The University of Aberdeen and the Legacies of Slavery

The University of Aberdeen and the Legacies of Slavery

The foundational purpose of the University of Aberdeen is to be “open to all and dedicated to the pursuit of truth in the service of others.”

In keeping with this commitment, a report was commissioned to signpost and act as a starting point for further research and discussion into how a 527-year-old academic institution benefitted and continues to benefit from the labour and lives of thousands of enslaved people and the reparative steps required to acknowledge how slavery shaped the University of Aberdeen.

These are initial findings and further research will undoubtedly uncover further linkages and historic cases of the University financially benefitting from slavery. It is recognised that any truth-telling project and institutional history cannot be limited to a fixed research period and a single researcher.

When we think of Transatlantic slavery we often think of ports like Liverpool, Bristol or Glasgow so the connections of north-east Scotland to this trade in human suffering has long been overlooked. This report is part of ongoing work to shine a light on those connections and to confront uncomfortable truths from our past. While the University of Aberdeen may not have been directly involved in the slave trade, it is clear that many of our graduates and benefactors were and that the legacies they left mean those connections still exist today. This report is a step towards greater understanding and self-reflection on this important topic and provides a basis for addressing those inequalities in keeping with the commitments to inclusion set out in our Aberdeen 2040 strategy. We are committed to addressing this legacy, so now look forward to listening to suggestions about what actions we should take and then engaging with them on the way forward.

George Boyne, Principal of the University of Aberdeen

Vanessa Mabonso NzoloAs part of the student and staff cohort in our community who have worked towards an anti-racist university over the years, we are looking forward to the impact of the report and the following listening exercise.

Connecting the colonial racial legacy, that is embedded into our curriculum and social interactions, to our experiences in today’s North-East Scotland brings an opportunity to reflect on the importance of proactive anti-racism and what a decolonized education system looks like to us.

We look forward to taking part, encouraging all students to bring forth their thoughts – especially our community members who personally continue to feel the weight of colonial relations as they navigate the University as Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic staff and students.


Vanessa Mabonso Nzolo, Student President 2022-2024

Alumni with wealth deriving from slavery and their bequests

At least eleven bequests and gifts to Marischal and King’s College in the years 1706 to 1846 were donated by individuals or supported by patrons with clear connections to Atlantic slavery.

The web of wealth from slave colonies to Aberdeen’s universities spanned Barbados, Jamaica, St. Croix, and South Carolina.

Notable alumni connected to the slave trade include:

Gilbert Ramsay

Gilbert Ramsay was an Episcopalian minister from the parish of Birse in Aberdeenshire. He was also an enslaver on the island of Barbados and a benefactor to his alma mater, Marischal College. Ramsay was born in Birse, around 1658, and grew up at Midstrath, near Ballogie. He graduated MA from Marischal College in 1674.

Ramsay moved to Barbados where he was Rector of Christ Church from 1692 to 1724. He married twice to women from wealthy families of the Barbadian slavocracy. After his second wife’s death, Ramsay left for England and died soon after in Bath on 5th May 1728.

During his four decades in Barbados, Ramsay grew wealthy enough to leave behind substantial bequests to his home parish and alma mater. In his will Gilbert left £5540 to charitable causes. Ramsay bequeathed £1000 to his home parish of Birse for a school and poor fund. He also left £3,800 to Marischal College, one of the largest single gifts that Aberdeen’s universities had received up to that date.

Ramsay earmarked £1000 “for the salary of a Professor of Languages, that of two thousand pounds for four Bursars of Divinity, and the greatest of Eight Hundred Pounds to be added to the four bursaries in Philosophy formerly founded by him.

Ramsay’s bequest was his second round of benefaction to Marischal. In 1714 Ramsay had provided £400 for four philosophy bursaries. Ramsay stipulated that his bursaries were to be awarded to students with the surname Ramsay. Bursars with the name Ramsay would go on to make their own fortunes from slavery in the Caribbean.

Ramsay paid for his later benefaction partly through the sale of an unknown number of enslaved people. Ramsay directed the executors of his will to sell all of the enslaved people he held in Barbados and add the money earned to the rest of his estate to pay for the legacies.

