National Records of Scotland

Preserving the past, Recording the present, Informing the future

Slavery and Scotland

Slavery and Scotland

The detailed history of the transatlantic slave trade and plantation slavery, and how Scotland participated, is a history that is still being re-discovered. It was a period that lasted for nearly 250 years and it has a legacy that is still present in our society, public institutions and spaces through racism and place names. The British slave trade - that is the maritime trafficking of African enslaved people to the Americas - was only abolished in 1807. Plantation slavery was abolished in 1834, and after the 'Apprenticeship Scheme' (1834-8), freedom for all enslaved peoples was finally granted in the British West Indies.

Chattel slavery in mainland America and the Caribbean was introduced and practiced by Europeans who had established colonies and plantations. Governments and businesses wanted cheap labour. To meet this demand they enslaved and shipped Africans over the Atlantic in terrible conditions to be sold as property to plantation owners, and were subsequently worked to death. Many people know that London, Liverpool and Bristol were the main ports for the beginning and ending of slaving voyages. However there were also Scottish ports involved on a smaller scale, such as Leith, Greenock and Port Glasgow. Significantly, Scotland and the Scottish people benefitted from the wealth and opportunities that slavery generated. This legacy is still present in our Georgian buildings, statues and street names. Scottish men and women played a strong part in the development of this trade, as well as its abolition. 

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. The National Records of Scotland (NRS) 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 and were thereby made free. The three cases were Montgomery v Sheddan (1756), Spens v Dalrymple (1769) and Knight v Wedderburn (1774-77). 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 enslaved individuals who applied to the court, as well as about attitudes to slavery in eighteenth-century Scotland.

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 those formerly enslaved.