Family Research – English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy


No Slavery in Scotland

Part of the record of a civil court case between a servant and his master dated 15 November 1774. The servant, a Negro named Joseph Knight, wanted the freedom to leave John Wedderburn of Bandean’s employment and claimed that the very act of landing in Scotland freed him from perpetual servitude, as slavery was not a recognised in Scotland. Many years earlier Knight had been purchased by Wedderburn in Jamaica from a slave trader.


The case caused disagreement in the courts as Wedderburn, referred to through the document as ‘The Complainer’, insisted that slavery and perpetual servitude were different states. He argued that in Scots law Knight, even though he was not recognised as a slave, was still bound to provide perpetual service in the same manner as an indentured servant or an apprenticed artisan.

The Justices of the Peace in Perth, who first considered the matter, found in favour of Wedderburn. However, when Knight appealed to the Sheriff Deputy that decision was overturned. This document represents a further appeal to the Lords of Council and Session (the highest civil court in Scotland). This court upheld Wedderburn’s appeal and ordered that Knight could not choose to abandon his old ‘master’.

As part of the appeal process Wedderburn outlined the history of the case as well as the personal circumstances that initially led to an estrangement between the two men. The appeal provides information regarding the relationship between Joseph Knight and another servant who is described as ‘one of the Fair Sex not very famous for her virtues’. This relationship had resulted in her pregnancy and eventually in a severing of the good relationship between Wedderburn and Knight when the latter would not give her up.

The general agreement that it was legally impossible to be a slave in Scotland at that time did not stop the final decision going against Knight. How he reconciled himself to his ‘perpetual servitude’ and whether he remained ‘fully as happy as any servant in Great Britain’ is not disclosed.
The National Archives of Scotland holds records of legal actions both criminal and, as in this case, civil. The Court of Session, the highest civil court in Scotland, deposited this document in the national archives. Court and Legal records extend over many kilometres of shelving within the archives and a searchable database is being created to allow researchers easier access to the material.


