National Records of Scotland

Preserving the past, Recording the present, Informing the future

The James Montgomery Slavery Case, 1756

The James Montgomery Slavery Case, 1756

In August 1807 an act was passed abolishing the slave trade in the British Empire. It was an important step in the abolition of slavery and in the suppression of the slave trade. The National Records of Scotland (NRS) holds court cases which challenged the legal status of slavery in Scotland. In addition, there is a research guide to sources in the NRS for researching aspects of slavery and the slave trade.

Between 1756 and 1778 three cases reached the Court of Session in Edinburgh in which fugitives from slavery attempted to obtain their freedom. A central argument in each case was that the enslaved person, having been bought in the colonies, had been subsequently baptised by sympathetic church ministers in Scotland and were thereby made free. The three cases were Montgomery v Sheddan (1756), Dalrymple v Spens (1769) and Knight v Wedderburn (1778). Records relating to all three cases survive among the records of the Court of Session in NRS, and they provide evidence for the lives of enslaved individuals who applied to the court, as well as about attitudes to slavery in eighteenth-century Scotland.

The first of these cases featured James (or Jamie) Montgomery, formerly 'Shanker', enslaved by Robert Sheddan of Morrishill in Ayrshire. Jamie Montgomery had been baptised by Reverend John Witherspoon in Beith (better known for his part in the American Declaration of Independence). His owner forcibly removed him to Port Glasgow and placed him on a ship bound for Virginia, but on 21 April 1756 Montgomery escaped to Edinburgh. He was apprehended following newspaper advertisements about his escape, which Sheddan had placed, and was incarcerated in the Edinburgh Tolbooth. Montgomery pursued his claim for freedom at the Court of Session in Edinburgh, but died before the case could be decided.

Among the records relating to the case (NRS, CS234/S/3/12) are petitions of Montgomery (originally styled 'James Montgomery Sheddan, prisoner in the City Guard of Edinburgh') and by Robert Sheddan, and answers by each party to the other's petitions.

Sheddan also submitted the bill of sale from Joseph Hawkins, an individual who claimed people as his property, in Fredricksburg, to Robert Sheddan of 'One Negroe boy named Jamie' in 1750. An image of the bill and a transcript can be seen here.

Sheddan's bill of sale from Joseph Hawkins for 'One Negroe boy named Jamie'. Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland, CS234/S/3/12


"Fredricksburgh March the 9 1750

Know all men by these presents that I
Joseph Hawkins of Spotselvenia County for
& in Consideration of the Sum of Fifty Six pound
twelve shillings & six pence Virginia Curr[enc]y
to me in hand pay[e]d by Robert Shedden Merch[an]t
in Fred[ricksburgh] the Recept wherof I acknowledge
Have bargain[e]d Sold & deliv[e]red & by these presents
do bargain sell & deliver unto the said Robert
Shedden One Negroe Boy Named Jamie, To have
& to hold the said Negroe unto the said Robert Shedden
his Executors administrators for Ever, And I the said
Joseph Hawkins for my self my Executors & admin[istrato]rs
shall & will warant & forever defend against all
Persons whatsum Ever In witness wherof I have
herunto sett my hand & seal this Ninth day of March
One thousand seven hundred & fifty
Signed Seal[e]d & Deliv[e]red Joseph Hawkins
Ja[mes] Hilldrop
Jo[h]n Stewart"

In August 1756, Robert Sheddan requested that the case be heard quickly because he was responsible for the cost of Montgomery's subsistence in the tolbooth, and because of concerns for the prisoner’s health. In December 1756 Montgomery's health had deteriorated and both parties were still attempting to obtain a hearing. By the time the Court of Session declared that the case would be heard on 4 January 1757, James Montgomery had died in prison.

In 1769 David Spens (previously ‘Black Tom’) sued his owner, Dr David Dalrymple in Methill, Fife, for wrongful arrest, after he had attempted to leave his service, but Dalrymple died during the suit. Finally in 1778, Joseph Knight was successful in arguing at the Court of Session that Scots law could not support the status of slavery.

Related features on the NRS and SCAN websites

Read about the Dalrymple v Spens case of 1769, the Knight v Wedderburn case of 1778, and about George Dale, a native of Africa and formerly enslaved, whose life story was used as evidence by the Society for the Purpose of Effecting the Abolition of the African Slave Trade.

In addition to the NRS research guide, 'Slavery and the Slave Trade', images of records and illustrations relating to the slave trade from Scottish archives and libraries, can be found in the exhibition Slavery and Glasgow on the Scottish Archive Network (SCAN) website.

Modern slavery

The slave trade may have been abolished in the British Empire in 1807 and eventually prohibited by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but slavery still exists and millions of lives are affected by it. Modern slavery takes various forms and affects people of all ages, sex and race. If you would like to know more about slavery today and how to support campaigns against it, a good place to start is the Anti-Slavery website.