Dr Stephen Mullen is one of the country’s leading authorities on Scotland and slavery. Here he cuts through the hysteria and lies to tell our Writer at Large exactly what the truth is, and why historical fact is so highly contested in a divided nation

IN the culture war that rages around Scottish history today, Dr Stephen Mullen stands in no man’s land. After all, many seem incapable of impartiality and honesty when it comes to the past.

The lives of our ancestors and their actions are bent out of shape to fit the political obsessions of today. Scottish history is rarely free from the influence of either unionism or nationalism.

Mullen walks through the flak and fire with his eyes set on one goal: uncovering historic truth evidenced by fact. As one of the nation’s leading authorities on Scotland and slavery, he’s deadly serious about his professional duty when it comes to truth-telling.

So if you want to understand Scotland’s fiercely contested legacy of slavery, there’s really no other expert to ask.

In his office at Glasgow University’s history department, Mullen starts as he means to go on. Scotland, he says “has very deep and profound connections with the British empire”. That fact should be “uncontroversial”.

“Atlantic slavery in general, and Caribbean slavery in particular, is one of the major determinants in the development of modern Scotland. It underpinned Scotland’s industrial revolution,” he says.


Dr Stephen Mullen



Until around the year 2000, “very few historians” wrote about Scotland’s role in slavery. However, “in a remarkably short period – just two decades – we’ve seen consensus among historians that Atlantic slavery’s influence was absolutely profound in the development of the modern nation”.

Mullen explains that Sir Tom Devine, Scotland’s best-known historian, was criticised for the limited mention of “enslaved people” in his book The Tobacco Lords, written in 1975. It studied the role of Glasgow’s 18th-century transatlantic tobacco trade. Devine, he adds, “apologised – mea culpa, mea maxima culpa – for not centring slavery in the book”.

The apology was followed by Devine’s work “Did Slavery Make Scotia Great?”. This was part of the “dramatic transformation” in how Scottish historians viewed slavery. Devine “was instrumental in that. It provided the broad overview for historians to follow, including myself”.

This academic key change began “percolating into public consciousness”.

However, there remains a stubborn contingent within British unionism and Scottish nationalism who simply won’t accept the unvarnished truth about the nation’s past and its role in empire and slavery. Put crudely, some unionists see empire as wholly good while some nationalists see Scotland as a victim of empire rather than willing junior partner.


MULLEN says the unionist position could also be called “the British nationalist position – a jingoistic, glorification of the British empire that seeks to minimise what it entailed”.

He adds: “There’s also a tendency in British society – and I’m talking about museums and teaching in schools – to prioritise Britain as benevolent, prioritising that Britain was behind abolition of the slave trade in 1807 or behind the emancipation of plantation slaves in 1834. We seem to forget the two centuries that went before.”

Black Lives Matter changed the discussion, he says, but now “there’s a Culture War”. Conservative MPs, Mullen adds, now call for de-funding projects, like one by England’s National Trust uncovering the history of slavery. Debate has become “heavily politicised”, with claims made including: “Why should academics be writing about slavery connections? Why are they attacking dear Great Britain and country houses?”

Mullen believes “the Culture War is slightly less in Scotland. It’s much more powerful in England, and that’s obviously to do with the influence of Conservative politicians”.

Much of Scotland’s culture war around slavery centres on “fringe nationalist trolls” online. “There are two elements,” Mullen says, to their campaign. “Firstly, they say ‘Scotland was a colony of England’. That’s clearly about not just minimising Scotland’s role, but making Scots victims rather than perpetrators. Some go as far as saying ‘Scots were slaves’.”


Claims that Scottish-indentured servants were slaves is a “myth”, he says. Scots did “suffer”, Mullen explains, in events like the Highland clearances. But then there are people taking that a stage further and saying “Scots were victims of English imperialism”. He adds: “We were enslaved too. That’s wrong. Scotland wasn’t a colony of England. No serious historian sees the union as Scotland being colonised. It was a voluntary process by the standards of democracy at the time. Scots were never slaves.”

