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Ross-shire's slavery secrets to hit shelves

By Donna MacAllister

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David Alston - stepping down as Highland Council Lib Dem group leader to spend more time in the library.
David Alston - stepping down as Highland Council Lib Dem group leader to spend more time in the library.

A VETERAN councillor who spent 15 years stripping away myths to expose the involvement of Highlanders on slave plantations has been published in a book edited by a leading Scots historian.

David Alston’s essay ‘The habits of these creatures in clinging one to the other’: Enslaved Africans, Scots and the plantations of Guyana’ is one of the chapters in Tom Devine’s new book called Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past.

The Black Isle councillor, who announced last week that he was shedding some of his political workload to make room for further research, said recovering such an ignoble aspect of Highland history was a "slow process" but he was proud of the part that he has played.

"I was among the first historians to be saying it looks as if we were very much involved in slavery," he said.

"If you read the history of Scotland up until 2000, it was as if Scotland had no involvement at all, which is absolute nonsense. Scotland was telling itself a story which excluded any reference to the whole history of slavery and the Scottish people."

His interest in the slave trade era was sparked by a reference from the 19th century Cromarty-born geologist and writer, Hugh Miller.

"This all began about 20 years ago when I realised that Hugh Miller sat next to a black pupil in 1818," he said.

"I wondered how it came to be that a Black pupil was attending school in Cromarty in 1818 and one thing led to another."

The 63-year-old has said he will not stand for re-election as a councillor in 2017 and relinquished from his role as the local authority’s leader of the Liberal Democrats last week handing the reigns to his deputy Alasdair Christie.

He would eventually like to write his own book on the Highlanders’ role in the trade and believes many local stories are waiting to be told.

"It’s about having a grown-up history of Scotland and a grown-up history of the Highlands because too often Highlanders see themselves as victims but if you wallow in that it prevents you seeing some important truths about who you are," he said.

READ more about David Alston’s research below:

TWISTED tales of slavery, adultery, illegitimate children, disputed wills − it’s all in a day’s research for the Black Isle councillor.

The story behind the enigmatic Dr William Munro, his high-society wife and their links to a notorious Guyana plantation called Alness, named after the good doctor’s Easter Ross birthplace, being just example of the kind of detail that his investigations have uncovered.

The couple lived at Viewmount, their stylish house, set in its own grounds, at Culduthel Road, now home to the BBC, with their daughters.

Councillor Alston said: "The kind and friendly doctor had made his money in Berbice, now part of Guyana on the north coast of South America, where he would have tended enslaved Africans on cotton and sugar plantations, much as a vet would look after animals, tasked with keeping them healthy enough for their owners to extract the maximum labour before their, inevitably early, deaths.

"Mrs Munro was Eliza Katz, the illegitimate daughter of Wolfert Katz, at one time the richest planter in Berbice, who had come to the colony as little more than a pedlar and gradually amassed a fortune. By 1824 he owned seven plantations and was rumoured to be worth £800,000 − about half a billion pounds in today’s values.

"Eliza’s mother descended from enslaved Africans and white slave-owners. But Eliza and her children must have had light enough skins − or was it enough money − to be accepted with little comment in Inverness society and both daughters, born in Inverness, were courted by officers stationed at nearby Fort George."

"Dr Munro shared his inheritance with three boys in Berbice − George, John and William - the ‘coloured’ children of Susannah, a slave on plantation Alness. Susannah was no more than 12 when the oldest, George, was born in 1808. Her sons did not, however, receive a share of their father’s estate and, at her death in 1850, Susannah, born a slave, was still pursuing the case. Although she was illiterate, she left instructions in her will that the case be continued by an executor in London. The elegance of William Munro’s Viewmount was in part, funded by a stolen inheritance."

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