John Gray

John Gray taught mathematics at Marischal College. From 1764 until his death in 1769 he was rector of the college. Gray was also owner of the Gray's Inn Castle plantation in St George parish, Jamaica and at his death he bequeathed some 2000 acres - which he had built up over time by purchase - and the enslaved people on it to his nephew John Elmslie. He also left Marischal £1,000 in 1768 to fund two mathematical bursaries. The Gray fund grew under the management of Professors Robert Hamilton and Patrick Copland, both of whom taught mathematics at Marischal. The Gray fund was later conjoined into the Fullerton, Moir and Gray Fund which continues to support post graduate scholarships.

John Henderson and Alexander Farquharson Henderson

John Henderson (1743-1814), of the Hendersons of Caskieben, left his alma mater Marischal College £500 to provide for bursaries while also leaving an annual annuity of £5 to his “black servant” Thomas. 

Henderson attended Marischal 1768-71 before travelling to Jamaica to practice medicine. His wife Helen, along with her three sisters, inherited a share of Friendship Estate in Jamaica, from her uncle, Dr Charles Irvine of Aberdeen. 
The actual ownership and running of Friendship estate is somewhat unclear, as is Henderson’s role within the operations. There is some indication that John ran Friendship Estate on a day-to-day basis, a property of some 1100 acres. 

In 1785 Henderson returned to Britain, bringing Thomas from Jamaica as his servant. In 1792 Henderson bought Caskieben House, near Blackburn, in the parish of Dyce. Records show John Henderson continued to import Jamaican rum and sugar to Glasgow and London, using the profits to improve his estate, including road-making and opening the Dyce quarry. To export granite he constructed a road from his quarry to the Aberdeenshire canal. Granite from Henderson’s Dyce quarry was used in the construction of the West India Dock, Sheerness Dock, London Bridge and Custom House, the new Bridge of Don, and the Bell Rock Lighthouse, representing a physical legacy from Aberdeenshire to London from slave-derived wealth in Jamaica.  

John Henderson died at Caskieben in 1814. In his will, he left £1,500 to Marischal College on the condition that his three sons died without having children. As two of his sons had children, this bequest never reached Marischal College. However he added an additional stipulation regarding India Dock stock when sold which meant £500, less the legal duty of £50, was paid to John Cruickshank, Chair of Mathematics at Marischal. 

Alexander Farquharson Henderson (1780-1863), who also attended Marischal, inherited both Caskieben, Aberdeenshire and part ownership of Friendship Estate, Jamaica, from his father in 1814. At the time of emancipation in the British Empire the Treasury paid £3,136 as compensation for 160 enslaved people on Friendship Estate. The distribution of the compensation money shows a web of ownership with Henderson at the centre: £522 13s 4d to Henderson & Alcock; £522 13s 4d to Henderson; £522 13s 4d to Right Rev. William Skinner, Forbes, John Robert Skinner & Henderson; £1034 6s 11d to E Bond & Garrigues.

The Hendersons – John and Alexander Farquharson – were both cross-generational benefactors to Marischal College and cross-generational beneficiaries from slavery. In 1857, six years before his death, Alexander Farquharson Henderson granted £1000 in Bank of England stock to Marischal College for the establishment and endowing of a professorship of Medical Logic and Jurisprudence. The Professorship existed from 1857 until 1933, at which time the University Court of the combined University of Aberdeen abolished the chair, partly on the grounds that the endowment was insufficient. In 1863, Alexander also donated paintings and sculptures, his library, and a collection of ancient Greek pottery.

Alexander Moir

The vast majority of scholarship on Scotland and slavery has focused on the role of Scots within the British Empire but it was not limited only to the British sphere as King’s College alumnus and benefactor Alexander Moir demonstrates. Moir was born in Mortlach, Banffshire and after graduating in 1739 became a physician and enslaver on the island of Saint Croix in the Danish West Indies. 

Maps and documents from the time show he owned a wind-powered sugar mill and 128 slaves.

Little is known of Moir’s business operations on Saint Croix but records show he shipped sugar to Port Glasgow.

