Now, people living in an Aberdeenshire village that was once home to Reverend Gilbert Ramsay have spent a year looking at how their community prospered from the dark realities of life in the Caribbean sugar plantations.
Rev Ramsay, who was ordained by the Episcopal Church in 1686, left for the Caribbean three years later and later married twice. Both his wife’s were from wealthy landowning families in Barbados where he was the Rector of the Christ Church for almost 40 years.
On his death in 1728, he ordered that “all but one” of his slaves should be sold, with money from his estate to help fund a school - Bankhead Endowed School - and a teacher his home parish of Birse. The bequest allowed the school to become the first in the area to offer free education.
Today, that school is Finzean Primary School, where the research project looked at how the community benefited from chattel slavery from the 18th Century right up until the 1960s when a poor fund also supported by a bequest from the minister was done away with.
Now, to mark the completion of the project, a graphic novel, called ‘Aye, It Was Aabody’, has been published to bring Scotland’s role in the slave trade to primary-aged children.
Sian Loftus, of the Birse Community Trust, which led the project, said: “People have been very open to learning about this and they have been fascinated to learn how their small community is linked to this much, much bigger story.”
She added: “It is a difficult topic to teach young children because you are talking about people owning other people and treating them badly. But we have come from the viewpoint that this is the history of their school,” she added.
Sir Geoff Palmer, historian, human rights campaigner and honorary Jamaican consul to Scotland, assisted the project and will launch the graphic novel at an event at the school next month.
Pupils at Finzean have also partnered up with Sir Geoff’s former primary school in Kingston, Jamaica, where every pupil will receive a copy of the book.
As well as the creation of the primary school, Rev Ramsay, who died in Bath in 1728, created several bursaries at Marischal College, now Aberdeen University, which supported the education of 180 students from Aberdeenshire.
Among those to benefit were local men George Ogilive, the first headmaster of George Watson’s College in Edinburgh and Robert Brown, who became a noted botanist and who pioneered work on the microscope.Francis Ramsay, no relation to the minister, was another beneficiary of the bursary.
The son of a local farmer, he was educated at Bankhead before studying at Marischal College for four years.After graduating, Mr Ramsay accepted an apprenticeship with a surveyor based in Morant Bay, Jamaica, with the and arrived in the Caribbean in December 1802. Within 10 years, Mr Ramsay bought himself a farm. By 1832, he bought more land and had 46 slaves working his plantation, which he called Birse.
Ms Loftus said: “You can see there was this kind of unvirtuous circle at work.”
Mr Ramsay had five children to a mixed-race woman and later returned from Jamaica with one of his sons, who then attended Bankhead school.
Matthew Lee, PhD researcher in Scotland and the slave trade at Aberdeen University, said: “The research undertaken by people in Birse is part of a growing body of scholarship on Scotland’s slavery links. Its residents’ exploration of this part of their history is an example that, hopefully other communities will follow.”