Glenfinnan : 200th anniversay of a world-famous monument
THERE are very few man-made objects in Scotland which are instantly recognised the world over. The Glenfinnan Monument, standing at the head of Loch Shiel is one of them. It was built by Alexander MacDonald, who, when he died in 1815 aged 28, left debts amounting to millions of pounds in today’s money.
The now famous 65-foot tall round tower first appeared in the early 1800s and was built as an elevated shooting platform and accommodation block. From here MacDonald and his friends caroused, ‘cried for madder music and for stronger wine’ and killed the local deer and wildfowl.
MacDonald, whose family had entertained Prince Charles Edward Stuart, was a passionate Jacobite. He belonged to a coterie of romantics who worshipped the exiled Stuart monarchy hoping they would reclaim the British throne from the Hanoverians.
In 1815, Alexander - despite his mounting debts - rashly engaged a fashionable and costly Edinburgh architect, James Gillespie Graham, to give his shooting lodge a make- over and transform it into a romantic, tartan totem pole. Fair play to him; perhaps he saw it as a means of paying off his debts. Alas, euphoria was short-lived. Alexander died that year, was buried in Edinburgh and the monument, less its accommodation block, became his memorial. Enter the spin- doctors!
A figure of a kilted and bonneted Highlander, suggestive of Bonnie Prince Charlie, was hoisted onto the top of the round tower and several panels appeared in an octagonal perimeter wall extolling the virtues of Alexander MacDonald and the Jacobite movement.
In 1931, the National Trust for Scotland was established and, two years later, the monument was offered to them. Keen to build on its mission statement as ‘a cabinet into which it can put some of its valuable things, where they will be perfectly safe for all time and enjoyed by everyone’ the trust accepted and the dancing round the totem pole continued.
However, in the mid 1950s, two highly-respected historians, Seton Gordon from Skye and Donald B MacCulloch, Fort William, author of Romantic Lochaber, questioned the statement the trust had started to put out that the monument marked the exact site where the Jacobite Standard was raised on the 19th of August 1745. They issued some convincing evidence through ‘The Oban Times’ based on eye witness accounts and other contemporary records, that the standard was raised elsewhere in Glenfinnan. But the trust was adamant that the words, ‘On this spot’, to be found on one of the panels by the monument, meant just that.
In the 1980s, a moorland fire burnt through a thick layer of peat on the summit of a knoll about 500 yards north west of the monument, revealing a large horizontal rock on which a Latin inscription had been cut. It read: MDCCXLV IN NOMINE DOMINI VEXILLA TANDEM TRIUMPHANTES CAROLI EDUARDI STUART ERECTA 1745 [In the name of the Lord the standards of Charles Edward Stuart triumphing at last were set up. 1745].
It has been suggested this was the work of the Rev Donald MacDonald (1814-1895), one of Alexander’s relatives, who wanted to ensure that the true site of the unfurling would not be lost. Despite this seemingly rock-solid proof that Alexander MacDonald did not build his shooting lodge on the spot where his hero raised his standard, the trust remained sceptical.
This year is the 200th anniversary of the building of the Glenfinnan Monument as we know it. Is it not time for the trust to accept that they may be wrong and initiate an independent enquiry to examine all the evidence and present the outcome to the public?
No one is saying that the monument is in the ‘ wrong’ place - how can it be when it is a war memorial to those who lost their lives at the Battle of Culloden and in the aftermath when the Hanoverian army went on the rampage throughout the Highlands? Nevertheless, the National Trust, if it wants to remain true to its principals, has a duty to layout its full story not only to its members, but the tens of thousands of visitors who come to Glenfinnan each year to enjoy and learn more about one of the most famous landmarks in the world.
Iain Thornber firstname.lastname@example.org