Pillars of Economic Development in Scotland

The extent to which Britain’s transatlantic slavery-based economy was central to Scotland's economic development during this period has been an area of debate amongst historians. Some identify the developments in Anglo-Scottish trade under the establishment of the incorporating union; and changes in the nature and structure of Scottish society as having played greater roles in the transformation of Scotland’s economy. While the slave trade would eventually be perceived to have been ‘founded in cruelty and injustice,’ resulting in its abolition in Scotland as early as 1778, it is indubitable that Britain’s transatlantic slavery-based economy had a long-lasting impact on Scotland’s economy, and played a most central role in its economic development.

When reviewing the impact of Britain’s transatlantic slavery-based economy, it is important to not only consider the trafficking of slaves, but also the impact of Scotland’s access to Britain’s slave-based plantations in America and the Caribbean. With regards to Scotland’s involvement in slave trading, Scottish ports only played a minor direct role, as only 27 voyages from Scotland to Africa and the West Indies between 1707 and 1766 were involved with the shipping of slaves. Thus, Scotland’s newfound access to Britain’s colonial markets had a much more profound impact on Scotland’s economic development, largely as it led to the emergence of Scotland’s tobacco and sugar trades, along with significant developments to Scotland’s linen industry.

After 1707, ‘all parts of the United Kingdom were under the same Regulations of Trade, and liable to the same Customs and Duties.’ As a result, Scottish merchants, now with the ‘liberty of a free commerce to America and the West Indies,’4 began to re-export tobacco, and Scotland became the focal point of such trade. In 1740, Scottish imports of tobacco were equal to about 20 percent of total British imports and the importance of tobacco continued to rise. In 1758, Scottish tobacco imports from the colonies of Virginia and Maryland had exceeded those of London, Bristol, Liverpool, and Whitehaven combined. In 1761, 47 million pounds of tobacco was imported to Scotland – the highest ever volume of tobacco leaf at the time – which constituted a third of all the nation’s imports and, when sold to the continental market, at least two-thirds of its exports. By 1774, the Scots were believed to control over half the trade in the key areas of British colonial tobacco production. Thus, it is undeniable that the re-exportation of tobacco was a vital part of Scotland’s trade industry for most of the 18th century. 

Although 1775 saw the collapse of the tobacco trade with America following the Revolutionary War, the tobacco trade in Scotland still had a lasting impact on the domestic industry. The rich Scottish ‘tobacco lords’ - George Buchanan Jr. and James Somervell, for example – set up many of their own centers of production by investing in linen, sugar-refining, tanneries, breweries, and other enterprises throughout Scotland, which established the foundations for Scotland’s emerging industry after 1815. Furthermore, the collapse of the American tobacco trade led to a growing commercial relationship with the Caribbean, particularly in sugar. The share of exported goods from Scottish ports to the islands accelerated dramatically: it rose from 21 percent in 1781, to 42 percent by 1801 and then to 65 percent in 1813. By this period, the amount of Scottish shipping to the Caribbean was about 50 percent greater than the rest of the continent combined, highlighting the extent of Scotland’s economic transformation and the necessity of the colonial trade to Scotland’s economy. 

Scotland’s involvement in the sugar trade was also very significant. While Scotland’s sugar merchants were a small elite group – only numbering around 80 individuals in the firms that controlled the trade – their influence on Scotland’s economy was still vital. As Adam Smith argues, the value of sugar plantations in the Caribbean was ‘generally much greater than those of any other cultivation that is known either in Europe or America.’ 

By 1815, 60 percent of all transatlantic sugar consignments came from British islands; and the plantation owners and sugar merchants of Jamaica, the Leeward Islands, and Grenada – many of which were Scottish – were, on average, the ‘wealthiest citizens in the eighteenth-century empire.’ From the sugar trade also emerged several large firms, one of these being the giant Alexander Houston and Company. When Alexander Houston and Company, which was valued at a giant £630,000 in 1801, showed signs of collapse in the 1790s, the Scottish government had to intervene as the firm’s failure would have resulted in catastrophe for Scotland's economy. Like the tobacco lords, the new wealthy sugar merchants and firms that were produced from the trade also invested in the Scottish industry. Such large-scale investment was crucial to vitalizing the domestic industry and encouraging the growth of Scotland as an industrial center. Therefore, the tobacco and sugar trades were not only responsible for creating wealthy individuals but were important for the overall economic development of Scotland.

Furthermore, Scotland’s linen industry and its growth during this period played a remarkable role in Scotland's economic development. Its significance to Scotland’s domestic economy is undisputed. Linen manufacturing was Scotland's largest industry and employer. Between 1746 and the 1790s, the value of linen had trebled in value, and between 1728 and 1813, the production of linen had risen from 2.2 million yards of linen cloth annually to 27 million. Contemporary sources suggest that, when part-time work is also considered, 230,000 men, women, and children were employed in the spinning, weaving, and finishing of linen. Some historians, such as H. R. Campbell, argue that it was the ‘new society’ - the changes in the structure and nature of society during this enlightenment era – that were responsible for the growth in Scotland’s industrial economy. This argument is somewhat ostensible. The Scottish population rose by 88 percent between the 1750s and 1831, and the proportion of Scots living in towns – urban communities with 4000 or more inhabitants – grew from one in eight Scots in 1750 to one in three by the 1820s. However, British and European consumption of linen was marginal, and it was, in fact, the transatlantic market that was largely responsible for the growth of Scotland’s linen industry. Britain’s colonies heavily depended on linen for cheap clothing among the slave populations, with nine-tenths of all Scottish linen exported from Scotland going to North America and the West Indies. The colonial markets were responsible for the increased demand and production of linen, resulting in the increased urbanization of Scottish society. Thus, Britain’s slavery-based economy had a vital role in Scotland’s development as a growing industrial power and was influential to Scotland’s economic development.

An increase in Anglo-Scottish trade also played a role in Scotland’s economic development. Scotland's exemption from customs duties on Anglo-Scottish traffic led to an increase in Scottish exports to England. Scotland predominantly exported linen – becoming the main source of linen yarn for the printed cotton linen mixtures manufactured in the north of England – along with cattle from Falkirk and Scotch whisky to the south. However, the view that the ‘Scottish economy gained more from obtaining open access to these markets in England’ is unconvincing. Exports of goods from Scotland to England had much less significance than the colonial trades of tobacco and sugar. In the 1770s, home industry accounted for only 27 percent of the value of all exported goods. Furthermore, the demand for Scottish products – particularly linen – was far greater among the North American and Caribbean colonies than it was in England. Therefore, Britain’s transatlantic slavery-based economy was far more important than Anglo-Scottish trade to Scotland’s trade and domestic manufacturing industry.

In conclusion, while Anglo-Scottish trade and changes in society may have had some impact on Scotland’s economic development, neither was as significant as the transatlantic slave trade. Access to Britain’s colonies paved the way for Scotland’s commercial industry, with no home product being more important in trade than tobacco, sugar, and linen. Furthermore, Scottish merchants’ roles in the large-scale investment of Scottish industry were essential to urbanization and the growth of the industry in Scotland, which allowed Scotland to flourish even after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Therefore, no other factor was more central to Scotland’s economic development than Britain’s transatlantic slavery-based economy. 

29 April 2022
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