by Rachel Lang
In 1766, the Edinburgh town council announced a competition to design a new town to the north of Scotland’s capital city with the aim of providing grand, spacious houses for the city’s elite. The competition was won by 26-year-old James Craig with a plan for two garden squares connected by three wide, terraced streets. Built in stages between the 1760s and the 1820s, the New Town provided an alternative to the polluted, overcrowded wynds of old Edinburgh and symbolised Scotland’s confident steps towards a new Enlightenment.
On the north side of the grandest square, the houses blend together in a pleasingly unified palace façade, designed by Robert Adam in 1791 as the crowning glory of the whole development. The house in the centre of the façade, number 6 Charlotte Square, the most commanding house in the best position, is just that bit bigger and grander than the rest. Into this house, in the late 1790s, moved its first resident, John Innes Crawford.
Crawford had a country residence too, Cleghorn House near Lanark. He was a member of the Highland Society, a Captain in the 10thRegiment of North British Militia and had scientific and literary interests. His mother lived with him until his marriage in 1799 and shortly after, he moved to nearby George Street.
Crawford’s wealth derived from Bellfield, the sugar plantation in St James, Jamaica, which he inherited at the age of five or six on the death of his father James Crawford. James junior was born in Jamaica in 1776 but within two years of his father’s death, his mother had returned to Scotland where she remarried. He does not appear to have visited his plantation as an adult or met the several hundred enslaved people, also his personal property, who lived and worked there. But his fortunes were bound up with their subjugation and liable also for the debts of his planter father, reportedly over £15,000 in the mid-1790s, when the net proceeds of the estate were £3,000 a year.
Subsequent residents of Bute House were also connected with the slave economy. Sir John Sinclair (1754-1835) bought the property in 1806, moving three doors down from his previous address at number 9. A more illustrious character than Crawford, he held a seat in the House of Commons from 1780 to 1811 but is best known today as the compiler of the Statistical Account of Scotland, a landmark survey of the country’s geography, economy and inhabitants. Sinclair was a trustee of the marriage settlement of Hon. Archibald Macdonald and Jane Campbell, who had married in 1802; the settlement included three plantations in St Vincent. Sinclair died in 1835 before the slave compensation was paid out, but the remaining trustee received a half share in £15,766 7s 6d for the ownership of 610 enslaved people.
Sinclair sold 6 Charlotte Square in 1816 to Charles Oman, who ran the property as a hotel. Oman quickly expanded his property portfolio in the 1810s and 1820s, becoming the premier hotelier in the city. His eldest son, also called Charles, does not appear to have joined his father’s business; he died on Trinity estate in St Mary, Jamaica, in 1819.
The house is now the official residence of the First Minister of Scotland and the venue of regular meetings of the Scottish Cabinet. Until recently, its connections to the slave economy have been overlooked, in common with many properties financed or inhabited by slave-owners. LBS seeks to reinscribe slave-ownership into the history of modern Britain.
The ownership of Bute House from 1795 to 1911 can be traced through the Edinburgh Post Office Directories available at https://www.nls.uk/family-history/directories/post-office/index.cfm?place=Edinburgh.
See for example Prize Essays and Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1816) vol. IV p. 628; Crawford as a subscriber to Scotland’s Skaith… together with some additional poems(Edinburgh, 1815); as a member of the Wernerian Natural History Society, Caledonian Mercury 23/04/1818; his role in the North British Militia is given in the announcement of his marriage, Aberdeen Press and Journal 14/10/1799; his mother appears in the Post Office Directories as Mrs Alex. Simpson.
Francis Vesey, Reports of Cases argued and determined in the High Court of Chancery, from the year 1789 to 1817 (London, 1827), Vol. VI, 2nd ed., pp. 460-465
Rosalind Mitchison, ‘Sir John Sinlair, first baronet (1754-1835), agricultural improver, politician and codifier of “useful knowledge”’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online edition, 2015).
For more on the Oman family see ‘The History of Bute House – Home to the First Minister of Scotland’, https://historyatrandom.wordpress.com/2012/11/23/the-history-of-bute-house-home-to-the-first-minister-of-scotland/.
Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, vol. 4 p. 637 (February 1819).