2014 Referendum, Art, Arthur Conan Doyle, David Hume, Duke of Wellington, Edinburgh, History, History of Edinburgh, Huang Kuan, James Watt, John Knox, Leith, Nationalism, Politics, Pollock Halls, Queen Victoria, Rabbie Burns, Robert Burns, Robert Fergusson, Robert Louis Stevenson, Scottish Independence, Scottish Literature, Scottish Nationalism, Sherlock Holmes, The Lion and the Unicorn, UK Royal Coat of Arms, Unicorn, Unionism
You encounter these creatures on either side of the entrance to the Scottish National War Memorial, or carved gorgeously in the Thistle Chapel at St Giles’ Cathedral, but here they are equals. When they were first recruited to hold up the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom, rather like two workmen depicted in the process of hanging an inn sign, the English lion and the Scottish unicorn were not only viewed as adversaries, but as a winner and a loser. Edmund Spenser had told the story in The Faerie Queene: the lion had darted nimbly out of the path of the charging unicorn and the unicorn’s horn had become stuck in a tree trunk. Spenser’s contemporaries usually portrayed the unicorn in chains.
Will they take down the lions and the unicorns if Scotland votes for independence in September? The symbolism seems incongruous for a new nation, but in fact neither the 1603 Union of the Crowns nor the Royal Coat of Arms is up for discussion, and they are not going anywhere. An independent Scotland will continue to be represented in heraldry by an animal which is defeated, chained, and, perhaps even worse, non-existent.
If Scotland votes Yes, almost all of Edinburgh’s public art will be out of season. Most of the statues which beautify the city streets either pay tribute in some way to the 1707 Union of the Parliaments or else they reflect a cultural programme which is irrevocably Unionist. Tychy remains undecided on the question of Scottish independence, but it is extraordinarily odd that both sides of the debate refer to the Union as an almost exclusively political unit.
That Scottish nationalism conveys more cultural legitimacy than the Union is one of the laziest and most historically illiterate ideas to pollute modern politics. Once the Union was not merely a nation-state which controlled and regulated national life, but, if one can imagine such a thing, an unstated cultural project to which countless Britons had subscribed voluntarily. Ironically, this intellectual army had regarded nationalism as a fundamentally provincial force, one which was limited, insular, and eternally secondary. A cultural Union had provided a stage and an audience for those who had wanted to escape the theatres of the provinces. Culturally, the Union had promoted ambition and discovery, and postmodernity should not throw away these values without a full consciousness of what is being lost.
So if you are yet to make up your mind about Scottish independence, join me on the streets of Edinburgh. We will take a tour of the city’s statues and reacquaint ourselves with the Union’s cultural heritage.
1. David Hume (by Alexander Stoddart), The Royal Mile, 1997.
Technically, this statue is a disaster. Western philosophy’s foremost scourge of superstition is today a murky sea-green, whilst his big toe, which students rub for luck before trooping into exams, shines like gold. In other words, the lowest and most superstitious attribute of this Enlightened goliath is now the brightest. The toga-sheathed statue is presumably intended as an allegory of Hume’s ideas rather than as a literal portrait of the man himself. Either that, or they have starved the “turtle-eating” Hume in hell and he has returned a third of his original size.
Hume’s crony Adam Smith stands a little way off, as if they have been separated like mischievous schoolboys. Yet you can only begin to contemplate Hume’s Unionist immensity once you have read his prose. Hume was one of the first intellectuals to write for the Union and he could be ruthlessly snobbish towards native Scottish culture. A champion of both history and progress, Hume made his fortune with a six-volume History of England, and his most lasting achievement remains an English prose of exceptional purity. Perhaps Hume’s legacy does not merely encompass the prose of subsequent writers such as Jane Austen and Walter Scott, but the ultimate construction of “BBC English” (by another Scot, John Reith) in the 1920s and 30s. Hume’s fellow philosopher Lord Monboddo would quip that the notorious sceptic had “died confessing, not his sins, but his Scotticisms.”
