The Link And The Legacy (Part One)

The Link And The Legacy (Part One)

This story contains some information and historic references which some readers may find upsetting.

Nestled on the gently sloping hillside above Bridge of Tilt in Highland Perthshire sits the neat and attractive Kilmaveonaig Episcopal Church. From the Gaelic ‘cille mo Eonaig’ (the Cell of St Eonan), worship has taken place on the site for centuries. St Adamnan preached here in the 7th century, a parish church has stood here since the 13th century. Pleasingly restored in 1794, 1866 and again in 1899 it now seems both pleasant on the eye and timeless; sheltered as it is in a serene, unspoilt and beautiful part of the county.

However, the peaceful and meditative churchyard contains a reminder to one of less attractive, and shameful, episodes in Scottish history. The contrast between the nature of this tranquil setting and the abhorrence of the events surrounding Scotland’s enthusiastic involvement in the slave trade, is never more apparent than when spending a reflective moment in the contemplative setting of Kilmaveonaig churchyard. Yet this quiet corner of Perthshire is one link in the story of your morning cup of tea, the payments to slavetraders that we taxpayers bore until 2015, the rebellion that helped lead to the abolition of slavery, and the extraordinary wealth accumulated by one family.

The 1707 Union of the Parliaments gave Scottish merchants much greater access to transatlantic trade; and they responded with enthusiasm. Many Scots became involved in the sugar and tobacco trades, some as merchants, some as planters, managers or ship operators. Scottish entrepreneurs settled not just in North America and the Caribbean but along the mudflats and silty brown coastal waters of the Demerara River, in the historical region known as the Guianas (now Guyana) on the north coast of South America. It was a Dutch colony until 1815 and part of British Guiana from 1838 to 1966.

When we think of slavery it tends to bring to mind the West Indies or the southern states of America, but by 1800 Guyana had been become the most important (and profitable) link in Scotland’s slave owning heritage. Everyone in the Highlands knew of Demerara, and many took advantage of the work opportunities it offered, often using the phrase ‘coming back as rich as a Demerary man’. The links between Scotland and Guyana are undeniable, even today. Guyana is still the only English speaking country in South America and 30 or so placenames, nestled along the Demerara River, hint at Scotland’s legacy of slave ownership - Alness, Ankerville, Belladrum, Borlum, Cromarty, Culcairn, Dingwall, Dunrobin, Fyrish, Glastullich, Inverness, Kintail, Kintyre, Lochaber, Rosehall, Tain and Tarlogie among many others.

Not only did Scottish merchants profit hugely from their plantations, the trade in slaves, and the compensation paid out (following abolition) but the whole nation benefited too. The economic advantages of slavery had a trickle-down effect on every part of the Scottish economy: there was a boom in herring fishing in the Highland lochs, as this salted-down fish was a major export to the Caribbean as a cheap, protein-rich source of slave nutrition. Similarly, in the Outer Hebrides, workers were employed in the manufacture of rough linen, known as slave cloth, for export to the colonies. In fact, many Scottish towns profited so much from the slave trade, they petitioned strongly against the abolition of slavery.

One of the numerous Scottish merchants who took advantage of these new trading opportunities was James McInroy, who was born 12th August 1759 at the (now abandoned) settlement of Balnabruaich, Moulin, approximately 1.5 miles upstream, along the burn that feeds Edradour, near Pitlochry.

He moved to Demerara in 1782 and became involved in trading, through a merchant house, and through the ownership of two sugarcane plantations in Demerara and further interests in Grenada. By 1790 he was joined by Samuel Sandbach and fellow Scots Charles Stewart Parker and George Robertson. The four men founded the trading company, McInroy Sandbach & Co. Through their interests in both sugarcane harvesting, and merchant shipping, the men were able to accumulate vast fortunes as part of the lucrative ‘triangle of trade’ between the west coast of Africa, the Americas and Britain. Sugar, tobacco and eventually cotton, were shipped from the Americas to the ports of Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow. Ships then sailed to the west coast of Africa carrying textiles and rum, filled the holds with slaves (each one kept confined in an area roughly the size of a coffin), and then sailed across the Atlantic to offload the slaves and begin the grim cycle once again. The trade in slaves, and the goods they were forced to produce, created enormous amounts of wealth for more than 47,000 British subjects. 26 of these men heralded from Perthshire, of which James McInroy was just one.

The Link And The Legacy

The firm was initially involved in exporting cotton and coffee, and in importing manufactured goods from Britain. McInroy opened a store in Demerara in 1790 and used ships to trade between there and Grenada. Although the partnership owned at least two cotton plantations in Demerara, it was the success of the store that became the most significant aspect of the new enterprise.

In 1795 James McInroy set sail in haste for Grenada when he heard news that the combination of a French landing on the island and an uprising against British rule threatened his interests on the island. The incident (known as F├ędon's rebellion) lasting from 2nd March, 1795 – 19th June 1796 was an uprising against British rule in Grenada, staged by local landowners and many of their African slaves, who believed that the success of the rebellion would lead to their freedom. Fortunately for McInroy his interests were ostensibly contained in the capital St George’s, which did not fall to the hands of the rebels. McInroy managed to escape the island with around £9000 (approximately £1 million today) in goods by using the company’s ship, The Rambler, which then just managed to evade a close-fought boarding attempt by a French Navy vessel. Luckily the presence of British forces, under the command of another Scot, General Sir Ralph Abercromby, helped to crush the rebellion and McInroy escaped.

