Edinburgh Centre for Global History

Slavery and the Scottish Country House

This project will use the economic and social worlds of Scottish country houses to highlight connections between Scottish participation in the Atlantic trading system (with its reliance on enslaved African workers) and the Scots at home.


Following the Union of 1707, many Scots moved to take advantage of opportunities arising out of British imperial expansion. In so doing, they became directly, or indirectly, involved in the enforced movement of millions of Africans who provided the labour which underpinned the rise of the Atlantic trading system. Meanwhile, Scots at home witnessed radical change and modernization in Scotland’s rural economy manifested in a surge of country house building. Many have claimed that these developments were connected but discussion of the links between slavery and the domestic economy remain poorly specified. Taking a wide-angled approach, this project will provide a robust demonstration of how slavery’s impact extended beyond individual merchant fortunes, and direct capital transfers, and transformed a broad swathe of Scotland’s rural economy and society.


A programme of seminars and events will promote collaboration and exchange between researchers in universities, museums, and the heritage industry. The discussion will be organized around four broad themes:

  • Accumulation: How far were improvers (builders) directly, or indirectly, involved in the Atlantic slave system?  How did the injection of ‘new money’ affect family strategies, estate management, and the allocation of resources at home?
  • Production: How did colonial markets for goods and services affect Scotland’s production and employment patterns?
  • Consumption: How did supplies of colonial hardwoods, plants, foods, fruits, and other materials produced by enslaved Africans transform country house exteriors, interiors, diets, dress, and parks?
  • Aesthetics: How did engagement with empire affect aesthetic values at home?

The first workshop was held on 14/15 July 2017. For further information on the workshop, including an overview and paper abstracts, please visit the workshop's website at scottishcountryhouseblog.wordpress.com


The completed research will make a significant contribution to long-standing debates, with resonance beyond academia, concerning the impact of empire, the causes of the Industrial Revolution and, above all, the importance of slavery as a causal factor in change. Furthermore, it will provide a valuable research resource for academics, curators, heritage professionals and family historians. As interest has grown in issues surrounding restorative justice, it will contribute to promoting a better understanding of concepts of ‘belonging’; the nature of Scotland’s debt to slavery; and how this legacy might best be presented in heritage sites.