IT has been the academic clash of the titans, with allegations of racism, threats of legal action, calls for resignations and concerns that honest debate among scholars on delicate issues, would be stifled.

Now Edinburgh University has attempted to draw a line under the increasingly bitter dispute which saw leading Scottish historian and Emeritus Professor Sir Tom Devine, and a second professor accused of racism.

The row flared when Prof. Geoff Palmer, the chair of two separate reviews into the city of Edinburgh and the university’s role in the slave trade, took offence at comments surrounding the work. His claim that the two historian’s comments surrounding a key figure in the city’s history were mired in racism, sparked calls of defamation and warnings of legal action.

With Edinburgh University’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Mathieson in the firing line for failing to intervene, efforts have now been made to quash the dispute, with a firing shot sent over the bows of Scotland’s first black university professor.

In the latest instalment of an extraordinary dispute, Prof. Mathieson backed the work of the Review of Race and History group chaired by Prof. Palmer, who is Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University.

HeraldScotland: Professor Geoff PalmerProfessor Geoff Palmer

However, he added: “All debate, discussion and disagreement must be conducted in a respectful manner at all times, abiding by the law and under the auspices of the University’s Dignity and Respect Policy.

“I do not feel that has been the case with recent events and I have therefore spoken to the Chair of the Steering Group of the University’s Review, Sir Geoff Palmer, to clarify expectations under the University’s Dignity and Respect Policy.”

In an effort to calm suggestions that academic freedom was at risk of being stifled, he added: “We must ensure that evidence and opinion from a wide range of sources is taken into account, and that no-one is deterred from participating by any sense that their contributions might be different or contradictory to others, no matter how senior or experienced.

“It is in all of our interests for the Review to succeed in its important task.”

The statement followed days of bitter public squabbling played out on Twitter and which sparked questions over academic freedom to scrutinise the sins of our fathers.

On one side of the row is Prof Palmer, the Jamaican born child of the Windrush generation and respected academic specialising in grain science, brewing and distilling.

Having arrived in Britain as a teenager, he recalls being jostled as a child by Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts and warned by a senior academic not to include his photograph with job applications.

On the other side, is the academic heavyweight often referred to as “Scotland’s greatest living historian”, knighted for services to the study of Scottish history, Emeritus Professor Sir Tom Devine.

Cut to the bone after being branded ‘racist’ in tweets posted on Palmer’s Twitter account, he confirmed he had consulted his lawyer.

The unseemly dispute is rooted in deeply opposing views of how historic colonial misdeeds should be interpreted and then tackled through a modern – some argue increasingly ‘woke’ – lens.

And it has threatened to taint efforts by the city’s council and University of Edinburgh to shine a light on the capital’s colonial slavery shame.

Prof. Palmer, knighted for his services to human rights, science and charity and a former director of Edinburgh and Lothian Racial Equality Council, has spoken frankly in the past of his own experiences of racism.

They include being told by Margaret Thatcher’s intellectual mentor and Tory minister Sir Keith Joseph in 1964 to “go home and grow bananas”.

Appointed in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement to chair Edinburgh City Council review of statues, street names and buildings with potential links to slavery, he raised the issue of one of the city’s most prominent monuments, the huge New Town column celebrating Lord Melville, Henry Dundas.

Following his intervention, a plaque was placed by the statue denouncing Dundas’s role in deferring the abolition of the slave trade and in expanding the British Empire.

That move divided opinions, with some historians, including Prof. Devine, suggesting the 18th century figure’s role was more complex.

The debate echoed earlier opposing views surrounding Edinburgh University’s decision to rename its David Hume Tower over a racist footnote in one of the Enlightenment figure’s essays.

It sparked calls for Prof. Mathieson to step aside, amid suggestions he had allowed an “intolerant and illiberal” culture take over.

With that ticking in the background, the latest row exploded when professor of political and historical sociology at Edinburgh University, Jonathan Hearn, wrote an article in The Spectator.

“Connections to slavery and colonialism should be included on signs, guidebooks and other texts,” he argued. “But here is something strangely superficial about Edinburgh’s slavery project.”

On Twitter, Prof. Palmer branded the article, “prejudicial nonsense”, accused Hearn of being part of an “academic racist gang” and added: “This is not freedom of speech or academic freedom. This is a racist insult to justice and education and must stop.”

When Prof. Devine entered the fray to suggest Palmer resign from both council and university groups, arguing the roles require “qualities of impartiality, sensitive appreciation of different opinions and the capacity to encourage consensus and complex decisions”, he too was referred to as racist.

The row, slugged out in the vicious world of social media, involved a fourth academic, Edinburgh University professor of Africana philosophy Tommy Curry who declared support for Palmer and branded Hearn and Devine “white scholars”.

However, amid the name-calling has emerged concerns that differing academic opinions on sensitive matters of race, slavery and colonialism may be suppressed amid fears of being branded ‘racist’.

Speaking before Edinburgh University’s latest statement, Prof. Devine said: “The reason I entered this debate was because it raises a deep issue for scholars who are responsible for seeking the truth - in my case as historian using relevant and representative evidence.

“That’s my trade and I have a solemn commitment to doing that as professionally as I can.”

The risk now, he added, is scholars holding back from becoming involved in debates involving sensitive and controversial issues for fear of finding their own names tarnished.

“They are concerned about their own position and worried they are next in line.

“University is a place which, as long as you keep to certain standard of civility and don’t say anything of a criminal nature, should be a place of widespread interrogation of orthodoxy.”

Prof. Devine, who has written several books which highlight how Scotland benefited from the proceeds of slavery and colonial deeds, said he is also angered by Edinburgh City Council leader, SNP Councillor Adam McVey, who he said had “defended the indefensible” by supporting Prof. Palmer.

Meanwhile, Prof. Palmer, he added had “crossed the red line.”

Prof. Hearn has stood by his Spectator article, adding: “I have no ill-will towards either Prof. Palmer of Prof. Curry, and would be happy to engage in civil, face-to-face public discussions about our disagreements. “My main concern in this is that inquiries into public history need to be conducted in an open manner, with respect for diverse viewpoints.”

While he now has a reminder ringing in his ears from Edinburgh University’s Principal of its ‘dignity and respect’ policy, Prof. Palmer has not yet offered any form of apology to the two historians accused of racism.

Indeed, he has suggested he is a victim of “academic snobbery”, arguing historians are irked because he, with a scientific background specialising in brewing, distilling and grain, has been chosen to chair committees tackling historic issues.

“I have been called ‘a brewer’ not a historian,” he said prior to Professor Mathieson’s statement.

“While a brewer is a skill and important job, calling me a brewer is to say I’m not a historian. It is intended to be derogatory.”

He believes suggestions the nuances of the 18th century are too “complex” and the council group’s probe “strangely superficial” are personal attacks on his perceived ability to grasp historic detail.

Those and attempts to defend Dundas’s slavery role sparked his racism claim.

“I can see no justification or reason for them to treat me in that way. It was a personal attack asking not for dismantling of the committee, but for my removal,” he adds.

“This is about them making comments that affected my reputation and my credibility.”