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Language: English / Gàidhlig

Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Virtual)

Meeting date: Thursday, February 4, 2021


Land Ownership History (Impact of Slavery)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

Good evening, everyone. The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-23310, in the name of Alasdair Allan, on “Plantation slavery and landownership in the west Highlands and Islands: legacies and lessons”. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the publication by Community Land Scotland of an independent research report, Plantation slavery and landownership in the west Highlands and Islands: legacies and lessons, by Dr Iain MacKinnon of the University of Coventry and Dr Andrew Mackillop of the University of Glasgow as part of Community Land Scotland’s discussion paper series, Land and the Common Good; notes the conclusion that the proceeds of slave ownership, slavery-derived wealth and slave compensation payments coincided with the purchase of Highlands and Islands estates or otherwise helped maintain existing estate holdings among many established landed families; welcomes the greater understanding that it believes the report brings of the impact of slavery on patterns of Scottish land ownership history; notes the evidence that specific estate purchases have direct links to slave-related income; regrets that land purchased from the proceeds of slavery rests on the misery of breaches to the human rights of dispossessed peoples; notes that slavery-derived wealth has contributed to historic patterns of land markets that have left legacies of monopoly land ownership, depopulation and an emphasis on extractive estate management that continue to operate today, and notes the calls for a discussion of an appropriate permanent memorial for these historic connections and their impact on peoples in Africa, the Caribbean and the Highlands and Islands.


Dr Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

In February 2018, Her Majesty’s Treasury issued what it would probably now concede to have been its worst-judged tweet ever. Above an image of Africans being marched in chains and below the hashtag #FridayFact, it announced brightly that

“Millions of you helped end the slave trade through your taxes.”

It went on cheerfully:

“Did you know? In 1833, Britain used £20 million, 40% of its national budget, to buy freedom for all slaves in the Empire. The amount of money borrowed for the Slavery Abolition Act was so large that it wasn’t paid off until 2015. Which means that living British citizens helped pay to end the slave trade.”

I pause because I scarcely know where to begin—other than to add that the tweet was deleted amid a storm of outrage. Needless to say, 180 years of United Kingdom taxpayers would not have needed to pay off a Government loan, which amounted to £16 billion in today’s terms, if Britain had not built its economy on the brutalities of slavery in the first place. I should say that many Scots were as guilty as anyone else in that sorry enterprise. Many descendants of slaves have had to contribute to that bailout through their own taxes. Of course, not a penny of the money went to any of those who had been so wronged by slavery. Instead, it went to appease the slave owners, whom abolition had finally deprived of a business model.

Where did that astronomical sum of taxpayers’ money go? It is no coincidence that, within 20 years of the compensation cheques being signed, Britain was suddenly covered in privately owned railways. However, the cash went somewhere else, too, as is shown in recent research by two academics, both of whom are from Hebridean backgrounds. “Plantation slavery and landownership in the west Highlands and Islands: legacies and lessons”, by Dr Iain MacKinnon and Dr Andrew Mackillop, is published by Community Land Scotland and builds on work already done by Professor Sir Tom Devine, Professor James Hunter and others.

The study shows how 63 estates were bought with capital directly derived from involvement in slavery, through compensation payments or through indirect connections such as judicious marriages into slavery wealth. The majority of estates changed hands between 1790 and 1855. That, of course, is the very period in which Highland landowners evicted thousands of people from the land. Almost 1.2 million acres were involved, covering a third of the west Highlands and Islands. I do not think that that figure includes the 400,000 or so acres owned in Lewis by the Mackenzies of Seaforth, whose financial decline during the early decades of the 19th century saw them sell almost their entire estate, despite the last Lord Seaforth being governor of the slave colony of Barbados and a major slave owner in his own right. The Isle of Lewis ended up, of course, being purchased by a man who had made his money elsewhere—by selling hard drugs in China. Incidentally, he became the local member of Parliament. At least once—unsurprisingly perhaps, given his background—he was elected unopposed.

