Big Hooses Built on the Backs of Slaves by Stephen McLaren

In the last six months I have been shooting a project which examines Scotland’s links with the slave-based sugar economy of Jamaica in the 18th and 19th Century. I visited Jamaica in early Spring and shot photographs of properties which were owned Scottish plantation-owners owned and which grew sugar-cane using the forced labour of African slaves. Many of these men, grew fabulously wealthy and built elaborate plantation houses, some of which remain, while others have become ruins.

Even though I studied some economic history at university the syllabus never got round to enlightening us as to how a significant part of Scotland’s economic growth in that period derived from the proceeds of wealth created by Scottish plantation owners in the West Indies. For instance it is estimated that about a third of Jamaican sugar was grown by Scottish planters who in turn held tens of thousands of black Africans in bondage while producing this crop. I find it odd and very sad that this period in Scottish history is little known about, though in recent years several historians, like Sir Tom Devine, Stephen Mullen and Sir Geoff Palmer, have been writing revelatory books which are beginning to fill-in the gaps in our knowledge.

As we all know sugar is a commodity with almost addictive powers and in the 18th century people were adding it to baking, jams, tea and drinks and the entire population of Britain craved the sweetness that became affordable to almost everyone thanks to slave labour. However the inhumane system by which sugar was produced was largely overlooked, or was even seen as a necessary evil by those who thought Africans were an expendable race. Many of the Scottish sugar barons in Jamaicans returned to their home country determined to become respectable gentlemen of society. Some even brought slaves back home with them to act as butlers.

To complete this project I decided to find the properties that were bought or originally owned by these “respectable gentlemen”. As in Jamaica, some properties were splendid country estates, others in more dilapidated condition. Several like Rozelle House in Ayrshire and Strathleven House in the Vale of Leven have been taken over by local authorities as the cost of upkeep became too large for subsequent generations.

Rozelle House, Ayrshire. For those with a sweet tooth you can get a sumptuous cream tea in a stunning garden which was owned by slaveowner, Douglas Hamilton. Although the estate is now owned by Ayrshire Council there is little to alert day-trippers to the origins of Rozelle’s history in sugar and slavery.
Rozelle House (c)Stephen McLaren, 2015
Inveresk Lodge (c)Stephen McLaren, 2015

Inveresk Lodge in Musselburgh, was owed by James Wedderburn, who with his brother John owned several plantations in Jamaica. James Wedderburn had many illegitimate children with his black slaves in Jamaica though he did not bring them back to Inveresk Lodge, presumably so he would not be shunned by polite society.

Ballendean House (c)Stephen McLaren, 201

Ballendean House in Perthshire was owned by Sir John Wedderburn who owned Glen Isla plantation in Jamaica. Many Scottish plantation owners named their Jamaican properties after locations in Scotland that they knew well. They also gave their surnames to many of their slaves and there are still many people named Wedderburn in Western Jamaica as a result. Ballendean House has lots of land and a lake and is currently owned by a Christian group who let local sports teams use the playing fields.

Strathleven House (c)Stephen McLaren, 2015

Strathleven House is one of the first Palladian designed house in Scotland. It was owned for a period by James Ewing, who owned plantations became Lord Provost of the city. Ewing was instrumental in developing Jamaica Street in Glasgow to mark the trade which benefited the city so well.

Blackness Castle (c)Stephen McLaren, 2015

Blackness Castles was the seat of the Wedderburn family in the middle ages. As the Wedderburns got caught-up in the Jacobite rebellions the castle and land was taken from them by the Crown. On returning to Scotland from Jamaica, John Wedderburn campaigned and won to have the title that went with Blackness Castle to be restored to him.

Gartmore House (c)Stephen McLaren, 2015

Gartmore House near Aberfoyle, was the family seat of the Cunningham-Graham family. Robert Cunningham-Graham made a fortune in Jamaica with his plantation at Roaring Rover and returned to Scotland to become a large land-owner and an MP.

Finlaystone House (c) Stephen McLaren 2015

Finlaystone House was also owned by Robert Cunningham-Graham. It has amazing views over the Clyde and is privately owned by a different family these days.

The Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) (c) Stephen McLaren 2015

The Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) in Glasgow was originally a huge private house by William Cunningham who made his fortune in tobacco trade with America. It was then bought by the merchants of the city and turned into the Royal Exchange. Lord Provost, James Ewing was instrumental in this.

Saughie Estate (c) Stephen McLaren 2015

The Saughie Estate in Clackmannanshire was once owned by Sir James Stirling, who once owned several plantations in Jamaica. On returning to Scotland he became Lord Provost of Edinburgh.

The project which led me to take photos of these locations will be shown at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in September. The exhibition contains work from all four members of Document Scotland and is curated by Anne Lyden, the head of international photography at the SNPG. A radically different selection of images to the one shown here will be presented in the gallery. The exhibition opens to the public on the 25th of Sept and will run for six months. More details here…

Share this:

5 thoughts on “Big Hooses Built on the Backs of Slaves by Stephen McLaren

  1. Hello,
    I wonder whether Sir James Stirling , Lord Provost of Edinburgh is the same James Stirling that owned several plantations in Jamaica? According to the “The Stirlings of Keirs and their Family Papers” by William Fraser (1858) James Stirling was the eldest son of William Stirling, the brother of Archibald Stirling of Keir – who bequeathed the plantations and sugar works of Hampden, Keir and Frontier in Jamiaca.

    Sir James Stirling, Provost of Edinburgh was the son of Alexander Stirling, a merchant in Edinburgh and Jane Moir. He did work as a clerk to Stirling of Keir in Jamaica and on his return to Scotland he became a partner in Mansfield, Ramsay & Co. bank; he married Alison Mansfield, the daughter of a partner. In 1790 he became Provost of Edinburgh and around that time he purchased the lands & estate of Garrieve in the parish of New Cumnock, Ayrshire. In 1792 he was made 1st Baronet of Mansfield, the name Garrieve soon disappeared from the parish with the estate taking on the name Mansfield in honour of his wife. He sold these lands soon after but his his son Gilbert retained title of 2nd Baronet of Mansfield and purchased an estate in Larbert.

  2. Malcolm Laing originated from Orkney in Scotland. He was attirney in Jamai a for a number of plantation and estate owners includi g my ancestor Edward Manning in 1760s after his death He was appointed Receiver and becane trustee of his estates, houses receiots and enslaves, etc in Kingston those in Clarendon St Andrews Portland and St Thomas in the East. He took on tge role of merchant etc after tge death of George Paplay Edward’s brother law and dealth with the courts relating to the debt ow i g to the English crown for a debt owed.

    Malcolm died inJamaic and bequeathe money to family members in Scotland. Did he have any propertied in Scotland or owned by them or infirmation of present day famied I see Rebecca Lain your researcher is involved in researhs is sbe relaed to him?

    1. I am a direct descendant of Malcolm Laing and have done a certain amount of research into the family history. Although he died (in 1781) a very wealthy man, as far as I know he owned no property in Britain. According to his nephew Samuel (see An Autobiography of Samuel Laing of Papdale 1780-1868, ed. R.P.Fereday, Bellavista Publications 2000) ‘the bulk of his property…seems to have been lost, as West Indian property often is, by the neglect and mismanagement of the executors’, but his heir, his brother Robert in Orkney, received enough to enable him ‘to make some purchases of land’. The family certainly did not appear to receive any lasting benefit, though apart from Samuel himself who was often struggling financially, they seem to have been comfortably off.

      My own ancestor was Malcolm’s illegitimate son, also named Robert, who being of mixed race received only £2000 under his father’s will, the maximum allowable under Jamaican law. This was a not inconsiderable sum at the time, but he managed to lose it all and ended up starving in a garret in Westminster.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Since 2012, this website has been dedicated to featuring not only the collective's projects but also nurturing an archive that highlights the diverse documentary work created by numerous photographers throughout Scotland. Please consider supporting the work we do on Patreon if you can. Thank you.

Become a Patron!