Believing their own Ka-bul

 

© Nations Online Project

 

I’ve watched the copious, vivid and harrowing news footage of the chaos in Kabul while the USA and its allies attempt to end their occupation of Afghanistan and withdraw. I’ve also listened to the reactions of Western politicians and political pundits to that chaos.  Not for the first time, I find myself thinking of the lines from the poem To a Louse by Robert Burns: “O wad some pow’r the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us! / It wad frae mony a blunder free us / An’ foolish notion…”

 

In standard English: “Oh would some power the gift give us / To see ourselves as others see us / It would from many a blunder free us / And foolish notion…”  I suspect that if governments could see their policies as others see them and, indeed, if all human beings could see themselves as others see them, the world would be a far better place.

 

Before I continue, let me make a few things clear.  I don’t think the USA and its allies were sensible or indeed, had much right, to go into Afghanistan in the first place.  This was especially since the Taliban were willing to hand over Osamu Bin Laden, whose masterminding of 9 / 11 had sparked the war and invasion in late 2001.  And yes, I accept that the Taliban were and no doubt still are a bunch of bad bastards.  But if George W. Bush, Tony Blair and co. were really serious about usurping them, and replacing them with a functioning democracy, and transforming a country as notoriously hostile to outside influence as Afghanistan into a modern nation, they should have invested huge amounts of capital, manpower and infrastructure once they’d taken over.

 

But of course, any chance of that happening evaporated as soon as Bush, Blair, etc., drunk on their own military firepower, steamed into Iraq.  While the Iraqi debacle unfolded, diverting attention and devouring resources, Afghanistan was neglected and left to fester.  Anyway, as they say, that’s all academic now.

 

I also see the handling of the withdrawal as a fiasco. The fiasco includes the mind-melting ineptitude of the current incumbent in Blair’s old job, Boris Johnson, who thought the falling of the city of Kandahar into Taliban hands would be a good moment to pop off to Somerset for a holiday; and of his ultra-hapless Foreign Minister, Dominic Raab, who apparently felt consolidating his tan at a five-star beach hotel in Crete was more important than getting on the phone and attempting to help evacuate Afghan interpreters who’d been working with British forces.

 

And the predicament that many Afghans find themselves in, those who’ve worked or had dealings with the Western powers and their troops, institutions and agencies during the occupation since 2001, is a tragedy.  The West didn’t so much as build a nation in Afghanistan as erect a house of cards, and clearly little thought was given to the fate of the West’s local employees and clients should that house of cards collapse and control revert to a vengeful Taliban.

 

The fact that the situation was a house of cards must have been blindingly obvious to anyone bothering to take a smidgeon of an interest in Afghanistan over the last two decades.  I’ve known a few people who’ve worked there or had to visit it, and their descriptions – of having to undergo lengthy safety / security / survival courses before being allowed anywhere near the place, of being ensconced almost 24/7 in fortified bunkers cheek-by-jowl with battalions of Gurkha soldiers, of being cocooned inside the armour of military vehicles and helicopters when they did venture outside – made it sound like a surreal experience, part Fort Knox, part Siege of Ceuta, part Alice in Wonderland.  How could any society where outsiders felt so unsafe that they had to behave like this be considered sustainable, let alone normal?

 

Not only has there been little preparation made for evacuating the West’s Afghan colleagues and clients in the event of the unmentionable – inevitable? – happening and their suddenly becoming targets.  There’s been little willpower too, which is unsurprising given the reluctance of Western politicians, as exemplified by British Home Secretary Priti Patel, to countenance the entry of large numbers of refugees into their countries.

 

Incidentally, I wasn’t surprised at the excuse I heard for why certain groups of Afghans shouldn’t be helped to flee the country and escape to Britain. This was because, it transpired, they hadn’t actually been employed by the British Embassy, British NGOs, British companies, whatever. No, they’d only been employed by outsourced contractors that these British agencies had drawn upon.  They themselves weren’t really British employees.  (At least now, in the face of public revulsion, this abhorrent attitude seems to be changing.)

