National Records of Scotland

Preserving the past, Recording the present, Informing the future

Slavery and Scotland

Slavery and Scotland

The National Records of Scotland holds records of Scottish courts and churches, and some estate papers relating to slave-owning plantations. To find out more about our records on slavery and guidance on researching this topic, see our Slavery and the Slave Trade research guide.

Court of Session Cases

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 individual, 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 an enslaved person, was still bound to provide perpetual service in the same manner as an indentured servant or an apprenticed artisan. 

Each of these cases are explored in detail in the following pages, featuring transciptions from the original court papers, historical context and the fate of the former slaves.