David Alston's Slaves & Highlanders
Sharing my research on Highland Scots and the slave plantations of Guyana
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June 2020: I have been using my reseach to support better awareness of Scotland's history of deep involvement with slavery - and to highlight ongoing issues of racism within our society.
I was disturbed by what I saw as the complacency of comments by a leading journalist in Scotland's Herald newspaper which suggested that 'ordinary Scots' were not involved with slavery and that Scotland's record on racism 'isn't bad'. I have published a response in the Press & Journal. Click on the links below to read both (subscription may be required).
Inverness: Building on Slavery
A circular self-guided walk around sites and buildings in the city with connections to the slave-trade and slave plantions of the Caribbean and South America.
Click on the map to download the guide.
Listen here to a 28 minute radio documentary revealing Scotland's legacy of slavery and sex on the plantations of Guyana. The programme shows that as a consequence there were more mixed-race children in 19th century Inverness then there are today. Reported by Daniyal Harris-Vajda, Produced by Chris Diamond for BBC Good Morning Scotland, developed by Arlen Harris. Transmitted in March 2019.
'The eerie abandoned sugar plantation and its 'maniacal' Scots slave owner' (The Scotsman, 5 March 2020) describing my visit with Michael Hopcroft to Guyana and Suriname and our re-discovery of the tomb of James Balfour.
The hidden legacies of Guyanese women in Scotland . . .
Ashanti Harris's Second Site showed at the Civic Room, High Street, Glasgow from 13 July to 18 August 2019: a performance and installation developed from conversations and workshops with members of Yon Afro Collective and drawing on research by David Alston, poetry by Martin Carter, and the music of Nina Simone.
Sunday 28 April 2019: talk to Guyana Speaks on the role of Scots in Guyana in the time of slavery. A privelege to be able to present to a Guyanese audience. My thanks to Rod Westmaas and Juanita Cox Westmaas for the invitation.
The Long Read in The Guardian (16 April 2019): Yvonne Singh 'How Scotland erased Guyana from its past'.
In Cromarty’s graveyard, the mid-morning sun slants across the gravestones pockmarked with moss and lichen, illuminating the faint inscriptions. The statue of Hugh Miller, the town’s famed geologist and writer, perched Nelson-like on top a high column, overlooks the scene. I read the carved words on one crumbling grey stone that has sat in this cemetery for more than 150 years. It says: “John Munro late of Demerara.” Less clear is Berbice on another stone . . . One truth remains: however hard we try to erase our past, it has a habit of not staying buried for long.
And in 2018 Gerda Stevenson's Quines: Poems in tribute to women of Scotland (Edinburgh, Luath Press) includes Eliza Junor in the 68 women to whom she gives a voice.
Eliza (born 1804, Demerara, died Fortrose, 1861) was the daughter of Hugh Junor, slave owner from the Black Isle, and an unknown mother, probably a slave, or a ‘free coloured’ woman. She won a prize for penmanship at Fortrose Academy.
The poem, with the title 'Demerara', is available on the Scottish Poetry Library site.
Go to this page for more about the life of Eliza Junor.
Radio Scotland 17 February 2019: Scotland and Guyana - a 30 minute documentary with David Alston, Nick Draper, David Dabydeen and others - and featuring the poetry of Sorley Maclean. Thanks to Dan Harris-Vajda, Arlen Harris and the team.
November 2018: David is a contributor to BBC2 Scotland's two-part documentary Slavery: Scotland's Hidden Shame.
Also in 2018 . . .
I contributed an entry for Harriet Balfour, a freed slave from Suriname, to the New Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women (EUP, 2018).
October 2018: read my Guest Blog 'Museums of Forgetting and Remembering' on the Antislavery Usable Past Project
May 2018 - New publication: 'Scottish Slave-owners in Suriname: 1651–1863' in Northern Scotland, Volume 9.
Simple but subversive
Cait Gillespie's master's thesis The end of amnesia? Scotland's response to the 2007 bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade and the quest for social justice can be read online at Leiden University Repository. Cait considers Scotland's response to the 2007 bicentenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, in the context of memory and museum studies, and includes a detailed study of Cromarty Courthouse Museum's 'Slaves & Highlanders' exhibition of 2007/08.
From Cait's conclusions: 'The impact and originality of Alston's seemingly simple but subversive exhibition, [Stephen] Mullen's commitment to furthering public knowledge of Glasgow's slavery-funded cityscape through walks and talks, and the success of the website created by [Katherine] Prior for Aberdeen City Council . . . reveal high quality pieces of work that engage with public audiences in diverse and important ways . . . The onus now lies on Scotland's major national institutions to follow suit and bring forth new creative responses.'
Ullapool Book Festival 2017: The Highlands and Slavery
'Essential listening for those in the Highlands . . . and Scotland in general.'
David Robinson reviewing the Ullapool Book Festival (Scotsman, 9 May 2017):
I’ll end, though, with an event featuring a historian – and a history – who and which are far less well known. Before going in to David Alston’s talk about the involvement of Scots in the slave trade, I had thought that it was all so long ago that the question of reparations no longer arises. Quietly, dispassionately, and concentrating on Highlanders’ involvement in the slave plantations in Guyana, Alston picked apart that certainty. Tracing the reparations paid to compensate slave owners in 1834 – proportionately a bigger sum even than the 2008 banks’ bail out – he showed how Scots at all levels benefited from slavery, but how we still collectively ignore this, perhaps even more so than in England, “because it doesn’t fit with the narrative of our own victimhood”.
Finding you way around the site? - this may help:
Index of 642 people with connections to the Highlands and plantations in Guyana.
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