Further south in my constituency, the Gordon family, of Cluny castle in Aberdeenshire, bought up most of Uist and Barra during that period. The Wikipedia page for John Gordon makes grim reading. He

“had been a merchant in West India ... he was responsible for the expelling of tenants in the Highland Clearances from the islands. Tenants from his estates on the Outer Hebrides”—

—about 3,000 people who were expelled from the land—

“were made to emigrate to Canada in 1851. After the British government introduced the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 Gordon received a compensation payment from it”

of about £24,000, which I estimate to be around £20 million in today’s money.

“His six plantations in ... Tobago had 1383 slaves.”

Gordon was the Tory member of Parliament

“for Weymouth ... from 1826 to 1832.”

Gordon’s name is still widely despised, along with that of his daughter-in-law, Lady Emily Gordon Cathcart. After inheriting the family slave money, she forcibly removed many of her island tenants to Canada. She apparently nursed aggressively sectarian views towards her many Roman Catholic tenants, and, in 1908, she famously dragged 10 landless cottars through the courts and penal system for their part in the Vatersay land raid. The judge found that Lady Cathcart had failed in her duties as a landlord, and the island of Vatersay was subsequently bought by the Government and turned into crofts.

I could go on, Presiding Officer. The point, which the authors of the report make more succinctly than I can, is that slave money had a direct impact on the pattern of absentee land ownership that has held back the economy of many parts of the Highlands and Islands until much more recent times. Before we can fully address the inequalities and social problems that all of that has created, we probably have to understand that it did not happen by accident. To quote the motion before us:

“land purchased from the proceeds of slavery rests on the misery of breaches to the human rights of dispossessed peoples; ... slavery-derived wealth has contributed to historic patterns of land markets that have left legacies of monopoly land ownership, depopulation and an emphasis on extractive estate management that continue to operate today,”

and we note

“calls for a discussion of an appropriate permanent memorial for these historic connections and their impact on peoples in Africa, the Caribbean and the Highlands and Islands.”

The bailout of the slave owners unfortunately arrived at the very moment when romantic ideas of emptiness and wilderness were becoming fashionable. The more unpeopled a landscape, the more marketable, in many cases, it suddenly became. The fallout from that is with us today in a pattern of Highland land ownership that is still concentrated in a small number of individuals—a pattern for which it is difficult to find parallels anywhere else in Europe.

Our debate today comes at a significant moment of its own, too. The Black Lives Matter movement has made us think properly, perhaps for the first time, about Scotland’s part in the slave trade. It is right for us to reflect now that, whenever we say that Glasgow and many other places were built on cotton, tobacco and sugar, that is, uncomfortably, just another way of saying that they were built on slavery. The unspeakable injustices that lie behind all that have clear and lasting consequences for black lives in our own times. It is also right that we take the opportunity now to remember that the money from slavery did not disappear. Generations of taxpayers have been rewarding slave owners—and, at least arguably, their heirs—until as recently as 2015, as the Treasury’s tweet reminds us.

Singling out individual villains in our history does not tell the whole story. For example, it is unsettling to think that, at one point not that long ago, every family in the UK that could afford to have a pension was probably implicated in slavery to some extent. Yet villains there undoubtedly were. Some of them bought up large swathes of the Highlands and Islands, often thanks to compensation money that was extracted from the taxpayer by means of seats in the UK Parliament. All of that, Presiding Officer, is worth pausing briefly to have a think about. I commend the motion to the chamber.


Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests in that I own a 200-hectare farm in Moray. I thank Alasdair Allan for securing the debate. His debates are always informative, and I always learn from what he says.

Let us be clear: slavery was an abomination and it should always be condemned without question. Our historians are probably only just beginning to uncover how much of Scotland’s past is entwined with the slave trade. Without doubt, the money that was generated from slavery will have touched many levels of Scottish society centuries ago, whether in the Highlands or through the tobacco and sugar merchants of Glasgow. We cannot change that part of our national history, but we can undoubtedly learn lessons from it, and I believe that we have done so.

