Reform Scotland

Where is the information about why we have the statues we do? – Keir Bloomer

After the toppling of the Colston statue in Bristol, the monument to Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville, in St. Andrews Square in Edinburgh became the subject of criticism.  The city council decided to place an explanatory plaque at the monument, providing information about Dundas’s life.  This was a good decision.  The temporary notice now in place seems to have satisfied public expectations.

The new notice also fills an information gap.  On the back of the monument, there is a small plaque that tells of the role of Robert Stephenson, the lighthouse engineer, in erecting the huge column but otherwise no information is provided, not even Dundas’s name and the dates of his birth and death.  How many modern passers-by have any idea of who he was or how he comes to have the most conspicuous  monument in Edinburgh apart from Sir Walter Scott?  Wouldn’t it be a good thing if every statue had such an explanatory notice? 

Having looked at the Dundas column, a pedestrian might set off along George Street.  Almost immediately he/she would encounter the recent statue of James Clerk Maxwell.  Some smartphone users with the app installed will use the QR code to access information about Maxwell’s role in modern physics.  More erudite passers-by can learn from Maxwell’s equations reproduced on a nearby plaque.

The next statue, at the intersection with Hanover Street, is much less informative.  It tells us only that the figure is George IV and that he visited the city in 1822.  Why was it thought remarkable that the king should come to one of his capital cities?  Our pedestrian might be surprised to be told that no Scottish king visited Scotland since the reign of Charles II, 150 years earlier.  He/she might be entertained by the thought of the obese George touring Edinburgh in the pink tights designed by Scott as part of an extraordinary version of Highland dress.

At the Castle Street junction stands Thomas Chalmers.  How many people nowadays even know who he was?  Yet he was one of the most important – and admirable – figures in Victorian Scotland.  He was an economist, academic and social reformer.  However, his principal work was as a voice for democracy in the established church and as the founder of the Free Church.  In an era when the church and its history are deemed uninteresting, he is forgotten.

This walk could be repeated in other parts of Edinburgh or in many other places.  In Glasgow, for example, George Square contains thirteen monuments, including the cenotaph.  Some such as Queen Victoria, James Watt and Robert Burns are well known.  Others are now very obscure.  The plinths generally carry only minimal information.

There is an opportunity to create a scheme which would not only be educational but also would enhance many people’s interest and pleasure while walking around our towns and cities.  Furthermore, the scheme could be extended beyond public statues to, for example, buildings or parks.  Glasgow University has buildings called after Adam Smith, John Boyd Orr, Joseph Black and Lord Wolfson among others.  Why?

Any scheme of this kind would have to be managed in a manner that was sound educationally, historically and ethically.  It should stimulate debate both during the process of agreeing wording and after the plaque was in place.   However, the plaques should be accurate and free from bias.

I was in St. Andrews Square a few days ago and read the new notice for the first time.  It is attractively presented.  The text is of the right length; long enough to give a brief overview of Dundas’s life and work but short enough to hold the attention of a casual reader. 

The content, however, raises more concern.  It contains not a single positive statement.  At the very least, it should mention  that, as a lawyer, Dundas represented a man named Knight who had been brought to Scotland as a slave.  He not only secured the man’s freedom but also elicited a clear statement from the Court of Session that the law of Scotland did not recognise slavery.  Historians as diverse in their political views as Michael Fry and Tom Devine take a very positive view of his role in the abolition of the slave trade – very different from the wording of the notice which holds him responsible for delaying abolition and for the enslavement and transportation of half a million Africans across the Atlantic. 

All this raises important questions.  Who was commissioned by the city council to write the text?  What efforts were made to check its accuracy and objectivity?

It is not the purpose of this article to make a case for or against Dundas but to argue for setting up plaques, that are genuinely informative.  It would be essential that the contents were approved by a reputable body, using a panel which featured both historical expertise and a balance of points of view.

The oldest broadly analogous scheme in the world is the blue plaque scheme in London.  It was established in 1866 and was originally administered in an impartial fashion by the Royal Society of Arts.   Might the RSA be prepared to oversee a scheme for Scotland’s statues?  Alternatively, is this something that the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s National Academy, might be prepared to take on?

Keir Bloomer is chair of the Commission on School Reform