 

Subcontracting is the great ‘get-out-of-jail’ card employed by Western outfits working in the developing world.  On one hand they can loudly proclaim their Western, democratic values.  On the other hand, they use the subcontracting argument to avoid paying many local people working for them anything like a decent, livable wage, avoid giving them proper workers’ rights, and so on.

 

Many Western politicians and commentators have lamented about these people being thrown to the wolves, and rightly so.  But there’s also a massive hole in the narratives they’ve been spinning.  They make it sound like the withdrawal has been a betrayal of everyone in Afghanistan and now the entire Afghan population is wailing piteously as the Taliban prepare to take over again.

 

Really?  I have no doubt that the occupation benefited a small section of the population, in the cities.  However, it’s enlightening to read this article from 2020 on foreignpolicy.com that takes an all-too-credible look at rural Afghanistan, at the region of Nangahar to be precise, where Trump had the devastating MOAB bomb deployed in 2017.  The journalist interviews a young local man who’s just decided to throw his lot in with the Taliban.  “Omari’s family is part of the 90 percent of Afghanistan that lives below the national poverty line of $2 per day, according to the Afghan Ministry of Economy. Three-quarters of Afghans live in rural areas, where even basic services are in short supply; the Ministry of Education this month revealed that 7,000 schools across the country don’t actually have buildings…” Omari views the existing government as corrupt and expresses what seems to be a widespread belief that having the Taliban in charge at least can’t make things any worse than they are now.

 

One analyst quoted in the article describes Afghans’ reasons for enlisting in the Taliban thus: “In large part, recruitment seems to stem from family and tight community connections… Individual motivations are extremely diverse and range from revenge against the government or foreign occupiers for killed relatives or comrades to limited alternative opportunities in some regions to recruiting pressure from the organization.”

 

“…revenge… for killed relatives or comrades…”  Many Western politicians and pundits seem neurotic in their desire to avoid any possibility that their forces in Afghanistan were anything other than the ‘good guys’.  No doubt many servicemen and servicewomen from the US, UK and elsewhere believed they were in Afghanistan to make things better for the people living there.  Yet there’s plentiful evidence to suggest ordinary Afghans had reasons for not viewing their supposed Western liberators as angels.  There are specific reasons – see last year’s Brereton Report in Australia, which suggests some 39 Afghan civilians were murdered by Australian special forces. There are general ones too – for instance, a US study indicated that approximately 700 Afghan civilians were killed in airstrikes by the US and its allies in 2019 alone.

 

In addition, the West was determined (though it utterly failed) to wipe out Afghanistan’s opium / heroin trade, which in 2018 accounted for a third of the country’s GDP.  Opium poppies were the country’s biggest cash crop by far.  This can’t have endeared Western forces to Afghan farmers, especially as the countries sending those forces did little to rethink their own drug policies, which inadvertently fueled the demand for and drove the profits of the trade.

 

From unsplash.com / © Tim Cooper

 

“You can’t,” some Western strategists might say glibly, “make an omelette without breaking eggs.”  Or as the recently-departed, presumably now-roasting-in-hell Donald Rumsfeld once put it, “Stuff happens.”  But the carnage and the attendant shoulder-shrugging did nothing to win those all-important Afghan hearts and minds.

 

At the moment there’s an awful lot of breast-beating going on about the turn of events in Afghanistan. But I suspect those Western breast-beaters would be in for a shock if they saw themselves as many ordinary Afghans see them just now.

Favourite Scots words, D-F

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

This evening is Burns Night, marking the 261st anniversary of the birth of Scotland’s greatest poet, and one-time ploughman, Robert Burns.

