Dundas, Charles II and Bessie Watson: Options for Edinburgh


Adam Ramsay on the democratisation of public space, part of our Cultural Landscape and Power series.

If you go round the back of St Giles, into Parliament Square with its wonderful echo, you will find yourself confronted with a large lead statue to the man who established the UK’s role in the slave trade.

After the restoration of the monarchy, Charles II founded the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa – which later transformed into the Royal Africa Company. He granted the firm, led by his younger brother, monopoly rights on the trade with West Africa – including gold, silver, and kidnapped people.

The statue, the oldest in Edinburgh, has been there since 1685, the year of Charles’ death, and its placement outside the old Scottish parliament building is historic in itself. After his dad’s head was lopped off, the Scottish parliament had elected him king, leading to the Anglo-Scots war.

I don’t know what we should do with Charlie. Unlike the endless pieces of Victorian propaganda to Empire which litter the cities of the UK, his statue is a genuine artefact. It does seem to tell an important story in itself. But at the very least, we need to acknowledge what that story is, and that he is the villain, not the hero.

I do know something else about that square, though. Only a few metres from where the statue stands, through the mighty wall of the High Kirk, is where Jenny Geddes threw her stool at the head of James Hannay, Dean of Edinburgh, objecting to his use of the book of common prayer. The act, which started a riot, is sometimes said to have triggered the War of Three Kingdoms, and certainly played a key role in the Covenanters revolt.

Robert Burns named his horse after Geddes, and there is a plaque to her in St Giles. But I hope one day we’ll have a statue in parliament square of a working class woman, wielding a stool and inscribed with the words she is said to have shouted as she threw it:  “De’il gie you colic, the wame o’ ye, fause thief; daur ye say Mass in my lug?“. It is people who make history.

And, important to remember, it’s women who make history, but not in circumstances that are usually acknowledged. Edinburgh has as many statues of named dogs than it does of named women.

To give just one example, Scotland had a thriving and radical movement for votes for women – often said to be more radical than that in England due to its connections to the labour movement, and Edinburgh had one of the earliest suffrage societies, launched in the 1870s. Women imprisoned as a result of their protests were often kept in Calton jail, and it was here that Scotland’s first forced feeding of a suffragette took place, when Ethel Moorhead went on hunger strike.

As she was force-fed, a nine year old comrade, Bessie Watson, played the bagpipes outside to comfort her. Perhaps she should be one of the warriors for women’s rights that we commemorate in stone? Ethel Moorhead, meanwhile, should have a statue in her native Dundee – perhaps depicting her performing one of her most famous acts: egging Winston Churchill.

Bessie Watson and her pipes outside Calton jail.


The suffrage movement provides huge numbers of opportunities for artists and sculptors to commemorate the power of what my Mum recently referred to as ‘mindful vandalism’: warped post boxes could commemorate the acid poured into them, mock bombs could remind us of the buildings blown up. And surely we should remember the crucial women’s march of 1909, perhaps with a statue of the militant activist Flora Drummond, on her horse?

Really though, it should be for today’s feminist movements to discuss and decide who they wish to commemorate, and how. The principle is the important point: a cityscape hewn by and of men should carve out space for women’s history.

And while I’m reticent to suggest a new statue of a man, there is one man who certainly deserves to be remembered for his links to Edinburgh (as my friend Peter McColl has long argued).

Julius Nyrere led Tanganyika’s non-violent civil disobedience movement for independence, learning from the example of Gandhi, and led the country as president through its merger with Zanzibar, becoming the first president of Tanzania. A pan-Africanist and socialist, he is largely viewed positively by history, and his decision to overthrow the dictator Idi Amin in neighbouring Uganda is often cited as a rare example of a successful military intervention.

Nyerere studied at Edinburgh University, and was a regular visitor to the city throughout his life, maintaining a number of friendships here. It is a matter of great shame that Edinburgh University has failed to name any buildings after one of only two heads of state to have studied there, particularly given his place as a genuine anti-imperial leader. The city should surely rectify this, and find somewhere appropriate to commemorate him. Perhaps he should replace Dundas atop the plinth in St Andrew’s Square?

Finally, it’s worth remembering that memorialisation can happen in more than statues. Almost every Metro stop in Paris is named after an historical figure or event. Surely the City Council should run a participative process among the women of the city to choose a name for each tram stop, honouring the women of the city’s past?

And, in fact, surely that’s how all of these decisions should be made?


Comments (15)

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  1. Me Bungo Pony says:

    Its always dodgy when you pick and choose who and what needs to be commemorated. Putting forward Janet Geddes is brave considering she is clearly a body who had a serious problem with the Catholic faith. She was also clearly a body who was not shy in standing up to authority, in a time when women were effectively oppressed, and thereby changed history. So do we put up a statue for the latter reason …. or do we denounce her for the former? Do we put up statues only to those who have led “apparently” (sic) blameless, stellar lives in our subjective opinion …. or do we put them up to commemorate notable people even when they were not angels?

