THE argument about Scottish links with slavery continues, and the National Trust for Scotland has just published the results of a survey it conducted on how much the people who built our historic stately homes and castles owed to profits from the slave trade.

This is hardly a matter of the trust jumping on a bandwagon, because public debate about slavery has been raging for a couple of years, not least in the pages of The National. The trust is not taking part in that debate as such. Its head of heritage, Michael Terwey, says the new report avoids “grand sweeping statements on colonialism”, and focuses instead on facts. He explains: “This is research that helps us to understand our properties, and follow the links between families and the money that often funded them, rather than big overarching themes”.

It makes a pleasant change on a polemical battlefield. Terwey is also hinting at a parallel controversy that has gone on south of the Border, with the National Trust taken to task by the Black Lives Matter movement.

When the English trust published its own report on the colonial connections of its properties, it was condemned for underplaying how much of a fine architectural heritage was owed to slavery. Demonstrations took place on city streets. In Bristol, protesters tore down the statue of a wealthy slaver in the seventeenth century and threw it into the River Avon.

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Nothing so unruly has happened in Scotland. The report from our trust is a commendable effort to keep Scots well informed about the issues at stake, so that the facts do not need demonstrations to get uncovered. A committee chaired by Dr Jennifer Melville has completed a survey of 48 monuments in its care in order to quantify the evidence they yield. She defines her aim as a better understanding of how Scots came to build the properties they owned, especially when the money was earned overseas.

Dr Melville says: “I was aware that across the world curators were looking afresh at properties in the light of political changes and how we were interpreting them. But on a moral level, I feel we owed it to people to look at their history in its broadest sense. That includes gender and class issues, but most fundamentally how the money

came about.”

History shows us something even more fundamental, the fact that the Scotland of the Union of Crowns from 1603 to 1707 had a history of acute crisis, marked especially by ruinous wars. One essential way forward was to build up foreign commerce but the major initiative of the Darien scheme proved disastrous too. Scotland seemed doomed to a future of poverty and backwardness confined to the fringes of European civilisation.

The alternative finally chosen, by hook or by crook, was the Union of Parliaments, or a loss of national independence compensated by membership of the English Empire (henceforth the British Empire). The English, like other European conquerors of the New World, ran their empire on slavery. Scots joined an already established system they had no means to change.

So Scots in their turn set off to enrich themselves from sugar, cotton and tobacco, produced by the gruelling labour of an enslaved workforce of blacks forcibly transported from Africa to the Americas. The Scots also brought their wealth home and spent it on, among other things, a dozen castles now in the care of the National Trust and several vanities, such as the Glenfinnan Monument and Inverewe Gardens.

Today’s Scotland is in the midst of a dispute over how we should regard this part of our heritage and whether it demands any recompense from us for black suffering and death more than 200 years ago.

These are emotional issues, but it does not follow that arguing them out in a cool and objective manner is somehow unjust to the victims. Nor does it add up to the complicity that some modern opinion formers tell us we must atone for.

FOR instance, the founder of modern economics, Adam Smith, was a committed opponent of slavery. In his great work The Wealth of Nations (1776) he set out a case against it that rested on a new argument.

He said it was unprofitable because it deprived essential workers of any interest in the jobs they were forced to carry out, and so made their labour inefficient. Free workers, on the other hand, always had an incentive to be as efficient as possible.

Smith was not ignoring or discounting the decisive moral argument against slavery. Rather, he chose instead the argument that had the best chance of striking home in the minds of slave owners and converting them to emancipation. We should trust his judgment about how to sway the public opinion of his time, which he knew and we don’t.

I’ve written up some of this history myself, yet I do not accept the politically correct line that modern Scots share their ancestors’ guilt. This is because, in my judgment, guilt is in most cases not a collective but an individual matter.

That is one reason why I have already written in The National that I exempt the Dundas family of Arniston and Melville of any guilt over slavery. They ruled Scotland as its people rose to prominence in the British Empire.

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In the 1790s Henry Dundas, UK Home Secretary, got the job of starting the process towards the abolition of the slave trade that would finally come about in 1806. By proposing strategic compromises, he gathered more support for abolition than had ever been shown before. It was still not enough to push abolition through, but it was a decisive step forward. It is held against him by the politically correct today.

The Dundases were actually abolitionists in their personal and professional conduct. They had helped to have slavery banned from the soil of Scotland itself. They had ancient forms of serfdom abolished inside that jurisdiction. They sought full civil rights for religious minorities. They were non-racists, and adopted into the family the mixed race daughter of one of its sons.

Dundas was a gradualist on the slave trade because in practical terms he could be nothing else while there was no actual parliamentary majority for abolition. He decided the best way forward from there was to adopt a gradualist approach, with abolition to take seven years while preparations for black freedom were put in place. But he could not get this proposal past the House of Lords, and the abolition had to wait till 1806.

France had meanwhile abolished the slave trade, though before long the Emperor Napoleon re-opened it. This shows the difference between a revolutionary and a parliamentary system. In the one, a military despot enforced his own will. In the other, free votes made laws – the basis of modern democracy.