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Empire cafe tea cup.jpg

The Matter of Slavery in Scotland

‘The Matter of Slavery in Scotland’ was a collaborative research project with the University of Edinburgh which explored the history and legacy of Scotland’s connections with the transatlantic slave system through objects in public collections.

Last updated: 26 January 2022

About the project

The project considered historic and contemporary objects, together with buildings, monuments and paintings to identify and explore layered and often conflicting stories of Scotland’s slavery past. Leaping across time periods, the role of that past in shaping the country today was an important focus. Below are some of the objects examined through the project.

Project details

Project title

The Matter of Slavery in Scotland

Project active

2018 - 2019

Research theme

Identities and Cultural Contacts

Dr Sarah Laurenson - Co-investigator
National Museums Scotland

Professor Nuala Zahedieh - Principal Investigator
University of Edinburgh

  • John Glassford and his Family.jpg

    Archibald McLauchlan, John Glassford and his Family © CSG CIC.

  • Graham-Fagen-Slaves-Lament.jpg

    Graham Fagen, still from ‘The Slave’s Lament’ © Graham Fagen.

  • Rectangular-mahogany-box.jpg

    Rectangular mahogany box with silver mounts, used to contain a silver sugar bowl and pair of tea bottles: English, London, by M.I., 1762. National Museums Scotland, A.1979.502 F.

  • Jonathan-Troupe's-diary.jpg

    Dr Jonathan Troup’s Dominican diary, 1788-1790 © University of Aberdeen.

  • 454px-Melville_Monument,_Edinburgh.jpg

    Melville Monument, St Andrews Square, Edinburgh.

  • Empire cafe tea cup.jpg

    Porcelain teacup with poetry extract, from The Empire Café. At the pop up café in Glasgow, during the Commonwealth Games in 2014, visitors discussed new understandings of Scotland’s slavery past over the products of empire. National Museums Scotland, X.2017.89.4.

  • Metal-brand-National-Museums-Scotland-H.jpg

    Metal object said to have been used for branding the skin of enslaved people in the West Indies, c.18th-19th century. National Museums Scotland, H.NN 12.

  • Slave-market-constantinople.jpg

    Sir William Allan, The Slave Market, Constantinople © National Galleries of Scotland. Purchased 1980.

  • Copper-still-NMS.jpg

    Copper wash still, originally coal fired, manufactured in Glasgow in the 1960s. This object is similar in size and construction to those exported from Britain to the Caribbean in the eighteenth century. National Museums Scotland, T.1996.259.

  • K.1998.1130

    Full-sized set of Highland bagpipes with drones turned in cocus wood, 18th century. Cocus wood – a material grown in the Caribbean and inextricably bound with slavery – was often used in bagpipes because of its tonal qualities (K.1998.1130)

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Through a collaborative approach, the project brought together curators, researchers, teachers and activists, forming a network of knowledge and different perspectives to throw new light on existing collections.

By deepening understandings of slavery through material culture, this inter-disciplinary group forged new methods of researching, interpreting and displaying this history and its legacies. The relationships built and the knowledge uncovered continues to inform our work behind the scenes on the topics of slavery, empire and colonialism.

Updated displays at the National Museum of Scotland include:

Empire Café tea set: Hawthornden Court, Level 1

The addition of the Empire Café tea set to an existing display on Scottish involvement in slavery, to highlight the ongoing legacy of and conversation about Scotland’s slavery past.

Trade and tobacco: Scotland Transformed, Level 3

A display on trade and tobacco now includes slavery-related objects and highlights the centrality of enslaved people and their labour to the development of the Scottish economy during the 18th century. 

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