Case Study: Searching for Scipio

In 2007, the National Trust for Scotland undertook an HLF-funded project entitled This is Our Story to commemorate the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. As part of this project, a travelling display was developed on the subject of the slave trade and its connections with Trust properties in the west of Scotland, including Greenbank House and Brodick and Culzean Castles. Archaeological research was used to focus attention on this subject by examining the site of Scipio Kennedy’s house within Culzean Castle estate.

Volunteers digging on the site of Scipio’s House, Culzean Country Park, © National Trust for Scotland

At the turn of the 18th century, when Scipio was around six years old, he was taken from his home in Guinea and forced onto a slave ship bound for the West Indies. He was intended for the plantations but, instead, was bought by Captain Andrew Douglas of Mains in Dumbartonshire. In 1705 Captain Douglas’ daughter, Jean, married John Kennedy who, five years later, inherited the family home of Culzean Castle.

Scipio – still a slave – came to live with the Kennedys at Culzean, taking his new master’s surname. During his time Scipio learned to read and write and also learned something of textile manufacture. A contract of 1725, held at the National Archives of Scotland, granted Scipio his freedom and the right to seek employment elsewhere. In the document, signed by John Kennedy and Scipio, the African agrees to remain in Kennedy’s employment for a further 19 years. He married a local girl, had eight children and, when he died at the age of 80 in 1774, his son Douglas erected a gravestone to his memory in Kirkoswald graveyard.

One small part of the This Is Our Story project was to undertake an archaeological excavation of the possible site of Scipio’s house at Culzean. The house is shown on Foulis’ 1755 map of the estate as a long building with chimneys at either end, surrounded by a small garden, within a larger enclosed field. It is likely that the house was demolished in the 1780s during major landscaping works around the castle and nothing survives above ground today. Five small trial trenches were excavated in the vicinity of the house’s location. Local volunteers took part in the fieldwork along with many of the Country Park Ranger staff and other NTS staff.

While the exact site of the house remains unknown, artefacts recovered by the excavations suggest it is close by. Pieces of hand-made bricks, a shield-shaped roof slate, fragments of sandstone, and shards of crown window glass were all found. Given that the house was built in the early 18th century, it might be expected that the roof would have been thatched, but according to the documentary records a good deal of money was spent on its construction. A figure of £90 is quoted for the house which may suggest it was a fine and large house which could have been slated. It was seemingly large enough to have regularly been used to hold meetings, and reputedly the local smugglers met there. Other artefacts include sherds of post-medieval green glazed reduced ware, shards of bottle glass and what appears to be a lead seal perhaps for cloth or a bottle.

Importantly it is was through the process of archaeological excavation that it was possible to tell Scipio’s story and to link what was happening in this one corner of Scotland with what was happening the wider world during the 18th and 19th centuries. Further archaeological research on this site, and others like it, has the potential to bring to light the nature of life as a slave in Scotland in the 18th century and to allow connections to be drawn with the nature of slavery elsewhere in the modern world.

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