In 1765 Moir became embroiled in a dispute over debts with a former business partner which found against him and he “quit all claim, title, & pretensions to eight enslaved people”. He died soon after and was buried on 22 February 1766 at his own plantation.

In his will he provided “six hundred pounds sterling for the support of four bursars in the King’s College.” The Moir bursaries were intended for the “support of four poor students, each of whom at first had £5.” Moir’s bequest was “judiciously invested by the Senatus in land” and the number and value of bursaries grew over the next century.  By 1857, there were sixteen bursaries on the foundation with four bursaries of £17; ten bursaries of £15; and two bursaries of £13.

As of 2018, the Alexander Moir endowment had a value of £38,869 and was one of the ten largest endowments by value. Another of the ten largest endowments is the Fullerton, Moir and Gray Endowment, which amalgamated gifts by Alexander Moir with two other benefactors. As of 2018 the Fullerton, Moir and Gray endowment had a value of £75,161.49. The Fullerton, Moir and Gray endowment combines the gifts of two donors who made their fortunes from Atlantic slavery: Alexander Moir and John Gray. The Fullerton, Moir and Gray endowment – which continues to support post graduate scholarships – is indicative of the role of slavery-derived wealth in the evolution of King’s, Marischal, and the unified University of Aberdeen.

James Stuart

Both Kings and Marischal were beneficiaries in the will of Reverend James Stuart, originally from Boyndie, in Banffshire when he died in 1805.

As a missionary he was assigned to the colony of South Carolina in 1766 where he married into a wealthy family of rice producers whose plantations were worked by hundreds of slaves and who were associated with the defence of southern slavery. 

Stuart was a Loyalist during the American Revolutionary War (1775-83) and as a result fled to the West Indies spending time on a number of islands. Records also show that he claimed for the loss of a “Negro Carpenter” as a result of the conflict.

His relationship to slavery is complex as he was a beneficiary but used this experience and his time on southern plantations to give evidence before the “committee of Council for Trade and Plantations in the course of their enquiry into the state of the African slave trade.”

There he stated that “having been about Twenty Years well acquainted with the Treatment of Slaves in Virginia, Maryland, and particularly in South Carolina” he was “warranted to affirm, that the Condition of Slaves is beyond Comparison worse than that of the poorest Labourers or Farmers Servants in Scotland, or in any Part of Europe he was ever in.” He then cautioned the committee that no description of slavery “can equal the reality”.

Rev. Stuart died in England around 1805.  In his will he bequeathed “an equal sum to each of the five Universities in Scotland” as well as legacies to the Academies at Banff and Fordyce, as well as Balliol College, Oxford. To Marischal and King’s Stuart left “two thousand pounds, three per cent. Consols, for the support of bursars at King's College and Marischal College equally, and twelve hundred pounds for the education of two young men, of the names of Stuart or Simpson, at the academies of Fordyce and Banff for five years.” His will further directed that students in Fordyce and Banff receiving his bursaries would be “removed from the academy at Fordyce to the Marischall college of Aberdeen for four years, and from the Banff academy to the Kings college Aberdeen for four years.”

Donors with indirect financial connections

Other donors to King’s and Marischal colleges had connections to chattel slavery via marriage and extended families. In these instances, it is clear that family members financially benefitted from their involvement in slaveholding but less obvious that bequests made by particular family members drew upon slavery-derived wealth. Two examples of these indirect connections are the Lady Braco Bursary and Mrs. Udny Duff Bursaries, both for which the Earl of Fife was patron. These two bequests are not included in the overall connections of wealth derived from slavery. It is nevertheless important to detail the multiple connections between slavery and prominent university patrons.

Material Legacies


This report is part of the University's effort to trace collection origins, explore slavery's financial impact on Aberdeen University, and document ties between donors, alumni, faculty, and slavery. It also examines material and physical legacies, like structures, heraldry, and art linked to enslavers and their families in Aberdeen.