2. John Knox (by John Hutchison), New College, 1896.
What could be more Scottish and less Unionist than Hume’s nemesis: the fiery Presbyterian preacher John Knox? Here he stands in the New College, his robes solemn, his beard like a seething clot of eels (beards never work on statues). Actually, we are looking at Knox through the eyes of a Unionist and this is really the only way that we can see him today. In this statue his pre-Union scariness has dried up like old spilled blood and he looks as jovial as Falstaff. He would not have appreciated being frozen in idolatry on a pedestal, unable to harangue his onlookers. Perhaps Knox is incandescent, but he is also perfectly safe. In the August sunshine, when surrounded by festivalgoers, he resembles a dancing bear. He is at the back of a queue for the Assembly festival bar and another queue is filing past him to watch a chortling stand-up comedienne from London. Today, she has a larger audience than all of the Presbyterian preachers in Scotland put together. Poor John Knox – his humiliation is complete!
3. The Duke of Wellington (by Sir John Steell), Princes Street, 1852.
When I was a student I admired this riveting equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington, but I could never understand quite why he was here. In his final military campaign, the Duke appears to be urging Princes Street shoppers to charge on Argos. In 2009 I wrote an article for Tychy proposing that the Duke’s tail be, so to speak, clipped off, thereby producing an unimpeachably Scottish statue of Tam O’Shanter fleeing from the witches. In fighting tenaciously for the British State and the imperial system, Wellington had tossed his Irishness away like an old hat and subscribed to the Union. Here he has been immortalised on a plinth of Aberdeen granite, by an Aberdeen sculptor.
Steell’s statue appears to echo Jacques-Louis David’s famous image of Napoleon crossing the Alps, but it is not clear whether this exacts a revenge upon Napoleon or David. In 1815 Wellington had requested a portrait from David, only to be brusquely informed that, “I never paint Englishmen.” The statue is certainly galvanised by Byronism, and, in this respect, the Duke is galloping out of a storm sown by the Edinburgh author Henry Mackenzie in 1771. Yet the Duke is a man of feeling with a British stiff upper lip, and all of his emotion seems to have been devolved to the horse. Rationality and feeling, will and might: man and horse together exemplify the perfect Union.
4. Queen Victoria (by John Stevenson Rhind), The Foot of Leith Walk, 1907.
Wellington, Pitt, and Gladstone are the only British prime ministers to stand as statues on the streets of Edinburgh. British monarchs are comparatively thick on the ground, however, with Charles II, George IV, two Edward VIIs, and Prince Albert chucked in as well. Victoria has been sent to Leith, to represent the ruling class and to presumably keep an eye on the place. She stands at the Foot of the Walk peering down her nose at the shoppers going into Boots. She had loved rollicking in the heather at Balmoral and she had taken a Scottish peasant, John Brown, as a sort of Winsor Rasputin. Leith is surely an affront to her idea of Scotland, but all love requires sacrifice and so she has to suffer the indignity of being marooned out here with the plebs.
5. Robert Burns (by David Watson Stevenson), Bernard Street, 1901.
To understand why Robert Burns is ultimately signed up to a cultural Union, you should compare Robert Fergusson’s “On Seeing a Butterfly in the Street” (1773) with Burns’ “To a Mouse” (1783). Burns has shirked the authentic gobbledygook of the gutter and he is “truly sorry man’s dominion/Has broken Nature’s social union.” This is why he is standing on a pedestal, above our heads, whilst Fergusson remains on street level in the Canongate and we can walk up and look him in the eye. Burns may have fed Scottish nationalism the occasional jingle, but culturally at least, he was a Unionist.
6. Robert Louis Stevenson (by Allan Herriot), Colinton, 2013.
A ten year old boy sits on a tree stump, his attention diverted from his notebook by a Skye terrier. The cheerful-soppy little dog has been added to this scene to make the boy look appreciably gloomier and more Calvinist. As an adult, the child would found Treasure Island and leave a million hearts Kidnapped. But here this boyish spirit is not even a twinkle in his eye.
There is symbolism on the air. The boy is the straight-laced Dr Jekyll and his dog is the mischievous Mr Hyde. The boy is a solemn Unionist and his dog is silly Scotland. Or does the chopped down tree represent Stevenson’s homeland, in surrendering its existence to provide the would-be writer with somewhere to park his bum and dream of a better world? At any moment, this boy will turn from the Scottish dog and begin to write.
