When Scots enslaved fellow Scots

When Scots enslaved fellow Scots

by Alan Sked
article from Monday 31, August, 2020

LAST YEAR saw a number of developments highlighting an apparent renewed interest in history among my fellow Scots. I stress apparent because what was really revealed was the realisation by Scottish political leaders that history can be used as propaganda. This was seen at its most blatant perhaps in the publication of the quango Education Scotland’s Timeline of Scottish History, supposedly a new resource for schoolteachers to help pupils develop their ‘political literacy’.  

Beginning with Edward I’s invasion of Scotland in 1296 and the execution of William Wallace in 1305, it takes in the Declaration of Arbroath with its famous statement that ‘We will in no least way submit to English domination’ and declares a majority of Scots were unhappy with the Treaty of Union of 1707. Unsurprisingly it gives ample space to the history of the SNP, including the party’s founding in 1932, along with the election of its first MP and Alex Salmond’s governments in 2007 and 2011. Labour gets scant mention while the Tories are only referenced with regard to Margaret Thatcher.  

Curiously, both world wars, in which the Scots fought alongside their fellow troops from across Britain are not even mentioned, while the 2014 referendum in which Scots voted decisively to remain in the Union is given only a single line. The Chairman for Real Education in Scotland, Chris McGovern, condemned the document as “a biased Braveheart version of history that seeks only to portray Scotland as a victim of English oppression.” It would he said be more at home in a totalitarian state. 

The Timeline, however, is part of ‘You decide – a political literacy resource’ which is produced by an SNP government quango. A government spokesman defended it, however,  saying ‘history was key’ in schools, especially no doubt when it is written as a line running from William Wallace to Nicola Sturgeon. 

The SNP’s interest in history has also been displayed in its newly discovered concern with Scotland’s part in the slave trade. Perhaps this was fostered by the decision of Glasgow University earlier in the year to give £30 million to the University of the West Indies as compensation for the funds it had received in earlier centuries from Scottish merchants who had been active in the trade? One result of this action however was to make the publicity-conscious SNP in Glasgow aware how much media coverage might be secured from such woke activity. As a result an academic has been tasked to discover how many people, streets and buildings in Glasgow can be linked to the wealth extracted by the city’s sugar and tobacco trade in Africa, the West Indies and the Caribbean. 

That legacy can indeed be seen in some of the city’s most recognisable thoroughfares according to Auslan Cramb, the Scottish correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, in streets like St. Vincent Street, Buchanan Street, and Ingram Street.  Indeed, he lists whole areas associated with slavery that could come under scrutiny, such as Kingston, Plantation, Tradeston, and the Merchant City. Another proposal suggests the Gallery of Modern Art – built in 1778 by the tobacco lord, William Cunninghame – could be turned into a slavery museum. (Professor Sir Geoff Palmer, Scotland’s first black professor, backs the idea of the gallery becoming a museum of Scottish history.)  

Even the City Chambers may not be spared if Glasgow’s SNP leader, Susan Aitken, is to be believed. Rejecting the idea that slavery had now become an SNP obsession, she said: “so much of what we treasure in the city is actually founded in one of the greatest crimes against humanity ever committed.” Glasgow needed to know how much of its wealth was based on the slave economy and would draw a line under its past by ensuring there was no continued use of names associated with the slave trade. She seems to believe that changing street names will change history or change attitudes. Good luck with that. I suspect we will simply get Sturgeon Street instead of St. Vincent Street. Maybe even St. Nicola Street?  

The irony of all this is that in any new Museum of Scottish History, there will be no space for the memory of those Scots who were enslaved in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by their fellow Scots. This subject is unknown to modern Scots who remain blissfully unaware of this rather amazing part of their history. Standard works on Scottish history fail to mention it yet during the seventeenth and eighteenth century most Scots were liable to be enslaved, with the enthusiastic approval of Scotland’s respectable and educated classes. 

