Burntisland and Slavery

Site navigation - please use menu on left (click here to display it if not visible). If problems, use site map.

    At the time of writing (October 2020, which is also Black History Month), many communities in Scotland are examining their consciences and their records to see if any of their past residents were involved in the slave trade in any way - either as slave traders or slave owners, or in related activities. Here in Burntisland, it was always a well known fact that one of the town's most prominent residents, Robert Kirke, had made his money from the slave plantations which he owned in the Dutch colony of Surinam (now Suriname) on the north east coast of South America.
However, Robert Kirke was not the only person with Burntisland connections to be involved. We have been able to identify those listed below (in alphabetical order). Some owned slaves, others were themselves slaves, and one was a slave who, albeit unintentionally, became a slave owner.

     The three women listed below (Harriet Balfour, Petronella Hendrick and Classina MacDonald) were all included in the New Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, published by Edinburgh University Press in 2018.

ALVES, John (1780-1825)


     John Alves was born in Burntisland in 1780 (as recorded above in the Parish Church register). His father was a carpenter and later an Excise Officer. After receiving his legal training, John Alves moved to Kingston, Jamaica, where he enjoyed a successful career as an attorney and as Master in Ordinary in the Court of Chancery (the officer responsible for giving effect to the court's decisions). He also owned slaves. From the UCL database: "In 1829, James Fotheringham registered 4 enslaved people in Kingston as trustee to the estate of John Alves deceased; John himself had previously registered 24 enslaved people in Kingston as owner but 20 of these had, by 1829, been returned to Francis Eliott as they had previously been transferred to John Alves as security for a debt. Peter McKie and James Fotheringham registered 112 enslaved people on Salt Pond Hut in St Catherine in 1832 as executors of John Alves deceased." John Alves died at Kingston, Jamaica, in December 1825.

BALFOUR, Harriet (c1818-1858)
Harriet Balfour was the daughter of James Balfour and one of his slaves; and she was also the sister-in-law, as well as full cousin, of Robert Kirke. She is not as well known as some of the other people listed here, but her story is a fascinating one. Lilian Neede of Paramaribo, Suriname, is writing a biography of Harriet, and it will be added to this website in due course. In the meantime, there is some information about her on the Robert Kirke page on this website.

BALFOUR, James (1777-1841)
    See Robert Kirke page. Balfour was the uncle of Robert Kirke, and Kirke inherited the major share of Balfour's Suriname plantations on Balfour's death in 1841.

CAMPBELL, Murdoch; Caesar
    Murdoch Campbell was a landed proprietor from the Isle of Skye. Around 1765 he bought Burntisland Castle and renamed it Rossend Castle. It remained in his family's possession for many years. In November 1772 he inserted an advertisement (pictured right) in the Edinburgh Evening Courant. Transcript:

From ROSEND HOUSE, near Burntisland, 23d Nov. 1772.
A NEGRO LAD called CAESAR, belonging to Murdoch Campbell of Rosend, and carried off several things belonging to his Master. It is hoped no person will harbour or employ him, and that no shipmaster will carry him off the country, as his master is resolved to prosecute in terms of law.
The above Negro (called Cser) is about five feet eight inches high, and eighteen years of age: He had on when he eloped, a mixed cloth coat and vestcoat with plain yellow buttons, shamoy breeches, and a blue surtout coat. - Whoever will secure him in any goal, or give information so as he may be secured to his master, or to Mr David Erskine writer to the signet, shall be handsomely rewarded.
    There is no record of Caesar's fate. According to the National Library of Scotland: "It did not become illegal to own a slave in Scotland until 1778. Until then it had been fashionable for wealthy families to have a young 'black boy' or girl 'attending' on them."

GLADSTONE, John (1764-1851)
    Pictured left, Sir John Gladstone of Fasque (the father of Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone) was a major slave owner. When slavery ended in 1834 and compensation was being paid out to slave owners, Gladstone submitted claims in respect of 2,912 slaves spread across 11 plantations in British Guiana and Jamaica.
   Just over a decade later, in 1847, Burntisland Town Council bestowed the Freedom of Burntisland on Gladstone.
He also had two streets named after him - Gladstone Place and Gladstone Terrace. Both names have now gone. Gladstone Place was incorporated into Kirkbank Road and Gladstone Terrace into Kinghorn Road. So what had Gladstone done to so impress the Town Council? In the early to mid 1840s, he was the driving force behind, and partial funder of, a new pier and associated facilities for the Burntisland/Granton ferry. He was also credited with securing for Burntisland 'an additional supply of good water'.

