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Plaque marks historic slavery case at Court of Session


Dec 6, 2022

A historic legal case which found that slavery was “not recognised” in Scots law has been commemorated in a plaque installed at the Court of Session in Edinburgh.



The case of Joseph Knight v John Wedderburn saw Knight win his freedom from ‘perpetual servitude’ after he was bought as a slave in Jamaica and brought to Scotland.

Knight’s case was originally heard at Perth Sheriff Court, with the Sheriff at Perth ruling that “the state of slavery is not recognised by the laws of this kingdom, and is inconsistent with the principles thereof”.

Wedderburn appealed to the Court of Session, but judges upheld the sheriff’s decision by a vote of ten to four.

The case has now been remembered in a plaque which was unveiled by Sir Geoff Palmer, leader of Edinburgh’s Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review Group, at a ceremony in Parliament House on Tuesday (6 December).

The Lord President, Lord Carloway, also spoke at the event, addressing a group of invited guests including senior members of the judiciary.

Unveiling the plaque, Sir Geoff said it was a “great honour” to take part.

“This historical plaque is an important part of our history,” he said. “Because it states publicly that Joseph Knight, the black servant of Sir John Wedderburn of Ballindean, the 6th Baronet of Blackness, no longer had to work for Sir John Wedderburn’s household in Perth, Scotland, as a perpetual servant.

“Therefore, the Court of Session in 1778 gave Knight his freedom in Scotland.”

Sir Geoff added: “This plaque tells the world of a decision that is in keeping with the comment of one of the judges, ‘we sit here to enforce right not to enforce wrong’. Indeed, that ‘right’ was the human right to be free.”

The Lord President said: “Commemorative events such as this one today are important in improving public awareness and wearing away the myth that slavery was never practised or condoned in Scotland. They provide an opportunity for learning through the sharing of experiences and research, as well as being a space for remembrance and reflection.

“The public expects the courts to ensure that, fundamentally, justice is done. Whatever else may be said about it, Knight v Wedderburn is a good example of when fair thinking won the day and the right result was reached.”

Joseph Knight’s case first began in November 1773 when Wedderburn sought a warrant to have him detained as a slave and the Perthshire justices backed Wedderburn’s position.

Knight challenged the decision and in May 1774, the sheriff court found in his favour.

Wedderburn then appealed to the Court of Session, initially before Lord Kennet in 1775.

It was decided to take the matter to a full bench, with arguments heard in 1776 and 1778.

The final decision was given on 15 January 1778, with the court ruling in Knight’s favour by ten votes to four.

The case gave the Court of Session the opportunity to declare that slavery was not recognised by Scots law and that fugitives from slavery, or 'perpetual servants', could be protected by the courts if they wished to leave domestic service or if attempts were made to forcibly remove them from Scotland and return them to slavery in the colonies.

The plaque marking the decision will be installed in the box corridor at Parliament House.

It states: “On this site, on 15 January 1778, in the case of Joseph Knight v John Wedderburn, the Court of Session upheld the judgment of the Sheriff at Perth that ‘The State of Slavery is not recognised by the Laws of this Kingdom and is inconsistent with the principles thereof’. The Court, by a majority of ten to four, found in favour of Joseph Knight’s freedom.”

The full speech by Sir Geoff Palmer can be found here.

The full speech by the Lord President can be found here.