Although the role of Scotland and Britain in the slave trade is a stain on our history, we should acknowledge our country’s proud tradition of campaigning for an early end to slavery in the past and present. We have been a leading light against slavery since its abolition in 1833, and that continues today, most noticeably with the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which was designed to combat human trafficking.

Turning to the issue of land ownership, looking backwards sometimes prevents us from looking forward. I do not think that there is anything shameful about owning land. We should not forget that many Highland estates have changed ownership in the past 50 years. Too often, debates about land ownership lose sight of the most important thing that we should take into account, which is what we actually do with land and how it is used.

I take issue with the claim that land managers have emphasised extractive estate management practices. That is a sweeping generalisation that dismisses the hard work of land managers across the Highlands who are improving conservation techniques, whether through peatland restoration and reforestation or by protecting some of Scotland’s endangered species. We need only look at the Scottish Land & Estates annual helping it happen awards to see the true extent of good land management practices that are now current throughout Scotland.

I often saw those practices when I was a land manager, and I welcome them. I saw estates providing free accommodation for local school teachers and free facilities for communities. In one case, the estate even offered to rebuild the local school to prevent the council from closing it. Those are the positives that I welcome.

I do not doubt that we have a duty to acknowledge the past and remember Scotland’s links with the slave trade. However, when it comes to land reform, we should not let the discussions be stuck in the past, and we should welcome the positives. Moving the debate on from who owns what to how the land is used is critical to ensuring that we protect rural communities and the environment.

We should never forget to learn from history. To do so would be a huge mistake.


Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

At the outset, I congratulate my colleague, Dr Allan, on securing the debate.

As members will recall, last September I had a members’ business debate calling for a museum for human rights to be based at the sugar warehouses in Greenock. Today’s debate and the contribution from Dr Allan highlight how far-reaching the appalling activities of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade were in Scotland.

My area and the city of Glasgow are two areas that have strong links to Scotland’s past dealings with slavery. Other locations, as we have heard today, also have strong connections to that past. It is beyond any doubt that our involvement in slavery and the transatlantic slave trade is Scotland’s shame. We cannot be blamed for the past, but we can certainly shape the future. Our actions in telling the story of the past are absolutely crucial.

After my members’ business debate last year, which followed the Scottish Parliament agreeing to deliver a national museum to highlight Scotland’s role in the slave trade and colonialism, I set up a short-life working group including the local MP, the council leader, Scottish Enterprise, Inverclyde Chamber of Commerce, West College Scotland, Creative Inverclyde, the Clyde Atlantic Trust, and the campaign to save Inchgreen dry dock. We have met on numerous occasions and have spoken to Museums Galleries Scotland and the international slavery museum in Liverpool, among many other groups and individuals.

It is clear that there is ambition to deliver something important to tell our story. It is also clear that there are a wide range of positives and negatives about whether it should be a single facility or a network of facilities. However, what is abundantly clear is that Scotland’s role in that part of our shameful past was not just centralised in Glasgow or Edinburgh. Today’s debate highlights how far-reaching Scotland’s shame was.

Museums Galleries Scotland has a difficult task and I wish it well. Sir Geoff Palmer, who is hugely respected, is the perfect person to chair the steering group. I say “Well done” once again to Dr Allan for securing the debate. I have been pleased to speak in it.


Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

I congratulate Alasdair Allan on securing the debate. We should also be grateful to Community Land Scotland for publishing the research by Dr Iain MacKinnon and Dr Andrew Mackillop, revealing an aspect of our history that has been little understood.

There can be no doubt that the legal slavery from which so many humans suffered and perished stands among the most heinous of human rights abuses ever witnessed. It rightly appals us all that fellow humans were, because of their colour and their origins in a different continent, regarded by slave traders and owners as property without rights. It also defies belief that when slavery was finally abolished the abusers were compensated for the loss of their property—their human slaves. That is a low point in our history.

