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Sniffers of the stench of corruption….

August 3, 2015

Three examples from the golden age of political caricature featuring Henry Dundas, the first Viscount Melville….

Courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

Courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

This one satirises the five-strong Commission of Naval Enquiry quizzing Dundas and the Navy paymaster Alexander Trotter (the guys in kilts).

The Commission’s dogged persistence revealed an enormous casino banking scandal and endemic corruption in the Navy overseen by Dundas. This was 200 years ago but some may see contemporary overtones in denials and attempts to thwart their work, undue Scottish influence in Westminster, and er…. the stench of banking corruption.

For a fuller account, see my piece in Public Finance magazine.

I think it is the work of Edinburgh-born Isaac Cruikshank who worked for most of his life in London. He drew another caricature of Dundas in 1805:

Courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland

Courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland

The third one is by of James Gilray, the foremost political cartoonist of his generation.  His earlier portrayal from 1788 shows Dundas at his empire building zenith at the East India Company straddling two continents.

There is no doubt that the power of the media then through caricature through Cruikshank and Gilray shaped public opinion and assisted in the ultimate disgrace of Dundas, although he still stands as the tallest statue in Edinburgh.

Dundas straddling continents in 1788, Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Dundas straddling continents in 1788, Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

More info:

The National Portrait Gallery’s extensive Gilray collection

The National Maritime Museum has a splendid array of  fine art and other Naval exhibits.

Hansard report on the impeachment and a fuller contemporary account  of the process.

History of Parliament profile of Dundas

Venice – the first British Embassy?

August 2, 2015


A longer version of this piece with a focus on religious issues in Venice appears in the August edition of Life and Work magazine

So where was the first British embassy? I think it was Venice (although Brussels may also have claim) established in 1604 after the union of the English and Scottish crowns under James VI or I.  So he was our  first truly Britannic Majesty

It was part of James’s ambition to develop a “community of ideas” in Europe beyond the narrow and fractious diplomatic battle lines of Elizabeth’s later reign.

The first ambassador in Venice was Henry Wotton.  Diplomacy was then more of an ad hoc affair with individuals sent out to lesser foreign courts and permanent representation reserved for key capitals.

Sir Henry Wotton

Henry Wotton (1568-1639)

So there was plenty of scope for a freelance traveller like Wotton. He blagged his way into the king’s favour on a mission from the Duke of Tuscany warning James of a plot to poison him. Wotton arrived in Scotland (via Norway to avoid the attention of Elizabeth’s spies) with a selection of antidotes. He kept up his disguise as an Italian, Ottavo Baldi, throughout his three month stay at James’s court in Stirling.

An ambassador’s life was precarious. Wotton was broke almost throughout his career – he turned down Madrid to go to Venice because of the additional costs. Payments from London didn’t always arrive on time and expenses of employing staff and entertaining visiting aristocratic worthies were considerable.

There was serious business, such as over the Interdict crisis when the Venetian Republic fell out seriously with the Pope, and very busy consular activity.  At this time Venice was becoming hugely popular with travellers – the start of the Grand Tour, merchants, academics, and various adventurers.  As the ambassador noted, by 1612 even female tourists were arriving in numbers.

The Arsenale was the largest and most impressive military/industrial military complex in Europe, capable of building and fitting out a war galley in a week.

Padua University, via the work of Galileo, Vesalius, Fabricius, was the Europe’s leading intellectual magnet and its classes were open to Protestants. Venice itself was also celebrated for its book publishing.

The embassy also kept a beady eye (and reported back) on visitors at risk of succumbing to the “beauty of holiness” of Catholicism, all too evident in Venice’s stunning churches.

Tutors for nobles on their visits to Venice drew on their experience in later life – not least the architect Inigo Jones and political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. William Harvey’s first demonstration of the circulation of blood was founded on his medical studies in Padua.

Pretty sure this is Wotton's palazzo on the Grand Canal for his second embassy. Close to the Ghetto

Pretty sure this is Wotton’s palazzo on the Grand Canal for his second embassy. Close to the Ghetto

Then there were the bad boys….. in pursuit of sin with Venice’s celebrated courtesans, drinking and partying and resultant fighting like the student son of Sir Julius Caesar, Chancellor of the Exchequer,  who unfortunately died in a scrap when swords were drawn.

Ambassadors also had to intervene for their own staff as when their interpreter, Giacomo Castelvetro who had taught King James Italian in Scotland for four or five years and was well-liked by the king. This saved him from a worse fate than expulsion after his arrest by the Venetian Inquisition in 1611.

