National Trust for Scotland to review properties’ links to slavery

The National Trust for Scotland yesterday unveiled a review of its buildings and monuments to highlight links to slavery after a similar exercise in England prompted accusations of a "witch hunt".

The NTS said it was aware that many of its properties, including the birthplaces of Robert Burns and Hugh Miller, had a connection to the slave trade.

As part of a wider black history in Scotland, the charity said it was committed to expanding knowledge and supporting staff and volunteers to address Scotland’s role. 

Among the properties that will be examined in the project are Culzean Castle in Ayrshire, Pollok House in Glasgow and the Glenfinnan Monument, erected in tribute to the Jacobites who died in the 1745 uprising. 

The monument sits on Glenaladale estate, once owned by Alexander Macdonald, who had made his fortune in plantations worked by enslaved people in Jamaica.

The two-year research and public engagement project, called Facing Our Past, comes after the National Trust south of the Border published a report in September disclosing 93 of its properties had links to slavery and colonialism.

Controversially, it included Winston Churchill’s Chartwell family home and cited the former Prime Minister’s role in the Bengal famine and his opposition to Indian independence.

Members vented their fury at the charity’s board at its annual general meeting earlier this month, accusing of pursuing a "woke agenda" and "a witch hunt into the lives of past property owners".

Nigel Huddleston, the UK Government’s Heritage Minister, said he understood the intent behind the review south of the Border but the manner in which it was conducted was "unfortunate" and had caused "offence".

NEW PODCAST EP! 📻 Hear about our new project exploring the role that the slave trade has played in the histories of Scotland and some of our most-loved places 🎧 LISTEN NOW ➡️

— National Trust for Scotland (@N_T_S) November 16, 2020

Unveiling the NTS version, Dr Jennifer Melville, who is leading the project, said: "Curators across the world are very aware that they must look honestly at collections, properties and estates and reveal all the narratives relating to them. 

"It is over ten years since our first project on slavery but we are keen to increase this work and embed a thoroughly researched understanding of it into the visitor experience."

The conservation organisation manages or owns about 130 properties in Scotland, including St Kilda, which is a Unesco double world heritage site.

Dr Melville said visitors have a "thirst for knowledge" on slavery and the NTS is "in a unique position to address this complex history as owners of estates, gardens, buildings and collections that have been created, improved or funded through the suffering of others."

Philip Long, NTS chief executive said: "Such histories are as much a part of the heritage we are responsible for – and have a duty to explain – as our duty of care to the physical heritage we are entrusted with. It is an indisputable fact that many of the properties belonging to the Trust have an association with colonialism and slavery; researching into this is therefore important work for us to undertake, as part of the broader research we do in many fields, to look after, understand and explain the heritage in our care."

Prof Karin Wulf, executive director, Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture of William and Mary College in the US, described the project as "immensely exciting and important."

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