by Parisa Urquhart

It goes without saying that Sir Tom Devine is a renowned academic whose views on significant episodes in Scotland’s history are often sought and valued.

So it made perfect sense for me to ask him to contribute his perspective on the controversy surrounding the Melville Monument for my documentary, Scotland, Slavery and Statues.

He had entered the debate about Henry Dundas and his role in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in July this year and I was satisfied the interview with him broadcast in the BBC Scotland documentary accurately represented his view.

Reading his criticism of the film in the pages of The Herald on Sunday last week was therefore a surprise and disappointment, to say the least. His comments may make punchy headlines but I don’t accept they add up to a reasonable critique of a film which began life six years ago when I first started to examine Scotland’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.

My aim was to create a documentary that brought to life a history that many did not know. As part of this journey I met Sir Geoff Palmer who had been discussing Henry Dundas in his slavery lectures.

Soon after, I encountered Adam Ramsay who had submitted a petition to the City of Edinburgh Council requesting the plaque of the Melville Monument be rewritten to incorporate more facts about Henry Dundas – particularly his impact on the abolition of the slave trade. After I mentioned Adam Ramsay’s petition to Geoff the two made contact and their journey began.

I knew at that time this would be an important story to observe and document. Four years on from the start of production, the documentary has succeeded in showing the twists and turns of what has become a much more complicated story that resonates far wider than Scotland’s Capital City. Talented filmmaker Murray Grigor once told me that to make quality documentaries you read all the books you can on the subject, become an expert on your interviewees’ subjects, and pose challenging questions.

That’s the advice I followed in making the film, and I completely refute Sir Tom Devine’s statement that it was “a miserable failure” in its attempt to illuminate and educate.

On the contrary, the inclusion of three highly-esteemed academics who have specialist knowledge in transatlantic slavery and the slave trade, particularly relating to Henry Dundas, ensured the content was accurate and enlightening.

Another important aspect of documentary production is authentically connecting with people from all sides of an argument and conveying not only facts but emotions.

This story became heated and complicated, and featured a lengthy list of protagonists. For me, it was vital to incorporate the voices of them all. Sir Tom dismissed it as a “Punch and Judy show of two warring factions of descendants and the Palmer camp”. That’s a reductive view of how the film covered the dispute.

On the one hand we heard from an established family, concerned with how to respond accurately to questions raised about their controversial ancestor who is in the spotlight. It was insightful for the viewers to understand the differing views that also existed within the Dundas family. On the other side is an esteemed British-Jamaican academic who is committed to trying to end racism in Scotland by acknowledging this country’s links to slavery.

Sir Tom asserts there is “claim, counter claim and unsubstantiated assertion” and “precious in the way of explanatory power”. Again, this is wide of the mark. It’s true there were impassioned views from some contributors, but these featured alongside the expert observations of specialist academics such as Professor Diana Paton, Professor Melanie Newton and Dr Rachel Douglas.

Readers would expect me to stand up for the quality of my work, but they may also be interested to note that excellent feedback for the documentary has been coming in from other voices in the academic world.

Professor James Smith, vice-principal International of the University of Edinburgh, believes it was “an excellent documentary: well-balanced, giving a voice to all sides” and The Wilberforce Diaries Project team states “it’s a revealing study of contemporary disputes over racial slavery and public memory”.

Far from “muddying the waters”, Sir Tom, this documentary gives clarity.

Scotland, Slavery and Statues is on BBC iPlayer at

Parisa Urquhart is the producer and director of the BBC documentary Scotland, Slavery and Statues