Some of these slaves survived to give evidence to the Children’s Employment Commission in 1842 and in the Appendix to its first report on mines, can be found the testimony, particularly of those employed as colliers by the Laird of Prestongrange. It transpired that they were ‘liable to be let or sold with their owner’s colliery, unable to stir from it without his written license and capable of being recovered by him from any employment to which they had deserted, even from the Royal Navy if they had enlisted in that service, how for faults real and supposed they could be imprisoned by him without any reason being given, or chained to a wall with an iron collar or fastened to the gin with their face to the horse and their hands tied behind them and forced to run backwards all day in that position, and how people of that class were so despised and detested by the neighbours among whom they dwelt that they were not suffered – in Fife at least – to be buried beside the free in consecrated ground.’  

This slavery which was imposed particularly on coalmines and saltpans was the result of the social legislation of the period immediately after the Scottish Reformation (The First Book of Discipline prepared by John Knox and adopted by the Kirk included the principle ‘beggars must be compelled to work’.). That legislation – passed by statutes in 1597,1606, 1607, 1621, 1641, 1644, 1661, 1672 and reinforced by proclamation in 1693 – contained two remarkable series of enactments: the first deprived all the hired labourers of Scotland, section after section, of the right of free movement to better their conditions; the second made all the unhired – not merely beggars or gypsies – but also the inoffensive unemployed, those merely temporarily out of service, liable to be cast into perpetual or prolonged slavery to such private employers who were pleased to have them and conferred successively on all employers of almost every class the power of apprehending such idle persons and keeping them thereafter in compulsory servitude either for life or for a considerable time.  

Slavery to a private owner was the Scotch Poor Law remedy for the able bodied. Orphans and the children of the poor in 1617 were made liable to slavery till the age of thirty. If possible these laws would have enslaved the whole industrial population of Scotland if only they had been enforceable. The trouble was that not all employers wanted or needed such unruly and expensive slaves. But the Scottish mind thought for two centuries that slavery was the answer to vagabondage and to the encouragement of industry. Thus that great Scottish scholar and patriot, Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, a noble champion of liberty whose works were read in France and the colonies, after estimating in 1698 that 200,000 beggars were wandering wild over Scotland, wrote in his Second Discourse Concerning the Affairs of Scotland that the rest of the population should be compelled to take their right proportion (depending on their wealth) of these beggars as slaves. So he added compulsory slave-owning to compulsory slavery. Yet according to one modern scholar (Michael Lynch), “the unusual purity of his motives in an age of corrupt self-seeking has also kept his memory green.” Another scholar (W. Hamish Fraser) has written that “in many ways he anticipated the Enlightenment.” 

Indeed, the Scottish Enlightenment had no objection to the enslavement of poor Scots and Scottish social reformers long persisted in their belief in slavery. Francis Hutcheson, for example in his System of Moral Philosophy (vol. 2, p. 201) wrote “no law could be more effectual to promote a general industry and restrain sloth and idleness in the lower conditions than making perpetual slavery of this sort the ordinary punishment of such idle vagrants as, after proper admonition and a temporary servitude, cannot be engaged to support themselves and their families by any useful labour .” He, note, was a moderate. Slavery would only be imposed if a seven year period of servitude had not proved sufficient to reform such delinquents. Criminals and debtors however deserved slavery. Indeed, enslaved criminals commonly had brass, copper or iron collars put around their necks.  

Hutcheson came from a family of Ulster Scots and his father and grandfather were Presbyterian ministers (unlike their French equivalents, the main figures of the Scottish Enlightenment were mostly Calvinists and often ministers of the Kirk). Both Hume and Smith were indebted to him and Smith himself referred to him as “the never to be forgotten Hutcheson” and in discussing systems emphasising the moral motive of benevolence, he affirmed that “of all the patrons of this system, ancient or modern, the late Dr Hutcheson was undoubtedly beyond all comparison the most acute, the most distinct, the most philosophical and what is of the greatest consequence of all, the soberest and the most judicious.” William Robert Scott in his 1900 biography of Hutcheson described him as “the prototype of the Scottish Enlightenment.” Nor were Fletcher and Hutcheson unusual in their attitudes to slavery in Scotland. Viscount Stair, whose ‘Institutions of the Laws of Scotland’, first published in 1681, made him a forerunner of the Enlightenment and his book was regarded as a work of genius. It not merely systematised and rationalised the whole of Scottish private law but placed it within a wider European context. Stair was influenced by the natural school of law, exemplified by the ideas of equity and natural justice. “Equity is the body of the law,” he said, “and the statutes of men are but  as ornaments  and vestiture thereof.” However, he too justified slavery in Scotland. In the words of one late nineteenth century commentator: ‘Coalowners cannot work their mines without hewers and winders, and (if we may be permitted to supply an unexpressed premiss) the country cannot get fuel if the mines are not worked; therefore hewers and winders being necessary servants must be enslaved. That is the doctrine of necessary labour laid down by Lord Stair in his ‘Institutes’ as the justification of the special slavery of colliers in Scotland, and it is manifest that it would justify the slavery of every other class of useful and productive labourers as well. 

