He’s the man I walk past every day but never get to see up close. That’s because he’s 140 feet up in St Andrew Square – easily the tallest statue in Edinburgh. Far, far above His Royal Highness (William IV) down in George Street and even Sir Walter Scott – at eye level in his monument in Princes Street.
He was the man who opposed Wilberforce and delayed abolition of the slave trade for nearly 20 years. And his own career ended in the stench of corruption as the last British politician to face impeachment.
So why does Henry Dundas, the first Viscount Melville, have such prominence?
No great surprise that he was a lawyer turned politician – a very capable and ruthless one, commonly known as the Governor General who effectively ruled Scotland for over thirty years.
But the power he exercised as William Pitt’s fixer in London was much greater. He was variously Home and War Secretaries, First Lord of the Admiralty and Treasurer of the Royal Navy. Above all, he was the critical figure in the expansion of British trading empires in India and the West Indies through “pillage and patronage” as Canning described it.
My interest in him was triggered by an engrossing talk given by Geoff Palmer on the Jamaican panels he and his daughter had stitched for the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry.
Scotland grew very fat on the slave trade. Dundas gained from that directly through family connections but he was also the man who made it all possible through a vast network of patronage built on favours like finding posts for younger sons of the nobility. Just as Edinburgh was playing a leading role in the Enlightenment it was simultaneously also raking in enormous profits from the sugar and tobacco trades built on chattel slavery and its routine indulgence of rape, murder, and systematic torture of fellow human beings.
So what was Dundas like as a person? He married Elizabeth Rannie (when she was just 14) for her £10,000 fortune which he then lost in the failed Ayr Bank. His long absences in London probably led to her affair with an army officer whom she later married.
Vengeance was harsh from the divorce in 1778 – Dundas, as was the law then, acquired her wealth, goods and chattels. These included their four children. She never saw them again and she lived until the age of 97.
James Boswell described him as a “coarse, unfettered, unfanciful dog” when Dundas was appointed Lord Advocate.
But earlier he had praised Dundas’s advocacy skills when he represented Joseph Knight, a slave brought to Scotland from Jamaica who had the temerity to want freedom from his master, John Wedderburn.
His case was vindicated by the Court of Session. This provided the material for a novel by James Robertson.
Dundas changed his tune on slavery in his later Parliamentary clashes with Wilberforce.
Then he argued that the West Indian trade was so profitable and important to Britain, particularly in a time of war, that it could not be surrendered without consent of the slave owners. Thus was born “gradual” abolition when moral principle was sacrificed on the altar of greed.
Nor was such inconsistency unusual. Boswell was a defender of the slavery trade – so too was John Stewart the first black MP in Westminster So what’s the legacy? Slavery funded a boom in land purchase and buildings.
The slave trade was abolished in 1807 but many grew even richer when slavery itself was finally abolished in 1834 and slavers compensated with today’s equivalent of billions of pounds for the loss of their earnings.
Then there are the people. For Campbells alone we have Sol, Naomi and Joel, the wee Costa Rican striker in the World Cup.
You only have to look in the Jamaica phone book to find 2500 Campbells – four times the number listed in Edinburgh and Lothians. The Empire Café provided a focus for Scotland’s slavery legacy at the Commonwealth Games. This subject is now getting far more attention from journalists and historians, particularly in the Highlands.
Henry Dundas, meanwhile, still towers over over St Andrew Square. His downfall arose from controls on Royal Navy expenditure he himself had introduced in 1785 but neglected to follow. The charges related to his use of fellow Scot Alexander Trotter, the official Navy paymaster, as his private agent to withdraw public money from the Bank of England and deposit it in his private bank, Coutts (also run by Scots) for speculation – primarily in the East India Company in which Dundas also had frequent Parliamentary interest.
The sums involved were astronomical – some £15 million over two decades then – beyond calculation now. As his accusers remarked: “It was infamous that the pittance wrung from the necessities of the poor should be sported with in the hazardous game of stock jobbing”
Dundas had conveniently destroyed all his records so the case was largely based on Trotter’s testimony. Dundas was formally censured by the House of Commons on the casting vote of the Speaker. Rather than face a criminal trial, he chose to be tried literally by his peers in what became the last impeachment at Westminster. In the event, he was acquitted by the House of Lords in 1806 but the damage was done and his career was in ruins. Even if he did not trouser profits himself (highly unlikely, I think, given his earlier penchant for speculation) he was Trotter’s boss and at least had been grossly negligent.