GORDON, John Sutherland (1821-80)
    John Sutherland Gordon, a Sugar Planter, was born in British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1821, probably into a family which owned and/or managed slaves. Slavery was abolished in British Guiana in 1834 (unlike Surinam, where it was not abolished until 1863), so it is unlikely that Gordon would himself have owned or managed slaves, unless he joined his cousin Gordon MacDonald (see below) in Surinam at some time - but there is no evidence of that.
    He was married twice and widowed twice. He died in Edinburgh in August 1880 and is interred in the Kirkton Churchyard, Burntisland, with the arrangements presumably being made by his friend, Robert Kirke. The 1881 census, taken in April of that year, shows two Gordon boys, aged 11 and 12, as boarders at the Lochies Academy, Burntisland. It is likely that they were the sons of John Gordon, but it is not not clear if they had been placed there by their father or, after their father's death, by Robert Kirke.

HENDRICK, Petronella (1829-1917)
    Link to Petronella Hendrick page. Petronella Hendrick was a Surinam slave who was freed and then travelled to Scotland with Robert Kirke and his family. She was nanny and nurse to Kirke's children.

KIRKE, Robert (1815-94)
    Link to Robert Kirke page. Robert Kirke is the central figure in the story of Burntisland and slavery. He inherited the major share of the slave plantations of his uncle, James Balfour, in 1841, and they remained in his family's possession until the early 1930s. There is a separate page with photos of his Burntisland home, Greenmount.

MacDONALD, Gordon (c1803-1859); MacDONALD, Classina (1855-1906)
    From the UCL database: "[Gordon MacDonald] left Scotland after 1840, possibly for Canada, where his mother is known to have moved after her husband's death, and arrived in Surinam from Demerara 20/02/1848. He became Director of Waterloo estate in Nickerie in succession to Robert Kirke (q.v.) in 1849. In 1853 he moved to Coronie where he had purchased plantation Moy with about 130 enslaved people ..... . Subsequently, he acquired a quarter of plantation Perseverance and some land in the settlement of Totness. He returned to Scotland c. April 1858, and died 28/06/1859 at Burnt Island. Robert Kirke was reportedly the only person present at his funeral. In 1855 Gordon MacDonald had a child Catherina born 15/09/1855 with an enslaved woman named Mary, a 'private [domestic] slave' of Mary C. Hamilton, the owner and administrator of plantation Hamilton in Coronie. Catherina was manumitted 09/03/1858 with the names Mary Classina Namilton [sic]; her name was later changed to Mary Classina MacDonald based on the terms of her father's will. Gordon MacDonald's estate, including Moy, Perserverance and his land at Totness were sold at auction in 1861."
    Gordon MacDonald was a cousin of John Sutherland Gordon (see above). He was also a fellow slave owner and good friend of Robert Kirke. He is buried in the Kirkton Churchyard in Burntisland.
    His daughter, who took the name Classina Mary MacDonald, was three years old when her father died. She was brought up in Nairn in a boarding house, probably with children who were members of her father's extended family. She was relatively well off, having inherited the life rent of her father's assets. In adulthood, she remained in Nairn for some time, living on her own. By 1881 she was living in Edinburgh.
She died at Strathtay, near Pitlochry, in 1906, aged 51. Her name was added to her father's memorial in the Kirkton Churchyard, Burntisland, and it is likely that she is also buried there. She never had to seek employment and she never married. She was relatively prudent, as she left behind a significant sum from her father's assets. This resulted in a court case in 1909, when distant relations claimed shares of the balance of Gordon MacDonald's estate.


Article by Iain Sommerville. Grateful thanks for input to the series of articles from David Alston, John Burnett, Philip Dikland, Helen Mabon, Lilian Neede, and Harold Rusland.

Recommended websites:
Slaves & Highlanders by David Alston. A vast amount of information about slavery in Guyana and Suriname.
University College London (UCL): Legacies of British Slave-ownership. A remarkable and invaluable database,

Webpage by Iain Sommerville;
Help on bookmarking this page.