FORMER Edinburgh University rector Iain Macwhirter rightly criticises those who, with a minimum of knowledge, seek to denigrate academics and scholars who don’t agree with them on such matters as the reputation of David Hume, or the imagined crimes of Henry Dundas ("Universities are debased by groundless claims of racism", The Herald, January 19).

These attacks come from the chairman of a body known as The Edinburgh Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review Group, the generally respected professor Sir Geoff Palmer. This clearly calls into question the purpose and legitimacy of an ad hoc body whose participants, other than Sir Geoff, are operating under the cloak of anonymity.

I was recently invited to send in a response to a long, rambling box-ticking public consultation survey from this secretive commissariat. It had all the hallmarks of one of those questionnaires which seek to pre-determine the desired response. Whatever authority this body has been granted by Edinburgh City Council or Edinburgh University, it should certainly not be entrusted with the power of life or death over the city’s monuments and memorials.

This is not to say the suitability of such things should not be reviewed from time to time. About 300 yards north of Dundas’s column, there is a bronze plaque to Marie Stopes, a proponent of eugenics who favoured contraception as a means of controlling the birth rate of the lower orders, and sent love poems to a man she particularly admired, Adolf Hitler. I imagine few, if any, would object if this was removed and scrapped, but presumably, since her defects do not fall under the heading of Slavery or Colonialism, it will be staying in place.

Questions inevitably arise as to whether, say, the removal of the statue of Dundas, a listed artefact, on the recommendation of this anonymous body would be lawful. Last year the suggestion that a plaque be fixed to his column to place his effigy in historic context seemed like a reasonable compromise; however those entrusted with the wording decided to distort history by omitting all reference to the fact that it was Dundas, as a young Lord Advocate, who successfully – and passionately – defended the former slave, Joseph Knight, and then went on to steer William Wilberforce’s abolition bill through the House of Commons.

Bearing in mind that Martin Luther King, in The Purpose of Education, wrote that we should resist allowing our minds "to become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda" it can reasonably be concluded that the plaque is a travesty.

It seems obvious that such manipulation of history, together with the recent savage attacks on members of our academic community, require the attentions of a Scottish Government inquiry led by qualified lawyers and historians who actually know what they are talking about.

David J Black, Edinburgh.


I WRITE in support of the excellent articles by Iain Macwhirter (noted above) and Stuart Waiton ("Statues row reveals our childlike politics", The Herald, January 19), both exposing the disturbing side to the current campaigns by the city of Edinburgh and the University of Edinburgh to publicly demonstrate the correctness of their racial credentials. The council’s Slavery and Colonialism Review Group is casting its net far and wide in an endeavour to identify anything and anybody associated with Edinburgh who can be linked in some way with slavery or to the British Empire. Even David Livingstone and the Royal Botanic Garden have been included as possible culprits by the Review. Furthermore, the treatment of David Hume on the part of the university has been shameful – as have been the actions of those who attack critics like Professor Sir Tom Devine by labelling them as "racist". I just wish the Review zealots would make sure that they get their historical facts right before they rush to criticism.

There can be no doubt that Henry Dundas was a scoundrel. He was heavy drinker, a womaniser and a man who shamelessly used his considerable powers of patronage to help his friends, particularly fellow Scots. However, to continue to place all of the blame on Dundas for the delay in the abolition of the slave trade is I think unfair and ignores the reality of the tumultuous years of the early 1790s. Those attacking Henry Dundas have to address the question as to how a slave-supporting Parliament at that time was ever going to vote for abolition. Britain was then at war with Revolutionary France and was faced with the real prospect of invasion. Furthermore, the British establishment was terrified that the success of the French Revolution might inspire similar uprisings in the UK. The country was in turmoil and it fell to Dundas to try to restore order at home and to meet the French threat.

Realistically in the 1790s there was very little chance for legislation to abolish slavery to succeed in Parliament. A previous attempt to pass a motion for abolition had been very heavily defeated. Dundas knew perfectly well that Parliament was packed with members who had strong vested interests in the slave trade. It would take years for the force of the moral argument against the vile trade to have any chance of success. During the debate in 1792 he proposed a gradual path to abolition stating that "my opinion has been always against the slave trade". Indeed it was Dundas who had taken on the case of the West Indian slave Joseph Knight in 1777 which successfully established that there was no slavery in Scotland. Dundas concluded his remarks in the Court of Session by stating: "Human nature, my Lords, spurns at the thought of slavery among any part of our species.”‬‬‬‬‬ So it is quite wrong to state that Dundas was fighting a rearguard action against abolition and that he alone was responsible for condemning some 42,000 Africans to the horrors of slavery.‬

Eric Melvin, Edinburgh.

* IAIN Macwhirter and Stuart Waiton are correct about the increasing adolescent attitudes in our universities, local authorities and society generally, particularly when luminaries such as Sir Tom Devine and Professor Johnathan Hearn are insulted as racists. It is akin to traducing JK Rowling for her common-sense response to the fatuous moves by officialdom to abandon a word used since time immemorial to describe a female person.

Mr Macwhirter might also have mentioned that Viscount Dundas, by postponing the slave trade’s abolition by 15 years until 1807, possibly ensured that the trade did not continue thereafter, for 15 years or much longer. The new explanatory plaque installed on the Dundas monument should include this point too. It is sad that an otherwise-eminent professor like Sir Geoff Palmer should tarnish his reputation by such insults and thus undermine the objectivity of his review into Edinburgh’s involvement in slavery.

Last March he ascribed a “racist element” to the medics’ reaction when his wife gave birth to their first-born in 1977. As he was not present, and the staff did not know he was Jamaican, they were understandably concerned that the baby’s colouring might indicate something medically wrong (just as my mother’s midwives in 1942 recognised something was wrong with me as a “blue baby” and called in a renowned Edinburgh paediatrician for advice and treatment).

He then linked this out of context with David Hume’s brief nuanced footnote about non-whites’ “inferiority”, said “this is the statement that killed George Floyd” (though whites die in similar circumstances) and led “to the incident that Meghan and Harry talk about” (about which he and we know almost nothing).

John Birkett, St Andrews.


MANY women's entitlement to a state pension has been systematically exploited by Westminster governments over the years. First we have the scandal of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) group, women born in the early 1950s who were not afforded the Government’s own rules of notice of an increase to their state pension age. Now we hear that women awarded a small state pension on their own right were ultimately eligible to claim 60 per cent of the basic state pension, based on their husband's contributions, something the women affected were not made aware of. This anomaly was highlighted as far back as during the Coalition Government's time in office (2010-2015) by the then Work and Pensions Secretary Steve Webb, yet only now do we hear any call for justice.

This is a scandal of monumental proportions because it affects well in excess of 100,000 women, many of whom have existed in poverty, with deteriorating health, unable to correctly look after themselves due to a lack of income. Many hundreds of hours of debate on the plight of the Waspi women have been heard in the House of Commons; there has been cross-party agreement for justice, yet the Westminster Government's exploitation of women and state pensions continues. Becoming a pensioner should be a good experience, an experience of "well done" after an average of 50 years of work, so it is quite galling to learn that the Government has been exploiting your entitlement to a state pension.

Catriona C Clark, Falkirk.