National Records of Scotland

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Slavery and the Slave Trade

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Slavery and the Slave Trade

This guide deals primarily with aspects of the transatlantic slave trade and records in the National Records of Scotland (NRS). It also mentions some other Scottish archives relating to Scotland's involvement in the trade and its abolition. Some researchers are interested in information about enslaved individuals or former enslaved people, while others are interested in conditions or events on particular plantations, slave voyages, or the abolition movement. Research is also carried out in Scottish archives into other forms and aspects of slavery, for example the concepts of free and unfree status of women and serfs in medieval Scotland; transportation to the colonies of rebels during the religious wars and of criminals; bonded labour in the early modern period; and the enslavement of Scots by North African corsairs in the seventeenth century.

It is possible to carry out research on some of these subjects in the NRS, which holds the records of Scottish courts and churches, and some estate papers relating to plantations owned by enslavers. Other aspects of the trade are better researched elsewhere, for example in The National Archives, London, or in other archives and libraries. The following sections deal with aspects of the slave trade and suggest relevant sources of information.

Please note this guide contains language which, although considered acceptable and widely used in the past, we now consider offensive. We are committed to amending this large-scale legacy in our catalogue continuously over time so it should be possible in the future to find all relevant material without the use of these terms as search words.

Enslavement in Africa and slave trade voyages

There is little evidence in the NRS of the enslavement and movement of the enslaved to African ports prior to shipping. Log books of ship voyages normally remain the property of ship owners and very few have found their way to Scottish archives. The NRS holds one letter describing a voyage on a slave trader from Bleney Harper (in Barbados) to William Gordon & Company, Glasgow, May 1731 (NRS reference CS228/A/3/19). A greater proportion of evidence on the enslavement and movement of enslaved persons can be found in The National Archives (in London) in the records of the African trading companies, Customs Outport, Board of Trade and the Admiralty. For more details see the research guides on the slave trade on The National Archives website (see below under United Kingdom government sources).

Where evidence of the slave trade voyages exists in Scotland it is generally through court cases. For example, four cases involving owners of ships engaged in the slave trade, which were heard in the High Court of Admiralty in Scotland are: Daniel v Graham, 1721 (NRS reference AC9/718), Clark v Inglis, 1727 (NRS reference AC9/1022), Horseburgh v Bogle, 1727 (NRS reference AC9/1042) and Alexander v Colhoun & Company, 1762 (NRS reference CS228/A/3/19). The records of the Horseburgh v Bogle case are important as they give very detailed information about the way in which the slave trade was carried out in the early eighteenth century. There are more than 70 items including financial records, witness statements and other legal papers providing evidence of the export of 'guinea goods' from Britain to Africa, the role of the ship's surgeon as supercargo in purchasing slaves for transportation, and his contract with the Scottish merchants who backed the venture.

Enslavement markets and auctions

Following the union of parliaments in 1707, Scotland gained formal access to the transatlantic slave trade. Scottish merchants became increasingly involved in the trade and Scottish planters (especially sugar and tobacco) began to settle in the colonies, generating much of their wealth through enslaved labour. Evidence of the acquisition of enslaved individuals from slave traders and other enslavers can be found among the Estate and plantation records and the Business records of merchants and individuals involved in enslavement.

Enslaved individuals on plantations

The main source of information in the NRS for events and conditions on plantations is estate papers of landowners in Scotland who owned plantations in the colonies. Letters, inventories and, occasionally, estate plans in these collections are an excellent source for researching the lives of enslaved persons on plantations in the colonies, their living conditions and the general attitude towards slavery and the slave trade. See below under estate and plantation records and also pictorial evidence.

Researching specific enslaved persons or former enslaved persons in Scotland

It is usually time-consuming to find information about any individuals in Scotland who lived prior to mid-19th century, but there may be opportunities for researching enslaved or former enslaved individuals in Scotland. Church attendance for enslaved individuals was not allowed in most colonies on the grounds that baptism might have prompted enslaved individuals to claim their right to freedom as Christians. Once in Scotland, however, many enslaved people were allowed to be baptised, and evidence of this should be in old parish registers of baptisms. At the point of baptism enslaved or former enslaved individuals often took the surnames of their enslavers, which should be borne in mind when searching baptismal registers. Released enslaved people were also allowed to marry and you may find an entry for their marriage in the old parish registers of marriages.