Venice also attracted Scots like Lord Dingwall unsuccessfully offering his services in 1616 to the Venetian army and John Thomas, a young engineer and clockmaker, who had a scheme to provide the city with fresh water but later needed the ambassador’s help when he was implicated in a plot against the republic.

It was Wotton who started in earnest the trade in fine art. Works by Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto became much prized back home. This was continued by his successor as ambassador, Dudley Carleton, and prominent visitors like the Earl of Oxford.

This trade reached its zenith a century later with the British consul Joseph Smith, whose palace on the Grand Canal at one time became a factory for Canaletto’s output.

Consul Joseph Smith's palazzo on the Grand Canal

Consul Joseph Smith’s palazzo on the Grand Canal

Sending back books and paintings was a valuable means of ingratiating a distant ambassador with influential figures at court where wagging tongues could easily end careers. Glassware from Murano was much-prized. The Venetians threatened, without much success, dire consequences for skilled blowers who wanted to leave. Other gifts included lutes and lute strings and a mango tree.

Good friends were essential. Wotton had his own supporters and was also very good pals with Izaak Walton and John Donne.

He comes over as a rather agreeable chap. His passion for dramatic flourish probably provided the model for Sir Politic Would-be, the archetypal Italianate Englishman in Ben Jonson’s Volpone.

Wotton wouldn’t let you down. When the early travel writer Tom Coryat got into a serious and potentially violent argument with a rabbi in the Ghetto (I blame Coryat – he comes over as an opinionated git) it was Wotton, who happened to be passing in the embassy gondola, that came to his rescue.

He also had an ironic  sense of humour which really did get him into trouble. Wotton is celebrated for his definition: “An Ambassador is an honest man, sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.”

Intended as a private remark it was used publicly against him by an opponent and King James was not best pleased. Wotton, who served three terms as ambassador, was eventually forgiven.

He eventually returned to become Provost of Eton College, where some of his Venetian paintings still hang.  As ever beset by debt, he was still able to offer good cheer and company to his friends and go fishing with Walton.

The Thames would have offered time for peaceful reflection back to the headier days on the Grand Canal……


Edinburgh still failing Elsie Inglis

April 2, 2015

I really don’t understand why Edinburgh continues to blithely trample on the memory of Elsie Inglis. It’s more through ignorance and indifference but the blundering shows no signs of abating.

Last month did bring official recognition with the naming of an embassy residence in Elsie’s honour – in Belgrade, an inspired initiative by Ambassador Denis Keefe (pictured right) and his team.  He and the Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic (pictured left) unveiled a commemorative plaque.

Elsie plague Belgrade

Courtesy British Embassy,Belgrade

Elsie plaque Belgrade 2

A parliament also hosted a presentation on the role of Australian volunteers in the Scottish Women’s Hospitals – the Serbian Parliament, proud of the second maternity hospital built by the SWH as a living memorial to Elsie’s work (and still going strong despite a lethal NATO air strike in 1999).

Meanwhile, back in Edinburgh the first of those hospitals continues to lie neglected. It was closed in 1988 and the site sold off.  It is just a stone’s throw from the Scottish Parliament where debates to date have largely been around whether and where to put up a statue to Elsie – entirely missing the point of what she and her SWH colleagues wanted as a legacy.


Advert from the Glasgow Herald, May 29, 1918

And the name of Elsie Inglis remains tainted with tawdry scandal – following closure of a former nursing home on the site after the deaths of two patients. The Crown Office has yet to announce its conclusion three years after a police investigation.

It’s a pretty bleak place now – not much to show for the huge enthusiasm behind the public appeal launched in 1918 to build it.

Their purpose was crystal clear- to continue Elsie’s life’s work helping poor Edinburgh mothers and their babies. Her Hospice in the High Street was very cramped – hence the desire for a new hospital.

Rural visiting nurse Elizabeth McPhee Scotland 1926

Courtesy US National Library of Medicine

Living memorials were not that unusual at this time.  The Clan Macrae Society provided a district nurse in the parishes of Kintail and Glenshiel as “this was considered a better form of memorial to the gallant clansmen who had fallen than by wasting money on bricks and mortar.”  By 1926 nurse Elizabeth McPhee (above) fulfilled this role – complete with BSA motorcycle.

The original foundation stone is still there as are two engravings on the outside wall – both of the same woman, Mona Chalmers Watson (née Geddes) a key supporter of the appeal.

