Edinburgh's Slave Trade Heritage

June 09, 2020

Like most of you, I imagine, the unjust murder of George Floyd has had me thinking a lot about society and my understanding of it. I have watched and listened as the world has protested against the racist treatment of black people. It is no longer okay to be 'not racist', we have to be 'anti-racist'. It is time for racism to stop, and for many, this change can only come about with a greater education. I will be one of the first to admit the failures of my own education, and have been shocked over the last week as I discovered just how intrinsically Scotland's past is tied to the slave trade. 

For many of us, the lack of knowledge and education about Scotland's racist past, has us viewing this country through rose tinted glasses. Despite being less acknowledged, Scotland's role in the slave trade is undeniable, and one that shouldn't be overlooked. While there has been much work to shed light on Glasgow's involvement in the slave trade over recent years, Edinburgh's links should not be denied. Much of the city has been developed on wealth accumulated from the slave trade and the docks at Leith received tobacco from the Americas throughout the 17th century. This is a history that is often neglected, yet it runs through the veins of the streets in the New Town or takes the form of statues towering above us as we picnic on the grass below. 

Viscount Melville Monument graffiti Edinburgh

I've been kept inside with a suspected bout of corona virus, and spent a lot of my time educating myself through social media, articles, discussions and research. I've been sharing some resources on my insta-stories and signing petitions at all opportunities. While I've been taking the time to educate myself, I feel now I stand in a better position to be vocal. We all have a voice, and I want to use my voice to stand up for the rights of others - but I do realise that this may not be my place. I've struggled with and discussed the idea of writing something on my blog for a good few days now. I have a platform where I reach a fair number of people, so it makes sense to share information this way. But on the other hand, I am very much aware of my privilege. I am aware that as a white person, there are privileges extended to me because of my race that allows me to share these thoughts without fears of repercussions. And I am aware that it may not be viewed as my place. I want to be clear that before I start writing this post, I am writing it as an ally, who is learning how to be a better ally and wanting to spread the message that Black Lives Matter in a meaningful and positive way. I decided that it was appropriate for me to share this post on my blog, writing as an archaeologist and trying to define my 'niche' as Heritage Tourism, how can I possibly say that my blog has integrity if I exclude these narratives?  If I want to be able to market my blog as sharing the heritage of places, and more specifically my local Edinburgh, then I can't insert my own bias and neglect this history. It's become apparent that Edinburgh has strong links with the slave trade, with many of its developments and buildings only made possible through these wealthy individuals who had connections and involvement in the slave trade. To disregard this aspect of Edinburgh's history would be omitting an important part of its heritage, which is already lacking through failures on both a curricular and individual level. 

I spent a lot of time researching this post after seeing an instagram post by @minoricity (@minoricity) which outlines a few of the streets in Edinburgh which are built on racism. I wanted to know more, and began researching further myself. I found it shocking how frequently I pass by streets and monuments in Edinburgh without knowing their links to the slave trade. Sir Geoff Palmer's work has become of great interest to me, and I'd recommend following his research to anyone who does not know of Scotland's role in the slave trade. I've certainly deepened my knowledge and understanding by engaging with his works, and I think it is important for all to do so. 

Edinburgh New Town 

Edinburgh is known for its unique separation between the Old and the New Town, with the tall buildings and small closes of the Old Town separated from the grid system of the Georgian New Town by Princes Street. Sir Geoff Palmer's work has illustrated how the development of the New Town was actually funded by the slave trade, with many of the wealthy owners of these builders having intrinsic ties to the slave trade, for example James Lindsay, the 7th Earl of Balcarres. In addition, many of those who lived in these houses were given compensation with the emancipation of slaves in 1833.

The Melville Monument, Dundas Street and Dundas House

Henry Dundas was the 1st Viscount Melville, who was a significant figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. At a time when when there had been no monarch visit to Scotland, Dundas was given the unofficial titles of 'King Harry the Ninth", "Grand Manager of Scotland", "The Great Tyrant" and "The Uncrowned King of Scotland", and he had a huge sway over Scottish politics. As a result, Dundas was not only able to redirect large amounts of public money, but he was also a key figure in delaying the abolition of slavery for 15 years, much to his own gain. Further, Dundas fought a pro-slavery war in Haiti, as war secretary. Today, Henry Dundas has been commemorated with the Melville Monument in St Andrew's Square and Dundas Street in New Town named after him.

The Royal Bank of Scotland Headquarters, also known as Dundas House, was the family home to the Dundas. Henry Dundas had a brother who also accumulated his wealth through plantations in Grenada and Dominica.

