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3 Feb 2022

Contesting Landscapes: creative interventions at Balmacara Estate

Written by Annalee Davis
Grass swishes in the wind in a large field, with mountains, hedgerows and one tall tree in the distance.
Balmacara crofting landscape
We are delighted to be working with the artist Annalee Davis on the creative intervention ‘Contesting Landscapes of Distraction’ at Balmacara Estate, which will explore the complex shared histories of the Scottish Highlands and Barbados.

In September 2020, the National Trust for Scotland embarked on the Facing Our Past project to research the connections between the places in our care and the history of British Empire-era slavery. A review of our buildings and monuments has expanded our knowledge of these connections. We now know that over half of visited Trust properties have links to historic enslavement, and we are committed to highlighting these stories to our visitors and exploring new and creative ways to bring these truths to life. In the first of a series of blog posts which will be published throughout the project, Annalee reflects on her first visit to Balmacara and the history which will inform the work she plans to produce.

Contesting Landscapes of Distraction is the collective title for a series of creative and entangled interventions that I am working on with the Trust as part of their Facing Our Past project. My art practice explores post-plantation economies and shared transatlantic histories. For this project I’ll explore the lesser known, entangled ties between Barbados – Britain’s first sugar isle – and Scotland.

Contesting Landscapes emphasises an interdisciplinary approach, responding creatively to a centuries-long shared history exploring extractive economies on both sides of the pond including the transplanting of people and plants. This research-based project included my traveling (September 2021) to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and the Highlands and Islands, where I met with Trust staff, artists, archivists, botanists, crofters, curators, a retired doctor, ecologists, historians, high school teachers and printmakers, all generous with their expertise and keen to collaborate.

Having returned to Barbados, armed with a weighty library of books on botany, history and healing, I am reflecting on my time there.

The project acknowledges the acquisition of vast tracts of lands in the Highlands and Islands, by men whose wealth came from Caribbean sugar plantations manned by enslaved people. These men were able to sanitise the source of their wealth and at the same time come to be seen as benefactors, constructing churches and schools, and gardens and mansions, as architectures and landscapes of distraction.[1] In the essay Plantation Slavery and Land Ownership in the West Highlands and Islands: legacies and lessons, co-authors Ian MacKinnon and Andrew MacKillop state that ‘Scores of estates in the West Highlands and Islands were acquired by people using the equivalent of well over £100 million worth of riches connected to slavery in the Caribbean and North America. Many would go on to be leading figures in the Highland Clearances, evicting thousands of people whose families had lived in their newly procured land for generations.’

Scottish owners of Caribbean plantations financed shifting agricultural practices that altered the Highlands and Islands. This included evicting poor farmers, some of whom migrated to Barbados where many Scots had already settled, most notably after the Battle of Culloden when defeated Jacobites were put to work as indentured labourers on Barbados. Dia Da Costa and Alexandre E Da Costa, who write collaboratively about ‘multiple colonialisms’ in order to examine the complex relationalities of multiple and converging colonial relations in historical and contemporary contexts [2], provide a lens which reminds me of Édouard Glissant’s relational thinking.[3] Together, their thinking allows for a more nuanced framework to examine the convergences and divergences of the rampant colonial machinery that shaped the British Isles and the British West Indies.

Similarly, Barbadian history was impacted by complex patterns of migration from Scotland: Scots came as forced migrants and as indentured labour, but also as economic migrants taking up roles as bookkeepers, drivers of labour, doctors, coopers and managers. More spent time there in a military or naval capacity – and some, a small élite, as governors.

For example, Scottish soldier Sir James Leith – Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the Leeward Islands (1816) – and his troops quashed Bussa’s Rebellion, the island’s most infamous slavery revolt in a quest for self-liberation.[4] While Barbadian historians recognise this as a ‘significant development in the history of the local anti-slavery movement’ [5], Governor Leith, rather than understanding the revolt as an act of resistance by the enslaved, accused the island’s free Black community of spreading dangerous ideas about equality and freedom leading the enslaved to question their ‘natural’ condition. [6]

Maintaining ties with a National Trust for Scotland property for the implementation of this project, the focus of my work will be at Balmacara. The estate was once owned by the Mackenzies of Seaforth, a family connected to Barbados through Highland landowner Francis Humberston Mackenzie, Lord Seaforth (1754–1815). He was Governor of the island from 1801–1806 and later acquired plantations and enslaved Africans in Guyana to maintain his Highland property.

