SCOTLAND’S leading historian has fiercely criticised Edinburgh City Council for setting up a “kangaroo court” to alter the message underneath a statue of the controversial 18th-century politician Henry Dundas.

The wording of the plaque had long been targeted by campaigners, led by the scientist Sir Geoff Palmer, who claims that Dundas, the 1st Viscount Melville, was responsible for delaying the abolition of the slave trade by 15 years.

Professor Sir Tom Devine, who holds the Sir William Fraser Chair of Scottish History and Palaeography at Edinburgh University, says the new wording on the Dundas plaque is “bad history”. He also accuses the council of deliberate bias in the formation of a committee set up to alter the plaque.

READ MORE: Sir Tom Devine: Scapegoating of Henry Dundas on the issue of Scottish slavery is wrong - and BBC documentary was a miserable failure

The plaque now bears the following message: “In 2020, this was dedicated to the memory of more than half a million Africans whose enslavement was a consequence of Henry Dundas’s actions.”

In his exclusive analysis of the Dundas case for The Herald on Sunday, Devine says: “I believe these words are bad history and in future years will come back to haunt the city council.”

Pro-Dundas campaigners have always insisted that his gradualist approach to abolition was not crucial in its postponement for a generation. Devine argues: “The strategic, economic and political circumstances of the 1790s rather than the rule of any one individual were the influences of critical importance.”

The academic has also taken aim at the makers of a documentary on the case, Scotland, Slavery and Statues. which was broadcast on the BBC Scotland channel last Tuesday. He said he was interviewed for around 90 minutes but that the programme makers chose to broadcast only two minutes of this.

Devine added: “It came across as a kind of Punch and Judy show involving the two warring factions. If the aim was to educate and illuminate, the attempt was a miserable failure.”

Edinburgh City Council’s first advisory committee appointed to examine the Dundas case had pro- and anti-Dundas members and included one historian. After failing to reach a consensus the matter was considered closed until the advent of the Black Lives Matter earlier this year propelled it back into public consciousness.

READ MORE: Henry Dundas - Controversial legacy of Scotland's 'most powerful man'

Devine now says that a new committee, hastily assembled to re-examine the Dundas case, was deliberately “loaded” with anti-Dundas figures. “Those who think on this evidence that a kangaroo court had been assembled may not be far from the truth about this affair.”

The Dundas controversy pits two of the country’s best-known academic figures, who have shared common ground on the wider issue of Scotland’s role in the slave trade, against each other. Palmer was born and raised in Jamaica and taught at Heriot-Watt University. In 2005, he became Scotland’s first black professor.

In 2015, Devine edited a collection of essays, Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past, which examined the country’s role in the Caribbean slave trade.

A BBC Scotland spokesman said: ‘We reject criticism that the documentary Scotland, Slavery and Statues failed to educate and illuminate.

"On the contrary the programme was a robust, fair and accurate examination of the arguments surrounding the Melville Monument controversy.

"Produced over four years, the documentary featured a wealth of historical detail, illuminating the events of the past as well as featuring a range of contemporary perspectives. 

"The documentary included the contributions of esteemed academics who are specialists in transatlantic slavery and the slave trade, particularly relating to Henry Dundas, ensuring the content was accurate and enlightening. Far from ‘muddying the waters’, the documentary gives clarity on the situation so far by providing a diversity of expert and personal opinion.’

Scotland, Slavery and Statues is available on iPlayer: