THE recent BBC2 mini series, Slavery: Scotland’s Hidden Shame, has stirred much interest and some controversy in social media and the Letters Pages of The Herald.

To a considerable extent the programmes were structured around the findings of the edited collection, Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past (Edinburgh University Press 2015), the first wide-ranging academic analysis to be published of Scotland’s connections to transatlantic slavery.

One of the points of contention raised by some viewers concerns the gains from slavery in the 18th and early 19th centuries and the extent to which they may or may not have percolated downwards beyond the ranks of the mercantile elites and plantation owners to the population in general. As the editor of Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past, I try in what follows to inform the debate by presenting the most recent research findings on this question.

One key point should be made at the start. Slave trading by ships which sailed directly from Scottish ports to West Africa with goods to exchange for slaves and thence on to the Americas with human cargoes was always a relatively limited activity and seems to have faded away completely after c.1740. On the other hand, émigré Scots merchants, sea captains, seamen and physicians did play a very significant role in the huge commerce in slaves emanating from Bristol, Liverpool and London.

The evidence also suggests that Scots were over-represented in the bureaucracies of slavery in the West Indies as governors, military officers, rank and file soldiers, owners of plantations, civil functionaries, managers, clerks and overseers. This was especially so in Jamaica, British Guyana, St Kitts, Nevis, Grenada, St Vincent and Tobago. It should be emphasised that these emigrants, whether permanent or temporary, were drawn from all classes in Scottish society. Slave ownership by Scots, whether resident in the colonies or at home, can be traced through the invaluable data gathered and analysed by researchers at the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project at University College, London (UCL).

At abolition the British Government provided the vast sum of £20 million (multiply by 80 for the approximate value today) in compensation to those who would lose their “property” in slaves. According to the UCL conclusions, Scottish absentee slave owners were more likely to be rewarded on a per capita basis than their counterparts elsewhere in the British Isles.

Those compensated came from the length and breadth of Scotland, from the Highlands to the Borders, and were not concentrated in Glasgow and the west which for many decades had the closest commercial connections across the Atlantic. Further, not only landed grandees and trading tycoons were compensated. Among the moneyed classes it was not uncommon in the early 19th century to own slaves as security for interest-bearing loans to colonial trading concerns.

Thus, widows, minors, annuitants, clerics, lawyers, professors, shopkeepers, tenant farmers and many others were eventually awarded lump sums as part of the compensation process after abolition. The social mix of the middle classes who profited from slavery was therefore both wide and deep. Slavery and slave ownership spread throughout Scottish finance and commerce before 1833 to an extant unequalled anywhere else in the UK outside the City of London.

But this was not all. Among the Scottish external trades of the period c.1760 to c.1830 three commodities were dominant at different periods. Before the outbreak of the American War of Independence, tobacco from Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina was king. In the early 1760s Glasgow and its outports imported more American leaf than London and all other English ports combined; exported mainly to European markets, tobacco made up more than half of all Scottish exports by value by the early 1770s.

After 1783 its hegemony was overtaken by trade to the Caribbean in sugar, rum, cotton and indigo. In return went manufactured goods, especially “slave cloth” from the mills of Scotland’s infant industrial revolution and the linen workers of the East of Scotland. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 three-fifths of all Scottish exports were bound for the West Indian islands.

Then there was cotton. It first came in ships from the Caribbean but that source was quickly superseded from the 1790s by the plantations of the southern USA which alone had the capacity to satisfy the gargantuan appetite of the many new factories for raw material to transform into cotton cloth, the manufacture of which became the leading sector of the Scottish industrial revolution.

These three enterprises all had one key feature in common: they could not have existed and then flourished without hard labour in the tobacco, sugar and cotton fields across the Atlantic by armies of black men, women and children bound for life in chattel slavery.

Furthermore, merchant profits from these trades did much to provide the capital for Scottish industrialism. The country was one of the poorest in western Europe before c.1750 but paradoxically it managed to fund not only new manufacturing development but also fast urban expansion on an unprecedented scale and a parallel transformation of agriculture and rural society.

How so? Fortunes made by some Scots in India were one source but the most crucial was capital flowing from American and Caribbean commerce based on slave labour.

These processes came together to establish the material basis for modernisation. Hence few Scots who lived in the 18th and early 19th centuries could have been immune from the direct or indirect impact of the slave-based economies on their lives whether or not they were active in the “nefarious trade” itself.

Those involved in slavery have long gone but their legacy lives on in country houses, university and school benefactions, church buildings, statues, civic institutions, museum collections and much more. For those who care to look, it is all around.

For those interested in finding out more see TM Devine’s Did Slavery Make Scotia Great? in TM Devine ed Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past (2015).

Sir Tom Devine is Sir William Fraser Professor Emeritus of Scottish History and Palaeography in the University of Edinburgh.