Reclaiming Black Peter


for Black History Month 2022


Back in 1780 Peter Burnett arrived in Paisley, a stranger who had only a small amount of money and a note of introduction to James Tannahill father of Robert Tannahill the poet.  Peter was an unusual, rare character, a Black American, big, strong and flamboyant. He came to Scotland to work as a Valet for a rich Glasgow Merchant. The merchant’s business soon failed and he moved to Paisley to learn the skills of the more prosperous weaver.

Peter’s success gave him the wealth to dress in the latest fashions of the day – a long black coat, a velvet gold spangled vest, breeches fastened with silver buckles and lace ruffles on his cuffs. He dressed like other weavers of the time, except for the colour of his skin and a tuft of hair on the crown of his head which, by his African beliefs, would allow him to be lifted into the Kingdom of Heaven when he died.

A popular and well-loved character, he had a good life, socialising and dancing with his peers but, in 1788, with the downturn in the weaving trade, he went to work in Edinburgh’s high society. 

When weaving picked up again, he returned to Paisley to reclaim his high earnings. However, his fortunes took a bad turn, when Peter’s friend the Poet Robert Tannahill drowned in the Paisley Canal.  Peter dove into the water to bring up the lifeless body.

This project will re-create Peter’s life in a new exploration of positive black male identity.  This work will explore contemporary dandyism in black communities throughout the world, examining how men of African descent “defy stereotypes and monolithic understandings of masculinity”.

When: June-Sep 2022

Where: Paisley

Contexts Black history Male identity Slavery Post-Colonialism

Supported by Renfrewshire Council THCARS2

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