Landscapes and Lifescapes: Caribbean and Highland Connections

By: Nick Draper and Rachel Lang

On Friday June 19th and Saturday 20th, we attended the Landscapes and Lifescapes: Material Spaces and Stories of Connection between the Caribbean and the Scottish Highlands, 1700 to the present symposium at the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness.  Landscapes and Lifescapes, led by Karly Kehoe of Glasgow Caledonian and Chris Dalglish of Glasgow, is a collaborative project between more than a dozen academics, archivists, heritage workers and independent scholars in Scotland, focused in its current phase on the legacies of the Highlands’ engagement in colonial slavery (there is more about the project on its Facebook page).

Northern Infirmary plaqueAlthough Landscapes and Lifescapes – like the LBS project itself- is interested in both tangible and intangible legacies of slavery, our start-point was the physical landscape.  Friday was devoted to a walking tour of Inverness and visits to Cromarty and Kiltearn on the nearby Black Isle to explore some of the many sites associated with British colonial slavery. In Inverness these included the Northern Infirmary and the Inverness Royal Academy (both of whose initial subscribers included a significant proportion of slave-owners), the footbridges uniting the south-western part of the city funded by John Ross of Berbice, and town-houses built and owned by slave-owners.  Unusually, in the case of the Northern Infirmary the role of slave-wealth in its foundation has been recognised in a plaque at the main entrance. 

At Cromarty we saw the proto-factory established in the 1770s to process hemp from Russia and the Baltic into bags for use in the West Indies, and the harbour built to support that trade, as well as the houses of some major slave-owning mercantile families, including the Davidsons and the Grahams.  At Kiltearn we saw the church and remains of the manse of the Rainy family, the centre of a very significant network of Caribbean slave-owners. We were fortunate to be guided by David Alston, the historian and local Councillor, whose work on the connections between the Highlands and the slave-owners of Demerara, Essequibo and Berbice (now collectively Guyana) in South America, entitled Slaves and Highlanders, pioneered the kind of work now taken up by LBS and by Landscapes and Lifescapes.  

On Friday night, Nick had the honour of giving the keynote address for the symposium to a full house in a public lecture on ‘Scotland, the Scottish Highlands and the Legacies of British Slave-ownership’ (which used LBS’ work to provide a context for the consideration of the Highlands’ specific role in the colonial slave-economy) at the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness. The Centre, opened in 2009, is a purpose-built testimony to the importance attached by the national and regional government in Scotland to the heritage of the Highlands.

On Saturday there were 3 panels each of 3 presentations, which set out the conceptual basis of the Landscapes and Lifescapes project, presented case studies of Highland slave-owners, considered more discursive questions of the representation of slavery in and for the Highlands, and highlighted some very powerful manuscript material by and concerning regional slave-owners from the collection of the Highland Archive itself.

David Alston’s paper applied behavioural economics and nudge thinking to the question of why Scots emigrated to British Guiana in the later 18th and early 19th centuries. He stressed the high risk of failure and the prevalence of stereotypes and personal connections to explain why these emigrating Scots may have acted in a way which was likely to be against their best interests.

Stephen Mullen’s case study of John Lamont (1782-1850) charted Lamont’s rise to fortune and the ways in which his wealth was transmitted back to Scotland. Lamont built Benmore House near Dunoon in 1849 and his main beneficiary was his nephew [Sir] James Lamont (who is in the ODNB as an ‘Arctic yachtsman’). As an illegitimate son of local gentry in Argyll, Lamont’s changing relationship with his family was particularly interesting.

 Benmore House, Argyll

Michael Hopcroft presented his georeferenced maps of Berbice (1802) and Demerara (1798) with customised visualisations of the spread of Scottish planters and the development of Scots’ influence over time. He overlaid the map of Demerara on a modern google map to show the continued influence of old boundaries today.

Gains Murdoch used the Old Statistical Account of Scotland to examine the clergy’s attitudes towards colonisation and imperial fortunes. Often disapproving of luxury and suspicious of emigration, the voices of local clergy contrasted with the Scottish intelligentsia’s writings against slavery.

Harriet, 2nd Duchess of Sutherland (c) National Trust, Cliveden; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Annie Tindley compared the Scottish internal upheaval of the Highland Clearances with external campaigns for abolition. Her case study of Harriet, 2nd Duchess of Sutherland examined the ways in which the two debates were intertwined. Harriet was a prominent abolitionist who faced charges of hypocrisy for her family’s role in the Sutherland clearances. Amongst her most vocal critics was Karl Marx who described the Sutherlands as exploiting ‘wage slavery’ and who compared large scale land-ownership with other forms of ownership including the use of people as property.

 

 

A recurring theme of the symposium was how the past is with us in the present, a theme reflected in both Friday’s tour of the Highlands and Saturday’s historical papers. Karly Kehoe’s comments on the economic and cultural value of Scotland’s heritage and the social function of universities underscored the importance of public recognition and public ownership of the history of slavery even (and perhaps especially) in communities where that history conflicts with dominant extant narratives of the oppression and exploitation of those communities themselves.