Highland links to slave trade interrogated

31 January 2013

GCU historian Dr S. Karly Kehoe

GCU historian Dr S. Karly Kehoe

Scottish Highlanders who spent slave trade profits in the 18th and 19th centuries on philanthropic projects such as writing a Gaelic dictionary and building hospitals will be the focus of a new study carried out at Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU).

GCU historian Dr S. Karly Kehoe has received funding from the Royal Society of Edinburgh to further investigate the little-known links between the Highlands and the slave trade, focusing on how communities benefitted from their involvement. 

Dr Kehoe said: “We know the Highlanders were involved in the slave economy in significant numbers and in many ways. We know they were motivated by the prospect of financial gain and out of a need to support their estates at home. What I’m interested in is understanding more about how the money was reinvested in the Highlands and how that was perceived particularly when the region was undergoing extreme social dislocation.

“Highlanders worked as owners, overseers, lawyers, doctors and labourers in the slave economy. Money was definitely being sent back to build schools and hospitals and to fund other cultural projects. We need to know more about this.

“I hope the project will reveal the nuanced nature of Highland society and more about its social and economic development. Geography did not keep Highlanders from participating in this lucrative global economy.”

Dr Kehoe’s new study ‘Our Worthy Countrymen? : Highland Development and the West Indies, 1750-1850’ continues her research into the area and will be completed later this year.

In 2012, Dr Kehoe won the Edinburgh Beltane Challenge Award for Public Engagement for ‘Looking Back to Move Forward: Slavery and the Highlands’, a project which connected community-based historians, archivists, librarians and sixth-year pupils at Inverness Royal Academy in investigating the hitherto under-researched area.

The second phase of this public engagement project will see GCU students work with Dr Kehoe to create a resource pack focused on the role of highlanders in the slave trade. This will be delivered to schools in the region later this year for use by pupils studying the Atlantic Slave Trade in the new Curriculum for Excellence. 

Dr Kehoe said: “Ultimately it’s about rethinking Highland history and considering it within the broader global context. The lack of concentrated research on this aspect of Highland history stems from a reluctance, on the part of scholars, policy-makers and the general public, to engage with the uncomfortable and painful legacy of the region’s deep links with the slave system.

“The tendency to concentrate on the processes of clearance, land reform and the military tradition, have obscured deeper understandings of the region’s internal capacity and desire for change.”

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