Heritage, Slavery and the NTS

By Malcolm Kerr

Like many ‘visitor attractions’ Brodick Castle is closed to the public at present. It was also closed for extensive renovations in the 2017 and 2018 summer seasons. Out of curiosity, and rather reluctantly, I took the opportunity last year to make a rare visit inside the building to see what had changed. I found additional space had been made available for interpretation of the lives of the Hamilton and Beckford families during the period when the the castle took its present form. While there was some reference to the louche lifestyle of Arran’s early 19th Century aristocrats, what stunned me at the time was that, in 2019, it was possible and apparently acceptable for the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) to refer to the source of the obscene wealth which funded Brodick Castle and its contents as ‘sugar plantations’. There was no interpretation, or information regarding slavery.

A very personal and moving letter from Cicely Gill appeared in the ‘Arran Banner’ of 19th June, stimulating an interesting subsequent discussion. She said:

I am thinking about everything that is going on as a result of George Floyd’s death. ‘No man is an is-land’ as the poet said, though here on Arran it is easy to think of ourselves apart from the world.
We have no statues to ask the council to remove, but we do have Brodick Castle.
Before I go on, I should declare an interest: my father’s name was Beckford. He was Jamaican. His forebears were plantation slaves.
Many of you will have seen the silver in the Beckford Room in the castle, acquired with money made from the plantations. I was utterly dismayed on a visit last year to find there was nothing in the accompanying explanatory notes to indicate that there was anything untoward in the way the plantations were run – exploitation, the cruelty, even the fact that the people being employed had been forced away from their country of origin into slavery.
I would have expected that after the much-heralded overhaul of the castle, an effort might have been made to rectify this. I could not stay in the room, I felt sick. No exaggeration.
I meant to write a letter then to complain and did not, but now — although the castle is unfortunately shut — with racism being the number one topic at the moment I decided it would be timely to raise the matter.
Surely, given the thousands of tourists of all ages and from many different countries who pass through the Beckford Room, it would be responsible to educate and inform and shine a light of honesty on the silver.
Cicely Gill, Whiting Bay

Brodick Castle has been an important location since medieval times. It was in the hands of the Hamilton family from 1470 until it passed to the Montroses in 1906 by marriage, and subsequently to the NTS in lieu of death duties in 1958. Tom Johnston (‘Our Scots Noble Families’, 1909) took the following withering view of our aristocracy: “Show the people that our Old Nobility is not noble; that its lands are stolen lands – stolen either by force or fraud, show people that the title-deeds are rapine, murder, massacre, cheating or Court harlotry. Dissolve the halo of divinity that surrounds the hereditary title.”

Johnston gives an example.

“The Hamilton history is the history of our “noble” families, with this peculiarity, that if there was any dirty, low, sneak-mean-thief treachery to be done, a Hamilton would do it. The relation of one in-stance will be sufficient. About 1452 the Hamiltons and the Douglases were in close alliance and practically dictated terms to the King (James II). Douglas, however, was treacherously murdered, and Hamilton, for some time, with the other powerful adherents and friends of the Douglases, carried fire and sword through Royal Territory in reply. But the King gradually recovered the upper hand, and no sooner did the crafty Hamilton see this than he called his kinsmen and followers “quietly together” and “carried them over to the Royal Camp and was received by the King with open arms, but for the sake of appearances, was sent to Roslin Castle for a few days.” Result — granted part of the lands of the now forsaken Douglases in Renfrewshire, and other spoil; created a Lord, gets his clutches on the lands of Draffan from the monks of Lesmahagow and Kelso, and on land at Bothwell, Crawfurdjohn, Linlithgow and Kirkcudbright.”

Like others of their class, the Hamiltons had form, and were well prepared for developments in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The 4th Duke of Hamilton was seen as the nominal leader of the anti-Union factions prior to the Act of Union in 1706-1707, his family having a claim to the Scottish throne. At best his commitment to Scotland was fickle, however. (He abstained on the critical vote, claiming to have toothache). His family subsequently benefited hugely from access to English trade as the then British Empire opened up. Britain’s demand for sugar from the Caribbean was insatiable, and that trade was hugely profitable due principally to slavery.

What of the Hamilton/Beckford connection? The 10th Duke (1767-1852) who was seemingly capable of losing vast sums of money, on horse-racing, was saved from ruin by his marriage to the heiress Susan Beckford (1786-1859). Susan was the daughter of William Beckford, the wealthiest commoner of his day in England, a paedophile, who almost escaped public censure due to his extreme wealth and powerful connections. The Jimmy Savile of his day? That story is worthy of some attention in itself. Beckford’s huge wealth was accumulated from the slave trade and plantations in the West In-dies. Brodick Castle would not exist in its present form without the suffering of black slaves.

And this is not all. The provenance of the Beckford silver also demands interpreting. During the 16th and 17th centuries most of the world’s silver was mined at Potosi (now in Bolivia) by Inca slaves. Some eight million of them died in the process, and once that genocide came to its natural end they were replaced by slaves from Africa. “If it were not a futile exercise” says Eduardo Galeano (in ‘Open Veins of Latin America’, 1973) “Bolivia — now one of the world’s most poverty stricken countries — could boast of having nourished the wealth of the wealthiest.”

So just what is the NTS up to here? Its mission is to protect our heritage (cultural and natural) for posterity. Its role is not to feed us with sanitised pro-aristocratic pap — and lies. If we enter an ‘interpretation room’ then we need to call slavery, slavery. Short of melting down the dust-collecting silver and finding something useful to do with it, we need to be able to acknowledge the vast and tragic human costs attached to its manufacture. And, for that matter, in the interests of candour, we also need to be reminded about the ‘rapine, murder, massacre, cheating and Court harlotry’ which gave us an aristocracy in the first place. If we are to continue to exhibit the silver, it is essential to have an explanation of its history alongside it.

And what of the present day? The Trust appears to have no more sense of social responsibility than the slave owners and mine owners of the past. They appear to be shaping up to make most of their ranger service staff redundant, and a proportion of their gardeners. As in many other rural communities, this will be really tragic for Arran. And it might be just the wrong thing to be doing at this point. Unfortunately that latter consideration has never stopped the NTS senior management before! The NTS faces a financial crisis as a result of loss of visitor and membership income as well as letting property income. With the overdue focus on Scotland’s role in the slave trade coming hot on the heels of Covid-19, and climate change looming over us, you would think a forward looking strategy would prioritise natural heritage over the sad culture of our 19th Century aristocrats.

Here in 2020, we should be thinking of access to garden space and wild countryside, outdoor education, socially-distanced hospitality, staycationing and increased provision of self-catering accommodation. Are people still going to want to crowd indoors to get their face-masks on and view the oversized furniture, sombre oil paintings and grotesque silverware of the Hamiltons and Beckfords?

“Reassessing (British) history is not about race. It’s about integrity” says Afua Hirsch. “It’s about the fact that the past is linked to the present in a smooth continuity, from slavery, colonialism and pillaging of resources, to immigration. . . . . Seeing this differently would affect reality for everyone.”

With many thanks to Malcolm Kerr for sharing this article with the Voice. A previous version was published in Bella Caledonia in July.

The featured images shows a pair of sauce-boats from the Beckford-Hamilton collection.