Hacking History

The issue of statues monuments and who owns public space has come alive as the US implodes over the issue of whether to take down monuments to the supporters of slavery and appears not to have found closure to its own Civil War (which was supposed to have ended in 1865).

Anyone watching Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, or witnessing the daily feeds from the Black Lives Matter movement will know why. This is the age of the image. Politics is visual. Daesh knew this when they descended on Hatra, a 2,000-year-old city and UNESCO World Heritage site in Iraq in 2015 to destroy priceless statues and shrines, wiping away artefacts that have survived two millennia. The US army knew this when they brought down the statue of Saddam Hussein in front of the worlds media in Baghdad’s Firdos Square in 2003. The Victorians knew this when they built the Scott Monument in 1840. It’s of more than passing interest that it was an Estonian, Kalle Lasn, reared in the art of Soviet propaganda, who identified capitalisms weak-spot and created Abusters and initiated Occupy Wall Street. Post-soviet activists are alive to this as they debate their inherited past and explore their independence. The Moscow Times this month reports that Bulgarian hacktivists are repainting Soviet-era monuments so that the Soviet military heroes depicted are recast as American Superheroes.

History matters. It tells us something of who we are and who we want to be. The infrastructure and symbolism of our public life – our streets and public space – our commissioned public art and our monuments and relics matter. The statues we preserve and protect aren’t just historical artefacts, casual remnants of the past hanging about, they are immutable power rendered in stone.

If the American issue has hit the headlines, we are not without the same issues in Scotland and wider Britain. The writer Afua Hirch made a compelling case against Nelson’s Column, arguing:

“One of the obstacles all these abolitionists had to overcome was the influence of Nelson, who was what you would now call, without hesitation, a white supremacist. While many around him were denouncing slavery, Nelson was vigorously defending it. Britain’s best known naval hero – so idealised that after his death in 1805 he was compared to no less than “the God who made him” – used his seat in the House of Lords and his position of huge influence to perpetuate the tyranny, serial rape and exploitation organised by West Indian planters, some of whom he counted among his closest friends.”

No doubt such observations will trigger a crisis for many who would rather avoid the gaze of the past and the issues it presents us with. But changing the physical world signifies an ability to ‘take back control’ to act and reclaim history for the future. Of course Scotland has its own stone monuments scattered around the highlands, homes evicted, peoples lives displaced and abandoned. These are memorials to state violence.


Some ‘monuments’ need resurrected whilst others need torn down.

Statues – not cheap – are almost always symbols of wealth and power.

Rather than look at changing the character of civic space as some kind of existential threat to history, a some kind of Caledonian Year Zero, we could imagine it as a creative and collective endeavour of re-awakening.

The argument against taking public action often complain of an urge to ‘re-write history’ as if the status quo is a given, a natural order, a state of being that has occurred in a social vacuum. But this inherited unquestioned history has been written to render women invisible. History has been written to celebrate slavery and slavemasters and profiteers. History has been written to venerate the military, the aristocracy and feudal lordship.

Why should this history be sacrosanct against any other? Why should a history that has been paid for and commissioned by an elite be witnessed in perpetuity? It’s a form of acquiescence to stare bleakly at a historical record that’s being imposed from the past.
The questions are real:

Why is it acceptable for Scottish towns to be named after garrisons in 2017? Why does the statue of George Granville Leveson-Gower, the first Duke of Sutherland, still stand on the summit of Beinn a’ Bhragaidh? Why do we celebrate Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville in St Andrew Square in the countrys capital? Why do we celebrate Earl Haig on Edinburgh Castle esplanade?

What is telling in Scotland is how little of this debate takes place and how passive we are about our own public space and our own history.

Like the fight for women on bank notes, such arguments evoke visceral howls from those who want to preserve their status, but such questioning and re-imagining could be about a wider debate about public art, history and which figures from our past deserve credit and celebration. There are situations when statues should simply be pulled down, and others where more information is required about their past.

We can have that debate.

The argument against change aren’t just defending an indefensible status quo, they are defending a position that nothing must change because change itself is a threat.