In correspondence (social letters) and household records of families which enslaved people you might find letters or diaries referring to household enslaved individuals or accounts for things purchased for them. They sometimes also contain copies of wills, which might reveal if any enslaved people lived in the household and whether they were bequeathed themselves or were the recipients of the bequests. Lists of enslaved individuals are occasionally found in estate collections and these vary in the amount of detail they give, but they usually include the names of the enslaved person, their age, any other family members and sometimes origin and medical condition.

Some former enslaved individuals were employed as apprentices with tradesmen. To find out more about the different types of trade records, read our guide to crafts and trades.

In the late-eighteenth century there was a tax on some categories of servants in Scotland and surviving tax rolls for these are held by the NRS, arranged by burghs and counties and then by household, with the names of the servants and sometimes their jobs (NRS reference E326/5 and E326/6). For more details read our guide to taxation records.

After their release (or successful escape), some former enslaved people joined the Army. Muster rolls list new recruits and might mention any former enslaved persons that joined. Searching them can be an arduous and time-consuming task, so you should ideally know the regiment the individual served in and their complete name. For more information on muster rolls, see our guide on military records.

Until the abolition of slavery, the release of slaves was formalised through a 'manumission' (a legal document granting the slave his or her freedom). Manumissions are contained within the papers of the Colonial Office and Foreign Office, held at The National Archives (TNA) - see below under United Kingdom government sources.

Records of prominent former enslaved people

Not much is known about how former enslaved persons integrated in Scottish society, how they felt about and utilised their freedom. This is because there are very few first-hand accounts in Scottish archives left by former enslaved people. However, some individuals were well-known in Scotland at their time, such as George Dale, who was transported against his will from Africa, aged about eleven and ended up in Scotland after an unusual career as a plantation cook and crewman on a fighting ship. In 1789, during the time of the French Revolution, The Society for the Purpose of Effecting the Abolition of the African Slave Trade gathered evidence like George Dale's life story for the anti-slavery abolitionist cause (NRS reference GD50/235). You can read a transcript of this document in the feature on George Dale on the Learning section of this website.

Another well-known former enslaved person was Scipio Kennedy. He had been brought to Scotland by Captain Andrew Douglas in 1702 from the West Indies, where he had been transported as a young boy from the African west coast. In 1705, Scipio joined the family of the Captain's daughter who married John Kennedy from Culzean in Ayrshire, and it was here that Scipio got his surname. He stayed in this family for an initial 20 years, during which time he was baptised and probably also received some education. Through his baptism, Scipio was free according to Scots law, so that when he decided after 20 years to continue service with his former owner for another 19 years, this was formalised by an indenture (NRS reference GD25/9/Box 72/9). Little is known about his later life, though he appears once in the kirk session minutes of Kirkoswald on 27 May 1728 (NRS reference CH2/562/1), accused of fornication with Margaret Gray, whom he later married. We know from references in the old parish registers that they had at least eight children and continued to live in Ayrshire until Scipio's death in 1774.

Between 1756 and 1778 three cases reached the Court of Session in Edinburgh whereby fugitives of slavery attempted to obtain their freedom. A central argument in each case was that the enslaved person, having been bought in the colonies, had been subsequently baptised by sympathetic church ministers in Scotland. The three cases were Montgomery v Sheddan (1756), Spens v Dalrymple (1769) and Knight v Wedderburn (1774-77). The last case was the only one decided by the Court. James Montgomery (formerly 'Shanker', the property of Robert Sheddan of Morrishill in Ayrshire) died in the Edinburgh Tolbooth before the case could be decided. David Spens (previously 'Black Tom', belonging to Dr David Dalrymple in Methill in Fife) sued Dalrymple for wrongful arrest but Dalrymple died during the suit. Joseph Knight sought the freedom to leave the employment of John Wedderburn of Bandean, who argued that Knight, even though he was not recognised as a enslaved individual, was still bound to provide perpetual service in the same manner as an indentured servant or an apprenticed artisan (see Court of Session cases below).

