SCOTLAND’S leading historian Professor Sir Tom Devine has called for a swift “public apology” from a senior academic investigating a university’s links to slavery after he labelled him and a colleague racists.

Devine spoke out amid an ­escalating war of words and days ­after the ­University of Edinburgh ­principal faced a call to quit if he was not ­prepared to defend Devine and ­Professor Jonathan Hearn from ­attack by Sir Geoff Palmer.

Palmer, a professor knighted for his human rights work, condemned the two historians in a clash over the legacy of the 18th-century ­lawyer and politician Sir Henry Dundas, 1st ­Viscount Melville and a former ­University of Edinburgh student.

Dundas has been at the centre of controversy in the wake of the Black Lives’ Matter movement.

READ MORE: Top Scots academics in 'racism' row over Edinburgh's links to slavery

Some historians argue he helped in the ending of the slave trade, pointing to a statement he made in the House of Commons in 1792 in which he said “the slave trade ought to be abolished”. He also defended Joseph Knight, a slave brought to Scotland who was later freed when the Court of Session ruled slavery was not ­recognised by Scots law, effectively outlawing slavery in Scotland.

However, Palmer and others ­believe Dundas held back abolition. They say Dundas argued for a gradual end to the trade, which they say could have happened 15 years before the passing of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 had it not been for his intervention.

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday National, Devine, emeritus professor of history at the University of Edinburgh, was asked to respond to being branded a racist.

He said: “It makes me angry and determined to exact some form of ­retribution or apology.

“One of the most important part of a scholar’s standing is their ­reputation. A reputation built up over many years can easily be shredded by something like this.

“The ordinary man and woman in the street will not look at the detail, they will look at the headlines used.

“It would have to be a public ­apology and I would have to be ­satisfied that it covers all the bases before I would accept it.

“I think the chances of such an apology coming voluntarily are next to zero.”

He added he wanted the public apology “as soon as possible”.

Last week former Edinburgh ­University rector Iain Macwhirter ­intervened in the row calling for Peter Mathieson, the institution’s principal, to “stand up for decency in debate, or stand down” if he could not defend Devine and Hearn. It was reported in The Times yesterday that Mathieson (below) has reprimanded Palmer for failing to conduct debate “in a respectful ­manner”.

The National: Peter Mathieson

However his intervention did not satisfy Devine who wants further ­action to be taken. Devine told the Sunday National last night ­Mathieson should dismiss Palmer from ­chairing the committee investigating the ­university’s links to slavery.

“The Times reported that the ­principal of Edinburgh had ‘reprimanded’ the individual concerned,” Devine said.

“But in the same report it was abundantly clear from his response that there was not a trace of ­contrition from him on what has been described as nothing more than ‘a slap on the wrist’.

“The university should know by now that there is only one way to deal with this person. Dismiss him from the chair of the relevant committee as soon as possible before he does further damage to the reputation of a great Scottish institution.”

Devine went on to say that it was “ironic” he had been attacked in such as way as he was the first historian to study Scotland’s links with the slave system and did so at a time when Scottish society may have been “in denial” about it.

He pointed to a wealth of research he had conducted on Scotland’s role in building the British Empire and its links to slavery.

“You could argue I am one of the few people who have a cast iron anti-racist credentials in historical terms.

“I edited the first ever academic study of Scotland’s deep connections to the slave system and therefore ­ended generations of amnesia and ­denial perhaps,” he said.

“I am the author of Scotland’s ­Empire and To the Ends of the Earth, Scotland’s Global Diaspora 1850 to 2010 and I am also the co-editor of Scotland and the British Empire.

“In all of these I have cast a ­considerable analytical lens on the darker sides of Scotland’s overseas ­activities, as well as course on the more positive sides.

READ MORE: There is more than the slave trade to confront in Scotland’s colonial past

“So this is why I find it not only ironic but remarkable that I have been subjected to this level of abuse and aggression in the sewer of social media.”

The bitter row over Dundas ­erupted after Hearn questioned the content of a new sign – put up by ­Edinburgh city council which is holding a ­separate ­review into the city’s links with ­slavery – under a monument to ­Dundas in St Andrew’s Square. The sign states the enslavement of 500,000 Africans was a consequence of Dundas’s actions in government.

Hearn, professor of political and historical sociology, noted in a magazine article the sign failed to ­mention Dundas’s role as the lawyer who ­successfully represented Knight.

Palmer then described Hearn, as a member of “an academic racist gang”. When Devine said Palmer’s “appalling slurs” should result in his ­dismissal as chairman of a group ­assessing the university’s historical links with slavery, he too was ­branded a racist.

Devine, 76, was knighted in the 2014 Queen’s Birthday Honours for ­“services to the study of Scottish history”. He is the only historian honoured to date for that reason. He is currently in the process of ­considering whether to take legal action against Palmer and has consulted lawyers.

The National: The top of the statue of Henry Dundas in Edinburgh's St Andrew Square

Dundas’s legacy is still the matter of ongoing research by scholars.

But Devine said that historical ­figures should not be judged by ­modern day standards.

“The past is a different world and it’s got different assumptions. It is possible to judge the recent past in these terms, classic examples would be Hitler or Stalin, as they are within living memory,” he said.

“But if you go back to the period we are concerned with here which is from the late 17th to the early 19th century, it was only from the 1770s in Scotland and the UK as a whole that the slave system began to be ­questioned.

“So the population who lived ­before then, and perhaps for a few decades after that, it is crazy to judge them by our criteria. They knew no better. It was a horrible system and ­particularly a horrible and cruel ­system to ­modern eyes but these ­societies accepted human beings as property. And therefore historians have got to be very careful in judging them. The question should be ‘did they have any alternative course of action?’”

Knighted for his human rights work in 2014, Palmer, 81, is a well known anti-racism campaigner. He came to Britain as a child from Jamaica and was the first black person ­appointed professor in Scotland when he was awarded the chair in grain ­sciences at Heriot-Watt university. He is ­currently emeritus professor in the school of life sciences at Heriot-Watt.

A University of Edinburgh spokesperson said: “Our commitment to reviewing the University’s past and present links on race remains steadfast."

A spokesperson for Heriot-Watt University, said: “Professor Sir Geoff Palmer shared his personal views in an independent capacity and it would be inappropriate for us to comment further at this time.” Palmer was approached via Heriot-Watt but did not respond to a request for a comment.

Controversy hit the University of Edinburgh in 2020 when the name of the Scottish philosopher David Hume – of the central figures of the ­Enlightenment – was dropped from one of its buildings after students’ concern about a comment he had made on race.