Indentured servants – like Jacobites transported to “the colonies” and forced to work for periods of usually three to seven years – weren’t chattel slaves. Chattel slavery was permanent and hereditary.

“Chattel slaves were treated as subhuman property. Indentured servants always had legal personhood. No white person who reaches the colonies at any time is ever regarded as legally owned. Even forced exiles like Covenanters or Jacobites were always seen as people. The servitude period also ended.”

Claims that Scots were slaves “is clearly an ideological issue. People want to see themselves as victims, it aligns with their political beliefs”.


MULLEN has explored the attitudes of SNP politicians to slavery. In his work “Scotland, Atlantic Slavery And The Scottish National Party: From Colonised To Coloniser In The political imagination”, he and co-author Ewan Gibbs noted that in 2019, SNP MSP Kenneth Gibson “queried the purpose and cost” of a Historic Environment Scotland study into Atlantic slavery.


Kenny Gibson MSP

Kenny Gibson MSP


When Gibson was told the purpose was to improve “awareness”, he replied: “The same could be said about the people who were cleared from the Highlands … we need to look at Scotland’s history in the round.”

Mullen and Gibbs noted: “It appears this call was primarily driven to ensure narratives that depicted Scots as enslavers were balanced by others that portray Scots in a sympathetic light.”

They wrote that SNP MSP Stuart McMillan “responded to a motion” calling for a national museum highlighting Scotland’s role in the slave trade and colonialism by referencing “other parts of Scotland’s negative history”. McMillan “called for the ‘stories of the Highland clearances’ … to be incorporated in any eventual museum”.

Mullen and Gibbs said Highland “experiences of oppression are now invoked in efforts to balance Scotland’s colonial past”.

However, there’s also been “a major shift from the view of Scotland as ‘colonised’ by England that predominated within the SNP”.

Mullen and Gibbs said: “Dominant nationalist perspectives on Scotland’s historical position with regards to colonialism have evolved remarkably. Where once it was widely argued that Scotland was itself an internal colony, there is now growing acceptance that the nation was an imperial core more disproportionately shaped by Atlantic slavery than other parts of Britain.”

Nevertheless, the paper added: “Within the SNP, there evidently remain reservations about fully accepting the implications of Scotland’s development through Atlantic slavery. Parliamentarians have rhetorically isolated the beneficiaries of slavery – the economic and political elite – from ‘ordinary’ Scots.”

However, opinion polls, Mullen explains, show that proportionally Scots “are the only regional group to say the British empire was a bad thing. That tells us something. There isn’t the jingoistic celebration of empire”.

He adds that “Scottish nationalist politicians are at least taking a lead in addressing legacies of empire”. The SNP at Edinburgh and Glasgow councils both commissioned slavery studies. “That seems to be in direct juxtaposition to the online fringe element who see Scots as slaves and Scotland as colonised.”

Studies have been commissioned at “government level to look at how Scottish museums can better represent the past”.

The dynamic, Mullen feels, is that “in England, we’ve Conservative MPs jingoistically celebrating empire, versus online Scottish nationalists, and then what’s happening at official levels in Scotland. It seems a more tolerant political environment in Scotland”.

There could be “political capital” in SNP positioning. “Does this further differentiate from England? Does this advance and valorise the progressive nature of the independence movement? Differentiating it from a group of jingoistic Tory MPs defending empire?”


MULLEN noted that Scottish nationalism’s “online fringe” even “go after” politicians like Kenny MacAskill. Now Alba’s deputy leader, the former SNP minister recently wrote an article headlined “Scots were not victims of the slave trade, but they did help perpetrate it”. His attackers, Mullen adds, were saying: “You’re wrong, we were slaves, the Jacobites were slaves.”

Before union, Scotland, Mullen explains, “had aspirations to empire”. After the “fiasco” of the Darien scheme to establish a Caledonian colony, Scotland was impoverished. The Union became “a game-changer”, opening up trade with England’s colonies.