7. David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart (by Alexander Stoddart), Corstorphine, 2004.
Aside from the wee mite at Colinton, there is no statue on Edinburgh’s streets of either of the city’s most prolific novelists, Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle. They are instead memorialised by proxy, lurking within the shadows of their more illustrious creations, Alan Breck Stewart and Sherlock Holmes (see #8). No doubt Edinburgh is characteristically snooty when confronted with celebrity, or else these novelists did their jobs properly. It is simply a consequence of cultural Unionism: the secondary national man fades into the background, whilst the public Unionist steps forward.
Two Scots are fleeing both from and towards justice. They each epitomise different destinies for Scotland and there can be only one destination. This statue stands near to their journey’s end in Kidnapped (1886), but the journey is simultaneously historical. The Jacobite Alan Breck Stewart is too ardent, too impractical, and henceforth too Scottish. David Balfour has his head screwed on. A sensible young man with a devotion to truth and justice, Balfour is not so much a character as a Unionist perspective, and one which would be shared by generations of good British schoolboys.
8. Sherlock Holmes (by Gerald Ogilvie Laing), Picardy Place, 1991.
What nationality is Sherlock Holmes? He is usually described as “British” and in the absence of any identifiable Scottish characteristics, it is generally assumed that he was born somewhere in England. The corresponding lack of any English characteristics is never deemed to undermine this conclusion. In “The Greek Interpreter” Holmes states that his ancestors were “country squires,” and the whole of his Englishness seems to hinge upon his single use of the word “squires” rather than “lairds.” Holmes’ creator Arthur Conan Doyle was born and educated in Edinburgh and he claims to have modelled Holmes upon the Edinburgh surgeon Dr. Joseph Bell. Yet in “The Greek Interpreter” Holmes also admits to distant French ancestry, and in a literary sense, he is the descendant of Edgar Allan Poe’s Parisian detective C. Auguste Dupin.
There is no mystery: Holmes is a hero of the Union. Whatever nationality he once possessed is now less than a ghost and as a Humean empiricist, Holmes does not believe in ghosts. His creator, coincidentally, was obsessed with spiritualism, but nobody could deny that Conan Doyle was Scottish.
9. Dr Huang Kuan (by an unknown sculptor), Pollock Halls, 2007.
In 1850 Huang Kuan travelled to one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world to study medicine. In 1855 he became the first Chinese student to graduate from a European University. He would subsequently return to China and put his learning to good use, fighting cholera and performing cutting-edge surgery. Huang had chosen Edinburgh: a city which had become a nucleus of law, science, and medicine since the 1707 Act of Union had liberated its middle classes from the responsibilities of government. In 1847 James Young Simpson had invented surgical anaesthetic in Edinburgh and in 1869 Joseph Lister, an Englishman, would lecture about the use of antiseptic at Edinburgh University.
In 2007, the city of Zhūhǎi, in Guangdong Province, donated a statue of the young doctor to the University of Edinburgh, and it was erected outside the Confucius Institute in Abden House, at the far entrance to Pollock Halls. It is the only statue of a student to be found anywhere in the university.
10. James Watt (by Sir Francis Chantrey/ Peter Slater), Heriot-Watt University, 1990.
Scientists always look as undistinguished as servants and, to me at least, one looks the same as any other. Two of the UK’s most revolutionary scientists James Hutton and Charles Darwin, should be commemorated in Edinburgh with imposing statues on soaring plinths, but they are nowhere to be seen. Both were students in the city, although Darwin did not think much of its university. Yet the Edinburgh physicist James Clerk Maxwell has lately made an appearance on George Street.
James Watt was a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and there are two statues of him in the city today: one outside Heriot-Watt University, and the other in the National Museum of Scotland. If Watt had invented most of the Industrial Revolution, this earthquake had apparently inauspicious beginnings: a conventional Scottish middle class upbringing coupled with the intellectual context of the Union. Watt was educated in Glasgow and London; he lived and worked in Glasgow, Cornwall and Birmingham; and his work was advanced in partnership with the English manufacturer Matthew Boulton. The Unionist ambition to bring a new modern world to life had meant that Watt was required to murder a nationalist, but this country’s most revolutionary achievements have been always built on the grave of nationalism.
[Previously on Tychy: The Edinburgh Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes.]