Elsie plaque

She was the first female medical graduate of Edinburgh University and like Elsie was an ardent suffragist. Mona and her doctor husband Douglas had a medical practice in Walker Street very near Elsie’s.

Her own achievements were extraordinary. Amongst other things, she was the founder and first commandant of of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps and the first president of the Edinburgh Women Citizens’ Association.

Mona 1

The Mona 2plaques for Mona were restored in 2006 by her descendants.  In any other city you would expect this to be provided by a public body – but, of course, not in Edinburgh.

You can now see them on the Mapping Memorials to Scottish Women site (well worth a look!).

The plaques offer insight into the range and passion of Elsie’s supporters. Common bonds included service with the SWH, the suffrage movement, improving nutrition, medical and nursing organisations, and, above all, concern for the welfare of poor women and their families.

All of this required determination, resourcefulness, and courage.  This is the group which is the real butt of the current insult because Edinburgh appears intent to erase them and their efforts from history.

I think this is largely due to sheer ignorance but others may detect more than a current whiff of the prejudice they faced then – rarely overt misogyny but usually casual indifference laced with patronising condescension when required.

Are there any bright spots?  Yes – a new scheme “The Elsie’s” has been introduced offering NHS Lothian staff grants and bursaries to develop their careers.

It’s a good start. And there is no point looking back with rose-tinted spectacles to disease palaces which belong in the past. Some mothers had bad experiences at the Memorial Hospital. Nor was the old Bruntsfield Hospital for women much good for a mother with a toddler in pram and an appointment on the top floor with no lift.

Needs, practices and demands change over the years.  All it takes is a bit of gumption and imagination to take into account the basic principles established by past generations.

Selling off old assets is not a crime. Selling the soul of Elsie Inglis down the river definitely is. One of the stoutest defenders of that legacy was the redoubtable accountant Helen Lowe whom I interviewed for the Herald in 1993.

Another development last month launched at Edinburgh Castle by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon may still provide an opportunity. The headlines said Edinburgh was the first city in the world to offer the family nurse partnership programme to all eligible mothers.

Whoopy do….. Funnily enough the Hospice was carrying out very similar pioneering work more than 100 years ago. It offered baby clinics in the High Street and health visitors going into “wretched, rotting” homes.  By 1905 it was a recognised centre for training midwives and had set up its first milk depot.

A safe milk supply was essential  providing much-needed nutrition but untreated supplies also harboured deadly bacteria, especially tuberculosis. In 1923 Mona and Douglas Chalmers Watson inherited a farm at Fenton Barns near North Berwick which they developed into a European leader in production of TB-tested milk.

Even poorest mothers preferred to pay for the Hospice’s services than those provided free at Simpson’s. Edinburgh Town Council eventually recognised its merits and replicated the Hospice example across the city.

The Hospice in the High Street

The Hospice in the High Street – from Elsie Inglis by Eva Shaw McLaren (1920)

There is no doubt that the Family Nurse Partnership, developed in America and based in Colorado, is an excellent programme which delivers substantial benefit to disadvantaged first time mothers and their babies.

However, I could find no reference in the Scottish Government’s announcement or research papers of any previous efforts to help poor Edinburgh mothers and their children.

This isn’t that surprising. Policy tends to be developed in cycles on the glib assumption that everything in it is new – thus ignoring Congressional librarian Daniel Boorstin’s dictum that making policy without a sense of the past is like planting cut flowers and hoping for the best.

Ironically, history is littered with an extraordinary transatlantic exchange of nursing ideas stretching back to the 1890s when Matron Rebecca Strong’s training scheme for Glasgow Royal Infirmary inspired the establishment of the nursing school at Yale University.

One of Elsie’s close friends Helen Mackenzie and her husband Leslie were guests of honour at the opening of first Frontier Nursing Service hospital at Hyden, Kentucky in 1928, which traced its origins to the Highlands and Islands Medical Service.

Another close friend and co-founder of the Hospice, Jessie Macgregor left Edinburgh to develop a career in surgery in Colorado.  But she contracted meningitis and died in Denver in 1906. Elsie herself found the model of what she wanted the Hospice to be in a maternity hospital at Muskegon, Michigan during a visit to the USA in 1913.

Her plans were curtailed by the war and her own untimely death in 1917. Is it too much to ask that she’ll be better remembered in Edinburgh by the time of the centenary? Or should we just head off to Belgrade instead?