Caribbean slavery fuelled Scotland’s economy. Tobacco “had a major role developing the financial, commercial and maritime infrastructure”. Cotton was “one of the sparks” for Scotland’s Industrial Revolution, and employed “large swathes of the Scottish population”. A “sugar aristocracy” emerged in Scotland.

Mullen discovered that in the early 19th century, five of Scotland’s “richest men” were Glasgow merchants dealing in Caribbean slave goods. “They’re disseminating Caribbean slavery profits” across Scotland, he says, including “investing in banks”. Imports and exports create employment and “the large accumulation of capital”.

Scotland was also “exporting people”

– thousands of Scots – who wanted to “get rich quick” in the Caribbean from “slavery-derived money”. These were “temporary economic migrants” looking to earn as much as possible and return to Scotland. “Some came back with major fortunes – £100,000 would be regarded as a nationally significant fortune at the time”.

Without slavery, “the industrial revolution would have happened anyway. Scotland would have developed, but at a much slower pace and probably later. Scotland would still be a modern first world nation, but it would be different”. Major Scottish institutions, like Glasgow University, profited from slavery.


Mullen has sifted through historic documents to uncover the behaviour of ordinary Scots working in Caribbean slave plantations. Some “comment on their relationships with black women”. Slavery inevitably involved rape. “They don’t tell us the depravities within the sources. You need to read between the lines about the exploitation and horrors that were going on.”

Some Scots, however, return from the Caribbean “appalled” and became abolitionists.

Domestic Scottish society knew full well that slavery was happening. Mullen references a coin from 1792 featuring “an enslaved man”. This “illustrates the banality, the recognition that slavery was the basis” of commerce.

Scottish academic discussion about slavery’s immorality began around 1750. In 1776, Adam Smith – Scotland’s great Enlightenment philosopher – “was saying slavery is morally wrong”. The abolitionist movement is under way by 1787 but it’s not until the 1800s that the wider Scottish society sees slavery as a problem.

However, the tobacco lords and sugar aristocracy “wouldn’t have cared” about the evils done in pursuit of money. Mullen has trawled their wills, and found them bequeathing money to places like Glasgow’s Royal Infirmary or churches. There is no contrition.

Only one merchant “sort of deviates”, says Mullen. Charles Stewart Parker “gets a bit emotional and talks about his ‘activities’ in life”. Most merchants, though, hid behind their “hands-off role. There’s no big epiphany moments for any of these guys, where they renounce their wealth or say sorry for slavery”.


Engraving depicts a forced march of men and women on their way to slave ships, Africa, 1820s. (Photo by Interim Archives/Getty Images).

Engraving depicts a forced march of men and women on their way to slave ships, Africa, 1820s. (Photo by Interim Archives/Getty Images).



Mullen has no time for arguments around Scotland’s involvement in slavery which include deflection like “what about the Romans, they had slaves too”, or “I wasn’t alive when slavery happened, what’s it got to do with me”.

He explains that “until fairly recently, Glasgow always celebrated empire, acknowledged our imperial connections. Glasgow is an imperial city, the second city of the empire”. These facts should be “uncontroversial”.

Mullen adds: “Chattel slavery was

a fundamental part of the British empire.”

He notes that in 1990, the “official title” of Merchant City was conferred on one of Glasgow’s best-known districts. Those merchants were evidently linked to slavery. “That’s the same decade that Liverpool apologised for the slave trade.”

English cities were then “further ahead” when it came to acknowledging the past, whereas Glasgow was quite confident in celebrating empire, Mullen says. In the intervening period, Scottish historians have “addressed a lacuna in our understanding, provided a fuller history of the city”.

Nevertheless, Mullen recently spoke at a Glasgow conference where a woman asked him about Roman slavery. “I said this is about connections with the British empire, we live in Britain … Glasgow was the second city of the British empire, not the Roman Empire.”

