Origins of our name

James Watt

James Watt

James Watt (1736–1819) was the father of the industrial revolution. His crucial role was to transform the world from one based on agriculture to one based on engineering and technology, recognised in the unit of power: the Watt.

Born in Greenock, Scotland, he went on to become an inventor, engineer and scientist. In 1769 he patented an improvement to the efficiency of the existing Newcomen steam engine by adding a separate condenser and valves. This helped accelerate the speed at which Britain industrialised.

Watt’s other achievements included his work as a surveyor on various canal projects, his discoveries in the field of chemistry and his development in 1780 of a copying machine, something that continued in use well into the twentieth century.

To the founders of the School of Arts James Watt encompassed many of their ideals, as someone who had, through his native talents and hard work, gained renown as an engineer and inventor. In 1824 a subscription fund was started in Edinburgh, which in 1852 was used to help buy the School of Arts a permanent home in Adam Square. At this time, therefore, the School of Arts was renamed the Watt Institution and School of Arts to inspire students, many of whom were skilled working-class men. Later, in 1885 following the merger George Heriot’s Trust, the name was changed once again to Heriot-Watt College.

There is no doubt James Watt should be celebrated for his many achievements, without which the industrial revolution that followed could not have happened. However, through his family connections James Watt, in common with many prominent Scots of this period, benefitted from the proceeds of trade in goods produced by slavery1,2. His father was a Greenock-based trans-Atlantic trader in goods that included tobacco, sugar and rum, and not only did the proceeds of this business pay for Watt’s training, there is evidence that Watt and his brother John helped manage the business and arranged for a young boy, probably a slave, to be brought to Scotland.

Watt’s feelings on slavery are ambiguous and perhaps changed during his lifetime. Certainly in 1791 he cancelled an order from the French Caribbean for his steam engines and called slavery ‘disgraceful to humanity’. After his retirement from the business, however, his business filled many more orders for companies that involved enslaved people. In celebrating James Watt and so many of his Scottish contemporaries we must look beyond the acts for which they are personally remembered to develop a wider understanding of their part in a Scottish society which benefitted so greatly from the proceeds of enslaved people.

By the late 18th century calls for the abolition of slavery continued to grow but many MPs were slave owners and had vested interests in blocking abolition. The transatlantic slave trade was finally abolished in 1807 but slavery was still legal in the West Indies. Parliamentary reform in 1832 led to an influx of new MPs and an Act of 1833 abolished slavery in theory but actually left most slaves as apprentices which to all intents and purposes was still slavery.

After sustained campaigning an Act of 1838 abolished the apprenticeships. On 23 May 1838, just after the first vote to pass the bill, William-Gibson-Craig MP of Riccarton, wrote to his father Sir James, on whose former estate Heriot-Watt University now stands, that the bill had only passed by 3 votes. He states that "I voted with the majority and would do so again".3

The Riccarton estate papers and correspondence are part of the University archives and are available for research by appointment. For further details e-mail

1 Mullen S, Newman S. ‘Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow, Report and recommendations of the University of Glasgow History of Slavery Steering Committee September 2018’ Available at pages 21 & 53-54 [Accessed 1/7/2020]
2 James Watt and Slavery: The Untold Story, History West Midlands Podcast [Accessed 1/7/2020]
3 The Scotsman article about letter by William Gibson-Craig to his father James Gibson-Craig, 1838  [Accessed 1/7/2020
George Heriot

George Heriot

George Heriot (1563–1624) was an Edinburgh goldsmith who became jeweller to King James VI (James 1 of England) and his wife, Queen Anne. So lucrative was his business that he acquired the name 'Jingling Geordie' and even loaned money to his Royal patrons who pledged their jewels as security.

Whilst his fame and fortune were made in London, he paid tribute to his native city through the creation of a hospital for the education of orphan sons of the freemen of Edinburgh. Over the centuries the George Heriot’s Trust’s investments grew until by 1885 the Governors could afford to use surplus funds to support the Watt Institution and School of Arts and so created Heriot-Watt College, the forerunner to Heriot-Watt University.