We all know that far too many Scots were active in the slave trade. They built their vast wealth on the back of the misery of generations of slaves and received what in today’s terms amounts to hundreds of millions of pounds in compensation when slavery was abolished. What is not widely known is that at least some of that money ended up funding the purchase of land in the Highlands and Islands. Some of those owners then engaged in the clearances of our indigenous people from that land.

We are all shaped by history. The places that we live in, the power relations within our society and disparities in wealth and privilege are shaped by history. Therefore, the slave compensation money that was paid then still resonates today. In the Highlands and Islands, a small number of people own vast tracts of land on which, down through the generations, wealth and privilege have been created in the past. Today’s land ownership relates in some places to the ownership patterns that were developed from the wealth that was created from human rights abuses of slaves.

Therefore, it is a supreme irony that the law that protects those landowners’ interests, which has often been cited by them to limit radical land reform, are human rights laws. Landholdings that were bought or extended using wealth that was made from human rights abuses could now be defended from ownership change on a human rights ground—the right to enjoy one’s property, as enshrined in the European convention on human rights. Today’s families who are the successors to those historical acts are not in any way responsible, and cannot and should not be held accountable for the acts of their forebears, but they can acknowledge them. They can acknowledge the many privileges that have, down the generations, been enjoyed from the wealth that was built on slavery.

Our history of slavery has contemporary relevance, as we come to understand better how it has shaped us. I certainly did not know in any detail about that dark aspect of our history, so I am grateful that research has been published that teaches us about it We should build on that and use the evidence that is now available to teach our history to our own people, and we should find suitable ways of telling the story to people who visit our country. Governments can help in that, so I hope that the minister will say what he can usefully do to assist. I hope that our current landowners will see the force of their helping in that task, too.


Angus MacDonald (Falkirk East) (SNP)

As someone who has a Hebridean background on both sides of my family, going back to Norse times, I was fascinated by the report when it came out last November, and I congratulate my colleague Alasdair Allan on bringing the debate to the chamber. I also thank Dr Iain MacKinnon and Dr Andrew Mackillop for writing the study, and Community Land Scotland for publishing it.

As we have heard, the new study exposes the extent of the historical connection between land ownership in the west Highlands and Islands and plantation slavery in the Caribbean and North America. It also highlights how many estate owners were prominent in the infamous Highland clearances, in which thousands of people were evicted from the land. The research shows that 63 estates, amounting to almost 1.2 million acres and covering 33.5 per cent of the west Highlands and Islands, were acquired using the equivalent of more than £120 million by beneficiaries of “slavery derived wealth”. The majority—37 estates—changed hands between 1790 and 1855, which was, as Alasdair Allan pointed out, the height of the infamous clearances.

When I was growing up on the family farms just outside Stornoway, which we have been farming for just over a hundred years—and which were acquired legitimately through hard graft, I hasten to add—I was aware of dodgy connections with regard to Lews castle. It was built by Sir James Matheson, who made much of his money from the opium trade in China, which is another shameful part of Britain’s history. There is, without a doubt, much to be ashamed of.

James Matheson’s affronts to humanity are probably on a par with those of some of the subjects of the report by Dr MacKinnon and Dr Mackillop. They highlight that, either directly by family connection, or through the schemes that awarded compensation to former slave owners, around a third of the entire land mass of the west Highlands was bought with slavery-derived wealth. Members have already given a few examples of slavery-backed estates. Another example is the island of Raasay, which was bought for £27,000 in 1846 by George Rainy, using the £50,000—equivalent to £2.6 million today—that he received from the slavery abolition fund. As we heard, the slave owner John Gordon of Cluny bought Uist and Barra in 1838, before going on to force nearly 3,000 people from those islands during the 1850s. In addition, as Dr Allan highlighted, there were the Mackenzies of Seaforth.