    I know I’m foolishly sticking my head above the parapet here, but is all this hullabaloo about “our” part in the slave trade that finished over 200 years ago not effectively a tick box diversion that takes away from the very real problems ethnic minorities face in the here and now? Who does it help to spray paint a statue of a guy whose father (not even him you understand) had a part in the slave trade? How many of the people who did that would like to be judged on what their fathers might have done that was shameful? I just cannot see who gains anything concrete from it or what problems it solves. If we take down the statues do we expunge the history, or will it just put it back into the dusty books nobody reads?

    I have “historical” problems with the prevalent versions of the European participation in the slave trade that further calls into question the necessity of the actions being taken. Firstly, the African slave trade existed for centuries before “some” European traders took part in it, and it continued long after European governments banned it. It still exists today in the shadows. Prior to active European involvement, their most common experience of it was as victims of the African slavers who would take ships off the seas (Miguel de Cervantes who wrote Don Quixote was taken this way) and raid European villages in order to sell the population on the blocks of North and West Africa. Even Southern England lost villages to the slavers.

    Secondly, it is forgotten that European traders extremely rarely “raided” African villages for slaves. The vastly overwhelming majority of slaves were sold to the Europeans by Africans themselves. These were slavers whose like had been active in the trade for centuries before Europeans got involved. “Business men” and warlords who knew exactly the “how to’s” and “where for’s” of this dismal trade. European involvement regrettably gave these people an enormous opportunity to “industrialise” their operations and make relatively huge profits off the backs of their fellow Africans but, for some reason, we are to pretend they never existed and, amazingly, pay reparations to the countries they lived in (that actually didn’t exist back than). If we are to blame everyone who now lives in Europe for the actions of some of their ancestors hundreds of years ago, should we not also be blaming everyone who now lives in those African countries for the actions of some of their ancestors?

    The European involvement in the slave trade was the bleakest point in an already bleak history of European Empire building. There is no getting away from the shame of its existence in our national histories. However, it was over 200 years ago and none of us took part in it. Lets not get hung up on a worthless apology and pointless hand wringing for something “we” didn’t do and concentrate on fixing the problems we are responsible for, and can do something about, in regards to racism and xenophobia in 2020. Subjectively lamenting 1620’s problems wont help a soul.

    1. Bill says:

      I agree in part with Me Bungo Pony. There will be little point in tearing down statues and then indulging in ‘business as usual.’ We still have not addressed the vexed question of teaching our history, all the good and the bad to our children. We need to get them to ask the question of who were the slavers in Scottish society, what did they do, why did they do it, and more significantly what impact of what they did affects our society today.

      The fact is that the attitudes towards people of colour stems from the days of Empire and colonisation as well as of slavery. Churchill regarded India as a beastly country with a beastly religion. He was not the only’ hero’ with feet of clay, but his attitudes have a resonance today. Boris is hardly a good role model today, given many of his quotes. I am reminded that Aneurin Bevan said that successful Toryism and an intelligent electorate were a contradiction in terms. His own experiences ensured that no amount of cajolery could eradicate from his heart a deep burning hatred of the Tory party. he said that they condemned millions of people to semi-starvation – he warned young men and women not to listen to what they are saying – not to listen to their seductions.

      What we need is a society wanting change, a parliament responding to that desire and a leadership willing to drive through the necessary change. Change the behaviour and then the attitudes. End the easy slogans respond to the needs.


      1. Hi Bill/ Bungo Pony

        you say “There will be little point in tearing down statues and then indulging in ‘business as usual.’ We still have not addressed the vexed question of teaching our history, all the good and the bad to our children. We need to get them to ask the question of who were the slavers in Scottish society, what did they do, why did they do it, and more significantly what impact of what they did affects our society today.”

        But removing statues to people whos actions we now feel repugnant isnt an obstacle to deeper changes at all is it?

        1. Bill says:

          No Mike, of course not. However, what next. While the statue was there I could wax lyrical with my children and grandchildren on the iniquity of the deeds. My children and grandchildren are more sensitive to these issues than myself. I hope because of my input. Again we do not want to rewrite history but to use it to inform and create something better. In Britain we still wax lyrical about’ winning the war’ – sadly that attitude has ensured that we have lost the peace.

          We need to ensure that what was done wrong in the past is addressed and acknowledged and then to move forward in a positive manner to ensure we do not repeat mistakes and that we change attitudes and behaviour. People who spend their lives looking backward tend to walk into serious obstacles.

          Pull down or replace the statues etc., by all means, but do not stop there – move on to something better


          1. Agreed Bill – move on to something better. Some of the ideas we have coming in our series about how to deal with this issue are very innovative and would make sure these issues were very much alive. Watch this space.

