The Scottish monuments dividing public opinion. By Dani Garavelli
AMERICA HAS BEEN ROCKED BY THE CULTURE WAR OVER CONFEDERATE STATUES BUT HERE THERE ARE CALLS FOR TRIBUTES TO THE BRITISH EMPIRE TO BE REMOVED. DANI GARVELLI INVESTIGATES
HE makes my skin crawl,” says Melina Valdelievre, as she cranes her neck to look at the military leader astride a horse at the top of Kelvingrove Park in Glasgow. The British Army commander, immortalised in bronze and set on an ostentatiously large plinth, is Field Marshal Frederick Roberts, who earned his reputation as a hero in the colonial wars of India and Afghanistan and the Boer War in South Africa.
The monument is a replica of one in Calcutta by sculptor Harry Bates who cast his subject as the epitome of resolve and gallantry; though his horse turns his head to one side, as if quailing in the face of danger, Roberts stares straight ahead, assured of victory.
The skyline he surveys is a hotchpotch of old and new: Glasgow University’s Gilbert Scott building (built in 1891, the year Roberts became a general) stands cheek-byjowl with the new library and the millennium tower; but the values Roberts embodies are Victorian. The panel on the pedestal talks of “the gleam of weapons”, “the wonder of this island” and the “continued greatness of this Empire.”
It is another, less obvious feature, that most disturbs Valdelivere. In a stone frieze at the front is a row of small turbaned men: Sepoys slaughtered in the Indian Mutiny of 1857/58.
Half Indian, half French, Valdelievre has a different take on Roberts. “These Indian soldiers were fighting for the freedom of their country,” she says. “Around 800,000 Indians were killed during the revolt, and its aftermath included one of the many famines caused by the mis-distribution of food under British rule. Many Indians were sent to plantations in different colonies to work as life-long indentured workers, very much like slaves – a practice which went on until the early 20th century.”
Like those US activists protesting against the statues of Confederate generals, Valdelievre, a Glasgow University graduate and English teacher, sees this monument as a glorification of oppression and has set up a change.org petition for its removal.
“When you see the white warrior on top of these people of colour, you see what is valued in this country,” she says. “I worry people will think: ‘Wow, the British Empire was a great thing.’”
Statues of historical figures are a defining feature of all great cities; they stalk our squares and thoroughfares like ghosts from the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution. Erected by those with means, they exist not to record the past, but to mould public perception of it; and so they reflect the power structures and mores of the time.
In the Deep South, statues of
Confederate leaders such as Robert E Lee were put up long after the Civil War to reinforce the myth of the Lost Cause: the idea the South was fighting not against the abolition of slavery but for the rights of states to secede and the preservation of a lifestyle. They have become flashpoints: symbols of continued discrimination and a microcosm of the wider cultural war between liberals and the alt-right.
Here, our public art is less obviously weaponised, but still inherently political. Our civic spaces hold a mirror up to our values. Decisions over who is honoured and who ignored reveal much about how we perceive ourselves and want others to perceive us. Walk through Glasgow or Edinburgh and what do you see? Streets dominated by men. Some are philosophers, writers, inventors, but others have a more sinister legacy. Unbeknowst to the tourists who take their photos, or the locals who picnic in their shadow, they made their fortune off the backs of others or stood against democratic progress.
Let’s start with Glasgow’s George Square. A hymn to imperialism, it is fronted by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and has Sir Walter Scot at its centre. Few eyebrows would be raised by the presence of inventor James Watt or the poets Robert Burns and Robert Fergusson. But what about Field Marshal Colin Campbell and Sir John Moore who stand on the southern perimeter. Tellingly, they have no plaques. But Clyde, like Roberts, was a veteran of the Indian Mutiny, while Moore helped retake St Lucia from rebel slaves in 1796.
Half a mile away, in the Cathedral precinct, sits William of Orange, aka King Billy, relegated to this less prominent spot from Glasgow Cross in 1926. Here, too, we see Sir James Lumsden, a former Lord Provost, who invested in blockade runner ships which illegally supplied the Confederacy during the US Civil War.
