National Records of Scotland

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The James Montgomery Slavery Case, 1756

The James Montgomery Slavery Case, 1756

In August 1807 an act was passed abolishing the slave trade in the British empire. It was an important step in the abolition of slavery and in the suppression of the slave trade. National Records of Scotland (NRS) is featuring court cases which challenged the legal status of slavery in Scotland, and there is a research guide to sources in NRS for researching aspects of slavery and the slave trade.

Between 1756 and 1778 three cases reached the Court of Session in Edinburgh in which runaway slaves attempted to obtain their freedom. A central argument in each case was that the slave, having been bought in the colonies, had been subsequently baptised by sympathetic church ministers in Scotland and were thereby made free. The three cases were Montgomery v Sheddan (1756), Spens v Dalrymple (1769) and Knight v Wedderburn (1778). Records relating to all three cases survive among the records of the Court of Session in NRS, and they provide evidence for the lives of the individual slaves who applied to the court, as well as about attitudes to slavery in eighteenth-century Scotland.

The first of these cases featured James (or Jamie) Montgomery, formerly 'Shanker', the slave of Robert Sheddan of Morrishill in Ayrshire. Jamie Montgomery had been baptised by Reverend John Witherspoon in Beith (better known for his part in the American Declaration of Independence). His owner forcibly removed him to Port Glasgow and placed him on a ship bound for Virginia, but on 21 April 1756 Montgomery escaped to Edinburgh. He was apprehended following newspaper advertisements about his escape, which Sheddan had placed, and was incarcerated in the Edinburgh Tolbooth. Montgomery pursued his claim for freedom at the Court of Session in Edinburgh, but died before the case could be decided.

Among the records relating to the case (reference CS234/S/3/12) are petitions of Montgomery (originally styled 'James Montgomery Sheddan, prisoner in the City Guard of Edinburgh') and by Robert Sheddan, and answers by each party to the other's petitions.

Sheddan also submitted the bill of sale from Joseph Hawkins, a slave trader in Fredricksburg, to Robert Sheddan of 'One Negroe boy named Jamie' in 1750. An image of the bill and a transcript can be seen here.


"Fredricksburgh March the 9 1750

Know all men by these presents that I
Joseph Hawkins of Spotselvenia County for
& in Consideration of the Sum of Fifty Six pound
twelve shillings & six pence Virginia Curr[enc]y
to me in hand pay[e]d by Robert Shedden Merch[an]t
in Fred[ricksburgh] the Recept wherof I acknowledge
Have bargain[e]d Sold & deliv[e]red & by these presents
do bargain sell & deliver unto the said Robert
Shedden One Negroe Boy Named Jamie, To have
& to hold the said Negroe unto the said Robert Shedden
his Executors administrators for Ever, And I the said
Joseph Hawkins for my self my Executors & admin[istrato]rs
shall & will warant & forever defend against all
Persons whatsum Ever In witness wherof I have
herunto sett my hand & seal this Ninth day of March
One thousand seven hundred & fifty
Signed Seal[e]d & Deliv[e]red Joseph Hawkins
Ja[mes] Hilldrop
Jo[h]n Stewart"

In August 1756 Robert Sheddan requested that the case be heard quickly because he was responsible for the cost of Montgomery's subsistence in the tolbooth, and because of concerns for the prisoner’s health. In December 1756 Montgomery's health had deteriorated and both parties were still attempting to obtain a hearing. By the time the Court of Session declared that the case would be heard on 4 January 1757, James Montgomery had died in prison.

In 1769 David Spens (previously ‘Black Tom’) sued his owner, Dr David Dalrymple in Methill, Fife, for wrongful arrest, after he had attempted to leave his service, but Dalrymple died during the suit. Finally in 1778 Joseph Knight was successful in arguing at the Court of Session that Scots law could not support the status of slavery.

Read about the Spens v Dalrymple case of 1769, the Knight v Wedderburn case of 1778, and about George Dale, a native of Africa and former slave whose life story was used as evidence by the Society for the Purpose of Effecting the Abolition

In addition to the NRS research guide, images of records and illustrations relating to the slave trade from Scottish archives and libraries can be found on the exhibition Slavery and Glasgow on the Scottish Archive Network website (at