The abolition movement

Many individual Scots were involved in the movement to abolish slavery or helped fugitives of slavery in Scotland in their quest for freedom. The Church of Scotland and other churches were also involved in the petitioning of parliament to abolish the slave trade in the late-eighteenth century and early-nineteenth century and individual church ministers baptised enslaved individuals in order to aid their attempts to gain freedom. The Court of Session cases challenging the status of slavery in Scotland reveal that local people helped fugitives of slavery – see under Court of Session cases. The NRS and SCAN online catalogues and the National Register of Archives can be used to some extent to search for material about the abolition movement and leading abolitionist figures, such as William Dickson of Moffat and William Wilberforce. See under 'Searching the NRS, SCAN and NRAS online catalogues' below. Researchers into the abolition movement in Scotland should refer to Iain Whyte, Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery, 1756-1838 (Edinburgh University Press, 2006).

Court of Session cases

The Court of Session, Scotland’s supreme civil court, heard some cases concerning the commercial and property-owning aspects of the slave trade. Three cases concerning the status of enslaved people in Scotland also survive among the unextracted processes of the court in the NRS, as follows:

Montgomery v Sheddan, 1756

Among the petitions, declarations and other submissions by Sheddan and Montgomery in Court of Session (NRS reference CS234/S/3/12) there survives the bill of sale from Joseph Hawkins, Fredricksburg, to Robert Sheddan of ‘One Negroe boy named Jamie’ (9 March 1750). To read more, see the feature on the Montgomery slavery case on the Learning section of this website.

Spens v Dalrymple, 1769

The papers in unextracted processes are NRS reference CS236/D/4/3 box 104 and NRS reference CS236/S/3/13. For more information, see the feature on the Spens slavery case in the Learning section of this website.  

Knight v Wedderburn, 1774-7

The unextracted processes for this case (NRS reference CS235/K/2/2) include an extract of process by the Sheriff Depute of Perth against Sir John Wedderburn (1774) and memorials by Wedderburn and Knight. For more information, see the feature on the Knight slavery case in the Learning section of this website.

Estate and plantation records

Scottish families who settled in the colonies maintained contact with their relatives in Scotland, and extensive series of correspondence survive in some Scottish estate collections. In these letters, the work and life of enslaved people on the plantations is often touched on, and we also learn how enslaved individuals rebelled against their captivity, either by absconding from their enslavers or through organised rebellion. Although most enslaved people were made to work on their enslaver’ plantations, enslaved individuals were often employed in their enslaver’ households as servants, and would occasionally be mentioned in letters or diaries. It was mostly these enslaved individuals whom enslavers would take with them if they returned to Scotland. Accounts reveal any expenditure made for enslaved persons, such as clothing, food and vaccines but also things like shackles and collars. Estate collections sometimes include household inventories drawn up at the death of the estate owner, which might mention enslaved people. Estate plans might show how enslaved individuals were accommodated. Some examples of plantation records in the NRS are Cameron and Company, Berbice, 1816-1824 (NRS reference CS96/972), William Fraser, Berbice, 1830-1831 (NRS reference CS96/1947), Robert Cunnyngham, St Christopher’s, 1729-1735, (NRS reference CS96/3102) and Earls of Airlie, Jamaica, 1812-1873, (NRS reference GD16/27/291). Our online catalogue can be searched by planter’s name, plantation name or by keywords such as ‘slavery’, ‘slaves’, 'negro', 'negroes', ‘plantation’ or a combination of keywords.