Top of the Melville Statue in St Andrews square showing Henry Dundas
image source

James Gillespie High School & High Street Plaque 

James Gillespie was a tobacco merchant in the 18th Century, where he made his fortune. He ran a shop on the High Street,  and built his home, Spylaw House in Colinton. The site of Gillespie's shop on the Royal Mile (231 High Street) is marked with a plaque, to commemorate his life as a tobacco and snuff manufacturer. The original sign for his shop is in the Museum of Edinburgh. Gillespie left part of his fortune to the establishment of a free school for poor boys, which has since developed into a primary and secondary school for both girls and boys.

Plaque to Gillespie marking the spot of his shop on the high street
image source

Bute House

Bute House is now known as the home of Scotland's First Minister, but has housed many of Edinburgh's wealthy slave owners. John Crawford lived in this house in the 1790s, and amassed a huge fortuned by owning the Bellfield Sugar Plantation in Jamaica, when he was young. It was also home to Sir John Sinclair, whom sources reveal owned 610 slaves, and tried to claim compensation for them when slavery was abolished.

Exterior of Bute House Edinburgh
image source

Jamaica Street

We often don't question where our street names have derived from, but it is not just a coincidence that many Scottish cities have streets called Jamaica Street. These streets are reminders of the plantations that were owned by wealthy Scots in Jamaica.

Lady Stair's Close 

Today, Lady Stair's Close, located on the Royal Mile, is most well know for The Writer's Museum. The Countess of Stair, who lived in what we now know as the Writer's Museum, is reputed to have had the first black servant in Edinburgh.

The Writers Museum and plaque in Lady Stair's Close

David Hume 

David Hume is a highly praised philosopher, for his work in philosophical empiricism, skepticism and naturalism. However, in Hume's "Of National Characters" in Essays, Moral, Political and Literary, he wrote that black people were 'inferior' to white people, a view which he repeated throughout work, emphasising that there are differences between races which were akin to the difference between humans and animals. His statue stands on Edinburgh's Royal Mile, and has a building named after him on The University of Edinburgh's campus.

David Hume Statue on the Royal Mile

John Gladstone's Plaque in Leith

John Gladstone was a Scottish merchant and wealthy slave owner. He owned plantations in Jamaica and Guyana, with 2508 slaves. When slavery was abolished, Gladstone received around £23 billion in compensation for his slaves. This is the largest payment by the Slave Compensation Commission. Gladstone is commemorated by a plaque at the corner of Great Junction Street and King Street in Leith, which is marking his birthplace.

This list isn't exhaustive. Edinburgh, and more widely, Scotland and the UK are intrinsically tied to the slave trade, and have a deep-rooted racism, which is often denied. I've linked a BBC Scotland documentary that is beneficial to watch to understand Scotland's role in the transatlantic slave trade.

Again, I'd highly recommend looking at Sir Geoff Palmer's work. His articles are thought-provoking and he is calling out for changes to be made to these commemorations across Scottish cities. He has called for a plaque to be added to the Melville monument which acknowledges his role in the slave trade. As of last night, these

As the protests continue across the UK in solidarity with the US, we have seen some statues and commemorations being graffitied or, in the case of the Colston statue in Bristol, being removed by protesters (and chucked into the harbour). From my perspective in the heritage and archaeology sector, I have witnessed a debate about whether this was a right or wrongful act. Textbooks show a long history of the desecration of monuments. While it is important that we remember the history, it is not necessary to have monuments to commemorate individuals involved in these acts. Acknowledgement and understanding of the acts that lead to the individuals gaining their wealth is imperative.

This petition calls for the removal of the Dundas statue and renaming of streets named after him: Remove the Statue of Henry Dundas and rename the streets named after him in Edinburgh


This petition calls for the renaming of Dundas Street in Edinburgh: Petition to Change Slavers Street names in Scotland starting with Dundas Street

Improvements to our schools curriculum will help to bring about change - black history should be taught and all Scots should be aware of Scotland's history with the slave trade.

This petition calls for Black History to be taught in Scottish Schools: Teach Black History in Scottish Schools

please sign them.

Once again, I have shared this post as someone who is intent on educating themselves and as a blogger who engages with the heritage of Edinburgh regularly. I am more than open to discussing this post with anyone, and my social media links & email can be found across my blog, and specifically under the 'work with me' tab.

I urge you to continue your education, just as I will be, so that we can make meaningful changes and improvements now.


(Please note, while I am currently in self-isolation due to corona virus symptoms, I have been unable to take my own photos for much of this post. Once I am able to leave my flat again, I will update the post with all of my own imagery. For the moment, sources have been linked under the images. Images with no links/credit belong to me)

Edinburgh's Slave Trade Heritage Pinterest pin

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