Mearns and African Slavery

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Colonel William McDowall

When anyone makes a great fortune, somewhere further down the line, large numbers of people have to labour away for very little return, even as slaves. The big question for Glasgow and Mearns is, how direct was the connection between the rich merchant and the enslaved labour?

Compared with slave trading, owning slaves on plantations was a bigger personal issue for Glasgow merchants. By the eighteenth century, the colonies were a common destination for younger sons of mercantile or landed families. Looking into the stories of many Glasgow families reveals apprenticeships spent on sugar or tobacco plantations. Those who survived the harsh climate achieved wealth way beyond their dreams, far greater than from any other venture at the time.

A prominent example was Colonel William McDowall. Colonel McDowall (1678-1748) was the 5th son of a landed family from the Garthland estate in Galloway. Since, as a younger son, he was unlikely to achieve a significant inheritance, he used his father’s connections to secure an apprenticeship in the Caribbean.


Glasgow and the Clyde ports had been trading with the volcanic Leeward Islands of St Kitts and Nevis since the 1640’s and there were three sugar houses in Glasgow at the time William McDowall set sail for the Caribbean in the 1690s. He was apprenticed for 10 years to Colonel Daniel Smith on a sugar plantation on Nevis as an overseer. Overseers were described as “poor Scotch lads who by their assiduity and industry frequently became masters of the plantation”.

McDowall served in the island militia, from where he took the title of Colonel, but was never involved with the British Army. He quickly worked through the plantation system and eventually managed one of the largest plantations on the island. By 1707 McDowall owned his own small plantation on St Kitts and purchased 12 enslaved Africans. When the French were ousted from half of the island, he was granted the 800 acre Canada Hills plantation which was to be his family’s core plantation for the next century. The plantation comprised a plantation house, 2 horse mills, a boiling house, a still house and later a windmill.

The windmill on Canada Hills Plantation St Kitts
The windmill on Canada Hills Plantation St Kitts
The Windmill on Conference Plantation Grenada
The Windmill on Conference Plantation Grenada


Colonel McDowall then married Mary Tovey, the daughter of a neighbouring planter from his early years on Nevis. Mary Tovey’s family originally came from Bristol. Once Colonel McDowall had secured his family fortunes he returned to Britain in 1724, relying heavily on his military “pedigree” to climb into society. From this time, other young Glasgow men and members of the McDowall family had arrived in the islands to manage and expand the business to other Caribbean islands, including Grenada, where the McDowall’s main holding was the Conference Plantation.

Shawfield Mansion
Shawfield Mansion

At home in Glasgow, Colonel McDowall repaired the Shawfield Mansion, damaged in the Shawfield riots of 1725, making it one of the first palatial houses built upon trade profit.

He then bought the Castle Semple Estate in Lochwinnoch for £10,000 and subsequently owned land in many other parts of Renfrewshire, stretching from Lochwinnoch, to the fringes of Mearns at Cathcart.

He had the castle on the Lochwinnoch estate demolished and built a modern Palladian villa in a similar style to the Shawfield Mansion. In 1726, he decided that, “Sugar will sell as well at Glasgow as in any other part of Britain”. He bought shares in Glasgow’s South Sugar House and diverted the route of some of his sugar ships from London to the Clyde.

He retired to his Castle Semple estate but was still involved in the shipping of slaves from Africa to the Caribbean. For example the ship “The Fair Parnelia” carried 273 slaves from the Gold Coast in 1727 but it was overcrowded and capsized in the mid Atlantic, drowning all but one of the Africans on board.

Colonel McDowall’s wife Mary Tovey succumbed to smallpox on coming to Glasgow from St Kitts and is buried in Glasgow Cathedral. Her husband died in October 1748 aged 71. His epitaph in The Glasgow Journal stated: ’He was a gentleman of fine character...... the most notable figure in Glasgow.’ The accolades for the Colonel, his son and grandson, (all named William McDowall) applauded their noble pedigree, fine character, gallant, romantic, virtuous, talented and praise-worthy nature, stating they were amongst the elite of 18th Century Scotland.

Colonel McDowall’s family continued to be involved in plantations and in the sugar trade and rose to the highest positions of society as provosts, MP’s, sheriffs, and rectors of Glasgow University.

Evidence from the archives and his letters shed a different light on this most prominent Glasgow merchant of the 18th Century. Each of the McDowall plantations required the labour of about 200 enslaved African men, women and children. These Africans appear in surviving documents, listed along with other “chattels” such as the plantation horses and cattle. Many of Colonel McDowall’s slaves were given traditional Scottish names e.g. Agnes, Kilbarchan, Glasgow, Flora.

Colonel McDowall was a most frugal planter, providing the minimum of food and shelter and expecting the maximum effort. He provided no nursing or medical facilities for the sick or dying. The intensity of the sugar planting left little room for food cultivation therefore the slaves were dependent upon the overseer for food which was in meagre supply and dependent upon the shipping trade. Ironically their main food was imported salted herring from the Clyde. If the trade ships did not complete the hazardous voyage there was no food and many slaves died of starvation, however others could be cheaply bought to replace them (evidence of 10 Negro boys bought for £23 each) such was the disposable nature of the trade. Slave insurrection was harshly dealt with, usually involving hanging or burning. Reported evidence of a gangmaster absconding was swiftly dealt with by “the ruthless Scottish militia officer, Major James Milliken”. The conditions on the plantations have been likened to a concentration camp where maximum effort was demanded, with maximum care and sustenance.

gm5Colonel McDowall also brought more than a dozen Africans back to Glasgow in the 1730s as servants. From this time, Africans would have been a fairly common sight in Glasgow’s streets, dressed up as footmen, following the colonial merchants around the city or as exotic house servants.

Their life may have been good compared with their countrymen toiling in the Caribbean, however they were still the personal chattels of the merchants. The fact that many ran away suggests that they were far from happy.

The eighteenth century Glasgow press contains many notices offering rewards for the recapture of Africans who had run away, not least from Colonel McDowall in 1748:

Run away from Colonel McDowall of Castle-Sempill,
a Negro Man, named CATO, alias JOHN:
he is middle aged, pretty tall, ill-legs, with squat or broad feet.
Any person who apprehends him, or gives any
Information of him to Colonel McDowell, shall have
A sufficient reward paid him.

From this period, Scots were dominant on most of the British Caribbean sugar islands. A generation later, at the peak of the tobacco period, Glasgow was the leading player in trade with North America.

By the abolition of slave shipping in 1807, Scots were well represented in the process of ending slave trading. However an obsession with the ‘happy ending’ of abolition may be misplaced. By the abolition of plantation slavery a generation later (1834), hundreds of Scottish and Glasgow merchants were paid substantial sums of money for the loss of their slaves. The slaves received no compensation at all.

Stuart Nisbet (2012)


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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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