Edinburgh's links to the slave trade set to be laid bare

The Capital's Melville Monument honours a man widely blamed for delaying the abolition of slavery.
The Capital's Melville Monument honours a man widely blamed for delaying the abolition of slavery.
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Edinburgh’s little-known links to the slave trade are set to be properly highlighted for the first time under a new drive to raise greater awareness of its past history among young people.

The dark past of listed buildings and monuments in the city’s historic heart is to be fully revealed after concerns were raised that current promotional efforts were not “honest” enough.

Previous levels of child poverty in the city and the poor working conditions of many of those who built some of the city’s most celebrated landmarks are also expected to have a greater profile in future.

An overhaul of promotional initiatives has been pledged in the wake of a project instigated by the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust to mark an official Year of Young People in 2018.

A group of 16-24 year-olds involved in the initiative have helped draw up a new “young person’s heritage manifesto” which calls for “honest conversations” about the past. The manifesto has been published just two years after a “Scottish Slavery Map” pinpointed how many people living in Edinburgh’s New Town in the 19th century applied for compensation from the government when slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire.

The new drive is expected to prompt much greater awareness of how people in Edinburgh were at one time twice as likely to own a slave as someone in Glasgow or London.

By the late 1700s, a third of Jamaican plantations were owned by Scots, some of whom liked to dress their slaves in their clan tartan. In 1790, the combined worth of exports and imports between the West Indies and Scotland totalled at least £50 million in today’s currency.

Among those to receive a share of the £20m in compensation paid out in the wake of emancipation of slaves were Peter McClagan of Great King Street, John Blackburn of Queen Street, John Gordon of St Andrew Square and James Auchinleck Cheyne of South St Andrew Street.

One of Edinburgh’s most prominent landmarks, the Melville Monument in St Andrew Square, was erected in honour of Henry Dundas, the 1st Viscount Melville, who is widely blamed for delaying the abolition of slavery in the 18th century.

The new young person’s manifesto states: “The heritage industry is sometimes out-of-step with our values. While the conservation of objects and buildings is important, we need to recognise that the values they represent can be outdated and lack relevance to young people.

“We need to be honest and recognise this, and encourage young people to get involved and have a healthy debate about the issues thrown up by the past.”

Edinburgh World Heritage director Adam Wilkinson said: “We’ve clearly got our work cut out in better engaging with young people, and we are very grateful for the clear ideas and recommendations we’ve received from our young ambassadors. Now we need to move from words to actions.”