Carbeth: slavery in the landscape

Here, at Carbeth, we live in a landscape underwritten by many rich and complex human stories. Neolithic people lived and travelled through Carbeth many thousand of years ago and, since these early settlers, this landscape has many stories of passage to tell, from seventeenth-century cattle drovers, to nineteenth-century railway navvies, to the walkers on today’s West Highland Way.

Carbeth is also a landscape that has witnessed fierce conflicts over property: it’s a place where individuals and collectives, private wealth and communal models of land ownership, have found themselves in direct dispute.

I often reflect upon the human stories of Carbeth as I walk around this landscape. But until a couple of years ago, when I found myself poking around UCL’s legacies of slave ownership database I hadn’t thought too much about the provenance of so much of the wealth that once bought and owned Carbeth. I had not thought, in short, about how the story of the peaceful and beautiful landscape in which I enjoyed living was bound up with another story: a story of brutal exploitation and oppression on the one hand and immense private gain on the other. For this landscape that looks so Scottish is, in fact, also Caribbean. Its quiet white-painted properties, its familiar nineteenth-century “improvements,” the very shape of the land itself — all of these were developed through the profits of slave labour.

The land my home now sits on, the very stones with which my house was built, were, in the nineteenth century, owned by members of what’s been dubbed Glasgow’s “sugar aristocracy”: the wealthy merchants who made their fortunes from the human bodies they owned, and the commodities they produced, on their West Indian estates. These men and their families amassed enormous wealth from the profits of slave labour and, following the abolition of slavery in 1833, also received huge compensation sums from the British Government for the commercial losses they sustained.

How did the story of slavery and sugar become imbricated with this landscape?

The name “Carbeth” was first listed in records of this area in the late seventeenth century and, by 1754, it is named as a settlement on Roy’s miltary survey of Scotland. On other eighteenth-century maps, just north of Carbeth loch, the “clachan” and “Townfoot” of Carbeth are listed – a small cluster of fairly modest properties set in largely undeveloped land.

(Ordnance Survey map of Carbeth, 1864)

During the eighteenth century, many Glasgow merchants amassed huge fortunes from the profits of Caribbean slavery, and by the early decades of the nineteenth, had begun to ostentatiously display their wealth in the large country houses and estates they purchased in the surrounding landscape, particularly to the city’s west and north. Just after 1800, the 286 acre estate of Carbeth was purchased by one such sugar merchant — John Guthrie, a key figure in Grenada’s eighteenth-century plantocracy elite and a member of the Smith family of Glasgow’s Jordanhill who, as Stephen Mullen puts it: “were amongst the most successful West India families in the late eighteenth century, and succeeded in converting capital derived from Caribbean slavery into land in the west of Scotland.” Having converted his slavery profits into land, Guthrie set about “improving” his new property.

Guthrie enjoyed developing Carbeth. He began “to form the garden, ornamental water, and pleasure grounds which now add so much to the beauty of the place.” Additional “improvements” included building stables, housing and offices for estate staff, and a dam and watermill (where our house is now situated). The saw mill processed lumber from the surrounding woods, and during this period, Guthrie also developed the Cuilt road – which now runs past the top of our garden, connecting the estate with Blanefield to the east and Stockiemuir to the west. The new road must have helped with the transport of processed lumber, as well as improving general access to Carbeth.

Guthrie died in 1834, and his cousin, William Smith, inherited his country estate. Smith had been Lord Provost of Glasgow in 1822-4 and, like his cousin, had made a huge fortune from the combined profits of sugar and slave labour. Guthrie co-owned Jordanhill sugar plantation in Trinidad, the Wotten Waven estate in Dominica and held commercial interests in the estate of Bellaire in St Vincent. In 1833, when Britain abolished slavery, there were 154 enslaved people on Smith’s Jordanhill plantation and 135 at Bellaire. The British Government awarded the merchant claimants of these two estates £7649 8s 0d and £3697 10s 11d respectively under its compensation programme following slavery’s abolition- the total value of which (in today’s money) amounts to over a million pounds.

With the vast sum he received from the British government, Smith decided to improve his cousin’s country estate. In 1835, “from plans furnished by the late John Baird” Smith “made a considerable addition to the house.”

Smith named his country house “Carbeth Guthrie”, and that’s the name the large and handsome property he built retains today.

(Carbeth Guthrie, with the steading of Easter Carbeth – where we live, above the loch, in the distance)

In 1878, in The Old Country Houses of the Old Glasgow Gentry, Carbeth was described thus:

“This picturesque little estate is in the parish of Strathblane and county of Stirling, close to the Allander burn, which here separates Stirlingshire from Dumbartonshire. It is situated in the upper or hill part of the parish, and the views, from many parts of it, of the beautiful Valley of the Blane and the Highland hills, are particularly fine.”

These “fine views” are still apparent, but what do we, who live here, really see when we look at this landscape? Do we see how these peaceful places are underwritten by a history of violence and brutality? Do we see oppression and inequality, the grotesque exploitation of one race while another amassed huge wealth? The landscape of Carbeth contains many human stories but – and I have felt this especially over the past few days – it is crucial that we acknowledge this story in particular. For this distinctively Scottish story can only be thought of as “hidden” or “invisible” because many Scots would rather not look at it, but it too is written in this landscape, and it is part of who we are. The story of Glasgow sugar and Caribbean slavery, the horrific legacy of racist, racial oppression, underwrites the quietness, the ease and comfort, the fine views that are enjoyed by myself, by Tom, and by our friends and neighbours. In our ownership of property here, at Carbeth, it is also important that we own our knowledge of its story.

The definitive work on this subject is that of Stephen Mullen – and I’m looking forward to his forthcoming book, Glasgow’s Sugar Aristocracies in the British Atlantic World