Should Nicola Sturgeon get a statue?

Scotland’s statues attest to a history buried under sentimental nationalism

1 August 2020

9:00 AM

1 August 2020

9:00 AM

The Scottish National party and its supporters like the world to see Scottish independence as a final act of decolonisation, Scots throwing off the yoke of English imperialism and, with it, the taint of having been imperialists themselves. Last week Scots academic Sir Geoff Palmer compared it to the process that led to his native Jamaica gaining its independence. Yet Scots were the greatest of British colonialists and, for most of the 300-odd years of the Union, strong unionists.

Scots statuary of figures from before the 1707 Act of Union is quite sparse. But even those few earlier Scots haven’t been exempt from the wider debate about our monuments. In June the statue of Robert the Bruce, close to the site of the Battle of Bannockburn, was daubed with ‘Robert was a racist, bring down the statue’. For some reason, William Wallace comes off better (perhaps no one has yet discovered his racism). He has a statue, in classical pose, in Aberdeen, ironically opposite His Majesty’s Theatre. The nicest Wallace memorial is in London: a plaque outside St Bartholomew’s hospital, where Wallace was tortured to death in the disembowelling ceremony reserved for traitors. The plaque pays homage to a ‘Scottish patriot’ who ‘fought dauntlessly in defence of his country’s liberty and independence’ — a statement about as accurate as the Mel Gibson film Braveheart. Still, it’s sweet of the English to give it space.

Less dashing than Wallace, at least as Mel played him, was John Knox, the 16th–century Protestant preacher who did most to bequeath Scotland an unforgiving religion, though one which ensured that Scots children could read in far greater numbers than most others in Europe. Despite being a grim man, he deserves his memorials, of which there are several. The Presbyterian Church of Scotland is today as generally benign and liberal as the Church of England. Even so, a stern Knox stands before the Church’s Assembly Hall on Edinburgh’s Mound.

But it is the statues of people from Scotland’s more recent past, trembling for their future should Scotland become independent, which most attest to nationalism’s shallowness. Annoyingly for the SNP, most of Edinburgh’s statues were put up when the nation was most enthusiastically British — and imperialist: an attitude the nationalists now ascribe to the English (especially Brexiteers). The lovely New Town, built during the Scottish enlightenment, carries street names like Hanover, Frederick, George and Rose (for England’s emblem). In St Andrew Square, a tall column supports a statue of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville (1742-1811): a man once in effective control of Scots politics. Keen to expand the empire, he has been accused — according to historian Sir Tom Devine, unfairly — of impeding the passing of an anti-slavery act. Protestors, including the Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh, have ignored Sir Tom and demanded that Dundas be toppled.

Melville’s is not the most grandiose memento in Scotland. That is the 200ft Scott Monument on Princes Street, within which sits the unionist Scott, again in classical pose. He has other Scots writers displayed about him, including Robert Burns, Lord Byron and James Hogg — as well as Mary Queen of Scots, a severely under-statued monarch.

Glasgow, now a nationalist city, nurses a unionist centre in its bosom. George Square is, as scholar Robert Crawford puts it,
‘a sustained volley of British Empire Victoriana [in]… an ornate city of imperialism’. Two generals are there: Sir John Moore, who fought for the empire in Canada, Egypt and the Caribbean; and Lord Clyde, to the fore in suppressing the Indian Mutiny. Queen Victoria, India’s empress, is joined by her husband (unusually). Two British prime ministers, Robert Peel and William Gladstone, are present too.

In June, Black Lives Matter protestors demanded that Peel be toppled. As the founder of the London police force, he is seen by the movement as racist. The next week, hundreds of counter-protestors turned up to protect Sir Robert, and — with no apparent irony on either side — clashed with police. Charges of racism have also been levelled against the enlightenment stars Adam Smith, who saw people of colour as ‘savage’, and David Hume, who believed black people to be ‘naturally inferior to whites’. Their Edinburgh statues, both on the Royal Mile, remain — but an Edinburgh University petition has demanded that the 1960s David Hume Tower, where I studied, be renamed Julius Nyerere Tower, after the first president of independent Tanzania.

Donald Dewar, first First Minister of Scotland for a brief 11 months, has a bronze statue in Glasgow’s Buchanan Street, sculptor Kenny Mackay catching something of the cerebral, witty, direct character which made him the most respected of the Labour figures, even for the nats. But not for all: when his memorial was close to the ground, a traffic cone crowned him, a ‘Don’t Bomb Syria’ placard was put under an arm and the glasses Mackay gave him were taken off and twisted. Eventually, he was raised on a 6ft pedestal, where he remains, with specs.

Should Nicola Sturgeon get a statue? Perhaps. She has been a strong leader, albeit for a mistaken cause, and Scotland has very few women immortalised in stone. And Alex Salmond? The Russia Today presenter, stubbornly staying on through growing evidence of Russian efforts to corrupt British democracy, can expect one only in Moscow, perhaps a tomb with a plaque in the Kremlin wall.

Statuary in Scotland will and should be debated. But these ‘sermons in stones’ remind us Scots that the Union has been a partnership, and that we cannot slough off its dark passages on the English.

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