So how come a statue after all that? It may be the only way up he saw from the depths of disgrace was to elevate his form for posterity. There are two other statues of him in Parliament Square, Edinburgh and an obelisk at Comrie near his country seat.
And whatever his considerable failings, Dundas was the boy who’d done good – easily the most powerful Scottish politician in Westminster since the Union. Prime Ministers and Kings were frequent visitors to Cannizaro House, his mansion in Wimbledon. He did have friends and supporters – a public subscription for a memorial had already raised £3000 five years before his death in 1811.
An inscription by the monument says it was paid for by members of the Royal Navy. Dundas had overseen many naval reforms including building new ships used at Trafalgar. But I can’t really see many jolly jack tars emptying from the Pompey pubs and putting their pennies towards it.
Yet there is still doubt about whether his statue was intended to be put on top. It may have been an afterthought.
What would have tickled Dundas is that Melville Monument liability came before the Court of Session nearly two centuries later in 2010 in considering what constitutes a contract.
The original case of 1823 was about a complaint from owners of another site in Edinburgh where the monument was due to be erected. More answers may yet come from historians looking at Melville’s papers.
We are stuck with the historic monuments and statues left by past generations – unless it is a living memorial like the hospital for mothers and children for Elsie Inglis which was just blithely flogged off. As the Damned Rebel Bitches history group points out, there are more than 200 hundred public statues in Edinburgh but only two are of women and another two of dogs.
Looking up at the Melville monument, you can’t really see his features clearly, even with a long lens. But in a final irony Auld Reekie’s sooty revenge after two hundred years has turned him……. unmistakably black.
An excellent resource from David Alston on Slaves and Highlanders in Guyana
An Enlightenment Abolished by Geoff Palmer, Henry Publishing, Penicuik, 2007.
Steve McKenzie of BBC Highland chronicles here outstanding black African and Caribbean contributions to Scotland, including Robert Watson the first black international footballer. On his debut in 1881 he captained Scotland to a 6-1 win over England at the Oval, England’s heaviest defeat on home soil.
They see Scotland from the prism of early explorers and settlers and those forcibly exiled or seeking escape from lack of opportunity at home.
It’s well worth a visit – catch it from August 6 at St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh. I liked the strong representation of nurses – including Mary Seacole (Jamaica) Kate Cumming (America) and the women of Royamont (France). There is good accompanying information in leaflets
What is remarkable is this tapestry’s capacity to shed light on hidden history – sometimes the nasty stuff we’d prefer to forget.
Among the Italian panels is one of the torpedoed liner Arandora Star which went down with nearly 800 souls, more than half of them Italians civilians interned after Mussolini joined the war in June 1940 triggering wave of anti-Italian riots and looting in Britain.
As my old colleague and pal Simon Pia has chronicled the violence meted against innocent Italians was far greater and more sustained in Edinburgh than in London, Liverpool or Glasgow. Leith Street and Leith Walk looked like they’d suffered heavy bombardment.
We got lucky on our visit – a chance to hear a talk by Geoff Palmer on the Jamaican panels he had stitched with his daughter. This recalled a shameful period when Scotland grew fat on slavery. More on this in a later post.
Meanwhile, catch it if you can (take grannies and kids) in Edinburgh. It will be touring around the country and next year is heading around the Diaspora countries. And if that whets your appetite, the Great Scottish Tapestry is also back on show at the Scottish Parliament.
Man walks into jewellers and writes cheque for £100,000. Leaves with nothing and is very happy.
This was the unlikely beginning of the Usher Hall in Edinburgh in 1896.
The man was whisky distiller Andrew Usher and the jeweller was his friend James Aitchison, goldsmith to the Queen and also a town councillor. His shop was at 80 Princes Street (now Clarks Shoes – the original is behind the later additional frontage).
Usher was reported to have said “I have so much money, I don’t know what to do with it” to which Aitchison replied “I never thought I would live to see the day when anyone would come into my shop and tell me that.”
Two years later Andrew was dead. This being Edinburgh, actual building took nearly two decades and the Usher Hall finally opened in March 1914.
Usher was no ordinary distiller. His family effectively created Scotch whisky as a global brand, first by marketing the Smith’s Glenlivet single malt, then revolutionising mass production of blended whisky.
He was one of founders, along with John Crabbie and William Sanderson (of VAT 69 fame), of the North British Distillery in Gorgie. It was astonishingly profitable, aided by spectacularly successful brand marketing campaigns which enabled Scotch to replace Irish whiskey and French Cognac as the most popular spirit in the Empire and the world. Dewar’s probably made the world’s first advertising film in 1897 -showing some daft dram-inspired dancing which you can watch here.