Business records of merchants and enslavers

Business records (such as correspondence, accounts and ledgers) give an insight into how the slave trade was operated. Letters between slave traders can reveal how slave markets and auctions were identified and how slaves were transported to the colonies and sold there. Merchants’ correspondence relating to the slave trade often concerns the triangular trade with the colonies but may also include references to the abolition of the slave trade insofar as it affected their business. Letters to and from purchasers tell us about the characteristics customers typically looked for in enslaved individuals. Accounts will usually give the sum of money paid or received and may also mention the purchasers' names and the physical condition of the enslaved person. Although enslaved people's names are occasionally included as an ‘identifier’, normally only their first name is given. Examples of business records in the NRS, referring to the slave trade are Buchanan & Simpson, Glasgow, 1754-1773 (NRS reference CS96/502-509) and Cameron and Company, Berbice, 1816-1824 (NRS reference CS96/972-983). The CS96 records normally relate to Court of Session cases, whose references may be found in the same catalogue entry. To find relevant business records, you would ideally know the name of the company or individual dealing in eslavement, as the entries in our online catalogue are arranged by record creator. However, the above examples were identified by using relevant search terms such as ‘slave’, ‘slaves’ and ‘slave trade’.

Wills and testaments

There is evidence from wills and testaments that enslaved people in the colonies were regarded as ‘moveable property’, meaning they could be bequeathed after the owner’s death. Copies of original testaments of plantation owners may survive in estate papers or among family papers. If the testament was registered by a court whose jurisdiction covered the plantation itself, the registers might survive in the relevant national archives of that country. Scots who owned land in both the colonies and in Scotland could have their testaments registered in the Commissary Court of Edinburgh and (later) the Sheriff Court of Edinburgh. The registers for both of these have been digitised and are searchable online via the ScotlandsPeople website. See below under 'websites and bibliography'.

Registers of Deeds

Contracts, indentures, factories and other legal papers concerning the sale of enslaved people can give details about the transaction, the parties involved, the price paid and other conditions under which the sale was to be finalised. Some of these are among collections of estate and plantation records or family papers (e.g. indenture between John Davies, Antigua, and James Matthew Hodges, Antigua, regarding the sale of a enslaved person, 1833 (NRS reference GD209/21) and indenture between Eliza Mines, Jamaica, and Cunningham Buchanan, Jamaica, regarding sale of two female enslaved individuals, 1809 (NRS reference CS228/B/15/52). It is possible that many others might appear in the various registers of deeds in the NRS, which can be very time-consuming to search. Many registers are not indexed, and those which are indexed are only by personal name. For more details see our research guide on searching registers of deeds.

Pictorial evidence

The NRS frequently receives enquiries for images of enslavement, the slave trade, the abolition movement, aspects of plantation life and related topics. Almost all of the information in the NRS relating to these topics is in written form. The best source of pictorial illustrations and images in Scotland is Glasgow City Libraries and Archives. A good starting point is the 2002 exhibition ‘Slavery and Glasgow’, which is available online at the Scottish Archive Network (SCAN) website.


Two published maps of the Gold Coast have come to the NRS via private record collections: (1) map of Africa according to Mr. D'Anville with additions and improvements and a particular chart of the Gold Coast, showing European forts and factories, 1772, published by Robert Sayer, London (NRS reference RHP2069), and (2) map of Africa, improved and enlarged from D'Anville's map, including inset map of the Gold Coast and vignette of African figures, 1794, published by Laurie & Whittle, London (NRS reference RHP9779). Some access restrictions apply to the second map: consult NRS Historical Search Room staff.

Searching NRS, SCAN and NRAS online catalogues

The NRS online catalogue contains many detailed entries at item level, and it is possible to search it using terms such as ‘slave’ and ‘slavery’, and by the name of a plantation or plantation owner. It is less likely to yield information on enslaved individuals and former enslaved individuals unless they became well-known.

The Scottish Archive Network (SCAN) online catalogue contains summary details of collections of records in more than 50 Scottish archives. Again this might be useful for searching for records of plantations and their owners, but not many other aspects of slavery. The SCAN website also contains the exhibition Slavery and Glasgow, which displays images of many of the types of material covered by this guide.

The online register of the National Register of Archives for Scotland (NRAS) is a catalogue of records held privately in Scotland.