Powis Gateway

Students walk through Powis Gates on an Autumn day.The most tangible link between the University and slavery-derived wealth, Powis Gateway lies at the heart of the Old Aberdeen campus. The gateway once served as the entrance to Powis House, a nineteenth-century mansion in north Aberdeen which has been a community centre since 1941. This entrance to what was once the Leslie family estate is known to many as having been built through wealth derived from slavery in the Caribbean. The Leslie family’s involvement with chattel slavery came via marriage. Hugh Leslie, the son of John Leslie the Professor of Greek at King’s College (1753-1790), married Anne Agnes Lamond in Old Machar. Through this marriage, the Leslies obtained ownership of Castile Fort Pen, which comprised 423 acres and was located in the Jamaican Parish of Port Royal.

The Leslies were absentee owners, residing in Old Aberdeen and relying on overseers in Jamaica. Concerns over the reliability of their overseer led Hugh and Agnes to send a younger son, Hugh Fraser Leslie, to manage the family property and the enslaved population held captive there. His career in Jamaica eventually involved ownership of two coffee plantations - Belle Clare and Peterfield – alongside overseeing his mother’s property. In 1847 he told a special committee of the Jamaica Assembly that, prior to emancipation, a total of 1268 enslaved workers were attached to these plantations.

At the time of colonial emancipation in the British Caribbean, the slave trade compensation board awarded Agnes Ann Leslie £2021 8s 11d for 94 enslaved at Castile Fort Pen. Hugh Fraser Leslie’s compensation claims are more complex. He was solely awarded £4100 9s 2d as an owner, owner-in-fee, or mortgagee for three properties and 192 enslaved people. Additionally, he was joint claimant receiving an additional £1051 10d. In total, the British Government provided Agnes Anne Leslie and her son Hugh £7112 18s 110d in compensation claims in relation to 392 enslaved men, women, and children. 

Powis Gate PlaqueMost sources attribute the gateway’s construction to these compensation funds received by the Leslie family. Construction is variously attributed to taking place across 1833 and 1834. Its construction c.1833-34 coincided with the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act, which received royal assent on 28 August 1833 and came into effect on 1 August 1834. The Treasury fulfilled the compensation claims of Agnes Anne and Hugh Leslie between October 1835 and May 1836. It would be more accurate, then, to say that the gateway was paid for, at least in part, by slave-derived wealth and the promise of additional funds from the Leslie’s pending compensation claims. Most sources suggest that it was John, the oldest son of Hugh and Agnes Ann Leslie, who commissioned the gateway as part of a renovation and expansion of Powis. 

Since 2020, members of the University’s Legacies of Slavery Advisory Group along with the community, including the Old Aberdeen Heritage Society and Old Aberdeen Community Council, have explored how best to contextualise the history of Powis Gate and properly memorialise those who paid for its construction with their unpaid labour in Jamaica. In March 2022, as part of the United Nations' International Day for the Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the University hosted a special event exploring its own historical connection to the slave trade, Powis Gateway: Slavery and Memory in Old Aberdeen, which followed on from work by local ceramic artist Helen Love and poet and spoken word artist Noon Abdelrazig as part of the “Quasheba /Powis Gateway Project /the Violence of Identity. In July of 2022, the University of Aberdeen applied successfully to Aberdeen City Council for the erection of a commemorative place plaque on the Powis Gateway.

The plaque was installed on a wall alongside the structure in September of 2022. 

The Hendersons of Caskieben Collection

The Hendersons of Caskieben donated paintings and sculptures, his library, and a collection of ancient Greek pottery. This collection included the painting Capriccio with Roman Ruins (ABDUA: 30747). In 2017 John Gash of the History of Art Department, University of Aberdeen, identified the painting as the work of eighteenth-century Italian master Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto. Since positively identifying Canaletto’s work in 2017, the University has acknowledged the connections between the painting’s donor and the wealth inherited from his father’s involvement in colonial slavery. As of 2014, the painting was valued at £400,000.

Canaletto - Capriccio with Roman Ruins circa 1742 Canaletto's painting in the Museums archive

Gilbert Ramsay

Portrait of Dr Gilbert RamsayPortrait of Gilbert Ramsay

A portrait of Ramsay (ABDUA:30105) is held by the University’s Museums & Special Collections. The painting is not listed as part of Ramsay’s original donation and its acquisition is catalogued as being via purchase but information indicates that Marischal College received the portrait in 1728, the year of Ramsay’s death. While the exact circumstances of the acquisition of the portrait are not known, procuration accounts indicate that Marischal had only to bear the cost of its conveyance from London to Aberdeen.