The Usher Hall wasn’t solely a philanthropic gesture. Usher’s Presbyterian faith had strong views on alcohol. So although built on the proceeds of hard liquor, there were strict conditions banning its sale at the Usher Hall.
It was to be an entertainment venue for the people of Edinburgh, a diversion from the evils that drink could also bring. Usher imposed the same on conditions his benefactions to his local village, St Abbs in Berwickshire.
There was also a wider movement at this time to make drinking respectable. Lavishly decorated new pubs opened (like my local the Guildford Arms in 1897) to offer something more than the dingy hovels that tended to pass for public houses.
Concerns about the dreadful physical state of recruits for the South African War promoted much debate on public health.
Promotion of well being of his fellow citizens also prompted Andrew’s brother, John Usher, to fund firstly a professorial chair and then in 1902 an institute for the teaching of public health in Edinburgh. Other distillers made huge contributions too – without Sir John Dewar there would have been no Highlands and Islands Medical Service, the forerunner of the NHS.
Such individual contributions by whisky families stand in stark contrast to the corporate nature of distilling now where the Scotch Whisky Association remains bitterly opposed to the Scottish Government’s plans for minimum alcohol pricing. Although this would have relatively little impact on whisky, the Association fears the impact of any precedent for its international sales. Somehow, I don’t think Messrs Usher, Dewar and others would approve – their priorities were for the health of their fellow citizens.
Whisky families also provided inspirational leaders. Sir Patrick Manson was the father of study of tropical medicine, a key concern for the British Empire. He founded the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine but grew up in Oldmedrum in Aberdeenshire where his family owned the Glengarioch distillery.
Field Marshall Douglas Haig came from the Haig whisky dynasty. He was born in Charlotte Square in Edinburgh. Perhaps surprisingly, given his social awkwardness, he was a member of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford University.
His image was used to promote Haig whisky and he was awarded a cash sum with his earldom after the war – £100,000 the same as Usher’s original bequest for the hall. It was also a prominent venue for recruiting volunteers – particularly Sir George McCrae’s battalion made up of Hearts players and supporters.
On November 27 1914, McCrae addressed a packed audience: “ I would not – I could not – ask you to serve unless I share the danger at your side. In a moment I will walk down to Castle Street and set my name to the list of volunteers. Who will join me?”
Hundreds followed and many of these young men were among the casualties in the battle of the Somme when the battalion suffered colossal losses.
War brought horrors that Usher could not have imagined when he wrote that cheque twenty years earlier.
Recent controversies over the centenary of World War One sometimes overlook a key factor – how the survivors wanted it to be remembered by future generations.
In the case of Dr Elsie Inglis, this was quite simple – build maternity hospitals to continue the work she had dedicated her life to before 1914.
Two were constructed – one in Belgrade reflecting the huge sacrifice she and the Scottish Women’s Hospitals Unit (SWHU) volunteers made in Serbia. The other was in Edinburgh, where a public appeal supplemented the remaining funds raised in wartime for the SWHU.
The hospital in Edinburgh was to replace the Hospice which Elsie had set up in 1904. The name a bit of misnomer – it was a maternity hospital run by all-female staff at 219 High Street (part of the Royal Mile) which sounds grand but it was there to serve the poorest families in the Old Town. Inglis’s intentions were clear – she visited the USA in 1913 and at Muskegon, Michigan, found a small memorial hospital as the model she wanted for midwifery in Edinburgh.
The final hospital was completed in 1925 with a glorious outlook across the Holyrood Park. It was incorporated into the NHS in 1948 but forty years later was deemed surplus to requirements along with the Bruntsfield Hospital for Women.
The building was sold and became a nursing home for older people. I should declare an interest here – I and my siblings were all born at Elsie’s and I also covered the closure protest as a Herald reporter. We were repeatedly assured that Elsie’s name would continue to be preserved in a working maternity unit in the city
These pledges were not honoured. Instead, the nursing home has now closed in the wake of the deaths of two patients.
I don’t think this is quite what Winston Churchill had in mind when he praised the women of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals: “….the record of their work, lit up by the fame of Dr Inglis, will shine in history.” Another part of the site us occupied by a private nursery “Bright Horizons family solutions.” It may well be a wonderful nursery but its website merely uses Elsie’s name – there is no further reference to her.