Oddly, its an ahistorical position to take. For some the act of overcoming symbols will never have the same urgency as ‘real work’ legislation or action. But you only have to watch the response to this debate to see the importance of symbolism for power. Nostalgia for the past is paralysing. Questioning and critically engaging with our past will be liberating.

Since 1989 Ukraine has removed all of its 1,320 statues of Lenin statues, symbols of Soviet domination, bloody dictatorship, terror and famine. Since independence in 1991 it has immersed itself in a national debate about its past as a way of discussing its future.

The removal of the statue of Duke of Sutherland, from the summit of Beinn a’ Bhragaidh should be commissioned as part of a nation-wide, community-wide debate about public space, who owns it, who controls it and what it’s for. We should commission new works of public art beyond the couthy, one-dimensional works that dominate (Andy Scott’s proposals for a giant bear at Dunbar to remember John Muir is a travesty) and have an honest debate about our past – with all its wonder and failings.

If we cant do this we will continue in a state of a country ill at ease with itself, ignorant of its own history, unable to take charge and where participation is considered a dangerous act in itself and visual culture is controlled by the rich and the powerful.

The democracy movement should embrace culture jamming history and take down the symbols of empire. You cant be citizens in a land littered with celebration of feudal glory.

The act of détournement means taking symbols, logos and in this case statues and monuments that are the vehicles upon which the “dominant discourse” of history is communicated and changing them, to subvert what Debord called the “monologue of the ruling order”.

In a digital world of pixels and html, the lasting nature of carving in stone and casting in bronze has an importance that is worth talking about.




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Comments (25)

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  1. Astragael says:

    I once stayed at a house north of Milan. There, in an outbuilding, some two dozen statues lay on their backs staring at the holes in the roof. Originally they had stood on pillars at intervals along the walls of the estate but had been toppled by the populace during the risorgimento. Had they remained there, their history and the history of those they represented would have been frozen; but their demolition adds layers to that history. And their de facto mausoleum confers yet further meaning.

  2. RederOr says:

    Ukraine removed Lenin statues and replaced them with Bandera and Shuhevych – both nazis, racists and war crimnals who slaughtered hundred of thousands of civilians (Poles, Russians and Jews). Ukraine was bad, bad example.

    1. Thanks RederOr – sorry of course I didn’t mean to validate statues of nazis or racists at all – maybe that was a mistaken example – more making a link to individuals from post-Soviet regimes (like Kalle Lasn) responding to propaganda and bringing that understanding to the West.

  3. w.b.robertson says:

    what do folks have against statues? everyplace should have them to remind us of the past. I would hope, for example, that somewhere in the old USA there is a monument depicting General Custer…although in his case I don`t think that the native Americans need reminding!

  4. Rab says:

    Yes – totally agree. We need a debate on the appropriateness of existing statutes. Can we create one monument park for these fallacies? And if these statues were universally accepted why the need to put them on a plinth 3 meters high?

  5. Gus Mac Earc says:

    Great piece! I think we should invite all the descendants of people of Sutherland evicted by that duke to come and ceremonially pull down his statue. Would make a great symbolic moment especially in light of the recent community buyout.

    In terms of Soviet statues, Bucharest is a good example. They removed all of theirs from public places in the city and placed them all in Momento Park, which is now a tourist attraction where you can go and ogle at the absurdity and the skill of the sculptors. Hungary I think was also one of the first countries to leave the USSR, and there was always much unrest. A really interesting symbol from their anti-soviet uprising in 1956 (which got quashed) is the Hungarian flag with a hole cut out of it. During the revolution people just got hold of scissors and hacked out the hammer and sickle in the middle. Interestingly now Hungarians still fly a mass produced version of this on the anniversary of the uprising which has a perfectly circular hole, a kind of weirdly uniform non-symbol. Prior to the USSR I think it was the royal crest in the middle, now there is just the red white and green.

