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Gibson-Craig, Riccarton and Abolition: “old letter found in a box”

In 2015 the UK government finally finished paying off the massive borrowing it undertook in 1833 in order to compensate slave-owners when slavery was abolished in the colonies.

This gives some idea of the scale of the opposition that abolitionists had to overcome to achieve emancipation. A vast amount of money was at stake; the massive borrowing amounted to 40% of the UK’s total budget and it took nearly 200 years to clear.

William Gibson-Craig of Riccarton was an ardent abolitionist, a fact unknown until the recent discovery of a letter he wrote to his father, found in the archives at Heriot-Watt University by Professor Sir Geoff Palmer. The letter also reveals a staggering statistic relating to the vote in Westminster that finally led to full emancipation of slaves in the British colonies in 1838.

The name lives on in this area (Gibson-Craig Hall, Currie, for example) as the family were the major landowners for generations, owning what became the vast Riccarton estate from 1605 to 1939. The family seat, Riccarton House, no longer exists; the library at Heriot-Watt University is now located on the site, which still benefits from the lawn and some of the landscaping of the grand estate.

Riccarton House circa 1904
Riccarton House circa 1904. [Image from made available under Creative Commons licence]

William Gibson-Craig was born in August 1797. Educated at the High School of Edinburgh and a private school in Yorkshire, he did some overseas travel after school then on his return to Riccarton became involved in public life and took an active interest in local affairs.

At the time, Scotland had a lot at stake in the slave trade and the West Indies. After the Act of Union in 1703 Scotland had direct involvement with the English colonies and by 1796 Scots, comprising 10% of UK population, owned nearly 30% of Jamaican estates. Tobacco had already started coming into Leith and led to the development of snuff mills along the Water of Leith. James Gillespie of Spylaw, founder of Gillespie’s School, made his fortune selling tobacco at his High Street (Edinburgh) shop, as well as owning a snuff mill. There were at least six sugar refineries in Edinburgh and Leith.

Scots were Tobacco Lords, Sugar Barons and Coffee Aristocracy, amassing vast fortunes thanks to slave labour. At its height, 89% of manufacturing jobs in Scotland were in the textiles industry, with cotton and linen dominant. Besides the plantation owners, there were Scots all over the country who owned slaves in the West Indies.

The main players in the Abolition movement are well known; Wilberforce’s Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed in 1787, followed by the Edinburgh Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Tory MP Henry Dundas, Secretary of State for War at the time, delayed for many years Wilberforce’s attempts to get an abolition bill through parliament. When the bill did finally go through in 1792, Dundas successfully argued for an amendment so that it would be a gradual abolition over a period of eight years, rather than immediate cease of trade in slaves. (The bill was blocked the House of Lords anyway in the end). It would be another 40 years and many lives lost before full emancipation was achieved.

But Scots were also amongst the most ardent abolitionists, involved in grass roots campaigning, rallies and so on. Some of those in favour of abolition were Rev James Ramsay, William Dickson, Rev Andrew Thomson, Rev Robert Wedderburn, Zachary Macaulay and Lord Henry Brougham.

The Transatlantic slave trade was abolished in 1807, but slavery was still legal in the colonies and millions of people were still stuck in horrendous conditions. The struggle was far from over; it was a constant theme in society and in parliament when William Gibson-Craig was a young man. He became liberal MP for Midlothian from 1837 to 1841 and subsequently MP for Edinburgh.

While the Emancipation Act of 1833 finally theoretically ended slavery, slaves still had to serve a six year “apprenticeship” to “prepare them for freedom.” An apprentice received board and lodging for the work they did, so under the apprenticeship scheme the newly “freed” slaves worked 75% of their time for their former owner, in return for food and accommodation, and could work for a small wage the rest of the time (if they could get the work). So in practice they were not much better off and the abolition movement continued to work towards full immediate emancipation. It was finally achieved by a vote in Westminster in 1838; 750,000 people were freed.

We now know exactly what happened in that vote and something of the political machinations behind the scenes, because William Gibson-Craig, MP for Midlothian, was there. He was a fairly new MP, having been in office about a year, and he wrote to his dad the next day to give him the news.

“My Dear Father, the abolition of the apprenticeship was carried last night by a majority of 3. The numbers were 96 to 93.”

Reading the hastily scribbled letter, you get a sense of his urgency to get the facts down on paper. He goes on to describe how the vote was deliberately held at at time that the House would be “very thin;” out of around 650 MPs about a third came to vote. “This decision has done [the government] immense harm as the City is incensed beyond measure at their allowing themselves to be defeated.”

Showing his long-standing conviction, he says “I voted with the majority, I would do so again.”

So when we read that the UK abolished slavery fully in 1838, it’s very interesting to know that it was a very close vote in a thin parliament and caused much anger. The borrowing the government had already had to make to fund the appeasing compensation scheme, whereby slave owners (many vastly rich) were paid for the value of the “human property” they had lost, has only just been paid off.

William married in 1840 in Currie, and had six children. He died March 1878 at the ripe old age of 80.


The Heriot-Watt University Museum and Archives hold William’s letter to his father, and other items and information relating to the period. The Museum (free admission) is a room on the ground floor of the library building, which is built on the site of Riccarton House. It is open Mon to Thurs 10am – 4pm.


First published in Konect July 2018

Author: Helen-Jane Shearer, with kind permission of Professor Sir Geoff Palmer to use his research and with thanks to the Museum and Archives at Heriot-Watt University for further information. Sir Geoff Palmer is a Professor Emeritus from Heriot-Watt University and a passionate human rights activist. He became the first black Professor in Scotland in 1989 and was knighted by the Queen in 2014 for his innovative research.


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