Mearns and African Slavery

Mearns and African Slavery

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In 2012, Mearns History Group were involved in looking at aspects of local history  with a group of second year pupils at Mearns Castle High School. One of the questions which the pupils asked was: “Were Glasgow and Mearns directly involved in slavery?”


The Present Context

Unlike most historical questions, we tend to approach slavery with preconceived views. Due to the troubling nature of the subject, they can’t be posed like any other historical enquiry. We reserve the option almost to disbelieve, if the subject matter becomes too traumatic. This is particularly common when the questions are specifically about our home area, rather than about Britain in general. This can stir up a defensive reaction, spurred partly by pride. Will it tarnish the reputation of our city or our home area?

The main issue is to understand the facts, and leave judgement for later.



mas1During the eighteenth century British merchants carried several million enslaved Africans to America and the Caribbean to work on sugar, tobacco and cotton plantations.

The trade became known as the Transatlantic Trade Triangle. Ships set out from a British port carrying goods for sale on the coast of Africa. When the ship arrived, its cargo would be sold or bartered for slaves. They were loaded onto the ships which then made the journey across the Middle Passage from Africa to the Caribbean. Once the slave ship reached there, enslaved survivors were sold to the owners of the plantations. The ships were then loaded for the return voyage to their home port carrying a cargo of mainly sugar, tobacco or cotton.

Throughout the eighteenth century, the three British ‘Port Cities’ of Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow all became very large and successful thanks to Atlantic trade and Glasgow became the most successful of all three cities. As part of this trade, Bristol and Liverpool have come to terms with deep involvement in transatlantic slavery. If you ask anyone in the streets of Bristol and Liverpool, they will be able to tell you something about their city and slavery. In Glasgow, much less is known. One could ask therefore; Were Glasgow’s colonial merchants involved in African slavery?  But a more appropriate question might be ‘Why does it seem that Glasgow was not  involved in African slavery?’.



mas2Despite a lack of information in Glasgow’s history, there were many connections. Scots were partners in the leading slaving firms in Bristol, and various Scots managed Liv­erpool slaving companies.

In the 1750s, one tenth of London’s African traders were Scots, and this grew in succeeding dec­ades. Scots managed the leading British slaving firm, the ‘Company of Mer­chants Trading to Africa’. From its founding in 1750, Scots comprised at least a fifth of the directors.

Scots were actively involved in Africa, where Scottish traders plied the coastal waters and inland rivers in search of slaves. In the Americas, Scots figured prominently among the fac­tors and planters who shipped and purchased the slaves.



Moving from Scotland in general, to Glasgow in particular, many of the city’s leading merchants were directly involved in slave trading. One of the most prominent of these was Colonel William McDowall.To find out more about him, click here. In 1748 the Oswalds purchased an African slave fort which exported tens of thousands of Africans to the Americas. In the 1760s, the Buchanans of Buchanan Street  purchased slave ships and engaged in slave trading.

Evidence of Glasgow’s connection with the slave trade lives on in the names of streets named after the merchants who were involved in the sugar trade. For example, Buchannan Street, Oswald Street, Glassford Street.

Despite such prominent examples, and the large numbers of Glasgow merchants operating in the slave trade through English ports, very few slaving ships actually left from the Clyde. The main source, the International Slavery Database, reveals that about twenty slavers sailed directly from the Clyde, picking up just over 4,000 slaves on the African coast and carrying them across the Atlantic. This number of African men, women and children, equated to nearly half the population of Glasgow in the mid-seventeenth century. However it is an insignificant number compared with the hundreds of thousands carried by ships leaving from Bristol and Liverpool.

The Mearns Connection

From the eighteenth century the development of pastoral farming in Mearns depended largely on the Glasgow market, thanks to the growth of the city due to colonial trade. Mearns provided a large proportion of Glasgow’s butter, milk and cheese. From this time, the parish was just as much industrial as agricultural. Bleachfields and printfields sprang up all over Mearns, manufacturing cloth from cotton grown by enslaved Africans. Much of the finished cloth went back to the Americas to clothe the same enslaved African men, women and children.

Throughout the eighteenth century, like much of central Scotland, Mearns experienced a revolutionary growth in what could be produced from the land. Between the 1760s and 1790s, output from Mearns farms increased fourfold. Much of these improvements to the landscape were driven and funded by colonial merchants who had taken over the biggest estates from the traditional landowners. They were one of the few groups who had the abundant finances necessary to drain, enclose and lime fields, and to build mansions.

It is when we reach the owners of these big Mearns estates that we come to the most personal connection with slavery, and with Africans themselves. Of the top ten Mearns landowners by 1818, more than half had Caribbean or Virginia connections.



Robert Allason, the owner of Greenbank along with his brothers, engaged in colonial trade, slave trading and slave ownership. Allason brought Africans, including ‘Negro John’, back to Mearns to serve as his personal servants at Greenbank. For more information about Greenbank, click here.





Alexander Hutchison (1725 - 1788) of Southfield  (later the site of Mearnskirk Hospital) was a Jamaican planter. For more information about Southfield, click here.






The Murdochs of Capelrig historically had direct links to plantation ownership and were partners in Murdoch & Doddrell Sugar Refiners Glasgow. For more information about Capelrig, click here.






Sir James Maxwell of Pollok served an apprenticeship on a Caribbean sugar plantation. Both Maxwells and Shaw Stewarts married the daughters of Caribbean slave overseers who worked for the McDowall planter family, mentioned above.



Walton and Duncarnock were owned by Speirs of Elderslie, a leading colonial merchant.

These merchants were not engaged in some distant trading process, but personally owned Africans, had contact with them, and some even brought a few back to Glasgow and Mearns as their servants and house boys.



In summary, we can answer questions about Mearns and African slavery as follows:-

  • We know that many Glaswegians were involved in slave trading from English ports.
  • Hundreds of Glasgow merchants personally owned tens of thousands of enslaved African men, women and children on sugar plantations.
  • Glasgow’s development from a regional market town to a global city depended largely on trade goods grown by the same enslaved Africans.
  • Mearns had deep connections with Glasgow’s development and served it with food and sustenance, especially dairy products.
  • Mearns printfields relied on slave-grown products and returned the finished goods to clothe the same slaves.
  • Glasgow merchants were also leading landowners in Mearns and ploughed slavery profits into the development of the Mearns landscape.

Despite such direct connections with slavery, it was invisible to the ordinary folk who lived and worked in Mearns. It would only have been when passing the ‘big hooses’ such as Greenbank that they would actually have glimpsed an African, perhaps ‘Negro John’, dressed up in fine clothes and bowing low, as he opened the door of his master’s coach.

Stuart Nisbet (2012)

Further reading:

Hancock,D., ‘Scots in the Slave Trade’ (2001).
Nisbet,S. M.,  ‘The Sugar Adventurers of Glasgow’, History Scotland (May-June 2009).
Dufill M., ‘Slavery & Abolition’, Volume 25, Issue 3 December 2004 , pp 102 - 122


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