    2. Arboreal Agenda says:

      Who should we honour with a statue? The simple answer to that is no-one. Or close as. Why have we got all these sodding statues? The vast majority of them are either of the rich (by birth or ill-gotten gains at the expense of others), powerful and / or some now utterly forgotten general someone or other, littering up our communal spaces. Who decides they go up? What is democratic about them going up? What is democratic about who it is decided will be chiselled out of the finest bronze or whatever? Very little it seems to me. And are they actually attractive? Some great big dark oppressive figure very much looking down at you, literally from on a pedestal or even worse, on an effing horse, rearing up in your face. They are monuments to subjugation.

      So Colston was dumped in the river Avon by a baying mob, the very river from whence he sailed his ships to partake in the utterly heartless and murderous slave trade that the City of Bristol was built on. Good.

      1. Blair says:

        Think of statues in terms of technology for a time. They used statues to draw attention to their works for the good of others to learn. Now we are using hyperlinks to pass knowledge onto others. JK Rowling has introduced us to the idea any object could hyperlink link you somewhere. Diana Gabaldon gives a fascinating insight in Outlander about time travel via the standing stones. Any book can take you to a different place, it is said there is a book inside everyone.
        If I were to write a book it would have to be a technical manual on 3-phase RI System. Perhaps one day I will, but for now I just want everyone to see how big wee Scotland actually is in Christina’s world.

  2. RSM says:

    What a fascinating discussion both from Mr Ramsay and the detailed comment which follows. I too have had issues with the removal of the statues, pompous and vain and unrepresentative as they are. We might see them as historical artefacts which, instead of being torn down, could be labelled with full information panels as to the true nature of the lives of who they represent. Then all can know the truth:the good, bad and ugly of the characters they represent. Removing them could, it can be argued, remove knowledge of their existence…and thus the bad things they did and of the imperialistic oppressive times our ancestors lived (and we still live?) through. Use them as a publically available tool for learning more about the past and its problems. Having said that, I can quite understand why those who feel oppressed /disenfranchised might not want a constant reminder of the attitudes that led to their oppression. I for one, as a woman, am tired of seeing proud men of war and greed on horses. If nothing else, like car chases in movies, I find them formulaic and boring. Leave them though but put up multiple memorials to women and BAME people to redress the balance. Go to town on it…..outnumber the existing statues with new and diverse ones properly and honestly labelled. Tram stop naming too as Adam suggests. There’s plenty to choose from. Living and dead. Perhaps include a QR code to an info page on each…..for the full story. Not just the sanitised version.

    1. Hi RSM, thanks for the comment. In terms of removing them removing knowledge, we published this yesterday:

      The idea that public statues are politically neutral, or somehow resonate educational truth is a myth based on unthinking inertia. They are clearly statements about who and what we honour and value as a society. The decision to erect (or maintain) them is an exercise of power over the public realm and public space.

      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.

      As the historian Robert Saunders:

      “To remove a statue is not to “erase history”. On the contrary, statues themselves can be acts of historical erasure. The Colston Statue, for example, did not mention his role in the slave trade. It constructed a history from which slavery was written out and cast it in bronze.”

      More here:


  3. William Ross says:

    Me Bungo Pony

    You are spot on.


  4. john w shaw says:

    You inadvertently make the point this is less about gender as such but it is all about power relations. Truly inspirational people are overlooked in favour of maintaining the social order. Thus you can be a slave trader and local charity giver. Then you get a nice statue which serves to confirm the status quo?

  5. Robert says:

    I’ve found the two statues of named dogs in Edinburgh (Greyfriars Bobby, obviously, and Bum the Dog, absurdly) and even one of a named bear (Wojtek, the Soldier Bear) but which are the two statues of named women?

  6. SleepingDog says:

    The word that comes to mind, reflecting on these statues, is aggrandizement. They are warped supports of the perverse Great Man (Occasionally Woman) Theory of History. These statues are adverts, and why would we expect an advert to remain permanently attached, on display, on its hoarding, dominating a limited public space, paid for by some vested interest, for ever? I agree pretty much with Arboreal Agenda’s points. A democratic or rational view of history would manifest very differently.

    And of course, the vast structural inequalities of British slavery continue to loom over our society today, as Catherine Bennett points out:
    and we have only just finished paying off the gargantuan slave owner compensation.

    We should be concerned with how history is being suppressed and silenced. I refer to a question I have asked before: why, when I asked the experts at the British Library, could they not find any book covering the topic of forced labour in the British Empire? Not one. There are plenty of books on slavery, skewed towards abolition, although there are some recent correctives on that.

  7. Will. says:


  8. SAJackson says:

    quite happy to keep Charles II, my family were hung by his government as covenanters’ in the 1680’s in the killing times, he part of my and our history. I made a statue in Glasgow in 2013 at Hanson street studios on the theme.

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