Why Scotland airbrushes out parts of its history – Brian Wilson

“We never heard about that in school” is the most damning comment on how history is taught, writes Brian Wilson.

Saturday, 20th April 2019, 7:00 am
Compensation paid to slave owners for the abolition of slavery made some Scots rich (Picture: Camilla Svolgaard/iStock/Getty)

Fourteenth-century battles between competing French nobles and our benign contributions to civilisation make up Scotland’s story, do they not?

This week, the Guardian published an edited version of vital research by Yvonne Singh, who is of Guyanese parentage. As she noted, most Scots would struggle to place Guyana on the map – it is in Latin America, just down from Venezuela – but we can now pay belated attention.

Scots and particularly Highlanders led the slave trade in Guyana – as reflected in place names like Fortrose, Kintyre, Kintail ... It was vastly profitable while it lasted and more so when it ended. Legislation in 1833 to compensate owners for abolition awarded Guyanese slaves a higher value than West Indies ones. The Highlanders cashed in.

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Exploring Glasgow's links to the 18th century slave trade

One example was the Baillies of Dochfour who used the money to buy even more land in the Highlands. Subsequently, a Baillie married into beer money and they became the Lords Burton. But the root of the wealth that acquired land from Easter Ross to Glenelg – still held today – was slavery.

Yvonne Singh wrote of her anger about Scotland’s “airbrushing” of all this, which we can help remedy.

Another lesson can also usefully be applied. It is that the foundations of Scotland’s landowning system are immoral and corrupt to the core, as well as anti-democratic and wildly inefficient.

They didn’t teach us that in school either and nothing much has changed. The most effective acknowledgement of history’s evils lies in having the political courage to challenge their legacies.

And that is where the failure remains.