As has been mentioned, an 1833 act of Parliament provided £20 million in compensation to slave owners, which is equivalent to more than £16 billion today. As I said, the equivalent of more than £120 million was spent on buying Highland estates. The report also states that some traditional landowners who inherited their Highland land also benefited from slavery money. The Mackenzies of Gairloch, MacLeod of MacLeod and the house of Sutherland had married into slavery-derived wealth. Cameron of Locheil and Mackintosh of Mackintosh also

“appear to have been directly involved in the plantation economy in Jamaica.”

In the 1880s, those families together held at least 690,313 acres in the counties of Ross-shire and Inverness-shire. The authors of the report calculate that at least 5,000 people were cleared from the land by the new slavery elite. The figure would have been far higher, but the study was restricted to the Hebrides from Islay northwards and the west coast of the counties of Inverness and Ross.

My colleague, the Tory MSP Donald Cameron of Locheil and I have in the past had amicable discussions in private about his family’s history in that regard. I have been—albeit indirectly—advised in the chamber to look to the future, when I have spoken about the injustice that was inflicted on our indigenous Gaelic language. I am happy to take that on board, because we need to look to the future. Nonetheless, with Hebridean genes going back 1,000 years, I can forgive to an extent, but I can never forget.

In the interests of moving forward, I highlight in closing that there is unfinished work in Parliament with regard to land reform. I was pleased to be part of the process of the bill that became the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016. It is the bill that I have most enjoyed working on in the 10 years for which I have been here. There was room for it to be more radical than it is, but there were constraints arising from the European convention on human rights. The Scottish Land Commission has done a lot of good work on land reform since then, but I echo the recent call from Community Land Scotland that future land sales should be subjected to a public interest test. I hope that that and other calls from Community Land Scotland can be revisited in the next session of Parliament.


John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

Like others, I congratulate Dr Allan on securing the debate. I thank Doctors MacKinnon and Mackillop for their excellent report, and I thank Community Land Scotland for that and the many other things that it does. As a proud Highlander, I share the shame over the role that many people, including those from the Gàidhealtachd, played in the slave trade, and I regret my very superficial knowledge, hitherto, of the subject.

I am not an apologist for anyone involved whatever, but comparing a lowly deckhand on a ship conveying its shameful human cargo to the extended activities of the elites—the powerful brutes of landowners—is perhaps not proportionate. As with all abuses, we are discussing power. This was and this is the way of the already wealthy, the greedy: wanting more regardless of the cost—capitalism, if you will. The landowners who valued sheep ahead of women, men and entire communities would have little difficulty putting cotton or any other commodity ahead of fellow human beings, with people in the Highlands and Islands driven to the shore, their culture not valued and their language attacked.

The Scottish Land Commission, which was established following the passage of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016, made some recommendations to the Scottish Government. It suggested changes in law and policy. If we are going to be a progressive European country, there is undoubtedly a need for that to happen. My colleague Angus MacDonald spoke about a public interest test, and about a change in culture and practice, too. Those who know the Highlands will know about the deference and the sense of privilege and entitlement that some in our community have. [Inaudible.]—to address the impacts of concentrated land ownership and to protect rural communities from misuse of power.

Deer, grouse and pheasants are more important than communities to many of the landowners, who withhold land for building. I would like there to be more compulsory purchase to help achieve potential, as the report says.

I wrote this tract before I knew who was participating in the debate, but there are members in the chamber who own vast tracts of land and large numbers of tied properties, with the scenario of no job, no home; there are members whose influence in communities is extensive. I am not sure that the phrase “I refer to my entry in the register of interests” quite covers the extent of that power or outlines their privileged position to the casual onlooker. I can certainly understand the wish to “move the debate on” from who owns what.