    We have a lot of decolonisation to sort out in Scotland, from empire to internal colonisation processes to neo-liberalism. A public debate about all these imperial male statues would be an excellent start

  6. SandyW says:

    If we’re taking down the statue of Dundas, shouldn’t we change the name of Dundas street too? Maybe some of the other street names in Edinburgh and around the country should be reexamined. Why do we have streets named after Butcher Cumberland and other perpetrators of ethnic cleansing in Scotland?

    1. Graeme Purves says:

      Perhaps Henry Dundas could be replaced by his contemporary, Thomas Muir of Huntershill? However, given the height of the monument, I suspect few citizens would notice.

    2. John Hughes says:

      The Duke of Cumberland’s victory at Culliden was celebrated by most Scots. Bonfires were lit in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Perth and countless other places when need that the Jacobites has been defeated in 1746 came through. Cumberland was awarded the freedom of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Medals were struck in his name. That’s a narrative many Scots find hard to accept but it’s what happened. Culloden was not Scots v England as some mistakenly believe. I don’t offer an opinion on the qualities of Cumberland – I simply point out that his actions were applauded and supported by most Scots (Protestant) who had no wish to see the return of the inept, corrupt Catholic Stuart dynasty. Tearing down Cumberland’s statue would perpetrate a myth that he was the villain and Charles Edward stuart the hero. As with most history, the answer lies in shades of grey, not dogmatic black and white.

      1. “I don’t offer an opinion on the qualities of Cumberland”.


        1. John Hughes says:

          That’s right – I don’t offer an opinion on the Duke of Cumberland. It might seem a strange concept for you, but professional, respected writers don’t allow their own personal views to colour the narrative. Professional writers research historical events, examine the facts (uncomfortable as they sometimes are), put forward a hypothesis and provide supporting evidence – at least that’s what I was taught to do when I studied history at university.

          Your desire to deliberately misinterpret and misrepresent historical events simply to support your own political views undermines the very thing you’re trying to do – convince people of the worth of your argument. That’s why you’ll always be dismissed as unprofessional and irrelevant.

          1. Hi John – there’s no need to be personally abusive. Continue and you will be removed.

            I love the idea that “professional respected writers” not having a view on the Duke of Cumberland. How odd.

          2. john hughes says:

            Yes “editor” that is indeed correct – professional historians don’t let their own jaundiced prejudices get in the way of the presentation of factual evidence. You prefer simply to select those pieces of information which support your polemic; yours is not an attempt to inform the reader of all the evidence available. And indeed in this case, with reference to the misty-eyed views of “Bonnie” Prince Charlie, you fall into the worst examples of long-since discredited works on the Stuart dynasty.

            As a reminder, most Scots did NOT support the restoration of the Stuarts in 1745 and were joyous when Cumberland won at Culloden. A cursory glance at the newspapers and other primary sources from the time confirms that.

          3. SleepingDog says:

            @John Hughes, I am not familiar with the Cursory Glance School of Population Mind-Reading, but do you think that the military censorship imposed at the time might have somewhat dampened press criticism? And it is of course possible to reject both monarchical alternatives on offer. I expect there was a reason for the post-Culloden massacres of Scottish non-combatants that had nothing to do with clearing the streets of celebrating crowds with their Cumberland cakes and commemorative redcoat dolls. Here’s a clue for historians: look at what repressive measures the authorities take. We had a similar misunderstanding somewhere on Bella when someone remarked on little post-Peterloo pro-democracy activity, which was crushed by the draconian state crackdown and the Six Acts. Also see the four stages of Silencing the Past.

            There was a fascinating example held up in last night’s Channel 4 documentary The Queen and the Coup of a professional historian secretly being a paid propagandist for Her Majesty’s Government. Ann Lambton was said to be the “Special Correspondent” who wrote a fabricated smear article about democratically-elected Iranian PM Mossadeq as part of a successful coup engineered from within the secretive bowels of the British imperial establishment. And of course, recruitment and indoctrination of British academic historians has long been a hobby of our secret services. And those who dissented got very special treatment (and massive spy files which our services seem reluctant to divulge).

            I would argue that it is not a historian’s private prejudices we need to worry most about, as they would tend to be identifiable and correctable (unless they were one of only a handful of subject specialists). No, it is the shared social prejudices of class or interest group, especially those of privilege who tend to dominate society and defend the status quo. These will tend to be ones with the British Empire awards, I guess.