Elsie Inglis with hat in the Great Tapestry of Scotland

Elsie Inglis with hat in the Great Tapestry of Scotland

Sources/further reading

Biographical piece by Lucy Inglis in the Lancet

Women Heroes of World War 1 by Kathryn J. Attwood, Chicago Review Press, 2014

Women in Medicine in late Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth Century Edinburgh, a case study by Elaine Thomson, Edinburgh University PhD thesis 1998 (see pp 203-240)

Oxford DNB biography of Mona Chalmers Watson

Lothian Health Services Archive holds they key primary sources for the Hospice and Memorial Hospital

I’ve also written this related piece for the Scottish Review

Motorcycling nurses

March 16, 2015

mcphee 2Meet district nurse Elizabeth McPhee with her rather splendid BSA motorcycle in 1926. She is the headline image in a stunning online collection at the US National Library of Medicine. I’m not sure where in Scotland it was taken but the castle at the back should be a good clue. The exhibition, curated by Julia Hallam, of Liverpool University, who talks about it here, is based on 2,500 postcards collected over the years by American nurse Michael Zwerdling.

Tricky problems for an Italian nurse in 1915 - keeping the halo out of the wings

Tricky problems for an Italian nurse in 1915 – keeping the halo out of your  wings

Postcards would, as you’d expect, provide the usual sex or saint stereotypes of nursing but there is much more to it than that…..

Lincoln nurses 1930

Lincoln Nursing School 1930

You see how race shaped nurse education from the African American nurses at the George A. Brewster Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida set up after the great fire in 1901 and the Lincoln School for Nurses established in New York the following year. There are  Japanese  Red Cross nurses from 100 years, various members of European royal families in nurse uniforms in World War One and a Nazi people’s welfare nurse helping folk at a train station in the 1930s.

Flora Ferguson, the first motorised nurse in the Highlands, 1926. Courtesy of Am Baile

Flora Ferguson, the first motorised nurse in the Highlands, 1926. Courtesy of Am Baile

Patients don't look that smiley with Czarina and family in nursing attire

Pretty  glum patients  with the  Czarina and family in nursing attire

It also goes into the modern era with a more accurate depiction of nursing, including the work of male nurses.  It’s a real treat… Which brings us back to Elizabeth. The association of Scottish nurses  with motorcycles is probably due to the work of the Highlands and Island Medical Service which provided grants to nurses and doctors for essential means of transport so they could do their jobs. Many nurses recruited to the Highlands and Islands were Queen’s Nurses – specialists trained in district nursing.

Yet more motorbikes.. location unknown

Yet another motorbike . location unknown

There is another brilliant online collection produced by the Queen’s Nursing Institute in 2009 to mark 150 years of district nursing.  Here you’ll find real life images of nurses and midwives from London’s East End as portrayed in Call the Midwife. But my all time favourite is Queen’s nurse Catriona MacAskill, weighing a baby on North Uist in the 1950s. Sheer joy….

North Uist 1950s

Nurse MacAskill and not so tiny tot. I guess this would be net weight!  Courtesy Queen’s Nursing Institute Scotland

Whiz-bangs on the web – digital history and WW1

November 30, 2014
Scottish prisoners of war enjoying a bowl of soup. Courtesy, Great War in Color

Scottish prisoners of war enjoying a bowl of soup. Courtesy, The Great War in Color

What did you do in the Great Centenary, Daddy/Mummy?

It is already the UK’s most expensive commemoration in history thanks to £50 million of Government funding.  War was actually declared in August but the centenary started much earlier: broadcast and publishing schedules had already been awash with it for months.

Much has been spearheaded by Imperial War Museum (IWM) but virtually every school, library, and university  and  is hosting its own exhibition.

So anyone not knowing who Gavrilo Princip was or that the Kaiser was Queen Victoria’s favourite grandson must have just arrived from a different planet.

The most remarkable feature has been the level of public participation. A vast array of primary sources has been made available online – film, photographs, service records, newspapers and diaries.

French troops from North Africa on the Western Front. Courtesy The Great War in Color

French troops from North Africa on the Western Front. Courtesy The Great War in Color

Instead of passive consumers of history, ordinary people have become active creators of their own narratives, applying the historiographical principles developed by Lewis Namier at Manchester and WG Hoskins in Leicester to the internet age.

What this has done is to humanise history. We now know the stories behind the names on war memorials. World War One is no longer the school dinner menu of great powers and generals with a seasoning of Sasoon and the Somme.

