Art Culture

Addressing the Legacy of Slavery and Empire at National Trust of Scotland

As the largest conservation charity in Scotland, with around 130 properties under their management, the National Trust Scotland (NTS) has both the resources and responsibility to educate the public about their properties’ colonial past. So how do they plan to do this?

On October 14th, 2021, The National Trust of Scotland (NTS) held a lecture titled ‘Addressing the Legacy of Slavery and Empire at the National Trust of Scotland’. As part of the Black History Month lectures, which aimed to address how the NTS is facing Scotland’s colonial past through their heritage properties—some of them built by slaves or from money made in through slave trade. 

In the lecture, Jennifer Melville, the project leader of ‘Facing our Past’—a project aimed at uncovering the colonial past of NTS properties–drew out the often-effaced traces of the Scottish colonial past. She highlighted that to some extent, Scots have forgotten about their involvement since many were active in the abolitionist movement, which ‘formed a hiatus and skewered [the] past’.

Of course, lectures like these are helpful for giving a broad overview of the legacy of men whose success was built on the slave trade. However, the question remains: how will the NTS increase the visibility of this knowledge in the long term?  One way the NTS promises to achieve this is through incorporating this history into the activities they hold.

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Visitors of the properties are often introduced to their history through tour guides as labels are not often used. This means that the tour guides will imbue these narratives within their tours. Whilst this is essential to a just representation of history, more outreach work must be done so that people without the opportunity to visit these properties still understand this history.

A brief look at the NTS website shows that this had been done, but navigation and the visibility of these stories could be improved upon. For instance, a story by Jennifer Melville titled ‘Changing history’ mentions that ‘We know that some properties, like Greenbank House and Brodie Castle, may have been built on the profits made from slavery’.[1]Within the lecture, the Brodie castle’s link to colonial India have been addressed, but the main page for ‘Brodie Castle’ does not mention this, nor is Jennifer Melville’s article linked to it.[2] However, some other properties, such as the Fyvie Castle, do have a link to a story about how the Leith-Hay family’s wealth was built on the slave economy from America’s steel industry, and how they likely owned slaves.[3] The ‘Stories’ section also has one article on mahogany, and its history rooted in the transatlantic slave trade, written by Dr Désha A Osborne.[4] I wish there were more such articles, and that they could be pinned on the front page of the ‘stories’ section, or the front page of their website.

Jennifer Melville also highlighted that whilst there are resources for researching on and itemizing data, the voices of the enslaved and exploited are not often heard because there is little record of them. Whilst this is infuriating, we can focus on voices in the present. Several interventions, in the form of performance art, art or theatre can provide an immersive experience for visitors to understand the past and hear the present. This can be seen in the work of Annalee Davis’ ‘Contesting Landscapes of Distraction’ (2019) at the Balmacara Estate, or the photographs of Maud Salter (1989) depicting black women as Grecian muses. In the Autumn-September of 2022, there will also be talks about the history of Pollock House, Jamaica and the history of rum across four Glasgow venues.

In short, a wonderful vision was offered in the lecture—one where Scotland’s past became more inclusive to reflect and shape our future. I appreciate that it is already a work in progress, perhaps a gentle genesis. Hopefully, the history that had been hidden and ignored all along will be given clarity and more visibility.

Image “Decolonise This Place” Image Credits: Billie Grace Ward  CC:BY