The Herald on Sunday
Heritage boss reveals how body will tackle Scotland’s slavery links and colonial past
SCOTLAND’S sadistic colonial past, links with slavery and brutal persecution of women branded as witches are to be explored in National Trust of Scotland properties in an “open and honest” telling of the nation’s history.
The Trust’s chief executive Phil Long says visitors to its properties can expect to see a range of “things that they might find unpalatable to face up to”, as the conservation charity responds to demands for heritage organisations to rethink their approach to telling the nation’s story.
It raises the likelihood of controversial items within the Trust’s collection with links to colonial pillaging, the slave trade and even torture of women, being removed from storage and openly displayed alongside stories explaining their troubled history.
A similar move to highlight objects linked to slavery and colonialism by the National Trust in England last August sparked an outcry from members who accused the organisation of becoming political and upsetting their enjoyment of historic properties by dwelling on the past.
The subsequent furore led to the English-based Trust’s chairman, Tim Parker, quitting his role.
However, Mr Long, speaking as the Trust marks its 90th anniversary, said the charity’s plan to present unsavoury elements of the nation’s history has the support of the majority of its members.
“We know our membership expects us to look at some of these difficult histories and understands that the range of history we look at and the way we tell our history has to be as truthful as possible,” he added.
“Many of our properties have a connection with slavery and it’s right that we investigate this history and tell people about them in a way which helps them understand our human history.”
Mr Long, formerly director of the V&A Dundee, added that as well as new interpretations being introduced to Trust properties, contemporary artists may be engaged to explore difficult elements of Scotland’s past.
“Our responsibility is to be open and honest about the collections that we have and display in an objective way, and help people understand,” he said.
Mr Long, who is marking his first year as chief executive of the
We know our membership expects us to look at some of these difficult histories and understands that the range of history we look at and the way we tell it has to be as truthful as possible
charity, said new research commissioned by the Trust will also investigate incidents of witch persecution linked to its buildings and the people who once lived in them.
“The history of witchcraft is a fact of Scotland’s past – as it is around the world – and we shouldn’t be shying away from looking at any aspect of our history,” he added.
Mr Long joined the Trust just weeks into the pandemic which forced the closure of all its buildings at what would have been peak tourist season.
It led to a 75 per cent drop in visitor numbers last year and placed the threat of redundancy over 400 employees. At one point, the Trust warned it faced losing £28 million in 2020 alone, along with estimated investment losses of £46m due to stock market conditions.
An emergency appeal raised £3.5m while a further £3.8m was given to the Trust by the Scottish
Government. However, 180 people were made redundant – a situation described by Mr Long as “regrettable”.
Describing the past year as “the most difficult year it has ever had”, he said the charity is now drawing up a 10-year plan, which is expected to see it broaden its role as a holiday home landlord – including the possibility of introducing new properties to its rental portfolio – and high-tech digital offerings aimed at encouraging a new “smartphone” generation of visitors.
The 10-year plan is also expected to include proposals to boost the Trust’s income – potentially in the form of outdoor attractions similar to the Killiecrankie Highland Fling Bungee, which is based at the its Killiecrankie Visitor Centre.
“New audiences are being introduced to these areas that the Trust is responsible for and where they might not have thought about visiting before,”
Mr Long added. “It’s important we do that in a way that is sensible and respects the environment and conservation interests. We are very diligent about that, and it’s right that we look at ways to inspire people to get involved and to enjoy Trust properties and learn about the natural environment in a way that they wouldn’t have always thought of. There’s no doubt I would like the Trust to be a more entrepreneurial organisation and we are thinking about how it does that.”
Mr Long said: “It has been the most difficult year that the Trust has had, and there was the need to take some difficult decisions like stopping the conservation programme and also, regrettably, a programme of redundancies.
“However, our membership has been loyal, and the majority of members stayed with the organisation. We are in a much more confident position because of the support we’ve had, but there’s uncertainty ahead.”