Scotland and chattel slavery through the lens of art

This resource is inspired by the artwork Lessons of the Hour by Isaac Julien. His artwork is informed by research on chattel slavery, and in particular, the life of formerly enslaved anti-slavery activist and philosopher Frederick Douglass. 

Scotland’s past, present and future have been shaped by chattel slavery, which persecuted millions of Black people. 

Art is used in this resource to investigate the impacts of chattel slavery in Scotland today.  Interdisciplinary learning activities are suggested to help learners investigate this subject matter. 

This resource was created in partnership by National Galleries of Scotland and Edinburgh Art Festival. We are committed to equality, diversity, access and inclusion. This series of resources will continue to evolve through the input of educators, artists, creatives, teachers and learners. We would love to share young people’s art related to this theme. If you’d like to have examples of your pupils’ art shared in an online gallery, please contact [email protected].

Key Facts:

  • Suitable for: secondary school pupils (aged 11+ years)
  • Subjects: History, Modern Studies, Art and Design
  • Timing: adapt to suit, could be one lesson or a longer pupil-led project
  • Support: Download teacher's notes

Learning outcomes

This resource aims to:

  • raise awareness of Scotland’s colonial history.
  • raise awareness of how slavery continues to impact society today.
  • raise awareness of how art can reflect social issues and how we can make change in society.
  • provide a safe context in which young people can express opinions and discuss difficult issues.
  • encourage creative and critical thinking.

Relevant Social Studies Experiences and Outcomes

Relevant Expressive Arts Experiences and Outcomes

Develop my understanding of the history, heritage and culture of Scotland, and an appreciation of my local and national heritage within the world.

Broaden my understanding of the world by learning about human activities and achievements in the past and present.

Develop my understanding of my own values, beliefs and cultures and those of others.

Develop my understanding of the principles of democracy and citizenship through experience of critical and independent thinking.

Explore and evaluate different types of sources and evidence.

Learn how to locate, explore and link periods, people and events in time and place.

Experience the inspiration and power of the arts.

Develop skills and techniques that are relevant to specific art forms and across the four capacities.

Deepen my understanding of culture in Scotland and the wider world.

Develop my own ideas from a range of stimuli, express and communicate my ideas, thoughts and feelings through 2D and 3D work.

Watch this short introductory video by Sir Geoff Palmer to find out what inspired this resource.


Sir Geoff Palmer OBE (born 1940) became the first Black professor in Scotland, at Heriot-Watt University in 1989 where he is currently Professor Emeritus and Chancellor. He is also a human rights activist.

Read Lisa William's article about how the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans was integral to Scotland’s industrial development

Scotland and chattel slavery

Ross Blair aka Trench One, Frederick Douglass 33 Gilmore Place, © Ross Blair

This mural shows a man called Frederick Douglass.

Who is he?

Why did artist Ross Blair paint him on this wall in Gilmore Place, Edinburgh in 2020?

Find out about the Black Lives Matter Mural Trail

Samuel J Miller, Frederick Douglass, The Art Institute of Chicago Major Acquisitions Centennial Endowment

About Frederick Douglass

Born Frederick Bailey 1818-1895, he was an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman.

After escaping from chattel slavery in Maryland, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement, becoming famous for his speeches and antislavery writings.

He adopted the Scottish surname Douglass when visiting Scotland in the 1840s, his change of name corresponding with a change of identity from Frederick Bailey the slave to Frederick Douglass the free man.

National Library of Scotland provide this brief summary of his life

Choose one of the following quotes by Frederick Douglass.
What does it tell you about him?

'Send back the blood-stained money' January 1846, Dundee 

‘I am here to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves and plead the cause of the perishing slave.’  February 1846, Arbroath 

‘It is evident that the great cheapness and universality of pictures must exert a powerful, though silent, influence upon the ideas and sentiment of present and future generations.’  Lecture on Pictures, December 1861, Boston

The power of imagery to change society

George Kendall Warren (1834-1884), Frederick Douglass, 1876. Digital reproduction of albumen silver print, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution (NPG.80.282)

Emancipated slave Frederick Douglass was the most photographed American of the nineteenth century.

  • Why do you think he wanted to be photographed?
  • List who you think are the most photographed people in the world today.
  • Why did you select these people?
  • Think about how we use photos and videos to document everyday activities, major events and even to capture injustices in society.
  • What do you think Frederick Douglass would make of this today?


The following three activities support learners to engage in visual analysis and creative thinking.

