3 ways we can improve teaching about the slave trade

Scotland's role in the slave trade should be more central in history courses, says history teacher Matthew Marr

Matthew Marr

3 ways we must improve teaching about the slave trade

The Glasgow Museums’ portrait of the Glassford family depicts a tobacco baron’s prosperous household. Hidden in the background is an African boy, held in slavery as a servant.

This image illustrates Scotland’s relationship with slavery: a rich white family dominates while the enslaved people who made this wealth are forgotten.

Increasingly, there is more understanding of such issues in Scotland, with many schools already teaching them. However, more can be done, including:

  • Producing pupil-friendly materials that describe Scotland’s specific role in the trade.

  • Developing better links between school teachers and academics who are studying slavery.

  • Including more explicit reference in exam courses to Scotland’s involvement in the slave trade.

Scotland’s slavery role has often been a blind spot in Scottish history and education. For instance, numerous books that formed part of my 1990s history degree make no mention of it.


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In recent years, various researchers have taken significant steps to change this.

Academics such as Diana Paton, Tom Devine, Stephen Mullen and newer scholars including Matthew Lee and Nelson Mundell have produced informative accounts. Local historians are also illuminating their area’s connections, such as David Alston, who catalogues Highland involvement.

The next step is getting more of this research into schools.

Teachers face difficulties in finding resources. Much of the work that exists is spread across multiple sources – not always easily available – or is not written in pupil-friendly language.

To that end, I designed – with input from academics and classroom teachers – my own site summarising Scotland’s slavery connections, "Scotland and Atlantic Slavery", which you can find here.

Aimed at school pupils, it describes multiple aspects of Scottish involvement, including city, town and village links. It details specific people’s roles, too, and has sections incorporating lesson ideas, primary sources and historians' views.

My research involved visiting at least 50 different websites, and using around 20 books. Teachers across Scotland replicating these efforts would waste resources – we need to make shared materials more available.

Producing more such resources, especially if involving academic experts, would only encourage more teaching in schools. Encouraging more direct connections between teachers and academics is also important.

Outside groups could be involved in these efforts, too. For example, the BBC has produced many informative documentaries, but after a period they can no longer be accessed – could these be made more readily available?

The Scottish government has promised to do more to teach Scotland’s imperial history. This should consider how to connect teachers and academics, possibly including more time and opportunities for teacher CPD.

The exam system has a role to play, too. The Atlantic slave trade is a topic in both Nationals and Higher history. However, it falls within the British section of these course. Many teachers include Scottish connections when teaching, but having explicit reference to Scotland in course outlines would encourage more understanding of the history of slavery and how it connects to contemporary Scottish society.

The servant’s presence in the Glassford portrait was revealed simply by cleaning the image after years of dirt had obscured it – and education can do the same to Scottish understanding of our country's role in slavery.

Matthew Marr is a teacher of history in Ayrshire. He tweets at @mrmarrhistory

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Matthew Marr

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