United Kingdom government sources

Acts, statutes and slave registers

The Act of 1807 only abolished the transatlantic slave trade (the shipping of enslaved people from Africa to the colonies in the Americas). The sale and transport of enslaved people between colonies were not affected by this legislation. Moreover, in spite of the new law, the slave trade across the Atlantic continued illicitly. In response to this, the British government passed a Bill in 1815, requiring the registration of legally-purchased slaves in the colonies. The system of slave registration was gradually introduced by 1817. The registers are an excellent source for researching enslaved individuals. The amount of detail they give varies, but you can generally expect to find the enslaver’s name, the enslaved person’s name, age, country of birth, occupation and further remarks. You should be aware when studying these records that there was some opposition to the registration bill among enslavers, so the registers are not complete. The NRS does not hold slave registers. For most former colonies, you will need to contact the respective national archive services.

In 1816, another Act came into force, requiring an annual return of the enslaved population in each colony. The returns were obtained by parish and normally record the enslaver’s name and the number of male and female enslaved people in their possession; they do not normally include the enslaved person’s names. These records are a good source for identifying individual enslavers. Returns were taken until 1834.

During the 1820s, the British government began to make provisions for the gradual amelioration of slavery. This development towards its complete abolition in the British colonies is well documented in private and business letters from enslavers as well as speeches and pamphlets by abolitionists (see under 'the abolition movement' above). The new measures imposed by the government included Acts for the ‘government and protection of the slave population’, passed between 1826 and 1830. These Acts addressed topics such as minimum standards for food and clothing, labour conditions, penal measures and provisions for old and sick enslaved individuals. In Jamaica, enslaved persons could no longer be separated from their families, and released enslaved people were allowed to own personal property and to receive bequests. Murder of an enslaved person was to be punished with death. In Barbados, owners were instructed to have all their enslaved individuals baptised and clergymen were required to record births, baptisms, marriages and deaths occurring in the enslaved population. Enslaved people charged with capital offences were to be tried in court in the same way as white and free-coloured persons. In Grenada, every enslaved individual was to be given a proportion of land adequate to their support and be granted 28 working days per year to cultivate it. In Antigua, enslavers were required to build a two-roomed house for every enslaved female pregnant with her first child. A printed abstract of these Acts is held within a private collection (NRS reference GD142/57). For further information see the Parliamentary Archives website.


Occasionally, enslavers would decide to release some of their enslaved people. The release was formalised through a ‘manumission’ (a document granting the enslaved person his or her freedom). Manumissions are contained within the papers of the Colonial Office and Foreign Office, held at The National Archives (TNA). For more details of these and the records of the Office of the Registry of Colonial Slaves and Slave Compensation Commission, 1812-1851, including the central register of slaves in London, see the research guides on the slave trade on The National Archives website.

There are also some individual manumissions contained in estate papers held privately in Scotland. To search these and to find out more about how to access them, see National Register of Archives for Scotland online register.

Websites and bibliography

Scottish Archive Network (SCAN) - use the online catalogue to search for records relating to slavery in Scottish archives and view the Slavery and Glasgow exhibition
The National Archives, London (TNA) - consult the research guides on slavery and the slave trade
One Scotland website - includes a list of resources on Scotland and the slave trade
Scottish Government National Improvement Hub - learning resources concerning slavery and human trafficking 
ScotlandsPeople - census returns; civil registers of births, deaths and marriages (from 1855 onwards); Old Parish Registers of baptisms and marriages; wills and testaments registered in Scotland
Parliamentary Archives website - includes a micro-site: Parliament and the British Slave Trade


Eric J Graham, A Maritime History of Scotland 1650-1790 (Tuckwell Press, 2002)
Eric J Graham, Seawolves: Pirates and the Scots (Birlinn Ltd, 2007)
David Hancock, Citizens of the World: London Merchants and the Integration of the British Atlantic Community, 1735-1785, (Cambridge University Press, 1995)
Alan L Karras, Sojourners in the Sun: Scottish Migrants in Jamaica and the Chesapeake, 1740-1800 (Cornell University Press, 1992)
Kenneth Morgan, Slavery, Atlantic Trade and the British Economy, 1660-1800 (Cambridge University Press, 2001)
Iain Whyte, Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery, 1756-1838 (Edinburgh University Press, 2006)
Frances Wilkins, Dumfries and Galloway and the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Wyre Forest Press, 2007)