Contrast this with Belgrade where the other Elsie’s is still going strong, despite a NATO air strike in 1999 which killed several patients. It now bears the name of a Serbian doctor Dr Dragiša Mišović but its website fully acknowledges Elsie Inglis and her colleagues who founded it.
Back in Edinburgh last year even Elsie’s grave in the Dean Cemetery lay neglected and unmarked. Thankfully, some good blokes at Scot Mid funeral directors have since restored it.There are several plaques in and around Edinburgh and the Clydesdale Bank put her on their £50 note. She also has a prominent place in the Great Tapestry of Scotland. And that’s great.
But what is there that fulfils the original wishes of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals volunteers for a living embodiment of their founder? Something that connects with the present, not just the past.
Involvement in the suffrage struggle made them more determined and resourceful. They hated the propaganda film made in 1917 and contemporary artistic portrayals were also derided by their sisters at the Endell Street Hospital near Covent Garden.
For these reasons alone I am pretty sure they would judge Edinburgh’s attempts at commemoration of Elsie’s legacy as shoddy, shameful … and an utter disgrace.
Their answer now would be in deeds not words.
Easily the best short biography of Elsie Inglis is in the Oxford DNB by the late, and much-missed late Leah Leneman.
What did history do to merit the dustbin tag? You don’t hear about things being consigned to the cesspit of chemistry, morass of mathematics or sewer of sociology.
But “dustbin of history” is now in common usage. Mark Liberman has looked at its origins and the unlikely combination of Leon Trotsky, Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair gave it wider currency.
What does this say about all the archivists, historians and other interested folk? We’re not averse to a bit of foraging now and again but serial scavengers in mucky discarded trash? I don’t think so!
Treasure chest seems a preferable term which gives the excellent Tobar an Dulchais archive a head start because that’s what it means in translation from Gaelic.
That’s my Hogmanay rant over … in case you missed them, here are some highlights from 2013:
Three short films
All from 1943 and each brilliant in its own way: Highland Doctor is a Kay Mander classic, The Western Isles is a Hebridean feast in glorious Technicolor. And the Polish women soldiers training in Gullane proved fascinating. It has even trended on BBC trending which, for the History Company, is really trendy.
There is a huge amount of work already under way. I was moved by this piece on the first UK homes for heroes and, from the Accrington Pals site, this view of the horrors of the Somme from the German side.
Thanks to all of you who have helped support the History Company over the last year, particularly those who have given feedback, and Twitter chums for their contributions which have made it interesting and fun. Here’s a special treat – a two minute trip across the Tay Bridge in 1897.
And, just to be fair to dustbins, here’s a joyous clip of young Paraguayans making great music out of rubbish:
It’s a production from the Creative Visions Foundation set up in memory of Reuters journalist Dan Eldon. A wonderful way to start the New Year…
The Scottish Parliament has never seen anything like it – more than 30,000 people queuing up outside and desperate to get in.
Over three weeks they waited patiently for an hour or more just to see the Great Tapestry of Scotland.
Bad news – it has closed at the Parliament. Good news – it is now back at Cockenzie House in East Lothian until December 8 and reviewed here in Lucinda Byatt’s splendid post. Lucinda and her mum were among the many stitchers.
It will be back at Parliament next year. And if you want a preview, try the Tapestry website to see much better illustrations than mine here, listen to the audio, or buy the book.
Best of all, just go and see it – take the kids and any auld yins too. Nothing quite crosses all generations like the tapestry. It’s wonderful day out and free to boot.
Quite simply, it is magnificent in so many ways. Aesthetically, it is a stunning evocation of Scotland’s history, from earliest geological era to present day, told in more than 160 panels measuring 140 metres This makes it the world’s biggest tapestry (although, technically, like Bayeux it is actually embroidery).
Some bits you’ll know and others will surprise.
Elsie Inglis appears twice.
A lot of high heid yins but lots more ordinary folk
David Hume and Jean Jacques Rousseau have books in their heads.
Clearly, the stitchers (more than 1000 of them) have had a lot of fun. They have left their mark in signature panels.
It is a treasure trove of humour and hidden wit which stands out on closer inspection. And it is impossible to take it all in in just one visit – one lady came up five times from Peebles to see it.
All of this came out of the Pans – the original inspiration being the Prestonpans tapestry celebrating the 1745 battle. Artist Andrew Crummy designed the panels for that one, the Great Tapestry and the next one – the Diaspora Tapestry currentlyh being stitched by Scottish descendants around the world.
