‘Merchant City’: Black History Month

The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland Equality and Diversity Forum commissioned new pieces of traditional music to acknowledge Glasgow’s role in the slave trade of the late 1700s.

The new music was performed and recorded during Black History Month (October) 2017. A discussion session followed the first performance and the new music is documented below and on our YouTube channel and Facebook page.

[In this project, the researcher/composers acknowledge that we come from a position of privilege and engage openly with this often unacknowledged part of our history, that we still benefit from today.]

Music is composed/performed by:

Chris Gray (MMus) – piano/voice

Bernadette Kellermann (BMus) – fiddle/voice

Scott Garden (BMus) – pipes/whistles/voice

Lucie Hendry (BMus) – clàrsach/voice

Dr Lori Watson – fiddle/voice

Unsettled by Bernadette Kellermann

Unsettled by Bernadette Kellermann – Full Score

I found it very difficult to find a way to musically interpret Scotland’s, and in particular Glasgow’s, strong involvement in international slave trade in the past. It is something I was not aware of at all, even though Glasgow has now been my home since September 2014. My research had me shocked and speechless, and focused my view on the absolute elusiveness of the concept of ownership and exploitation of human beings by human beings.

As a composer, I took myself to the imagined mind one of the thousands of slaves in that time. I tried to remove them their real life and into a dimension of music and meditation: A moment of peace, free thinking, unity and never ending hope.

Bernadette Kellermann by Sandy Butler

Bernadette Kellermann is a fiddle player and composer based in Glasgow, Scotland. She is currently in her fourth year studying at the BMus Traditional Music degree at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. This has lead to various high profile performance opportunities for her in and beyond Europe.

Aside from performing on stage, she is an ambitious composer in a number of contexts: taking influences such as jazz, minimalism and more traditional concepts on board in order to develop her unique style. Past projects included a suite of original music based on contemporary poetry (Music in Poetry) and the collaborative project Sounds of Rousay, a visual and musical portrait of one of the Orkney Islands.

Apprise by Chris Gray

Apprise by Chris Gray – Full Score

The prominence that slavery had in Glasgow and Scotland around places I walk through every day has been particularly striking: specifically the Merchant City where I have lived. This project, in connection with Black History Month, has made me think about Glasgow in a different light and consider the true historic background of places such as the Gallery of Modern Art and St Andrews in the Square as well as countless street names all strongly associated with slave trade. These are all very vibrant places today and bringing to light the dark truths behind many of these places and the people associated with the slave trade has highlighted to me how significant this was in Scotland’s history. ‘Apprise’ serves as a reflection on this uncovering.

When composing this music I have been inspired by the stories I have heard. I have tried to imagine myself in the position of these slaves and express the emotions that these people might have experienced: helplessness, fear, dehumanization, not knowing what their future holds.

Chris Gray (piano photo)

Chris Gray is from Lockerbie, Scotland, and is a multi-instrumentalist composer. He recently graduated with a first class BMus (traditional music) at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and is now continuing on the Masters program with piano as his main study.

Chris is very active as a performer, most recently playing the Edinburgh Fringe with Scots & Gaelic singer Katie Macfarlane. He has been a part of several performances at Celtic Connections as well as playing and teaching with various projects internationally in France, Italy, Switzerland and Oman. Chris is a member of the Inveraray & District Pipe Band and with them has won the 2017 World Pipe Band Championships as well as the Scottish, British & European Championships.

As a composer Chris enjoys taking influence from a range of genres including folk, classical and jazz. His compositional work includes folk tune writing, arrangements for folk ensembles and improvised pieces. In January 2017 Chris released a video of his arrangement of the piobaireachd ‘MacKintosh’s Lament’, Cumha Mhic an Toisich, for piano, strings and vocal featuring award winning Gaelic singer Mischa Macpherson.

Glorious Soul by Lucie Hendry

Glorious Soul by Lucie Hendry – Full Score

As I was researching, I was shocked and sickened to discover the abhorrent treatment of Africans slaves. Treatment that I find it difficult to think human nature is capable of. Nonetheless, this is part of our history and has gone on behind the scenes while our city prospered and continues to do so.