Many statistics have been mentioned, but residents of the Highlands and Islands need no explanation of the role of the lairds, their property or their reach. Some of the worst examples of the clearances, the report tells us, can be found in the estates of members who were involved in the slave trade. Who would be shocked by that? Who would be shocked that a British Government would find compensation of the nature and scale that it did?

Some things never change. The Highlands and Islands remain a playground to those elites. We must maintain a focus on injustice and abuse of power, and we must take a rights-based approach to things. A colleague mentioned human trafficking, and that remains a problem, because people do not respect each other, and greed plays its part in driving decision making.

The report and the debate provide yet another opportunity for us to air what some people will think are grievances, but this is a real-life situation. In the past couple of months I have dealt with two estate workers whose homes were going to be taken from them because they had lost their jobs. I am not talking about the 17th or 18th century; I am talking about the past few months. Some things never change—but some things are going to have to change. I thank Dr Allan for giving us this opportunity.


Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

I echo the words of the previous speakers, and I thank my colleague Dr Allan for bringing the motion before the Parliament for debate today. As has been said, much attention has been directed towards involvement in the slave trade recently and, as Dr Allan himself said, that has mostly been through the Black Lives Matter campaign. We should never shy away from, or deny, the fact that it touched the Highlands and Islands as much as anywhere else and is a cause for deep shame, as John Finnie has just said. I also thank Community Land Scotland and the authors of the report for such a comprehensive and important piece of work.

I know that Martin Luther King is often quoted in political circles, scholarly articles and a myriad of speeches, and that was one of the things that I had probably promised myself that I would never do, but his words,

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”,

have real relevance to the debate and to the subject. We cannot afford to stay silent on the topic for any longer.

In June 2017, with other members of the Parliament who have done the trip over the years, I had the privilege of visiting Bosnia, as part of the Remembering Srebrenica Scotland delegation. The purpose of the trip was to gain a first-hand understanding of the atrocities and hardships that were faced by the people there, so that we would never forget what can happen even in a modern-day civilised society. One of the people who made a lasting impression on me was our local guide, Rashad, who told us:

“Please, just be aware that things can go wrong. No matter how good you think your society is, all it takes is a few idiots and a few people that are ready to follow them.”

The trip was organised by Remembering Srebrenica Scotland, in order that policy makers such as us could remember those who were affected by the atrocities of the war, and learn the lessons of that not-too-distant past.

Closer to home, many of us have forgotten the atrocities that our ancestors have been involved in, particularly in relation to the slave trade. We have forgotten that money that was made through slavery paid for numerous construction projects in the Highlands, including the original Tain academy. It is good that we can have the debate in order to remember that.

I think that we have also forgotten that huge swathes of the Highlands were bought using the profits of slavery and were maintained by the continuing financial support of the slave trade or, as could be argued was even worse, through compensation money that was given to slave traders and owners who could no longer trade in slavery—real people.

We have forgotten the names of the slaves who were transported and barbarically treated in Guyana. Their slave names included Dingwall, Inverness, Kintail, Lewis, Ross and Sutherland.

In this emerging era of land reform, we have also forgotten, in many cases, how and why estates came to be, as has been explained through a number of speeches. From my native Caithness, one wealthy landowner who sold his lands in Scotland was then able to invest his fortune in a plantation in Guyana, and when emancipation happened he was paid more than £17,000 in compensation. That happened less than 200 years ago. While poverty and the brutal acts of the clearances were wreaking havoc across the Highlands and Islands, the rich landowners were becoming more powerful, which was in no small part down to slavery. We have forgotten, and I believe that it is vital to understand for the future policy of land reform, exactly how and why the current situation exists.

As a nation and as a legislature, we must understand where we came from and perhaps start to address the injustice of the past before we can properly move forward. A permanent memorial, as has been suggested—perhaps more than one—to remember what happened in centuries gone by is, I believe, vital in that process.

The brave women of Srebrenica had an important message for us: to remember not in hate or blame but with dignity the events of the past, in order to ensure that they never happen again. Modern Scotland has a duty not to be silent on its links to the slave trade. We should acknowledge and recognise those and, yes, should celebrate the huge steps that we have made in going forward as a country in the past 200 years.