George by the Grace of God Of Great Britain France and Ireland King Defender of the Faith to Messengers at arms, our shiriffs in that part, conly [conjunctly] and sealy [severally] specly [specially] constitute, greeting. Whereas it is humbly meant and shown to us by our lovite John Wedderburn Esquire of Bandean That in an action and cause intended and depending before the shiriff depute of the Shire of Perth at the Instance of Joseph his servant, a Negro, designing himself Joseph Knight, against the complainer concluding that he should be at liberty to desert and leave service and go where he pleased the said shiriff has committed manifest error in judgement as the complainer humbly hopes will appear to the Lords of our Council and Session when this cause is fully stated befor our said Lords. The said Joseph Knight having many years ago become the complainer’s property in the island of Jamaica as a slave the complainer took a liking to him, made him his personal servant and have upon all occasions as he acknowledges treated him with particular kindness and favours with this view. When the complainer some years ago returned to Britain to spend the remainder of his life in Scotland, the complainer brought him with him where he has continued as he also acknowledges easie and happy, the complr. [complainer] caused teach him every branch of Education that was necessary for a servant that he might be equal in all respects to a free born Britain of that station and moreover added reading writing and arithmetick, had him instructed in the Christian Religian and procured him to be baptised so that for these sum years past the complainer has the best reason to believe he thought himself fully as happy as any servant in Great Britain. But having fallen under the dominian of one of the Fair Sex not very famous for her virtues he has been thereby induced to desire to leave the complainer’s service because he would not agree to all her extravagant fancies. He first cohabited with her as his mistress when she was a servant in the complainer’s house unknown to any person till at last her being with child made the discovery, upon which she was discharged from her service, and upon his part the complainer so far forgave the offence as to continue all the former favours with him and supply him with money for her expences of Inlying and for maintaining her paying the rent of a house for her in Dundee. But, the child having died, the complainer would have inclined the connection to have broke off, as he had no good opinion of any of that lady’s virtues. But he [Knight] insisted not only in marrying her, which he actually put in execution, but further wanted she should house at Bandean. The objections he had to such a near neighbour of this kind will easily occur to every considerable person upon which the complainers servant Joseph intimated to him that he intended to leave his service. As he had now become useful to the complainer as a house servant, it would have been very inconvenient for the complr [complainer] to have been left by him in an abruptive manner. The complainer therefore gave in a petition to the Justices of his Majesties Peace for the county of Perth, who the complainer had been informed were proper and competent judges betwixt master and servant and the Justices having advised his petition with answers for the said Joseph Knight found that he could not desert his service altho’ he was not a slave in this country and entitled to all other privileges and protection of the law as a British subject and as he admitted he had been well used in every particular. The Justices went no further. His servant was satisfied with this judgement for a while, as he had read in the newspapers and magazines the proceedings of the Court of King’s Bench in England, judgments given in the case of Sommersitt the Negroe and others in the like situation to him, to be similar to that given by the Justices of Peace. But, he afterwards liked the law of the Shiriff depute of Perthshire better who by a Scots newspaper had discharged a servant formerly a slave from all service or dutie to his master. Upon this Joseph Knight brought his cause before the Shiriff against the complr. [complainer] in which it was in vain pleased for him, that it was ‘a res hactenas judicata’ [1] by the judgement of the Justices of Peace, judges fully as competent betwixt master and servant as the shiriff, and that the shiriff had no power to review decrees of the Justices. It was a question he liked to judge in, and therefore sustained himself upon the other hand. As the complainer desired nothing but that the question should be determined according to law with as little trouble and expence as possible did not complain to the Lords of our council and session immediately of this extraordinary piece of usurpation of the Shiriff in point of jurisdiction, and the cause having at last come to issue before the Shiriff Substitute he found that the pursuer Joseph Knight was not entitled to leave the complainer’s service and after advising a long elaborate reclaiming petition he adhered. But, Joseph Knight, knowing where he would find a different opinion, appealed to the Shiriff Depute who, upon the twentieth instant pronounced the following interlocutor. Having advised the process recalls the Interlogr. [Interlocutor] of the fifth of January last finds that the state of slavery is not recognised by the laws of this Kingdom and is inconsistent with the principles thereof and finds that the regulations in Jamaica concerning slaves do not extend to this Kingdom and repells the defenders claim to perpetual service etc. and decerns that part of the above Interlogr. [Interlocutor] which repells the complr [complainer’s] claim to perpetual service he begs leave to submit to the review of our said Lords for quod ultra [2] The Shiriff has mistaken his plea or misled himself for it never entered into the Complainers imagination that the state of slavery was recognised by the laws of this Kingdom or was consistent with the principles thereof, or that the regulations in Jamaica concerning slaves did extend to this Kingdom our said Lords will therefore by [be] pleased to attend that the complainer admits that Joseph Knight although his slave in the West Indies is not now a slave but is intitled to the protection of the law, both to his person and effects, but that the Complainer is still entitled to his perpetual service under these privileges is the only plea the Complainer maintains tho he might plead, if he were so inclined, the Charter and Acts in favour of the Scots African Company, likeways, The English and British Statutes in favours of Traders to Africa wherein the Trade of buying slaves is expressly authorised and granted without any limitation or restriction, that they are to be keept in the British dominions abroad for there is no such restriction. But the Complainer does not incline to carry his plea so far. Cases of this kind have received of late full investigation and mature judgement in the high courts of England, where it is believed as genuine state of freedom exists as in any country on the globe, there the point is absolutely fixt and determined. Thus Sir Wilm. [William] Blackston, in his justly celebrated commentary on the laws of England book first chapter fourteenth treating of master and servant, says, “and now it is first laid down that a slave or negroe the instant he lands in England becomes a free man that is the law will protect him in enjoyment of his person and his property. Yet with regard to any right, which the master may have acquired, to the perpetual service of John or Thomas this will remain exactly in the same state as before. For this is no more than the same state and subjection for life which every apprentice submits to for the space of seven years or sometimes for a longer term.’ And afterwards at the end of the paragraph he says ‘And whatever service the heathen negroe owed to his American master the same is he bound to render when brought to England & made a Christian.” This is altogether concordant with the principles of the Law of Scotland, where anciently tenants that were not free tenants were ad stricta glebe [3] and colliers and salters are a very stricking [striking] instance of persons bound to perpetual service in a much more disagreeable employment.

source-Scottish Executive

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