At a discussion of the slave trade, it was highlighted that as a slave, your body is not your own. For me this was a profound statement as I have only ever known freewill and to imagine my body at the merciless hands of another is a terrifying idea. A slave, documented in ‘The Book of Negroes’ by Lawrence Hill described it:

“That, I decided, was what it meant to be a slave: your past didn’t matter, in the present you were invisible and you had no claim on the future.”

For many slaves, their masters were harsh and cruel, regularly inflicting punishment upon them. The women however, I would argue, received greater oppression as not only did they receive the same treatment but were also subject to frequent rape. As I was writing my piece, I found my heart being moved towards the women slaves and I wanted to write a piece that would act as a statement: No matter how much these people were victimized and de-humanized, they would never be totally broken and, like every other person on this planet, each has a beautiful and glorious soul.

Lucie Hendry

Lucie is an Aberdeenshire harpist and pianist currently studying her last year on the BMus Traditional Music degree at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Lucie wrote her first small piece of music at the age of five and has always had a keen interest in crossing genre boundaries through the music she creates and listens to. Mike Oldfield has perhaps been her biggest inspiration in the composition field through his many masterpieces that blur the boundaries of musical genre and style. Lucie writes music encompassing a wide variety of styles from contemporary clàrsach music to traditional Scottish arrangements for small ensembles. Her passion lies in discovering new melodic ideas and harmonic progressions that express a sense of journey and development while engaging the listener at an emotional level.

Stolen by Scott Garden

As yet unrecorded…

At school we studied the slave trade but Scotland’s role in this horrendous chapter of human history was never explored. I was disgusted to learn Scotland’s and Glasgow’s role in the slave trade and how de-humanized these people were by our ancestors.

When writing this piece I wanted to focus more on the emotion of each “scene”. The piece is in four sections:

Free – Quite a sweet happy tune, I imagined people freely going about their normal lives.

Hunted – An intense, jagged reel. African people were chased and hunted down leading to capture

The Ship – Depressive air and 7/8 section. The conditions on the slave ships were incredibly cramped, dark and damp. These people would have been in great pain and also completely terrified. Many didn’t survive the passage.

Glasgow – Opens with A Parcel o Rogues motif, quite fitting in my opinion

Scott Garden

Scott is a piper, whistle player and composer based in Ayrshire, Scotland. Scott started piping at the age of 11 with the Irvine & District Pipe Band, he then went onto grade 2 for a number of years with the Glasgow Skye Association Pipe Band. Scott is currently working with Irvine Pipe Band as the Musical Director and Pipe Sergeant and aims to help the band go up the grades.

Scott has been an active composer and arranger in both pipe bands, with a particular interest in medleys and concert. His composing aim is to create something unique and modern sounding related to the Scottish piping idiom. A keen melody writer, Scott has created over sixty tunes in the last year and has begun work on a tune book and EP.

A Remembrance by Lori Watson

As yet unrecorded…

This piece is a graphic score and therefore can be interpreted in different ways by different musicians. It is intended to act as contemplation of the devastation caused by Scottish tobacco lords and remembrance of the human cost of their exploits (as opposed to the historic celebration they received for the wealth and influence they brought to Glasgow).

27 slave voyages are known to have taken place from Scotland – 19 from the Glasgow ports. They sailed to the West coast of Africa and exchanged copper, brass and textiles for captured African people, delivered those people to plantations in the Caribbean and West Virginia and returned with tobacco, cotton and sugar to sell as exotic goods at high prices. Scots plantation owners worked African people to death for huge profit.

The human cost of this activity was not only overlooked in Scotland but the minority of Scots who became extremely wealthy as a result were celebrated like no other merchants in Scottish history and gained significant political influence. This graphic score offers a small recognition of the human cost and the actions of men who became a Lord Provost and the father of a Prime Minister because they enslaved and murdered African people and put Glasgow at the centre of the world in the late 1700s, and the people, city and country that condoned and celebrated.