What you won’t find anywhere in Glasgow is a permanent monument or exhibition acknowledging the city’s role in the slave trade. Though the Merchant City, with its myriad neo-classical buildings, owes its existence to wealth accrued through slave-run plantations, there is no physical testament to our complicity.
Edinburgh is dotted with Sandy Stoddart statues of Enlightenment figures: Adam Smith, David Hume, James Clerk Maxwell and William Henry Playfair, collectively controversial for their surfeit of Y chromosomes. But it is the 150ft monument to Henry Dundas, the 1st Viscount Melville, in St Andrew’s Square that attracts most criticism. Though you wouldn’t know it from the information board, Dundas’ achievements include prolonging slavery by 13 years, using Black Watch troops to enforce the Highland Clearances and crushing moves for greater democracy. Jamaican-born academic and human rights activist Geoff Palmer has called for the statue to be removed, while last year the co-editor of Open Democracy Adam Ramsay superglued an alternative plaque headlined “the Great Tyrant” to its base.
However, Dundas’s legacy is contested. Some historians point out that, as Lord Advocate, he represented former slave Joseph Knight and say his plea for a staggered abolition of slavery stemmed from a desire to ensure procedures were in place to deal with its repercussions. Thus – though Edinburgh City Council has agreed in principle to the installation of a new plaque – rival parties are still haggling over the wording.
On the drizzly August morning I visit, there is no clamour for Dundas to be toppled. “I don’t doubt he did some awful things, but I expect he did some good things too,” says Dave Halliday, a retired land surveyor. “He’s part of history – you can’t just wipe it out.”
There-in lies the problem: for every person that wants a statue to go, another wants it to stay. Indeed, when Glasgow City Council mooted temporarily removing the George Square statues – including those by acclaimed sculptors Carlo Marochetti and John Flaxman – Stoddart called the plan “cultural vandalism.”
For some, the removal of statues is an airbrushing of the past, while for others the dilemma is: “Where would you draw the line?” Earlier this week, writer Afua Hirsch called for Nelson’s Column to be removed from Trafalgar Square in London while statues of Christopher Columbus were vandalised in New York and Baltimore. Sir Winston Churchill was an imperialist who espoused racist views. Few historical figures are either wholly “good” or wholly “bad”: how do we sift through those ambiguities and make a judgment on their worth?
THIS is the question Bob Davis, professor of culture and religion at Glasgow University, found himself pondering as he walked past the statue of Playfair outside the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. “He is there as the father of the bar chart and the pie chart, one of the originators of modern statistical recording, but he was also someone who
opposed the extension of education to the working classes because he believed it would nurture appetites that could never be satisfied,” he says.
In Davis’ view, all statuary is shot through with these contradictions. “The German cultural commentator Walter Benjamin said: ‘Every monument to civilisation is also a monument to barbarism.’ Wherever we look, the monumental culture is the product of all these churning forces in society.”
For Valdelievre – who believes an idealised notion of Empire fuelled Brexit and a rise in hate crimes – the solution is to put Roberts’ statue in a museum where imperialism could be properly scrutinised.
But Davis would prefer the statues to remain as a catalyst for informed debate. “We should look at these figures and ask: ‘What do they stand for? What conflicted legacies did they leave us? And in the light of that, is there maybe somebody else we should have a statue up to?’ In the case of Playfair, for example, should we also have a statue to Robert Owen who did extend education to the working classes?”
Up to a point, this process has begun. In several cities, the under-representation of women is being confronted, with a statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett planned for London’s Parliament Square and a statue of Mary Barbour, the leader of the 1915 rent strikes, planned for Govan, Glasgow.
In Glasgow, there are also moves for a memorial to the victims of the Irish famine. Meanwhile, artists are exploring new ways of commemorating people and events. In 2011, author Louise Welsh and architect Jude Barber joined forces to produce a series of temporary sound installations, which broadcast the voices of enslaved people, slave traders and abolitionists from seven key locations in the Merchant City.
Barber, who co-ran the Empire Cafe during the Commonwealth Games in 2014, agrees monuments pose a challenge for those thinking about the future and identity of cities and the values they wish to uphold.
