Plantation slavery and landownership in the west Highlands and Islands: legacies and lessons

May 18, 2021 | Blog
Home > Plantation slavery and landownership in the west Highlands and Islands: legacies and lessons

This blog is based on a Carnevali Small Research Grant funded by the Economic History Society. More information on the EHS research grants are available here

by Iain MacKinnon (Coventry University) and Andrew Mackillop (Glasgow University)


‘Gang of captives met at Mbame’s on their way to Tette’. (From ‘Missionary travels and researches in Africa’, 1857.) Available at the National Library of Scotland

Our research shows that colonial-era slavery, with its legacies of embedded economic inequality and the subordination of people to profit, is as much a part of the history of the Scottish Highlands and Islands as are the land question and the Highland Clearances and, indeed, are inter-related with them.

We have uncovered  the scale and complexity of links between wealth derived from slavery and trends in landowning during the eighteenth – to early twentieth centuries.  Between 1726 and 1939 there were 63 estate purchases in the west Highlands and Islands by significant beneficiaries of slavery derived wealth.  Such beneficiaries are defined as slave-owners, or the children and grandchildren of slave-owners, or others who derived significant benefits from the wider slavery-based economy, such as sugar, tobacco or cotton merchants.  This definition also includes men who married into families with slavery derived wealth.

The majority of these purchases (37) occurred between 1790 and 1855 —  the main period of the Highland Clearances, with a peak of slavery related sales occurring in the late 1830s —  the years following the British Government’s establishment of a £20 million fund (£16 billion in today’s terms) to compensate slave-owners for the loss of their ‘property’ when slavery was abolished in the British empire in 1833.

Cumulatively, we estimate that the estates purchased amounted to 1,144,395 acres, which is more than one-third of the total area of the west Highlands and Islands (the methodology underlying our calculations can be found in the link embedded at the end of this blog). These figures are likely to be significantly less than the true total because it was not possible to find acreages for several large purchases.

In addition to the ‘new elite’ of landowners who originated for the most part from outside of the west Highlands and Islands, there is a further category of slavery enriched landowners who did not buy land in the area but instead  inherited traditional clan lands.  Some of these families married into slavery derived wealth.  However, at least two families, Cameron of Locheil and Mackintosh of Mackintosh, appear to have been directly involved in the plantation economy in Jamaica.  During the 1880s, the combined land holdings of these traditional families  was 690,313 acres in the west Highlands and Islands.  When this land is added to the acquisitions of the new elite, it transpires that at least 1,834,708 acres of the west Highlands and Islands — more than half of the area’s total landmass and approaching ten percent of the total landmass of Scotland — was owned by families that  benefitted significantly from slavery.

This research has implications for our understanding of the Highland Clearances.  Some of the worst examples of clearance can be found on the estates of members of the new slavery elite. The total number of people cleared by this class is likely to be more  than 5,000.  Taking into account  the actions of traditional clan families implicated in slavery, the final number of evictions  will be very much higher, almost certainly into the tens of thousands.

Further, our findings indicate the need to re-think the broader evolution of the Highlands and Islands over the last three centuries.   The boundaries of the region’s experience in the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries need to be understood as global in character. The racism and inequalities of wealth and power created by Britain’s transatlantic system of enslavement intersects with the history of the Highlands and Islands.  It is important to acknowledge that many Gaels, of diverse social classes and backgrounds, benefited from involvement in transatlantic slavery.  Conversely, many communities in the region were adversely affected  by those who obtained capital and property from the British system of slavery.

Our research findings have considerable contemporary resonances.  One effect of slavery derived wealth was that it helped  perpetuate and reinforce the pre-existing structure of highly unequal land ownership.  Another effect was  the use of such land in increasingly one-dimensional and ecologically harmful ways.  The main conclusion to emerge from our research is that the ‘external’ wealth and capital  created by an unstable and brutally exploitative form of capitalism shaped the structure of property and power in the west Highlands and Islands and directly affected the lives  of local people.*


* Further details of the research underlying this blog  can be found here.


To contact the authors:

Iain MacKinnon,
Andrew Mackillop,