Statue of the week: pillar of society?

Although Edinburgh has enough statues that I could easily write about a different one every week, doing so would take up a lot of my time and test the patience of readers. So this is more of an occasional series, with the ‘of the week’ not to be taken too literally!

A statue that has been in the news recently is that of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, in St Andrew Square. The statue itself is some 15 feet high, and stands on a pillar over 150 feet tall. Pillars like this were all the rage in a nineteenth-century Europe that looked to the classical civilisations for models. The victory column to the Emperor Trajan in Rome was a particular inspiration, and was the model for Edinburgh’s Melville pillar. The pillar was erected in 1821 and the Melville statue added in 1827.

We saw another example of this tradition of statues on top of pillars when we visited Cromarty in the Black Isle, birthplace of the multi-talented stonemason, geologist and writer Hugh Miller.

One of the most famous statues on a pillar is that of Admiral Horatio Nelson in Trafalgar Square, London. This was a relative latecomer, however, having been constructed only in the 1840s. Dublin had a Nelson’s pillar, topped by a statue, much earlier, in 1809. That pillar occupied a prominent place on what is now O’Connell Street (then Sackville Street) in central Dublin. In 1966 it was blown up by the Irish Republican Army on the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. There is a model of it in Dublin’s Little Museum, which I visited a few weeks ago.
In 2003 it was finally replaced by the Spire of Dublin, a  120-metre-high metal structure.

Incidentally, Edinburgh has its own monument to Nelson, on Calton Hill just down the road from our flat. It was erected in 1816 and its 200th anniversary has just been marked. It is in the form of a tower, which you can climb and which apparently provides great views over the city – we’re yet to attempt the climb!

So, why has the monument to Lord Melville been in the news? A controversial figure, he dominated Scottish politics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and was known as ‘the Great Tyrant’ or ‘the Uncrowned King of Scotland’. The plaque for his monument in St Andrew Square refers to his roles as Treasurer of the Navy and Lord Advocate of Scotland, and says that the monument was erected with funds raised by members of the Royal Navy. But there is also much that it leaves out.

A Green Party activist, Adam Ramsay, petitioned the Edinburgh City Council for an additional plaque to provide more information about some of the more unsavoury aspects of Melville’s career. Ramsay says that, among other things, Melville actively opposed the abolition of slavery, sent troops to crush a rebellion against the Highland Clearances, and was responsible for the conviction and transportation to Australia of Thomas Muir and other radical democrats. He was also impeached for embezzling public funds, although he was acquitted. You can read Ramsay’s views here, where you can also see a close-up of the statue (my, what big eyebrows you have, Lord Melville!)

The Petitions Committee of Edinburgh City Council agreed that a new plaque should be installed. One councillor called Melville ‘a 24-carat bastard’, although he said he was concerned about how the career of such a controversial figure could be adequately explained on a plaque. The head of Edinburgh City museums suggested that an app might be a better way to provide context for the monument.

Scotland’s most controversial statue on a pillar is that to the Duke of Sutherland on Ben Bhraggie in the far north of Scotland. Standing some 100 feet tall, it was erected in 1834 supposedly (according to its inscription) by ‘a mourning and grateful tenantry’. The inscription’s claim about the tenantry must be treated with some suspicion, since Sutherland’s agents are widely held to have been responsible for some of the most brutal incidents in the Highland Clearances, with thousands on the Sutherland estates being evicted from their homes. In recent times there have been repeated calls to destroy the Sutherland monument and the word ‘monster’ has been sprayed across it.

I can understand how people feel about the Sutherland monument, but I generally prefer not to destroy memorials, since they are important evidence of historical attitudes. It’s usually better to try to understand and contextualise them, rather than get rid of them. I’m also somewhat ambivalent about a new plaque for the Melville monument, despite having just said that I’m in favour of providing more information and context. I would be surprised if one person in 100 in Edinburgh could tell you who Melville was, and adding a new plaque may just draw attention to him. Far from dominating the square, I can’t help feeling that Melville is a lonely figure, isolated from and ignored by the people below. Perhaps the best fate for this erstwhile tyrant is to be banished to the top of a pillar where no one can see him, and nobody knows his name?

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