“By taking things away you erase a part of history,” she says. “But it is possible to reposition monuments in a way that makes you ask: why has that changed? Or you can create spaces to represent the victims of oppression and those who fought the oppressors: so, for example, you have the Daniel Libeskind-designed Holocaust Museum in Berlin and the memorial to Jews in the Ile de la Cite in Paris.”
To understand how easily public art can be subverted, you need only look at what happened when the “fearless girl” statue was placed in front of the charging bull sculpture on Wall Street. Overnight it was transformed from a work celebrating the ebullience of New York’s financial industry to a feminist icon.
Even more inventive was the approach taken after General Alfredo Stroessner was deposed as leader of Paraguay in 1989. Instead of removing his massive steel statue from its spot overlooking Asuncion, the artist Carlo Columbino took a handful of
features from the original structure and placed them between two blocks of concrete. Where Strossner once lorded it over the capital city, he is now crushed, his disembodied face and hands grasping in vain at the freedom he denied to others.
SCOTLAND’S most incendiary statue is located not in one of its cities, but on a remote hill. The 100ft monument to the 1st Duke of Sutherland – the man behind the most brutal of the Clearances – has stood at the summit of Ben Bhraggie near Golspie since 1837. To many land reform campaigners his presence is anathema; in the last 10 years the word “monster” has been daubed across his pedestal and he has been the subject of multiple petitions. But, despite being well-versed in his crimes, the people of Golspie have grown fond of him. To them he is “the Mannie”: a landmark that tells fishermen where to sink their nets and a beacon that guides the diaspora home.
“We are so used to him,” says Anne Barclay, who lives at the foot of the hill. “If you took him away, how would you explain what happened here? Dunrobin Castle [the seat of Clan Sutherland] is such a fairytalelooking place people don’t realise there was a dark period in the late 18th/early 19th century when the Clearances occurred.”
Seventeen miles north of Golspie, the village of Helmsdale is a product of the Duke of Sutherland’s cruelty; it took shape as some of those driven off their Strath of Kildonan crofts moved to the coast to fish. Many more boarded ships bound for Canada’s Hudson Bay, travelling in the dead of winter to Winniepeg and the Red River Valley. In the mid-2000s, Canadian mining millionaire Dennis Macleod suggested a memorial to the Clearances should be placed at the top of Creag Bun-Ullidh, the hill above Helmsdale. The 30ft monument was to serve as a rebuke to the duke, calling him out for his crimes. Poetic as this would have been, the people of Helmsdale rejected it in favour of a smaller statue – the Emigrants – by the river. It’s a touching piece of work, a father and son pressing on, while a mother casts a wistful glance back to the land she must leave for ever; everyone seemed happy with the compromise.
Six years after its unveiling, a series of events was held to mark the bicentenary of the Kildonan Clearances. As part of this, Anthony Schrag, then artist-in-residence at Helmsdale’s Timespan Centre, made a film of himself attacking the Golpsie monument. There is snow on the ground as Schrag, a tiny figure in a black T-shirt, hurls himself again and again at its base. High above him, the Duke of Sutherland continues to gaze out over the Dornoch Firth, unyielding, immutable, oblivious to his impotent rage.
Schrag’s film is called Wrestling with History and it encapsulates the problem posed by our monuments to inglorious men. Trying to erase the past is futile; the best we can do is look for better ways to explore, interpret and memorialise it.
Melina Valdelievre at the Frederick Roberts statue in Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow. ‘When you see the white warrior,’ she says, ‘you see what is valued in this country. I worry people will think the British Empire was a great thing’
Anti-clockwise from top: the removal of confederate monuments across America, including these two in Baltimore, Maryland, has divided opinion and cost at least one life; the statue to King William of Orange in Glasgow, which was moved to a less prominent position in 1927
George Granville Leveson-Gower, The 1st Duke of Sutherland, 1758-1833, Ben Bhraggie, Golspie The 1st Duke of Sutherland was an English landowner. He is notorious for his role in the Clearances. He ruthlessly drove his tenants off the land forcing mass emigration to Canada. His 150ft statue, known as the Mannie, is loathed by activists, but to many it is an integral part of the landscape.