  • Take a closer look is a series of simple questions to help analyse any artwork.
  • How to get to know something that cannot speak? is a more challenging approach to analysing what you see. 
  • Lessons of the Hour invites learners to reflect on learning and develop their own curriculum. 

Activity 1 Take a closer look

Frederick Douglass understood the power of images to change society. He compared pictures to songs, saying that they should be allowed to speak for themselves. 

Choose an image from below to talk about.

  • What do you notice? List everything in detail. 
  • How was it made?
  • Do you think the subject matter was imagined, remembered or directly observed?
  • What kind of person do you think made it?
  • How does it make you feel and why?
  • What do you love/hate about it? 
  • What was happening in Scotland at the time it was made?
  • Why do you think it was created? 

Activity 2 How to get to know something that cannot speak?

adapted from a workshop by artist and programmer Tako Taal

What happens when the person or thing you want to understand can’t talk back to you? One way to explore this is to ask questions. Questions help us to imagine other ways of being.​

Choose an image from below and get to know it better. ​

1. What do you recognise? What do you not recognise?​
2. How do you begin a conversation with the image? What do you want to know more about? ​
3. Use these prompts to come up with questions: What? Where? When? How? Who? Is? ​
4. What does this image ask of you?​
5. Using your answers create a story about the image, either about its history, present or future.

Activity 3 Lessons of the Hour ​

Watch a trailer for the film Lessons of the Hour by artist Isaac Julien.

What do you think are the lessons that Isaac wants us to learn?


Design a lesson for your peers ​

Decide where, when and how would you deliver a lesson to inspire ​and inform other people your age. It could be something fun, something ​practical, political, historical, or cultural.​

  • What things are important now/for future that you think every young person needs to know?​
  • What is missing from what you are taught at school? ​
  • Why do you think it is not taught? ​

Need some inspiration? Read these ideas from other young people.

Find out more about the artist Isaac Julien

Isaac Julien CBE, RA, is a distinguished installation artist, filmmaker and Professor at UC Santa Cruz. Born is 1960, in London, he is of Caribbean heritage, from St. Lucia. His multi-screen film installations and photographs focus on the experience of Black identity, including issues of class, sexuality, and artistic and cultural history.

Isaac Julien's ten-screen film installation 'Lessons of the Hour' is inspired by the life and times of Frederick Douglass, the visionary African American orator, philosopher, intellectual, and self-liberated freedom-fighter, who was born into slavery in Maryland, USA in 1818. From 1845-7, Douglass made repeated visits to Edinburgh, while campaigning across the UK and Ireland against slavery in the USA.

Filmed at sites in Edinburgh, London and Washington DC, Julien’s work is informed by some of Douglass’ most important speeches, including 'Lessons of the Hour,' 'What to the Slave is the 4th of July?' and 'Lecture on Pictures’.

Douglass was the most photographed American in the nineteenth century and was very aware of the power of images.

In his 1861 lecture, Douglass expressed his vision of how picture-making and photography could offer powerful tools in the fight for social justice and equal human rights for all.

The film's format evokes the style of a nineteenth century salon hang (a display of a varied collection of artworks, in close juxtaposition, to achieve a unified visual effect), combining tableaux vivantes ("living pictures" - a static scene containing one or more actors or models) which imagine Douglass with key figures from his public and private life, with montaged footage from recent times, weaving together present and past. The artist describes his approach as ‘a staging of history seen through a contemporary lens’.



Abolition refers to the legal ending of chattel slavery. In Britain, Parliament ended the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans in 1807 and British slavery was legally abolished in 1833. In 1837, Parliament passed the Slave Compensation Act, borrowing £20 million to provide compensation to former British slave owners. No compensation was paid to the formerly enslaved people. In the USA slavery continued until 1865.

The British Empire

The British Empire at its height was the largest empire in history, officially lasting from the sixteenth into the nineteenth century. Its territories once covered approximately a quarter of the land on earth, including Afghanistan, Africa, America, Canada, Egypt, India, Iraq, Jamaica, New Zealand, Pakistan, Palestine to name but a few. ​

Chattel slavery

Chattel slavery means that one person has total ownership of another. A 'chattel slave' was legally considered to be the property of the slave owner, as were the children of the enslaved. ​


Colonialism is when a country takes control over another region or country, its people and resources. ​

Over 60 territories gained independence from the United Kingdom between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries.​

Today there are 14 overseas territories, known as the British Overseas Territories, which form the remnants of the British Empire. However, the legacy of empire extends beyond these 14 locations. Aspects of the British language, culture and legal system can still be found across the world today. Racism, discrimination and other negative consequences can be attributed to the impacts of the British Empire worldwide. ​

