A LEADING professor has questioned the credibility of a report which has called for a dedicated site to address Scotland’s slave history saying its steering committee lacked a professional historian and that its chairman contravened the committee’s values.

Angela McCarthy, Professor of Scottish and Irish History and Director, at the University of Otago in New Zealand made the claims about the recent report and its chairman Sir Geoff Palmer.

Fellow professor, Sir Tom Devine echoed her concerns on how the report under Sir Geoff’s chairmanship could “possibly be accepted now as in any way credible.”

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Earlier this year Sir Geoff, an emeritus professor and chancellor of Heriot-Watt University, labelled Jonathan Hearn and Sir Tom, current and emeritus professors at Edinburgh University, members of “an academic racist gang” amid a disagreement over politician Henry Dundas in abolition.

Recommendations were made last week following a report by the Empire, Slavery and Scotland’s Museums Steering Group, which had been sponsored by the Scottish Government, and included calling for a dedicated space to address Scotland’s role in empire, colonialism, and historic slavery should be created and led by a new organisation as well as tackling racism.

HeraldScotland: Professor Angela McCarthy has questioned the report's credibilityProfessor Angela McCarthy has questioned the report's credibility
It made several recommendations on how existing and future museum collections and spaces can better recognise the country’s slave trade links but also as part of a national commitment to anti-racism.

The steering group’s chairman Sir Geoff, who became the first black professor in Scotland in 1989, said there may be challenging and uncomfortable work ahead, but will be worth it to ensure that museums and galleries are for all of Scotland’s people.

However, Professor McCarthy claimed there was no professional historian on the group.

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Professor McCarthy said: “It is surely incumbent on the group and the new organisation that some professional historians with relevant expertise should be at the heart of future planning and decisions.

"Indeed, the fact that no professional historian sits on the current group invites serious questions over its credibility.

“That knowledgeable and respected professional historians must be closely involved is critical since the manifesto rightly proclaims that museums need to tell more complex, nuanced narratives, critique false narratives and be open to debates and gaps in historical knowledge.”

Professor McCarthy drew on what she described as the unfortunate experience in Scotland that leaving such matters in the hands of ‘activists’, politically motivated individuals and others with no formal historical training or research experience in the field has had disastrous results.

She was referring to the debate around Dundas - some argue that he helped in the ending of the slave trade. However, Dundas argued for a gradual end to the trade, which could have happened 15 years before the passing of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 had it not been for his intervention.

She added: “The grossly inaccurate wording on the new Dundas plaque in Edinburgh, which has generated such bitter controversy, is convincing testimony to that fact.

"The Terms of Reference for the steering group also place emphasis on respect and expertise among other values. How can it be then that the chair of the current steering committee is an individual who totally contravened these values when he branded two leading scholars at the University of Edinburgh, Professors Tom Devine and Jonathan Hearn, as ‘racists’ simply because they dared to have the sheer temerity to disagree with his own distorted views?

"This does not bode well for the future of the enterprise.”

HeraldScotland: Sir Geoff Palmer, left and Sir Tom Devine clashed over views earlier this yearSir Geoff Palmer, left and Sir Tom Devine clashed over views earlier this year
Historian Sir Tom said Professor McCarthy was very well placed to comment, adding “as she is the author of the acclaimed recent articles in the academic journal Scottish Affairs which have conclusively exposed the notorious wording of the Dundas plaque in Edinburgh as entirely erroneous and nothing other than bad history.

“The chair of the current steering group to whom she refers in her comments was also a key figure in the flawed and biased initiative which led to those serious historical misrepresentations in the public text of the plaque.

"How therefore can this report under his chairmanship possibly be accepted now as in any way credible?"

A spokeswoman for the Empire, Slavery and Scotland’s Museums Project said: “The Steering Group that produced the Empire, Slavery and Scotland’s Museums Recommendations report has been supported by a wide range of advisors and specialists in relevant related fields including historians, academics, curators, researchers and equalities experts.

"As well as professional expertise the project has highlighted the perspectives of those with lived experience of racism and being racialised.

“The report recommends the initial composition of a transitionary board to be the current Empire, Slavery and Scotland’s Museums Steering Group to keep momentum and states that the group widens the membership to include relevant additional expertise for the next stage.”