He adds: “These are among the most pressing debates in British history. Historians have a duty to explain without fear or favour.”

In terms of the study of slavery, Scotland is “certainly catching up” with England. However, “historians of Scotland are under-represented in Scottish universities. We need more permanent historians of Scotland. But in terms of the political conversation, historians have upped their game.” Museums and schools are also “on the same page”. There’s much more “toleration” of the discussion around slavery in Scotland now, despite “Culture War agendas”. In 2007, there was “muted response” in Scotland compared to England around the bicentennial of the law prohibiting the slave trade. Come the bicentennial in 2033 of the law banning Caribbean slavery, Mullen believes “Scotland will be in a much better place”.

In the intervening period, Glasgow, Edinburgh and the Church of Scotland all apologised. “In 2007, you could say Scotland had forgotten its slavery connections – 16 years later there’s been dramatic transformation.”

Mullen is critical, however, of the Atlantic slave trade National 5 module taught in schools. It’s not compulsory and is taught as a “British unit, which means you could ostensibly teach the Atlantic slave trade in Scottish schools from an English perspective”. This, he says, could “perpetuate the ‘it wisnae us’ mindset”.


HE poses a troubling question that in the event of independence, debate could arise over Scotland’s responsibilities for slavery. Scotland’s “most pronounced connections with slavery came after the Union when Scotland was effectively a stateless nation”. Therefore, the argument could be made that technically “responsibility still lies with the British government today”. However, Scots were clearly MPs within the British government during slavery.

Mullen adds: “What would an independent Scotland do? Would there be a strategy for the legacies of empire? Would Scotland apologise for its connections to slavery even though it was only individuals rather than the state, as Scotland was stateless? There are important questions if Scotland becomes independent. It’s a complex moral debate.”

Alternatively, an independent Scotland could “own it” and say “we were perpetrators as part of the British empire and here’s what we’re doing. That could valorise a progressive independent Scotland”.

Mullen supports the creation of a “museum of empire and slavery” in Glasgow or Greenock. “We should be wary, however. There’s “still a contingent” of SNP politicians “that says in any proposed museum we must place the Highland clearances and Jacobites. If we’re going to do this it must be about Scotland’s role as coloniser”.

Some politicians “seem to do this historical balancing act”. If the museum was created then “it will be interesting to see which narrative is dominant: colonised or coloniser”. If the “colonised narrative is dominant, that would be super-controversial”.

Even though the union was voluntary and Scotland actively took part in empire, Mullen wonders “how an independent Scotland would affect the work of historians. Would there be a nationalist slant as we disentangle from Great Britain? Could they be saying 50 years after independence that ‘we were actually victims of that’.”


Tobacco exchange plaque

Tobacco exchange plaque



MULLEN can, however, envisage Scotland – either devolved or independent – apologising for slavery. He notes: “It’s a popular misconception that an apology will lead to reparations. There’s no liability, no legal implications.” An apology from Scotland “is much more likely compared to the British government”.

There were calls in the Caribbean in 2014 for both apology and reparation from Scotland in the event of independence. Theoretically, reparations have “already started”, Mullen says, with institutions like Glasgow University paying millions in “reparative justice”. Some families descended from slaver owners have also began paying reparations.

Mullen is asked what he might have felt about slavery back in 1790, if this was a writer and academic sitting in a Glasgow inn. He hopes that as an academic he’d be among those “personally opposed to slavery”, but he could also have been “complicit” with funds from slavery paying his wages. Both would have drank rum and smoked tobacco derived from slavery.

As I writer, I might be “pretty enlightened” but perhaps the newspaper I work for is funded by shipping adverts for Caribbean merchants, making me “complicit” also. Both of us would probably have “friends” who were involved in the slave trade. Adam Smith, Mullen points out, “was friends with tobacco lords and writes his critique of empire”.

The picture of how a writer and academic may have thought of slavery back in the 18th century is a strange mix of “philosophical opposition, business complicity and personal toleration of the guys involved. They could have been your mates”.