Contemporary art

Contemporary art is a term broadly used to describe art that is made now about now. Often confused with Modern art, which means art made between approximately the 1860s and 1970s, when many artists rejected previous traditions and narrative art in favour of new ideas, experimentation and abstraction. ​

Human rights

Human rights are the fundamental moral rights that every person is entitled to simply because they are a human being, regardless of their age, race, location, language, religion, ethnicity, or any other protected characteristic. ​


Intersectionality is when multiple social categorisations such as race, class and gender overlap to create interconnected systems of discrimination or disadvantage.​


Manumitted means released from slavery. ​

Professor Emeritus

This is a title given to a retired professor, who has been permitted to retain an honorary title at the rank of the last office held, often as a mark of distinguished service. ​

Protected characteristics ​

The  Equality Act 2010 protects people against discrimination, harassment or victimisation in employment, and as users of private and public services based on nine protected characteristics: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.​

Transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans

The transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans was a hugely profitable British business involving three stages, from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. ​

  1. Ships carrying slavers and manufactured goods, such as guns and cloth, sailed from Britain to West Africa. ​
  2. The slavers sold their goods in exchange for men, women and children who had been forcibly taken from their villages. These people were transported across the Atlantic, in atrocious conditions, with many dying onboard. They were taken to various locations in the Americas, many to the Caribbean and Brazil,  where they were forced to work on sugar and cotton plantations, as well as in other enslaved roles. Numbers are unconfirmed but approximately 12-15 million Africans were enslaved and a similar number died during capture or transportation. ​
  3. The third stage was the transportation of goods produced by the enslaved, such as sugar and cotton, back to Britain. ​​

Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses set up in the USA during the early to mid-nineteenth century to help enslaved African Americans to escape into Canada and American states which had already abolished slavery. ​


Useful links​

About Scotland’s role in the slave trade ​

Scotland and the slave trade
African American Activists in Scotland

About Frederick Douglass

The memoir of Frederick Douglass
Map of Frederick Douglass in Scotland
Podcast: Douglass on Slavery My Bondage and My Freedom
Frederick Douglass Justice and Progress Go Together by G Palmer

About the artist Isaac Julien​

Edinburgh Art Festival website
Isaac Julien's website
Artist Isaac Julien talks about his life and influences
Celeste Marie Bernier, Judith Butler and Isaac Julien in Conversation about the artwork Lessons of the Hour (1 hour recording)

Education and inspiration​

Award winning musicians Young Fathers made a short video in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery which explores the links between historic portrait painting and white privilege
The World Reimagined is a ground-breaking, national art education project to transform how we understand the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans and its impact on all of us ​​
The Anti-Racist Educator
RACE.ED showcases excellence in teaching, research and knowledge exchange in race and decolonial studies at The University of Edinburgh
UncoverEd is a collaborative student-led archival project at the University of Edinburgh. The team works on uncovering the University’s role in the imperial project and addressing that colonial legacy
About early photography

Support Organisations​

SCOREscotland is a social justice organisation based in Wester Hailes, delivering a range of services in West/South West Edinburgh
Intercultural Youth Scotland is Scotland’s leading charity for Black and People of Colour youth


Download the teacher's notes

You can also download the Teacher's Notes as a Word document.

Special thanks to: ​

​Celeste-Marie Bernier​, Christina Finch from Wester Hailes Education Centre , Isaac Julien, Katie Hunter from St Thomas of Aquin’s RC High School​, Laurie Anne Carr from Trinity Academy​, Lisa Williams​, Museums Galleries Scotland​, Naomi Garriock​, Natasha Ruwona​, Rebecca Stewart from Wester Hailes Education Centre​, Ross Blair​, Sarah Knox​, SCORE Scotland​ and Sir Geoff Palmer, Tako Taal.

Founded in 2004, Edinburgh Art Festival is the platform for the visual arts at the heart of Edinburgh’s August festivals, bringing together the capital’s leading galleries, museums, production facilities and artist-run spaces in a city-wide celebration of the very best in visual art. Each year, the festival features leading international and UK artists alongside the best emerging talent, major survey exhibitions of historic figures, and a special programme of newly commissioned artworks that respond to public and historic sites in the city.  ​

Edinburgh Art Festival Community Engagement runs a year-round programme of learning and engagement activities building long-term relationships with partner organisations, community groups and schools. Through creative learning resources, tailored tours, workshops and projects the engagement programme introduces and inspires people to get creative, removing barriers and broadening access to visual art and our festival programme.​

Find out more


30 August 2021