Driving through the Highlands en route to Balmacara Estate, September 2021 | Image courtesy Annalee Davis

An amateur botanist, Seaforth brought plants from Barbados and nearby islands to gardens in England. While these historical facts sourced from more readily available research on the landed gentry initially influenced the choice of this specific Trust property to work with, the aim is to unearth chronicles of those less visible in the archives, attempting to foreground that which has been erased, forgotten, confiscated or absented from the official records and more well-known narratives.

For example, I am interested in the historic practice of spiriting away (kidnapping) children, homeless people, women working in brothels, prisoners and others shipped off against their will from Britain to Barbados to work as indentured labourers on sugar plantations. Their invisibility as poor men, women and children, was mirrored in Barbadian society given scant information about their lives marked by early deaths and impoverishment.[7] Exploring these buried histories – and the potential relationship between the erasure of villages and eviction of crofters and cotters during the Clearances, and vanishing villages in the Scotland District on Barbados’ Atlantic Coast due to land slippage and the loss of indentured labourers’ homes on less productive soils – provides an opportunity to draw multiple lines across imperial economies enforced in two territories reshaped by transplantation and displacement.

I have many questions as I wade through these layered, complex and interwoven pasts. Might Scottish crofting practices have influenced the design of small plots of land they were given for cultivation for personal consumption on Barbados’ rugged east coast, I wonder? Did their forced new subsistence occupations of fishing, weaving and kelping in the Highlands manifest in similar ways on this small isle 4,000 miles away? In what ways did Gaelic practices of incantations and the use of charms for healing commingle with enslaved society’s Obeah traditions? Were landless crofters and cottars conscripted on both sides of the Atlantic as cogs in a rapidly moving wheel propelling the shift from sustainable small scale farming to artificial, industrial scale agriculture?

My creative interventions include four main outcomes: (i) collaborating with teenage crofting students to co-create a small plot or croft at Plockton High School, foregrounding less visible traditional farming practices and wild plant uses among Scottish crofters and healers and their counterparts in Caribbean indentured and enslaved societies; (ii) a three-part discursive forum in collaboration with the Trust and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh; (iii) the creation of a limited edition suite of prints produced by Dundee Contemporary Arts, and; (iv) an exhibition of the prints and interdisciplinary programming at Balmacara Estate.

I am especially grateful to everyone who has been so kind during my travels and I look forward to sharing more with all of you as this project evolves.

Thanks to everyone in Scotland who has been so generous including Dr John Adamson, Beth Bate, Charlotte Elias, Annis Fitzhugh, Colette Grant, Greg Kenicer, Iain Johnston, Hannah Lee, Morag MacKenzie, Catherine MacPhee, Isabel Mcleish, Iain McKinnon, Jennifer Melville, Cáit O’Neill McCullagh, Lorna Mitchell, Stephen Mullen, Emma Nicolson, Ainslie Roddick, Iain Turnbull and Jeff Waddell.


[1] Communication with Jennifer Melville, Facing Our Past, National Trust for Scotland

[2] Introduction: Cultural production under multiple colonialisms, Dia Da Costa and Alexandre E. Da Costa, Humanities, Social Sciences, and Social Justice Education, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada

[3] Édouard Glissant was a French writer, poet, philosopher, and literary critic from Martinique. He is widely recognised as one of the most influential figures in Caribbean thought and cultural commentary and Francophone literature.

[4] Bussa was an African enslaved man who worked as a ranger on Bayley’s plantation in St. Philip, Barbados. He is recognised in folk culture and in wider Barbadian society as the liberator who organised military force against the local militia and British imperial troops.

[5] Rewriting History, Number Two: Bussa, The 1816 Barbados Revolution, Hilary McD Beckles, Published by the Department of History, The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus and the Barbados Museum & Historical Society, 1998

[6] Written by Jennifer Melville

[7] ‘Regarding indentureship from the Highlands, most of the indentured servants came to Barbados between 1630 to 1680 at a time when the Act of the Union had not yet taken place, not many Scots came. The largest group of Highlanders to come to Barbados were a group of some 150 clansmen taken prisoner after the 1745 Jacobite uprising. Convicted of high treason, they could all have been hanged but were given the choice of indenturing themselves to planters in Barbados to save their lives.’ Private correspondence with Dr Karl Watson, Historian, Barbados, 1 September 2021.