The last contribution in the open debate is from David Stewart.


David Stewart (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

I, too, welcome the debate, and I congratulate Alasdair Allan on bringing it before our virtual Parliament and on the quality and depth of his speech.

The rich tapestry of the history of the Highlands and Islands is complex, and the pattern of land ownership today is of course—[Inaudible.]. I welcome the publication of the paper “Plantation slavery and landownership in the west Highlands and Islands: legacies and lessons”, and I thank Dr MacKinnon of Coventry University and Dr Mackillop for bringing to light the new research. That has helped us all to reflect more deeply on the suffering and injustices that so many faced under the shackles of slavery across the world, particularly in North America and the Caribbean. The research is also pertinent amid the continued reflection and dialogue that have taken place in civil society since the killing of George Floyd last year.

From the research, we now know that 63 estates were purchased by individuals and families who inherited slavery-derived wealth. The land that was bought amounted to 1.2 million acres—[Inaudible.]. The research also found that some traditional landowners who inherited their land were beneficiaries of wealth that could be sourced through plantations in Jamaica. However, the problems associated with slavery-linked wealth were not only financial, and the academics argue that those who were involved with slavery in the Caribbean took the same dehumanising attitudes back to Scotland, thereby indirectly legitimising the clearances and—[Inaudible.]—in this part of the Highlands—[Inaudible.].

The academics also found that the same slavery beneficiaries were significant contributors to the newly imagined Highlands and Islands as a “playground for the rich”, with acres of land in which to hunt as they wished. Members will be familiar with how that dark period in Scottish history still manifests itself today, with the continuing problems of depopulation, ecological damage—[Inaudible.]—that exist across the Highlands and Islands. Today, it is important that we continue to recognise that and do all that we can as elected representatives to speak up for the communities, families and individuals who have been unfairly disadvantaged as a result of such events.

The motion also mentions discussions about a permanent memorial that would recognise the events and their impact in the Highlands and Islands and on people in North America, the Caribbean and Africa. That is an interesting idea, which is well worth exploring. Our links to the slave trade and how ordinary Scots suffered in the clearances—[Inaudible.] It is right and important that everyone has an opportunity to learn about those events and their continued impact today.

The Highlands and Islands are my home. Learning more about injustices of the past will inform how we can act differently in the future in the best interests of both ordinary Highlanders and those across the world who suffer at the hands of landowners. As Grant Cardone said,

“If you don’t control your environment, someone else will.”

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Ben Macpherson to respond to the debate. [Interruption.] We seem to be having an issue with the minister’s sound. I will leave him in the hands of our broadcasting team until the issue is sorted.

I am afraid that we still are not getting sound from the minister. In order to fill the space, I will say that the debate has been one of the most interesting that I have listened to for a long time. It has been absolutely excellent, and it has made me think that I must go and read the research.

I have the option to suspend the meeting briefly. However, if it is acceptable to members, I will ask Alasdair Allan to speak again and give us his reflections on members’ contributions to the debate.


Dr Allan

I will do my best to fill up the four minutes, Presiding Officer.

My main observation comes from one or two members saying that we should not look back to the past. I accept the point that we should look forward, and I do not mean to suggest that every landowner in Scotland today is guilty of the practices of landowners in the past. However, the point that the report’s authors make is that the pattern of land ownership in Scotland is the product of payments that were made in 1833. When we consider where that money came from, it is not unreasonable that we ask some questions about the impact that that has had on modern Scotland.

Thank you. We have the minister back, so we go over to Ben Macpherson.


The Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment (Ben Macpherson)

Presiding Officer, I cannot hear you, but you might be able to hear me, so I will proceed. I apologise to colleagues for my part in any of the technical difficulties.

I congratulate Dr Allan on lodging the motion and securing the debate, which is an important one, and I commend members for their speeches.