Sandy McCall Smith and Alistair Moffatt developed the Great Tapestry. Dorie Wilkie supervised stitching and Jim Naughtie is also a trustee but, sadly, my prediction about a panel for Aberdeen FC’s triumph 1983 at Gothenburg has not been realised.
This is a completely new slant on historiography – vast numbers of ordinary people coming together to weave – literally – their own history sparking new interest among young and old.
See it if you can – call it stitches in time or history knit large it is not to be missed.
One of the great pleasures of wasting an idle hour looking at archive film is the electric jolt of surprise that causes you to fall off your chair.
In my case it was this clip of around 100 female Polish soldiers drilling somewhere in Scotland in 1943. It is silent, black and white, a bit long for a short at 11 minutes, and nothing to tell you where or why someone bothered to film them in the first place.
The first clue was in the name “Marine Hotel” at the side of the building where the women flock to at the end of the parade. Beryl Robinson’s very good history of the building shows that it is now the Scottish Fire Services College and is pinpointed here by the Britain from Above project.
The Marine was requisitioned at the start of the war as was Greywalls Hotel and Archerfield House, either of which could have been the starting point for the march.
They then move to the sand dunes and the beach via the same route we use today. It looks better in colour and should be familiar to those who saw all the aerial shots of this year’s British Open at Muirfield. There is much more buckthorn now.
The film is unusual in that it shows women soldiers. It is extraordinary because it shows them as individuals in detailed close up. It seems likely they were PWSK support troops gaining basic combat training.
They look like they’re having fun playing soldiers in the sand dunes. No live firing apart from the occasional smoke bomb.But it might well have been for real. Polish troops were deployed en masse in Scotland for a reason. If a Nazi invasion had materialised, much of the blood spilled to defend Scotland would have been Polish blood. This contribution is recognised in the Great Scottish Tapestry:
Three Polish airmen were killed fighting fires during the Clydebank blitz in 1941 when the sailors on the Polish destroyer Piorun delivered constant barrages of anti-aircraft fire.
As the war progressed, Polish troops trained in Scotland formed the armoured spearhead which routed German tank formations at Falaise, the key battle of Normandy. Sosabowski’s parachute brigade played a prominent role in the ill-fated assault on Arnhem.
In later years the relationship soured. Stalin continued to deny the horrendous Soviet massacre Poland’s military and civilian élite at Katyn and he resisted British offers of help to relieve the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. This was crowned by the biggest betrayal in the eyes of many Poles – Churchill’s ceding of Poland to Soviet influence at the Yalta conference.
So this drill and day out at seaside marks the end of an era of innocence. Curiously, Gullane beach also had another reminder from October 1939 when chivalry was still alive. Spitfires from nearby Drem and Turnhouse shot down the first German raiders over British airspace. The sailors and airmen from both sides were buried with full military honours as British Pathé recorded.
The wreckage from one of the Luftwaffe aircraft was buried in the Gullane dunes and lay there for nearly 60 years before being recovered.
A fishing boat rescued the survivors including Uberleutnant Sigmund Storp who gave the skipper his gold ring for saving his life. Their families later became friends. British Pathé and other newsreels recreated this a few days later, wrongly moving the site of the ditching westwards from Gullane to Port Seton.
Most of the Polish troops in Britain were of course men. Another Pathé film, more typical of the propaganda effort to boost morale, shows them in dancing mode.
This account of the Polish women soldiers in Gullane is necessarily incomplete so please leave a comment below if you can shed further light. There will be many mothers and grannies within its frames……
Hooray! Many thanks to filmmaker and historian Marianna Bukowski for identifying the actual film made from the Gullane footage. Stirring martial music encourages women to join up. It is much shorter for the edit – out goes the Marine Hotel but one of the cameramen (there must have been two) stays in. From his uniform, he might be American. By 1943 the USA was the lead player in Allied propaganda films with plenty of ideas, people and equipment.
It is on the VWojtekSolidierBear YouTube channel which has a great range of similar clips, including some of Polish WAAFs, and Polish soldiers at a camp in Scotland in 1940 in which the commentator places Glasgow in England!
The film has now also received some coverage on the BBC.
From Golfers to Firefighters…where hope is unbroken: the story of Gullane’s Marine Hotel transformed to the Scottish Fire Services College by Beryl Robinson, Gullane and Dirleton History Society, 2005. The Fire College is now facing closure.
For more falling-off-the-chair moments, please see my post on the British Pathé blog