The evidence for this is in the explosion of social media where hundreds of local groups are using Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest not only to disseminate digitised archive material but to share and learn from others with similar interests.

Exploring and harnessing the potential of digital history had already gained momentum, particularly in genealogy, but the centenary has elevated it to quite a different scale.

Two shining examples for me are Alan Cumming, not the actor but a landscape gardener, who has championed the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and Sue Light  who has opened up the history of military nursing to a vast new audience.

1930 poster for All Quiet on the Western Front

1930 poster for All Quiet on the Western Front

There are precedents for this.  All Quiet on the Western Front set a new benchmark not just for talkies but Hollywood’s portrayal of war.  For those who remember the crackling print shown on TV, the newly restored digital film and soundtrack evokes the full shocking impact it must have had in 1930 when it won two Oscars.

What do we want with eggs and ham?

What do we want with eggs and ham?

Similarly, Joan Littlewood’s Oh What a Lovely War transformed musical theatre as well as public perceptions of the conflict.

The centrepiece of the 50thanniversary was The Great War which became a landmark in television documentary production with 26 weekly programmes featuring interviews with actual survivors.  It was the brainchild of Alasdair Milne, future BBC director general, and colleagues on the Tonight programme.  The series also gave the first job to an 18 year old whipper snapper who didn’t fancy going to university – Max Hastings.

This year the range of inquiry has known no bounds.  We know far more about the contributions of nurses, civilians at home, and soldiers from across the British Empire.

Otto Lais - self portrait  15 years after his time on the Somme

Otto Lais – self portrait 15 years after his time on the Somme

Each country tends to view the conflict through its own prism but much wider understanding has been opened up by collaborations like Europeana 1914-1918 and Centenary News offering masses of primary source material from other nations.

Beware – perspectives can change.  For me, this came in a particularly moving account of how the Somme was viewed from the other side where  Otto Lais recalls the piteous slaughter of the advancing Tommies, and how the Germans had to use their own urine when machine gun coolant water ran out.

Another poignant moment was seeing a British Pathé clip (just 40 seconds) showing the expressions of William Angus VC back home in Carluke sharing a smile with James Martin, the man whose life he saved.


So what are the downsides of this Great War fixation? Have other, and just as worthy, areas of study been marginalised or forgotten?  There may be some merit in this argument, although it is founded on the appetite for history being inelastic, which it clearly isn’t.

Is the extra funding this year ephemeral? Yes; museums and libraries still face drastic budget  cuts– witness the petition to save the IWM library. And there is a wider danger of digital becoming a substitute rather than an adjunct of physical collections which are the prime treasures.

Will the public be turned off by Great War overload and then history in general? I don’t detect any signs of that.

It won’t be over by Christmas. We have four more years ahead, like it or not.  But we can at least switch off, a choice not open to any of our forebears 100 years ago.

Here’s how the Armistice was celebrated:



The first hams for heroes

November 2, 2014
Longniddry Piggery

Still standing – the Longniddry Piggery nearly 100 years on

Unlikely as it sounds, the Longniddry Piggery provided Britain’s first purpose-built homes for heroes.

The idea came from a group of concerned individuals early in 1915 who set up the Scottish Veterans’ Garden City Association.

They drew inspiration from Letchworth in Hertfordshire and  Bournville in Birmingham where high quality, low-rent housing was provided in semi-rural settings.  It wasn’t just about offering a roof – disabled servicemen also needed help to promote self-sufficiency and rebuild their shattered lives.

Two cottages in the original settlement

Two cottages in the original settlement

So Longniddry, then a tiny village 15 miles east of Edinburgh, was chosen, sufficiently green in open country  but with a railway station on the doorstep for easy access to the city. The Piggery scheme included 30 houses with gardens, beehives, allotments, a shop and a village hall.

Remarkably, it is virtually intact nearly 100 years later – minus the piggery although the Filling Station café (part of the original settlement, but I’m not sure what) still sells a mean bacon roll.

Alastair Sim

Alastair Sim

The key driving force behind the SVGCA was its secretary, Alexander Sim, a prosperous Edinburgh tailor. His younger son Alastair just missed active service because of the Armistice but went to become the celebrated actor, probably best known as the headmistress in the St Trinians films. Both were  modest and intensely private men and were the first father and son to successively turn down knighthoods.

The veteran’s image is still largely the cosy old codger stereotype dating back to the 17th century when the first institutional provision was created in Les Invalides in Paris and the Royal Chelsea Hospital in London.