Lori Watson fiddle by Louise Bichan B&W

Lori Watson is the first Doctor of Artistic Research in Scottish Music, and an authority on contemporary traditional music practice in Scotland. Drawing on her strong roots in the rich creative tradition of the Scottish Borders, she has become a leading interpreter of Scottish folk music and Scots song and her skills as a performer, composer, researcher and educator are widely recognised.

Combining fieldwork, composition and songwriting Lori Watson creates music from experimental, electronic and improvised works to chamber and folk music. Influenced primarily by a deep knowledge of tradition and experiences of the human and natural world around her.

Lori was a Lecturer in Traditional Music at RCS and is now Lecturer in Scottish Ethnology at the University of Edinburgh.


Tuesday 17th October 6pm

Initial sharing of the music and Q&A. Open to students and staff, and by invitation. Ledger Room, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

A little background..

Glasgow was economically dependent on the tobacco industry and its slave trade. The people who were enslaved to work in the tobacco, sugar and cotton industries were not documented in history, most of them are invisible to us. Those who were documented were the few individuals who tried to escape and were therefore described in public in the hope of capture and return.

The first paved road and many city churches, municipal and notable buildings in Glasgow were built by Tobacco Lords. Many street names belong to the Tobacco Lords: Glassford, Buchanan, Ingram, Oswald. Glasgow and Scotland flourished through the severe exploitation of African slaves.

In 1796, Scots owned nearly 30% of the estates in Jamaica and over 30% of the slaves there by 1817. Life expectancy on the Scottish plantations in the colonies was only 4 years as the Scots masters were considered some of the most brutal.

What is more commonly documented is that Scotland also played its part in the abolition of slavery. In 1778 it became illegal to own a personal slave in Scotland – this was 229 years before abolition of the trade. In 1807 the slave trade was made illegal in the British Colonies and British ships were not allowed to carry slaves. The Glasgow Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1822 and the city was known as one of the staunchest abolitionist cities in Britain but the complete abolition of slavery did not come until 1833. Compensation after the abolition of slavery was paid to slave Masters not those who had been enslaved.

The Slave’s Lament

by Robert Burns (1759 – 1796)
Pub. 1792

Slave’s Lament first published in the Scots Musical Museum Vol.4 and is not attributed but the lyrics are believed to have been written by Robert Burns. It is thought that he spotted a slave ship in the harbour at Dundee en route from Senegal to Virginia. Burns himself considered leaving Scotland to be a plantation book-keeper but decided against it. Had he taken the job, he would have had played a part in working a large number of slaves to death.

It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthrall
For the lands of Virginia-ginia-O
Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more
And alas, I am weary, weary O

All on that charming coast is no bitter snow or frost
Like the lands of Virginia-ginia-O
There streams for ever flow, and there flowers for ever blow
And alas, I am weary, weary O

The burden I must bear, while the cruel scourge I fear
In the lands of Virginia-ginia-O
And I think on friends most dear, with a bitter, bitter tear
And alas I am weary, weary O

Links and Sources

Glasgow University Research Project – Runaways

RCS Traditional Music YouTube Channel

Black History Month

SCAN – Slavery and Glasgow

NTS – Scotland and the Slave Trade

Glasgow Live – Glasgow’s Shameful Link to Slave Trade..

BHM – Scotland and Slavery

Palmer, Geoff (2007) The Enlightenment Abolished: Citizens of Britishness (Henry Publishing)

Devine, Tom (2015) Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past: The Caribbean Connection (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press)

Mullen, Stephen (2009) It Wisnae Us: The Truth About Glasgow and Slavery (The Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland)

Cairns, John W (2012) ‘John Millar and Slavery’ Edinburgh Studies in Law Vol 10: MacCormick’s Scotland (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press)

Perry, Lewis and Fellman, Michael (1981) Antislavery Reconsidered: New Perspectives on the Abolitionists (Baton Rouge and London: Louisianna State University Press)