Like colleagues, the Scottish Government fully recognises Scotland’s part in the historical injustices of slavery. We are determined to acknowledge those injustices and our part in them as a country, to learn from our past and the role that Scotland played, and to consider together how we move forward, as both Gail Ross and David Stewart emphasised.

In that spirit, I welcome the report by Dr MacKinnon and Dr Mackillop, which sheds light on the history behind Scotland’s patterns of land ownership and the legacy of slavery within that. We should not shy away from that legacy and what the report tells us, because the legacy is far reaching and we need to consider it as we move forward, as Stuart McMillan emphasised. The past cannot be changed, but the future can and must be, and the debate rightly focuses on that, too. The Scottish Government is deeply committed to building a better and more just society and to ensuring that we play our part, as part of the international community, in eradicating racism, inequality and injustice at home and in contributing to eradicating them around the globe.

In that regard, we have already played a part through our pioneering land reform legislation and the legacy of devolution so far. Land is beginning to be put back into the hands of local communities, and there is support for those communities to use the land. Since devolution began, we have increased the diversity of land ownership, including community ownership, and land reform measures that have been taken through the Scottish Parliament seek to tackle the many injustices associated with the historical patterns of land ownership to which the motion rightly refers.

As some members will know better than I do, in March 2016, the Scottish Parliament passed the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016, and we have implemented the legislation’s provisions. The 2016 act promotes responsible, diverse land ownership and addresses issues of fairness, equality and social justice connected to ownership, access and use of land by placing a statutory duty on ministers to prepare a Scottish land rights and responsibilities statement.

The 2016 act also seeks to increase transparency in land ownership—which is increasingly important—by providing powers to introduce a register of controlling interests in land, which will be set up shortly with the support of Parliament. That will ensure that communities, tenants and landowners know and understand more about who controls land in Scotland, including those from outside the UK.

The 2016 act also established the Scottish Land Commission, which, as has been mentioned, provides valuable advice to ministers on how land reform can be developed and delivered, including by encouraging culture change among those who make decisions about land. Today, the commission published a discussion paper that sets out a range of proposals for tackling the concentration of land ownership. The Government is considering those proposals.

In recent years, community right to buy and asset transfer rights have been introduced to help communities take control of assets with the potential to shape their future. Through funding from, for example, the Scottish land fund, which provides £10 million a year, communities are given much-needed financial assistance to help them achieve the community ownership that they seek. Since 2012, almost £40 million has been given to more than 240 communities to help them do just that. We have already committed to ensuring that the funding continues.

Modern-day landowners are held to a much higher standard and are much more accountable than those mentioned in the report. That is entirely correct. We have made progress, but, as Angus MacDonald rightly said, there is much more work to do. It is our duty to continue to seek ways of ensuring that our land and the way that it is used provide benefits to all people in Scotland, not just the privileged few who own such land, as John Finnie mentioned.

Let us make sure that future generations look back and judge us as having worked hard, tenaciously and effectively to redress historical wrongs, and let us dedicate our generation to building a better future for Scotland and making progress on the wrongs of the past by creating greater equality, fairness and dignity. It is up to all of us to do what we can to deliver a much fairer society in Scotland, in all policies and across all parties. That has been reflected in today’s debate.

The Government fully recognises Scotland’s part in historical injustices. We are determined to acknowledge and learn from our past and the role that Scotland played. We are committed to the process of land reform, which benefits everyone in our society. We are also committed to on-going consideration of the crucial role that land played in our nation’s past and the crucial role that it will play in our nation’s future. We look forward to collectively considering that in the months ahead, in the next session of Parliament. I am sure that members in the next session will prioritise those issues, as has been the case during this session of Parliament.

I commend Dr Allan. The Government supports the motion.

Thank you. That concludes the debate on the report, “Plantation slavery and landownership in the west Highlands and Islands: legacies and lessons”.