By the turn of the 20th century, there was more effort to meet actual needs. The squalid plight of Boer War veterans sleeping rough in Edinburgh led to the establishment of the Scottish Veterans Residences  in 1910 with the first residence at Whitefoord House on the Canongate.

The Scottish War Blinded charity was set up in early 1915 to look after soldiers and sailors, initially in a hostel in Grange Loan. Edinburgh.

By this time it was clear that casualties would be on a far greater scale than anyone had imagined. The Longniddry scheme was originally for 60 homes costing £300 each but only half that number were built, possibly because of Government wartime restrictions on materials.

Funds came from across the world – particularly from Caledonian societies  and First Nation tribes in the USA and Canada.  The London Road School in Edinburgh and the Caledonian society of Bangkok also provided cottages

Two plaques still bear witness to the generosity of New York State communities – Troy, Albany and Cohoes.

"Erected by Friends of Scotland in Alban, Troy and Cohoes to mak’  a happy fireside clime to weans and wife that’s the true pathos and sublime of human life"

Lincoln Cottage “Erected by Friends of Scotland in Albany, Troy and Cohoes to mak’ a happy fireside clime to weans and wife
that’s the true pathos and sublime
of human life”

Robert Ross Cottage  Presented by a member of the Troy Burns Club

Robert Ross Cottage
“Presented by a member of the Troy Burns Club”

The foundation stone for  the Piggery was laid in September  1916 by which time the full horrors of losses at the Somme were well-known. The first cottages completed and occupied by late 1917.

Curiously, the first branch of the Scottish Women Rural Institute (based on the model first developed in Ontario) was also established in Longniddry two months earlier.

The driving force behind it was the redoubtable Catherine Blair whose home at Hoprig Mains Farm had been a refuge for suffragettes on the run.  As with the SVGCA, the SWRI was also a product of the exigencies of war and the need to maximise food production in time of rationing.  It is likely that they overlapped in Longniddry – jam making and fruit preserving were both mutual interests.

One century on and there are still parallels.  Young soldiers are sent off to war on the promise of excitement and adventure but no-one really wants to know those who return, broken in body and mind. We routinely depersonalise them with euphemisms like army personnel and boots on the ground.

Last post

Last post

First call

First call

The work of the Garden City Veterans has expanded and it is still largely run by team of local volunteers now providing 600 homes across Scotland at affordable,below-market rents. Its prime focus remains on younger veterans from recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Replicating the original aims of 1915, it has launched a fresh appeal to build a further 60 homes. It is depressing that we seem to have come full circle and have learned so little. Going to war is easy – picking up the pieces and dealing with the human cost of the aftermath is quite a different matter. We should all be thankful that some folk are still committed to doing it.

At least some good has come from the rapacious greed of bankers – the appeal has received a £2 million donation from the UK Government’s fine on banks who were involved in fixing the Libor interest rates.


The excellent Scotland’s War website has the best account of the Longniddry Piggery  It also has good pieces on Alexander Sim and the contributions of first nation volunteers in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

More here on Catherine Blair and the origins of the SWRI

Henry Dundas – lofty hero or lowlife crook?

August 2, 2014
Melville Monument

Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville – no-one stands higher in Edinburgh

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.

Geoff Palmer

Geoff, now Sir Geoff Palmer retired grain scientist and recent historian of Jamaica with his Scottish Diaspora Tapestry panel

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.

Henry Dundas as young lawyer

Henry Dundas as young lawyer. Courtesy Scottish National Portrait Gallery

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.

Lady Melville (2)

Elizabeth Rannie who married Dundas when she was 14. Courtesy Scottish National Portrait Gallery

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.

Jamaican panel from the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry

Jamaican panel from the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry

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.

Update (July 2015): I have gone into more detail on the Navy commissioners’ dogged work which brought Dundas to account in this opinion piece for Public Finance.  A pretty fearless bunch.

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.

melville monument (2)

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.

And it was truly monumental.  Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather even had to design a new crane to build it with 1500 tonnes of stone. The final cost was £8000.Stevenson

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.




Further reading

An excellent resource from David Alston on Slaves and Highlanders in Guyana

Two very good academic projects: UCL’s project on the legacies of British slave ownership  and Northeastern University’s Caribbean Digital Archive

An Enlightenment Abolished by Geoff Palmer, Henry Publishing, Penicuik, 2007.

Henry Dundas biographies: in the History of Parliament and DNB (by Michael Fry)

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.

Hansard report on Melville’s impeachment and fuller account of the process.


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