26 May 2024
  • 26 May 2024

Glasgow, The Clyde and Slavery by D. Pettigrew book review

on 28 October 2023 0

Brian Hannan, local author and manager of Abbey Books in Paisley, reviews Glasgow, The Clyde and Slavery by D. Pettigrew

Britain was officially involved in the slave trade for 170 years, from Charles II granting a charter in 1663 until the Slave Abolition Act of 1833. It’s estimated that during that period British ships were responsible for transporting 3.1 million slaves, 400,000 of whom died on the voyage. 


Although there was widespread public condemnation of this heinous commerce and Britain eventually led the way in tackling global slavery, it turned out that companies involved in the business were compensated to the tune of £20 million (equivalent to £2.9 billion today), the government processing 46,000 individual claims. While Scottish ships were only involved in a comparatively minor fashion, 5,000 slaves transported from Scottish ports between 1706 and 1766, for example, Scottish businessmen were more heavily involved through the use of slaves on their tobacco and cotton plantations and proportionately more of this compensation found its way into Scottish pockets than those of any other region.

Many Glasgow locations – Glassford St, Dunlop St, Ingram St, Oswald St and Elderslie St, for example – were named after wealthy tobacco and cotton barons. And many famed estates and country houses were built on the product of slave labour. In the forms of bequests this money also ran into the coffers of the City Council, the Mitchell Library and the University of Glasgow.



This book sets out to identify in effect the main beneficiaries, listing by city and town, those locations connected with the slave trade. Glasgow was the chief recipient of such largesse. While you might be familiar with some of the more famous names, you might also be surprised to learn that Bellahouston Park was built on tobacco fortunes and Camphill House in Queen’s Park on cotton money while Pollok Park and Haggs Castle have similar unsavoury connections.

Outside of Scotland’s biggest city, the coastal lands were ripe for investment from revenue harvested from plantations. Finlaystone House at Langbank, Gourock Park, the Ardgowan Estate at Inverkip, Milliken in Johnstone, Castle Semple at Lochwinnoch, Duchal Park in Kilmacolm, even Cappielow, the home of Greenock Morton, are all tainted.  

William Maxwell Alexander of Inchinnan received £41,918 (£6.1 million equivalent today) in compensation; Admiral Sir Houston Stewart of Inverkip £2,998 (£440,000); Sir William Milliken Napier £2,555 (£375,000); Celia King of Kilmacolm £2,070 (£303,000); and William MacDowall of Lochwinnoch £5,139 (£754,000). 

Port Glasgow and Greenock were the main Scottish ports employed for transporting slaves. Of 27 voyages undertaken in Scotland in the eighteenth century, two-thirds started out from Greenock and Port Glasgow, taking goods to Africa which were then sold to purchase slaves subsequently shipped to Virginia, Grenada, St Kitts, Brazil, Martinique and Barbados. On eleven voyages between 1759 and 1766 ships departing from Greenock delivered 1,836 people into slavery.

Oddly enough, possibly because it was not a port, Paisley had few links. Blackhall Manor was owned by the Stewarts, Ralston estate by William MacDowall II and his son is commemorated in Paisley Abbey. Anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass made a speech at the Secession Church in Abbey Close in 1846.

Like many people I worked or lived in these streets – Glassford St in Glasgow, MacDowall St in Johnstone, for example  – or took trips to some of these locations without being too aware of their antecedents. You could call it Glasgow’s “horrible history”. At one point it was a hidden history, but thanks to this book, and other researchers delving into the vaults, the secrets have surfaced. 

Glasgow, The Clyde and Slavery is published by Stenlake Books price £14.95. Available from Abbey Books, 21 Wellmeadow Street, Paisley PA1 2EF, good bookshops and Amazon.

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