Let the Statues Stand

-- Ken Andrew
The call for the statue of the Duke of Sutherland to be removed from Beinn a'Bhragaidh above Golspie is understandable, but misguided. It follows the movement in Eastern Europe, where new- found freedom has given nationals opportunities to topple statues of detested politicians and oppressors.

The Sutherland statue is seen by many Scots, particularly in the North, as a symbol of power, greed, oppression and heartless evictions. It represents a family, a ruling class, and a period in history which split communities and sent families to the far corners of the earth in search of livelihood denied them on their own soil.

A harsh land, a harsh sea, and a harsh climate were hard enough burdens to be borne by the people, but harsh overlords backed by unfair laws, and servants of these laws, were the final tribulations, which brought a way of life to an end for many for the benefit of a privileged few.

In seeking to redevelop his Sutherland estates in the early 19th century, the Marquis of Stafford (created 1st Duke of Sutherland in 1833) has been charged with the cruel evictions of crofters to replace them with sheep. Some commentators have argued that this was actually good for the people as their way of life was doomed anyway. Others put all the blame on the factor.

Whatever qualities George Granville, 1st Duke of Sutherland, had -- if any -- few would argue that his statue on Beinn a'Bhragaidh was a well-deserved reward for a lifetime of piety, benevolence and public service. All, but the most blinkered, see it otherwise -- a monument to the greed and vanity of the Sutherland family, the toadyism of their hirelings, and the efficient extortion racket which squeezed contributions from unwilling tenants.

Should it therefore be viewed as a constant sore on the Sutherland landscape, and pulled down to purge the county of its sufferings? Removing the statue would be an empty gesture as we cannot rewrite history. The influence of a ruling class and the ravages of sheep and deer on our landscape will last long after the weather has eroded the features from Chantrey's statue of the Sutherland duke.

Tangible Evidence

To topple him prematurely will remove only one piece of evidence from an involved and hotly-disputed argument. That piece of evidence is vital for those on the side of the poor who have little else to go on, but oral tradition and folk memories. Do they really want the next generation's view of history to be formed from university students' essays derived from the Sutherland archives?

On the one hand are the scholars, able to believe only what they read in source papers -- even though that material may have been written, coloured, sifted and edited by the side accused in the dispute. On the other side are the wronged, who had neither the ability, time, resources, or opportunity to set down their thoughts, feelings and grievances in their grim struggle for survival. They could pass on their anger only by word of mouth to their sons and daughters to repeat to subsequent generations.

The oral traditionalists are severely handicapped when future scribes mull over the past. The massive statue on Beinn a'Bhragaidh and the opulent castle of Dunrobin have to be vital parts of their case against the Dukes of Sutherland. Their wealth, power and vanity are enshrined in stone and should be preserved as warnings to future generations to beware of allowing such circumstances to happen again.

Ayrshire Example

The urge to tidy up history is always present in our society. In 1973 an Ayr County Councillor argued that Dunure Castle "was a relic of the feudal system" and should be "removed from the face of the fair county of Ayr". Fortunately, his supporters were outnumbered and the grim ruin still stands on the Carrick coastline as a major tourist attraction and as a warning against future despots and foolish councillors.

Many Ayrshire schoolchildren have had their blood curdled by the story of the castle earl's roasting of the commendator of Crossraguel before an open fire to make him sign away the abbey lands. Gilbert Kennedy's castle is a stark warning to every generation to be on their guard against such greedy tyrants. By expurgating our landscape of such relics we only make it easier for such tyrants to flourish.

The Victorians were the champions of erecting statues, obelisks, and fussy bits of street furniture. Much of it has artistic, historic or decorative quality, though some of their heroes and heroines have since been reassessed along with the Sutherland duke. Again, there is a movement afoot to remove much of their clutter from our streets.


Who, though, would decide what is to go and what will replace it? Do council boss Pat Lally's plans for moving around the statues of Glasgow's George Square meet with universal approval?

Would Timothy Clifford -- the controversial Director of the National Galleries -- do it any better? If we start moving statues about, could it not lead to political and cultural chicanery? Would it not allow parties of the left and right, when in power, to remove opposing symbols to coups or obscure corners of the council yard, to be followed by tit-for-tat action when power is reversed?


What if women's groups agitate for the Scott Monument, Allan Ramsay and other male company to be removed from Princes Street in Edinburgh? Who would decide the new heroes and heroines of the day and would they be any better?

Robert Louis Stevenson has waited a century for the capital to give him tangible public recognition, and there are many others worthy of honour across the country. They could easily be shoved aside in a top of the pops reassessment of our squares and memorials. What we have is very far from perfect. It is a social statement of a period in history, which can be seen in other ways from those intended by the champions of the sculptures. Would it do any good to replace one era's memorials with today's politicians, Andy Stewart, Billy Connolly and Rangers and Celtic heroes? That would be a dangerous road to go down.

Better we stick with Victoria and Albert, if only for artistic merit, rather than pepper our townscapes with stars of the television soaps.

The Gaels have taken their vengeance on the Sutherland duke's statue with their graffiti. Let us leave it at that. The duke should be left standing high on his tiered pedestal in the biting wind. Many think he deserves such a fate.

Copyright (C) 1995; Ken Andrew
Scots Magazine; March 1995

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