A leading Scottish QC who unearthed a 17th-century Court of Session ruling stating “we have no slaves in Scotland” has said people need to be much more alert to the reality of modern slavery which often manifests itself as unrealistically cheap bargains on the high street in the likes of nail bars and car washes.
Alan McLean, QC, discovered the 1687 case of the Tumbling Lassie in the Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh.
The Tumbling Lassie was a young girl forced to work as a gymnast in a show in the Royal Mile. She ran away and took refuge with a couple in the Borders. But her “owner” took the case to the Court of Session demanding his “property” back.
Mr McLean went on to co-found the Tumbling Lassie committee, a group of advocates who fundraise and highlight modern day slavery and human trafficking in Scotland and worldwide.
He recalled: “In December 2004 I was researching unenforceable contract, looking at the development in the law in the 17th and 18th centuries.
“I found a case, Reid v Scot of Harden (1687), which included the line ‘You can’t sell a tumbling lassie’. I wondered what on earth it meant.
“The Tumbling Lassie was a young girl, a little stage gymnast in a show put on by Reid, a mountebank, a travelling showman.
“The girl, known only by her nickname, was getting very worn out and she eventually ran away and took refuge with a couple called Scot down near Hawick.
“The mountebank sued, saying: ‘I bought that girl from her mother for £30 Scots. She’s mine and I want damages because you’re taking my property’.
“Fourteen days later the court threw out the case, and the judgment included the lines ‘But we have no slaves in Scotland and mothers can’t sell their bairns’.”
When discussing the case with fellow advocates a few years later, one said to Mr McLean: “You do know we do still have slaves in Scotland and there are millions of slaves in the world?”
Mr McLean, chairman of the Tumbling Lassie committee, said: “We decided we wanted to do something about this in celebration of the Tumbling Lassie and all the Tumbling Lassies around the world.”
It supports two charities – TARA (Trafficking Awareness Raising Alliance), based in Glasgow, and the International Justice Mission.
Novelist Alexander McCall Smith wrote The Tumbling Lassie operetta, with composer Tom Cunningham, which was performed at the Tumbling Lassie Ball fundraiser in Edinburgh last April. It also featured at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
See www.tumblinglassie.com for events and performances