Marischal stained glass window

The Ramsay coat of arms in the Mitchell Historic Window (Mitchell Hall at Marischal College)The Ramsay coat of arms appears in the Mitchell Historic Window in Mitchell Hall at Marischal College. The window was completed in 1895, 167 years after Ramsay’s death. The inclusion of the Ramsay coat of arms was symbolic of the historical significance of Ramsay’s bequest to the University of Aberdeen and how Ramsay’s instructions to sell his human property played a significant role in the development of Marischal College.

Portrait of Thomas Gordon and the Cairness papers

Portrait of Thomas Gordon

Thomas Gordon (1788-1841) was 8th Laird of Buthlaw and 2nd of Cairness. His father, Charles Gordon of Buthlaw and Cairness (1749-1796) took possession of a Jamaican sugar plantation - Georgia Estate in Trelawny - in about 1779. The Gordons acquired Georgia Estate in lieu of debts owed to a deceased relative on the island by the Chief Justice of Jamaica, John Grant of Kilgraston. As of 1781, Georgia held 190 people (107 men and boys and 83 women and girls) in slavery.

Charles Gordon was an absentee enslaver and plantation owner, who relied on a cast of professionals - doctors, attorneys, managers and agents – to ensure that the profit they enjoyed continued to flow back to Scotland. Income from Georgia Estate allowed Charles Gordon in the 1790s to build one of the finest new houses in the North East, Cairness, near Lonmay. At Cairness the house, interiors and gardens were lavishly re-designed in the 1790s by the celebrated architect James Playfair and, after his premature death, completed by Sir John Sloane.

With emancipation within the British Empire, Thomas Gordon received £5296 18s 10d as compensation for 266 enslaved people at Georgia Estate.

Thomas Gordon was neither an alumnus nor benefactor of King’s or Marischal College. The portrait in the University of Aberdeen collections is dated to 1836, two years after abolition within the British Empire and a year after Gordon received his compensation funds. An old label removed from the frame read "Part of Gordon of Cairness Bequest.” While not a monetary bequest, both the donated painting and collection of family papers are material reminders of the scale of familial linkages between New World slavery and North East Scotland.

Online Exhibition

In 2023 an exhibition was held in the Sir Duncan Rice Library that drew on the research of Dr Richard Anderson and others. Although the physical exhibition has now closed, an online version reveals the role of Aberdeen and North-East Scotland in the history of Transatlantic slavery, and how its legacy continues today.

Students from Slave Colonies

Just as many King’s and Marischal graduates left Scotland to ply their trade and find their fortunes in Britain’s empire, so too did students arrive from slave colonies to study at Aberdeen. In many cases, these were the sons of those who had migrated from North-East Scotland.
According to matriculation and graduate records, Marischal and King’s attracted at least 128 MA students who came from the Caribbean in the century before 1838.


Slavery exhibition

Neil Curtis on the Legacies of Slavery exhibition, which explores how individuals from North-East Scotland grew wealthy from slavery, and how these profits benefitted North-East institutions.

Anti racism

Our goal is to create an anti-racist culture and ethos on campus and to support, encourage and empower staff and students to recognise racism in all its forms and to actively reject it.

Scotland History Tours in Aberdeen for ‘What they don’t say about slavery in Scotland’

Comedian and filmmaker Bruce Fummey uses his storytelling skills to highlight the links between the University and the north-east of Scotland and the slave trade.

Contributing to national conversations

Abeer Eladany, a curatorial assistant at the University of Aberdeen, and the University of Aberdeen’s Head of Museums and Special Collections, Neil Curtis, reflect on how museum collections and spaces can better recognise and address Scotland’s complex imperial, colonial, and slavery histories.

2007 Online Exhibition - A North-East Story

In an exhibition to commemorate the bicentenary of the 1807 abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire was coordinated by Aberdeenshire Council, Aberdeen City Council, the University of Aberdeen, the Robert Gordon University and African and African-Caribbean communities. Although the exhibition is old, it includes material that is still of value.