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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.’

“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.’

“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’.

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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.

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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.

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A tale of two champions: the fight for freedom

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