very much on topic, I’m going to ask anyway: Did you happen to read James Robertson’s “Joseph Knight”? It’s essentially a novelized biography telling the story of one particular Guinean brought to Scotland via a plantation in Jamaica; apparently his case was the one that ended up with the Scottish courts ruling that Scots law would not uphold slavery. See for the bare-bones background — though I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the case were also mentioned in David Alston’s book.

    I have to admit I haven’t got around to Mr. Robertson’s novel myself yet, either, though I’ve wanted to read it ever since I read “And the Land Lay Still” a few years ago. (Too many other books getting in the way … we won’t mention whose were included there.) It definitely sounds like a topic that could use more public awareness.


    • Thanks for that, Themis – I haven’t read that book, no, but it’s one I’ll keep an eye open for. I don’t think Joseph Knight is mentioned in Slaves and Highlanders, but there are many others who are. It’s a serious, but very well-written and compelling work.

      Liked by 1 person

      • ThemisAthena says:

        It sounds like the two books might make for a good “tandem” to be read together — they seem to complement each other. I’ll add “Slaves and Highlanders” to my TBR with a cross reference to that effect.


  2. Do you know when this work will be published, Michael? It seems like a must read to me.


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