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Facing Our Past

The sun sets over a loch, centred in a narrowing glen. Silhouetted against the sunset is a tall, thin column with a statue on top. A sign reading Glenfinnan stands in the field in the foreground.

At the National Trust for Scotland, we’ve begun a new project to address the legacies of slavery. We now know that many National Trust for Scotland properties, including the birthplaces of Robert Burns and Hugh Miller, have a link to slavery. This is part of a wider black history in Scotland, and we’re committed to expanding knowledge and supporting our staff and volunteers to address Scotland’s role in enslavement where this is associated with our places.

With our very large and varied portfolio – from museums like Culloden and grand historic houses to humble cottages, gardens and landed estates – we have a unique opportunity to realise this ambition across Scotland.

To begin, we’re carrying out a review of our buildings and monuments, and we plan to highlight the links to slavery to the millions of people who visit our places each year, as part of the historical interpretation. These properties include Culzean Castle in Ayrshire, Pollok House in Glasgow and Glenfinnan Monument, erected in tribute to the Jacobites who died in the 1745 rising. The monument sits on the Glenaladale estate, once owned by Alexander Macdonald, who made his fortune from plantations worked by enslaved people in Jamaica.

Our two-year research and public engagement project will address these narratives alongside many more, as Jennifer Melville, project leader, explains: ‘Curators across the world are very aware that they must look honestly at collections, properties and estates and reveal all the narratives relating to them. It is over ten years since our first project on slavery but we are keen to increase this work and embed a thoroughly researched understanding of it into the visitor experience.’

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“We know that audiences have a thirst for knowledge, which is based in truth and thorough research. Slavery is part of our shared past, and our audiences are demanding to know more about this.”
Dr Jennifer Melville
Project Leader for Facing Our Past

Dr Melville adds: ‘The National Trust for Scotland is in a unique position to address this complex history as owners of estates, gardens, buildings and collections that have been created, improved or funded through the suffering of others – we can bring these truths to life.

‘Working collaboratively with several universities, both in Scotland and abroad, as well as with artists and creative practitioners, will enable us to deepen our knowledge and understanding of our connections with slavery, and show how the properties now in our care were funded and enhanced through the enslavement of peoples by Scots. A vital part of the project will be public engagement, and we’re committed to hearing from people whose lived experience has been directly shaped by colonialism and historic slavery.’

Phil Long, Chief Executive of the National Trust for Scotland says: ‘The Trust has for many years been uncovering the stories of people behind our properties, increasing knowledge of how they came into existence, their relationship with communities, with the land and with wider society. Such histories are as much a part of the heritage we are responsible for – and have a duty to explain – as our duty of care to the physical heritage we are entrusted with. It is an indisputable fact that many of the properties belonging to the Trust have an association with colonialism and slavery; researching into this is therefore important work for us to undertake, as part of the broader research we do in many fields, to look after, understand and explain the heritage in our care.’

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“Facing our Past is a key initiative in acknowledging the lost and excluded voices of our history, and in enabling our visitors to see the role of individual people and places in opposing, supporting or simply benefiting from the outrage of chattel slavery.”
Professor Murray Pittock
Pro Vice-Principal of the University of Glasgow and Board Member of the National Trust for Scotland

Frank Black, former Country Operations Director of the African Development Bank and Head of the Special Liaison Unit (UN/UNCTAD Affairs) in the Secretary-General’s Office of the OECD, described the project as ‘fascinating and extraordinarily timely given what is happening’.

Professor Karin Wulf, Executive Director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture, William & Mary University in Virginia, described it as ‘immensely exciting and important’.

Related stories

Changing history

We take a look at the role that the slave trade played in the histories of Scotland and some of the Trust’s most-loved properties.

Changing history

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.

Africans at the court of James IV

It’s often assumed that African people arrived in Scotland in the 18th century, or even later. But in fact Africans were resident in Scotland much earlier, and in the early 16th century they were high-status members of the royal retinue.

Africans at the court of James IV

Falkland Palace in autumn, with a large tree in front, its leaves on the ground.

Was there a Jamaican man at the Battle of Culloden?

We take a closer look at an embroidered picture on display in the visitor centre at Culloden, which was thought to depict a West Indian man on the Jacobite side at the battle of Culloden in 1746.

Was there a Jamaican man at the Battle of Culloden?

A line of red flags stand on a vast and empty moor.

Throwing new light on difficult histories

Jennifer Melville gives a talk that explores the more difficult and deeper aspects of our property histories, and sheds new light on them through the delivery of textured, varied and truthful stories.

Throwing new light on difficult histories

A black and white illustration of an 18th-century man in a sepia-tinged book. Beneath his portrait is his name Robert Wedderburn, in italic text.

Colonial power and profit at Leith Hall

We take a look at the Leith-Hay and Leith families of Leith Hall, and their links to the West Indies.

Colonial power and profit at Leith Hall

A view of the exterior of Leith Hall, from across some manicured lawns. It is a large stately home, with grey walls and a slate roof, with little towers and turrets at each corner.

High Water at Glasgow Bridge

A unique clock at Pollok House provides a clue to the 18th-century commercial interests of the Maxwell family.

High Water at Glasgow Bridge

Detail from an ornate clock face

A tale of two champions: the fight for freedom

Regional Curator Sarah Beattie takes a closer look at the lives of Tom Molineaux and his trainer, Bill Richmond, and their experiences as black boxers in Britain in the early 1800s.

A tale of two champions: the fight for freedom

A close-up detail of a watercolour illustration of a boxing match, mostly in sepia and grey tones. Two boxers deliver blows to each other's face in a fenced-in boxing ring, with two trainers behind each boxer. A large crowd is shown watching the fight.

Facing Our Past at Fyvie Castle

As part of our Facing Our Past project, we take a look at the Forbes-Leith family and their American connections.

Facing Our Past at Fyvie Castle

An exterior view of Fyvie Castle, seen from the lawn on a sunny day. Tall trees can be seen in the background behind the castle.

Facing Our Past at Malleny Garden

As part of our Facing Our Past project, we take a look at the Scotts of Malleny and their connections to the West Indies.

Facing Our Past at Malleny Garden

A gravel path runs through a garden, bordered by colourful flower beds either side. Large and very tall yew trees stand either side of the end of the path.

An eventful honeymoon: Lord and Lady Aberdeen of Haddo House

As part of our Facing Our Past project, we take a look at Lord and Lady Aberdeen and their links to Egypt.

An eventful honeymoon: Lord and Lady Aberdeen of Haddo House

A gravel driveway leading to a grand Palladian mansion, Haddo House. Large stone urns with pink flowers in them stand either side of the driveway on immaculate green lawns.