The Grants of Kilgraston

The Scottish links with slavery and the Caribbean were powerful and plentiful. As a result, the National Archives and the National Library of Scotland, as well as many Scottish university and local collections, contain much invaluable material on Caribbean history. Of course, it was collected by Scottish families relating to their land and property held in the Caribbean. Specialist scholars have always been aware of this. The papers of the Keir family held by the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, for example, are well known. These archives are fascinating for historians, helping understand Scottish and Caribbean history, producing important scholarly books, such as Karras’s Sojourner’s in the Sun, about Scottish migrants in the Caribbean and the Chesapeake or, more recently, Douglas Hamilton’s Scotland, the Caribbean and the Atlantic World, 1750-1820 (2010) (1992). More recently one can note the superb book by Stephen Mullen, based on his Glasgow Ph.D. thesis, The Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy: Scotland and Caribbean Slavery 1775-1838 (2022). At core an economic history, Mullen’s book also explores the repatriation of the fortunes through a series of case studies, a neglected topic.

The bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807 provoked further reflection, while important research that resulted in the Legacies of the British Slave trade database or the Runaway Slaves in Britain database has made information about Britain’s and Scotland’s connection with enslavement in the world much more obvious and accessible. New types of literature have responded to and helped develop new debates.

There are, of course, plentiful Caribbean archives still in private hands. The success of the fascinating and powerful book by Alex Renton, Blood Legacy: Reckoning with a Family’s Story of Slavery (2021) is due to his use of the Kilkerran archives, as well as his skills as a professional writer. The book is not exactly a family memoir, however. It is also a personal memoir that presents a strong argument in favour of reparations for slavery. It sees the past as strongly found in the present.

This blog has already mentioned John Grant, the Scot who became Chief Justice of Jamaica, and who produced the first set of Jamaican court reports. Grant was one of two brothers, the other being Francis, who left Cromdale in what is now Moray to seek their fortunes in the colonies. After some time in Nova Scotia, they moved to Jamaica, where they prospered, in a group of Scots in the Island, many with links to the legal profession in Scotland. The aim was always to make money, repatriate it, acquire an estate in Scotland, preferably in the agriculturally rich eastern Lowlands, and live as gentlemen. John practised law, and acted as an attorney and agent for absentee landowners, rising, as we have noted, to head the Jamaican judiciary. He married well, to Margaret MacLeod, the Scottish widow of a substantial plantation owner. Francis also acted as an agent and attorney for absentee plantation owners, gaining significant wealth and acquiring the estate of Blackness in Jamaica.

In the 1780s, John Grant arranged purchase of the Kilgraston estate in Strathearn, close to Bridge of Earn. Early in the 1790s, John, whose health was poor, and his wife returned to Britain. John died in Edinburgh in 1793. As his heir, his brother Francis returned to Scotland. It was he who built Kilgraston House. He also married into the local family of Oliphant, marrying Ann Oliphant of the Rossie family.

The family was now established among the Perthshire gentry. This is not the place to track the fascinating story of the family through the Victorian British Empire. It produced the famous painter, Sir Francis Grant, son of the second laird, and assorted military and navy men. Mary Grant, granddaughter of Francis became a notable sculptor. Another daughter of the family married the famous Rajah of Sarawak, Sir James Brooke. 

Richard Blake, a descendant of the second brother, Frances, in his excellent study, Sugar, Slaves, and High Society: The Grants of Kilgraston, 1750-1860 (Buskin Books, 2023) explores not just the colonial origins of the wealth in Jamaica, but also the end of the way of life it had funded. In some ways it can be seen as a melancholy story: a century of luxury and a place in high society, and then loss. Indeed, a disastrous fire in 1872 had required the rebuild of the house. But by 1860, as Blake explains, there was already insufficient income to sustain the way of life. It had come with the wealth generated in Jamaica through the work of slaves, another tragic story, meeting the European demand for sugar, while in due course, when slavery was abolished, compensation was duly received. 

The book is rich in content. It is a fascinating social exploration of upper-class Scottish life in the nineteenth century: fox hunting (the Perth Hunt was based at Kilgraston for a while), art collecting, golf and Germanophilia. The Grants were easily adopted into the landed classes of Scotland on their return from Jamaica, like many other Scots families. An interesting point to ponder. The book raises may other issues beyond that of the Scottish link with Jamaica.

The last Grant of Kilgraston was John Patrick Nisbet Hamilton Grant, who gifted the house to the nation in 1916, sold the estate, and moved to East Lothian where he had inherited estates under an entail (which explains his adoption of Nisbet Hamilton in his surname). He died in 1950. The family’s link with Kilgraston had been just over a hundred years. In the later nineteenth century, the house had been generally let out (including briefly to Andrew Carnegie) and the family lived in more modest properties. The mansion now houses a well known Catholic boarding school for girls.

Many more similar books are needed so we can properly understand his part of Scottish history. One hopes they will be as good as this.