© By Sumit Surai - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=72915280
As a former history student and someone who finds statues quite interesting, I often wish that statues were accompanied by more information. Who exactly was this person? What did they do? Why has society chosen this person as worthy of commemoration?
The discourse on statues has recently emerged as a place for controversy and a battle about the past. The #RhodesMustFall campaign exposed the fact that statues a) inherently have a celebratory connotation and b) celebrate men who have committed terrible deeds, as Cecil Rhodes has. [Short digression: my opinion of Rhodes is that he is emblematic of the arrogance of Europeans who believed they had a right to colonise the land of others purely because they believed they were "civilised".]
In this column, I want to point out a bizarre phenomenon I’ve noticed in my latest home, the city of Edinburgh. Edinburgh has a wealth of statues: I once made the mistake of trying to meet up with friends on the Royal Mile and saying ‘I’ll meet you by Adam Smith’s statue’. As it turned out, what I thought was Adam Smith’s statue was actually David Hume’s. Oops.
One of Edinburgh’s most famous statues is one frequently visited by tourists: Greyfriars Bobby, the statue of a little Skye terrier who is known for his loyalty to his master, guarding his owner's grave for 14 years until his own death. Nowadays, tourists rub Bobby’s nose for good luck – a practice incidentally frowned upon by locals, as it ruins the silver of the statue.
It is with a cynical smile that I think of Bobby and the way he is favoured more than humans: it exposes a more general phenomenon of how we value animals and I myself find it more difficult to see animals die on TV than humans, for instance. But Bobby exposes a different issue: the city of Edinburgh has more statues of named animals than of women.
Female statues: allegory or person?
A game I suggested to some of my friends is to guess whether statues of women depict actual women or allegories. Visiting a friend in Stockwell (London), I always pass a statue of a woman. Her name? Bronze Woman.
This exposes a sexism and disregard of women that is prominent in our society. Women, as statues, are not celebrated as individuals or for their achievements. They represent big, overarching themes like nationalism, peace, etc. I don’t think Edinburgh is alone in having an under-representation of women in statues. It just stands out in my mind that amongst the city's most famous statues, we celebrate the lives of individual pets rather than women who have contributed to the city with their achievements.
So, let’s do the tally! We have Bobby, the loyal Skye terrier. Then, in the beautiful expanse of West Princes Street Gardens, we have both “Bum”, the vagabond San Diego dog (honoured in Edinburgh as the cities are twinned), and we have Wojtek, a Polish bear who served in WWII and died in Edinburgh Zoo.
Women? A bronze sculpture of Queen Victoria can be found at the foot of Leith Walk, and Helen Crummy, a social activist, is depicted in Craigmillar – incidentally, neither of these locations are in the city centre. (Do we count the sculpture of Queen Victoria on the top of the Royal Scottish Academy Building? Not sure).
Oh, but wait! I forgot another female figure honoured as a statue – Maida, who can be found as part of the Scott Monument. Oh, never mind. Maida was also a dog, the loyal companion of Sir Walter Scott.
The city honours more animals than women, and that’s not for a lack of prominent women worth honouring. To go to my department building at the University of Edinburgh, I walked through the Dr Elsie Inglis quad most days, named in honour of one of the university’ first female graduates and medical pioneer who saved countless lives during WWII. And even she was only honoured with the renaming of the quad in late 2017.
The university is attempting to redress its lack of acknowledgement to women – it will finally let its first female medical students graduate (the Edinburgh Seven), 150 years after they should have.
Muriel Spark is another woman oft touted as one of Edinburgh’s female icons, also neglected with a lack of statue. Even looking at contemporary figures, J.K Rowling has made her mark on Edinburgh. A café proudly proclaims to be the birthplace of Harry Potter, there are countless Harry Potter Escape Rooms, tours, and shops –say what you will about Harry Potter, Rowling’s impact on the city is not to be underestimated. And yet, no statue.
But why do you care?
Are statues not antiquated? A relic of an older time? Yes and no. We keep older statues as historical artefacts, despite their innate association with celebrating the individual. I personally am against the argument of tearing down statues, instead believing that we should have a more measured approach to examining figures in the past.
Cecil Rhodes’ statue, for instance, should acknowledge his plundering of what is now Zimbabwe as well as the many scholarships his funds have enabled. As for whether statues remain as significant, many of the statues named in this article were erected recently - Wojtek was unveiled several years ago.
I am angry at the lack of women honoured by statues in Edinburgh (and elsewhere! Can you name a statue of a woman in Luxembourg beyond the Gelle Fra or Melusina?). It is one of many instances which depicts the gap between men and women, men who have had their accomplishments celebrated for centuries. Granted, there are many injustices I could get angry at – too many to count, in fact.
Statues have somehow become my personal pet peeve as of late. I obviously welcome anybody pointing out statues I may have missed, especially ones in Luxembourg as I don’t have the pleasure of walking around the Grand Duchy as much as I did. But what makes me most angry about the lack of women depicted in statues is the calibre of men who stand on plinths.
Sir Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville on his plinth, which is one of the most prominent memorials in Edinburgh. / © Public domain
I look to the Melville monument in particular. Sir Henry Dundas, first Viscount Melville and renowned Scottish advocate. Dundas was, according to his Wikipedia page, “instrumental in the encouragement of the Scottish Enlightenment.” Wonderful, absolutely wonderful. What else was Dundas instrumental in? Single-handedly delaying the abolition of the slave trade, in fact. He helped establish the beautiful New Town neighbourhood of Edinburgh – on the fruits of the slave trade.
This is in no way my speciality – that honour goes to the pioneering Sir Geoff Palmer OBE, who has lately worked on the links between Edinburgh’s prosperity and slavery. I can only recommend his work, his articles, his talks. It feels like a particular kind of gender injustice to see Dundas on his plinth, when women are depicted as victims in statues, see below. These women represent groups of people, which is perhaps why they are nameless. But Wojtek the bear also commemorates the Polish soldiers who went through the same experiences as the bear - yet this memorial has a named figure.
Women do not get the honour of named statues, a privilege bestowed on men and animals. Instead, we are the nameless, allegories of the achievements and horrors of men. To end this piece, I simple find it demeaning that Edinburgh acknowledges animals more than half of the population with its statues.
There has been a push in recent years to rectify this wrong as well. Prominent residents of the city, including the First Minister, have thrown their support behind a campaign to acknowledge women. The Women of Scotland project aims to map all memorials to women, including plaques and sculptures on buildings.
The plethora of men honoured as statues is not only a relic of the past. Of the statues surrounding the immediate area of St Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile (including the aforementioned Hume and Smith), three were put up in the past thirty years. But where are the women?
Nathalie Lodhi is a translator and editor for RTL Today and has an avid interest in music and history, although her topic of choice is usually Zimbabwean politics (as possibly evidenced by her stance on Cecil Rhodes).