Slave’s legal battle in Scotland to inspire work of art for new national museum in Perth

An African-born slave who won a landmark legal case after being brought to Scotland from the Caribbean by a wealthy plantation owner is to be honoured in a new national museum.

Joseph Knight’s prolonged battle to secure his freedom was key to the abolition of slavery in Scotland.

Now the remarkable story of his successful attempt to sue a wealthy Perthshire estate owner who made his fortune from West Indian sugar plantations is to get pride of place in a new £26.5 million attraction expected to retell the story of Scotland.

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Knight, one of the few black people living in 18th century Scotland, has been chosen to inspire one of six specially-commissioned banners, or “standards,” which will be hung at Perth’s City Hall when it reopens in 2024.

The story of Joseph Knight will be turned into a stage play, Enough of Him, in 2022.

The attraction explores how Scotland was shaped by people, places and events “uniquely associated” with Perthshire, including the Stone of Destiny, which will go on permanent display there after being relocated from Edinburgh Castle.

Knight will be featured alongside key figures and episodes from the Jacobite Risings, the Battle of Culloden the Highland Clearances in the banners installation, which is expected to remain in place at the new-look City Hall for up to 10 years.

Knight, who was adamant there was no legal basis for slavery in Scotland, spent four years trying to secure his freedom after being refused permission to leave the service of John Wedderburn and move out of his Ballindean estate after falling in love and marrying Annie Thomson, a chambermaid who worked for him.

Their relationship and the legal battle has already inspired the development of a new play, written by May Sumbwanyambe, which will be launched by the National Theatre of Scotland at Pitlochry Festival Theatre in October.

The new-look Perth City Hall is due to open to the public in 2024.

Knight was eventually successful in his case in 1778, effectively making it illegal to own a slave on Scottish soil, although slavery was not abolished throughout the British Empire until 1833.

Perth & Kinross Council, which is leading the City Hall redevelopment, has set aside £10,000 for each of the six commissions for its banner installation.

Its brief for artists states: “This is an exciting opportunity to create work that tells a vital part of the story of Perth and Scotland, to be placed in a major new museum in the centre of Perth.

"We want this new work to tell new stories about historic events, stories that deserve to be heard and have not been told before.

The revamped Perth City Hall is due to reopen in 2024.

"Within the new museum is a key space on the ground floor immediately adjacent to the Stone of Destiny display area.

"It is intended as a space for reflection and contemplation in terms of the impact of history on people and place.”

Fiona Robertson, head of culture at Perth and Kinross Council, said: “These new commissions are one of the ways in which we are supporting artists through new opportunities to create work for the stunning City Hall museum.”

JP Reid, exhibitions and interpretation officer at Culture Perth and Kinross, the trust which will run the new museum on behalf of the council, said: “Scotland’s major historical events like the Clearances and the Jacobite Risings had a profound and very particular impact on people and places in Perth and Kinross.

"These new commissions will commemorate those important moments.”

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