SCOTS cannot blame the British Empire for its links to slavery, according to an academic, who says merchants were complicit and profiting from exploitation long before the Treaty of Union.

Professor David Worthington, head of the Centre for History at the University of Highlands and Islands, has been involved in researching Scotland’s involvement in the slave trade pre-1707.

He found evidence Scots were involved in several European markets in countries, including the Netherlands, that had links to South American plantations that recruited African and indigenous slaves.

While recent condemnation has focused on major cities and the statues of individuals who profited from colonialism, he says merchants from rural parts of Scotland, including the Highlands were also profiting from lucrative sugar plantations owned by slavers, decades before.

READ MORE: Plaques on Scotland's statues do not go far enough, says anti-racism group 

He said: “It’s fascinating to take it (slavery) back to the 1600s, which often people don’t do, and to see that these entanglements have deep roots.

“If we go back before the Anglo Scottish Union of 1707 – which is such a feature of our lives – I think people would often think Scottish involvement in the slave trade would be in connection with the British Empire, which is when Scots have the chance to be involved in the overseas empire.


“Of course Scotland had its own empire before 1707 with the Darien project [an unsuccessful attempt to gain wealth and influence by establishing New Caledonia, a colony on the Isthmus of Panama, in the late 1690] but the involvement of people in Scotland in the slave trade was not actually dependant on the Union.”

“There were several overseas empires which were very happy to engage in slavery and that’s something that we have to consider.”

One of the main trade centres was a Dutch colony in Rotterdam, says Mr Worthington but records of Scots involved at that time are scare.

READ MORE: 'Without slavery Glasgow wouldn't exist': The brutal truth of Scotland's slaving past 

He said: “I think they (the merchants) were a bit more slippery. The numbers aren’t that great from the Highlands but they were exploiting the fact they were on the margins.”

In the period before the 18th century, Mr Worthington says Scots travelling abroad were more likely to go to a European country than North America, which led to imperial connections.

The key industries, pre 1707, were tobacco and sugar and it was not uncommon, he says, for Dutch merchants to trade sugar for horses, which were shipped to plantations in South America.

He said: “We think of the tobacco lords of Glasgow and rightly so because they have left a massive imprint on the city but the involvement of sugar in slavery tends not to get as much attention and that was happening very early.

“The whole system in the Highlands of importing sugar was distinct and I noticed when I was looking at the customs records for Inverness the majority of shipping and shipments were coming from Rotterdam.

READ MORE: Pheona Matovu: To abolish slavery in Scotland we need to address the structures that perpetuate it

“That made me think, where were they coming from to get to Rotterdam because obviously the Dutch weren’t growing sugar cane.

“The Dutch were expanding their colonial enterprise in the 17th century and led me to think about the major sugar producing plantation in the Dutch colonies at that time, which was Suriname. I saw a map from 1667 and there were Scots names on 
the plantation.
“There were two names that look like Dutch versions of Highland names – Magalfin and Macferson.”


(Map courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University)

Mr Worthington’s research led him to Henry MacIntosh, who came from Borlum, on the shores of Loch Ness and was one of the biggest sugar planters from the Highlands.

He said: “In 1674 he acquired a plantation with a man called William Pringle in Dutch Suriname.

“They had 30 slaves, but within 10 years the number of slaves had gone up to 73. "They were mostly African but a small number were indigenous.”

Mr WorthingtonDavid wanted to find out how common sugar was in the Highlands at this time and says its use was more widespread than he had anticipated.

He said: “I found that a lot of sugar was coming into the highlands at this time. In the lowlands it was sent to sugar refineries, there were three on the Clyde and one in Leith.

“In the highlands it was just being taken direct from the Netherlands.

“It was certainly coming into places like Glasgow and Leith in large quantities too.

“We often think of the diet as being very basic in the highlands and that was probably the case but there are even references to sugar in the Western Isles at this time.

"Tea was becoming very fashionable and putting sugar in your tea was something that was marketed.

“It was a prized commodity and there was a lot of crime around it.

“There was a case of a guy being put to death in Inverness for stealing sugar. They were importing these liquorice products and sugar candy and bizarrely named confections.”

After the Treaty of Union, Scotland began to import its sugar from the British Empire., from areas including Barbados and the West Indies.

“Sugar has seeped across the whole of Northern Europe by 1700, it’s a part of peoples’ diet and that’s quite sinister in a way. You couldn’t describe it as addictive but it’s very hard to stop once you start.”

Mr Worthington said he hopes to travel to Suriname to fill in the gaps of his research – crucially, the voices of the workers who were exploited to satisfy the palates of sweet-toothed Scots.

He said: “One of the things that disturbs me about doing this is that I don’t have the perspective of the slaves.

“I have not been to Suriname but I really want to and it’s terrible that we don’t have the perspective of those people who were exploited by these individuals.

"People in Scotland were complicit in this. They weren’t forced into it and they weren’t just victims of the Empire.”