  7. J Galt says:

    “US implodes”


    When the MSM goes on and on about Charlottesville my first reaction is to look up the map to see if the place even exists!

    One of the funniest sights was of one of the deep state managed fake “white supremacists” marching along with his fresh out the packet swastika flag still with the creases in it!

    1. Ah here comes the conspiracy theorists. Great stuff. Infowars reader?

    2. Graeme Purves says:

      It is probably safe to assume that ‘J Galt’ here referenced is the protagonist in Ayn Rand’s right-wing cult novel, ‘Atlas Shrugged’ rather than the author of ‘Annals of the Parish’ and ‘Ringan Gilhaize’!

    3. J Galt says:

      Yeh, whatever….

      So how do you explain that – is the white supremacy business just so hectic that he simply didn’t have time to iron his revered blood banner that morning?

      To many so-called intellectuals “Conspiracy Theories” are fine and dandy as long as they fit in with their world view, so Putin conspiring with the “terrorists” in Ukraine to shoot down airliners is great but anything that doesn’t fit their prejudices is tinfoil hat shite!

      BTW like Purves Galt is an old Scot’s name and happens to be mine.

      I’ve read Ringan Gilhaize and it’s a very powerful piece of writing, unlike Rand’s tosh which I’ve also ploughed through!

      1. The idea that the rise of the far-right and the growth of racists attacks – both by the state and by others is somehow an invention is just offensive nonsense. Your proof seems to be some reference to an ironed swastika. When these people get called out right-wing conspiracy zooms default position is ‘False Flag’ or ‘ Deep State’. It’s deeply sad that in a post-ideological world so many people are just so confused as to succumb to this dangerous gibberish.

  8. J Galt says:

    There’s a lot more anomalies to Charlottesville than an un-ironed swastika.

    It’s also deeply sad that so many intellectuals are easily taken in by smoke and mirrors and fail the majority who have neither the time nor the inclination to do their own research – I find that offensive.

    There’s only one thing a lot of people hate more than being lied to, and that’s being told the truth.

    And no I don’t have much time for Alex Jones – I’m just a wee bit suspicious of those who appear to make a good living out of the conspiracy business, Icke’s another one.

  9. Statues on plinths in public spaces honour and raise up their subjects. And by comparison demote (or silence) others. David Olusoga, writing in the Guardian, also makes the point that these disputes are history wars, as they are apparently termed in Australia.

    I feel it would reflect history (and ourselves) better if we commemorated those we killed and oppressed in our wars, conquests, occupations and society: the dead civilians in bombed German towns, the slaves, the colonial occupied, mass-murdered and concentration camp prisoners, the people and groups persecuted and denied rights. In some respects, asking people to kill on behalf of one’s nation is significantly more than asking them to die (we all die; only some kill others of our species).

    Perhaps an artform more suitable for collective expression than statues could be developed. It wasn’t too hard for the artists who produced that millions-of-poppies exhibit, or indeed the model-maker of the infamous slave ship representation shown in Parliament.

  10. Jo says:

    “The removal of the statue of Duke of Sutherland, from the summit of Beinn a’ Bhragaidh should be commissioned as part of a nation-wide, community-wide debate about public space, who owns it, who controls it and what it’s for.”

    I think that decision would be one for the people of Sutherland to make. Furthermore, I happen to know that locals, no matter what we in the lowlands think, get quite irritated when the monument is criticised. They call it “the Manny” and they’re attached to it. I found that strange, but there you are.

    So, before we start demanding what gets pulled down we might want to check what locals think first.

    1. You might, but such a significant part of our landscape and history is a national question.

      1. Jo says:

        My post made clear that my view wasn’t shared by many living in the area local to the monument you’re talking about, Mike. I found that strange but I also accepted it.

        National debates are all very well but Scotland is made up of many parts…we need to remember that first and foremost and give communities their rightful place in any debate about their immediate surroundings.

        1. I agree that the local community should have a say but I disagree that they should decide on their own.

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