It should be pointed out that this slavery was not serfdom. Feudal serfs were born into serfdom. And serfdom was abolished in Scotland at the latest by the end of the fifteenth century. No, this slavery was imposed by respectable God-fearing Scots on the idle in a series of Acts from the start of the seventeenth century which extended the system further and further. An Act of Charles II of 1649 for example gave every British subject the right to capture a tramp in Scotland and keep him as his slave or sell him on to another master. One commentator writing on the subject in 1899 declared: “It is impossible to read this remarkable law in any other sense than as establishing a slave trade in Scottish vagabonds and throwing it open to the whole inhabitants of the empire. The slavery allowed was unlimited in duration.” 

Nor was it less cruel than slavery elsewhere. Here is an extract from c100 of an Act of 1641: “That all masterfull and strong beggars found after the twentieth day of August next may be taken by any man and being brought to any sherif, bailye or regalite or burgh, and getting them declairet masterfull beggars, may set his burning irne upon thame as slaves and gif any of thame after escape the owner may have repitition of thame as of other gudes.’  The slavery contemplated was manifestly perpetual and the Act was one to which thirteen Protestant prelates were privy.” 

By the mid-seventeenth century therefore Scottish employers were in a position if they wanted to, to staff their works with slave labour, although the actual number of people enslaved is unknown since research into this topic is practically non-existent. Clearly many thrifty manufacturers and others would have hesitated to take on the commitment of feeding and clothing healthy young men for life.   

The system ended less due to enlightenment than the onset of the Industrial Revolution which created its own huge demand for free labour. And free labour wanted nothing to do with slavery in the mines. So, paradoxically, it was Scottish coalmasters led by the Earl of Abercorn who drew up an Emancipation Bill which passed in 1775 without any public agitation or parliamentary opposition. The Act freed all collier slaves in stages. Theoretically they would all be emancipated by 1 July 1778. However, another Act was needed in 1799 to free remaining slaves whose debts had kept them in bondage. 

What then are the implications of this story for the woke inhabitants of modern Scotland? Slavery, it should be remembered, was universal and considered perfectly natural everywhere till the end of the eighteenth century. African slaves were enslaved by fellow Africans before being sold to white traders. The Arab slave trade in Africa was just as big. Meanwhile respectable Scots were enslaving their own unemployed and vagrants, orphans and the children of the poor. There was a law establishing poorhouses but it mostly remained a dead letter. Scotland persisted in having a different system from England where Elizabeth I had freed the last ‘crown serfs’ in 1574 with the justification that in the beginning Almighty God had “made all men free”. Although the principle of slavery for two years had been introduced by statute in 1547 it was repealed in 1549 as too extreme for the English mind. The Scottish respectable classes, however, remained fixated on slavery. 

I think this story needs telling. Perhaps a monument should be erected? A museum founded? But would the SNP be interested? In any case Scots should know their own history before becoming too obsessed with the history of others. And as for priding themselves on their unique sense of democracy? Forget it. Like everybody else, they have ‘a great deal to live down.’ 

Alan Sked is Emeritus Professor of International History at the London School of Economics. 

 Photo of Oil painting of Francis Hutcheson courtesy of The Hunterian, University of Glasgow. 

ThinkScotland exists thanks to readers' support - please donate in any currency and often


Follow us on Facebook and Twitter & like and share this article
To comment on this article please go to our facebook page