In 1797 James McInroy married Elizabeth Moore, daughter of William Moore of St Eustatius (another plantation owner), with whom he had four children: James Patrick, William, and Margaret and Elizabeth. All McInroy’s children would benefit massively from his involvement in the exploitation of slave labour. At the time of his marriage James was 38 and his bride just 15. We can safely assume that the marriage was in the financial interest of Elizabeth’s father for him to allow the union to take place.

The partners reconvened in Demerara but trade became difficult in the following months and it was insufficient to support all four men. McInroy and Sandbach concentrated on the trading aspect and eventually formed the Demerara-based firm of McInroy, Sandbach & Company in 1801.

McInroy, Parker and Sandbach all returned to Britain in 1801, after the foundation of the Demerara firm. Once there, they established in Glasgow the firm of McInroy, Parker & Company as the Scottish arm of their venture. A year later, they formed another branch in Liverpool.

By 1810 Sugar became their main business interest. The vast numbers of slaves employed on the firm’s plantations ensured huge profits, with the men being dubbed as the ‘Rothchilds of Demerara’. Discipline in the Demerara plantations was harsh, as were the conditions. Thousands succumbed to Yellow Fever, including many of the white slave owners and managers. Voracious mosquitoes, cockroaches, spiders and flies bit without discrimination and the searing heat was unbearable at times. The ‘11 o’clock flog’ was administered to any slave seen to be slacking in their work, a practice which was not stopped until 1826, despite the transportation of slaves having ended in 1807. Sexual abuse was so endemic that, by 1819, one in 50 of the enslaved population was the child or grandchild of a white European. Screams were often heard from the heart of the plantation during the middle of the day. The rape of slave women and girls over the age of 12 was a routine occurrence and an ‘expected privilege’ of the slave owners.

Even though Parliament prohibited the transportation of any further slaves in British vessels from 1807 it was to be another 26 years before slaves were finally freed.

By the time slavery was abolished McInroy, Parker and Sandbach had become by far the largest owner of plantations and slaves in what was by then British Guiana. Records show that the provisions for compensation to slave owners, made under the terms of the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, resulted in a payment of £150,452 to the company – almost £18 million today. The compensation was the second-largest payment made to any mercantile concern in Britain. The large sums paid in compensation to the Demerara slave owners came from their greed. Rather than accept the £68 per slave payment offered by the government, they demanded £100 per slave for the ‘sugar boilers’, which they claimed was a’ skilled profession’.

In 1820 James McInroy purchased the large Lude Estate in Blair Atholl and settled his family there. He purchased a family plot, close by at Kilmaveonaig Church. The plot holds the graves of several members of his family, as well as a memorial to James McInroy. Railings surrounding the plot were removed in the Second World War (as part of the national war effort to collect iron), but otherwise the plot is unchanged. The monument does not mention the McInroy’s plantations or past exploits. It is a simple family memorial engraved as followed:


By the time James McInroy passed away in 1825 he was a respected sugar merchant. Although he did not profit directly from the slave compensation payments (which were not made until 1833, eight years after his death), he was already a wealthy man in his own right. In his will he left £172,913 (approximately £22.5 million today) to his sons.

The National Records of Scotland list the extraordinary compensation payments made to all Scottish slave owners between 1833 – 1837. These included 26 individuals in Perthshire, who received a total of £270,000 compensation for the 4300 slaves they held on 42 plantations. Of this, James McInroy’s eldest son (named James Patrick) received £200,337 (about £26million today) as compensation for the family’s 1741 slaves. James Patrick then commissioned the famous architect William Burne to build what is now known as Lude House, along with extensive landscaping and walled gardens, as well as many buildings on the estate and much of the village of Bridge of Tilt.

The family fortune gradually declined, however, and the estate was sold to new owners in 1938.

Even after James McInroy’s death in 1825, his company continued until the 1920s as major transporters of indentured labour. Following the emancipation of slaves, the plantation owners still needed a cheap workforce, and indentured labour merely replaced the slaves. (An indentured servant or labourer was an employee who was bound by a signed or forced contract to work without pay – in return for board and lodging - for the owner of the indenture for a period of time).

This became a feature of society on the Demerara plantations following the abolition of slavery and usually involved the importation of workers from India. The treatment of imported Indian workers, brought in on 5-year contracts under the indentured labour scheme, was not much better. A neighbouring plantation to James McInroy was owned by another Scot John Gladstone, father of the future British prime minister William Gladstone. He noted of the Indian workers, ‘they have few wants beyond eating, sleeping and drinking’, referring to them as ‘hill coolies of India’ and ‘more akin to the monkey than the man’. When asked if his workers objected to such a long voyage he declared ‘they are unaware of the place they agree to go to or the voyage they are undertaking’.

Incidentally, William Gladstone was not the only British Prime Minster whose ancestors profited from the slave trade. Among the descendants of the recipients of slave-owner compensation is also the former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.

The name of the James McInroy’s Demerara firm was changed from McInroy, Sandbach & Co. to Sandbach, Parker & Co. in 1861. It continued its interests in shipping and sugar until it was eventually wound up in 1975.

So, with the winding up of his company in 1975, and the sale of McInroy’s Lude Estate in 1938, Highland Perthshire’s last link with the slave trade disappeared. Now, a fading memorial in a remote churchyard is all that marks the huge fortunes once amassed by one family. Until the abolition of slavery, how were slaveowners able to make such profits? And when The Abolition of Slavery Act finally came, just how did the British Government finance the millions of pounds needed to compensate the slave traders? If you don’t already know the answers, you may be surprised.

The Link And The Legacy