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6 Oct 2020

Changing history

Written by Jennifer Melville, Project Leader for Facing Our Past
A symmetrical, Georgian-style large country house stands at the top of an immaculate lawn, with large yew trees to either side. It is a sunny day with fluffy white clouds across a blue sky.
Greenbank House, Glasgow
It’s Black History Month, and the National Trust for Scotland is embarking on a new project that will explore the role that the slave trade played in the histories of Scotland and some of the Trust’s most-loved properties.

While the Black Lives Matter movement was borne of contemporary injustice and controversy, it has helped focus media attention on the past, and especially the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries. By contrast, Black History Month, which is celebrated every October, was established in the US in 1970 with origins going back to the 1920s. It reached the UK as a fixture in the academic and cultural calendar in 1987.

Although Black History Month celebrates the achievements of Black people in our country spanning the centuries and does not just focus on the slave trade, it is a fitting time to announce a new project being undertaken by the Trust.

Facing Our Past will use sources and previously unavailable research techniques to delve into stories that have been hidden or simply forgotten (sometimes conveniently). These show how the slave trade impacted on places and people in Scotland’s past, leaving a legacy that affects us today.

Four people kneel in a shallow rectangular trench cut in a lawn. They use small trowels to scrape the earth in front of them. A large mound of earth is behind them. Two cars are parked in the background.
Archaeology work at Culzean to reveal the remains of the house that belonged to Scipio, an enslaved man who was freed by the Kennedy family in 1725.

This is not opportunism; over the years the Trust has made no secret of properties’ links to the slave trade. We’ve contributed curricular material for schools and told some of the stories in our guidebooks and brochures. However, there is much more we can do, and our new project will be a process of providing information and facts. We want to understand the history of our properties better than we do at the moment and share that with our visitors

“The past is a series of events that cannot be changed; what we can change are the stories, sometimes comforting, that we tell ourselves about those events.”
Jennifer Melville
Facing Our Past project leader

Scotland’s relationship with slavery has been the subject of a number of public discussions and interventions. David Hayman’s 2018 BBC documentary Slavery: Scotland’s Hidden Shame; Glasgow University’s 2019 move to make reparation for the institution benefitting from slavery; and the more recent debate on Henry Dundas and the continued presence of his statue in St Andrew Square all point to growing Scottish interest in this aspect of the nation’s past.

There is a big overarching story of transatlantic slavery that seeks to understand the entire phenomenon of this great historical injustice. Through our project, we want to contribute to this bigger picture by exploring the specific ways that the slavery system is connected to the portfolio of houses, collections, gardens and estates owned and cared for by the National Trust for Scotland.

A pair of ornate silver candlesticks are displayed against a plain grey background. They have embossed decoration all around.
Silver candlesticks at Brodick Castle, part of the Beckford Collection

We know that some properties, like Greenbank House and Brodie Castle, may have been built on the profits made from slavery. We know that some fine collections of objects, such as the Beckford Collection housed at Brodick Castle, were paid for from the proceeds of the slave system. But with other places and people the likely connections remain hidden because the detailed historical research that would bring them to light needs to be undertaken. Any meaningful interpretation of the histories of slavery at our properties requires this level of detailed historical research on which we can base storytelling.

A view of the west wing of Brodie Castle from along an avenue of beech trees. The pink tower towards the front of the castle is clearly visible. It is a sunny day with a clear blue sky.
Brodie Castle

The combined assets of National Trust for Scotland places (object collections, buildings, plant collections, gardens and landscapes) also represent valuable resources for new and innovative historical research. We have a unique opportunity to bring together object collections, architectural heritage, family history, archival sources, historic gardens and designed landscapes, and wider histories of estates. In doing so, we might see how slavery profits were invested in architecture and the arts, in agricultural ‘improvements’, even how the importing of new species of plants and influences on garden design all add up to a vivid picture of the myriad ways that the slave system impacted Scottish life.

Facing Our Past is based on three strands:

  • Understanding the specific connections between National Trust for Scotland properties and slavery
  • Using National Trust for Scotland places as unique resources for collaborative research with university partners
  • Sharing these stories with visitors, members and the public

The work will be undertaken by volunteers, supported and trained by National Trust for Scotland staff, and will ultimately lead to events, programmes, exhibitions and new interpretive information at our properties.

Over the coming year we’ll begin detailed research into the subject and we hope to share our findings on our website and in the media as we progress. For the rest of Black History Month 2020 we’ll be publishing a few of the stories we’ve already uncovered – we hope you find them both interesting and illuminating.

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