 

In a normal, pandemic-free year, children in schools the length and breadth of Scotland would have spent the past few days standing in front of their classmates and teachers reciting Burns’ poems.  Those poems, of course, were written in the Scots language; so this must be the only time in the year when kids can come out with certain Scots words in the classroom without their teachers correcting them: “Actually, that’s not what we say in proper English…”

 

In fact, lately, Scots has been getting attention that has nothing to do with tonight being Burns night.  Scots-language poetess Miss PunnyPennie has won herself tens of thousands of fans in recent months with her tweets and YouTube videos, in which she recites her poems and discusses a different Scots word each day.  Those fans include author Neil Gaiman, comedienne Janey Godley and actor Michael Sheen.

 

Unfortunately, she’s also had to put up with a lot of negativity.  She was the subject of a condescending and mocking piece published recently in the Sunday Times, which added insult to injury by calling her a blatherskite (‘ill-informed loudmouth’) in its headline.  More seriously, she’s received much trolling on twitter.  For instance, political ūber-chancer George Galloway – currently trying to reinvent himself as a diehard British nationalist in a bid to get elected to the Scottish parliament – tweeted something derogatory about her, in the process exposing her to potential abuse from his nutjob twitter followers.

 

Actually, Scots seems to have become part of the culture wars being waged in Scotland at the moment.  Pro-United Kingdom, anti-Scottish independence zealots like Galloway hate the idea that Scottish people might have their own language because it contradicts their narrative that everyone on the island of Great Britain is one people and culturally the same.  Hence, much online protestation (by people whose profiles are slathered with Union Jacks) that Scots is just ‘an accent’ or ‘slang’ or ‘a made-up language’ or ‘normal English with spelling mistakes’.

 

From cheezburger.com

 

Anyhow, as promised, here’s my next selection of favourite Scots words, those starting with the letters ‘D’, ‘E’ and ‘F’.

 

Dander (n/v) – stroll.  Over the centuries, a lot of Scots words made their way across the Irish Sea to the north of Ireland, where I spent the first 11 years of my life, and the delightful word dander is one of them.  I heard as many Northern Irish folk announce that they were ‘goin’ fir a dander’ as I heard Scottish folk announce it later, after my family had moved to Scotland.

 

Deasil (adv) – a Gaelic-derived word that means ‘clockwise’.  It’s a less well-known counterpart to the Scots word widdershins, meaning ‘anti-clockwise’.   I suspect the latter word is better known because it figures heavily in witchcraft and there’s been at least one journal of ‘Magick, ancient and modern’ with ‘Widdershins’ as its title.

 

Deave (v) – to bore and sicken someone with endless blather.  For example, “Thon Belfast singer-songwriter fellah Van Morrison is fair deavin’ me wi his coronavirus conspiracies.”

 

Dicht (n/v) – wipe.  Many a dirty-faced youngster, or clarty-faced bairn, in Scotland has heard their mother order them, ‘Gie yer a face a dicht’.

 

Doonhamer (n) – a person from Dumfries, the main town in southwest Scotland.  For many years, I had only ever seen this word in print, not heard anyone say it, and I’d always misread it as ‘Doom-hammer’, which made me think Dumfries’ inhabitants must be the most heavy-metal people on the planet.  But then, disappointingly, I realised how the word was properly spelt.  Also, I discovered that the word comes from how Dumfries folk refer to their hometown whilst in the more populous parts of Scotland up north, for example, in the cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee.  They call it doon hame, i.e. ‘down home’.

 

Dook (n/v) – the act of immersing yourself in water.  Thus, the traditional Halloween game involving retrieving apples from a basin of water using your mouth, not your hands, is known in Scotland as dookin’ fir apples.

 

Douce (adj) – quiet, demure, civilised, prim.  My hometown of Peebles is frequently described as douce.  However, that’s by outsiders, short-term visitors and travellers passing through, who’ve never been inside the public bar of the Crown Hotel on Peebles High Street on a Saturday night.

 

From unsplash.com / © Eilis Garvey

 

Dreich (adj) – dreary or tedious, especially with regard to wet, dismal weather.  A very Presbyterian-sounding adjective that, inevitably, is much used in Scotland.

 

Drookit (adj) – soaking wet.  How children often are on Halloween after dookin’ fir apples.

 

Drouth (n) – a thirst.  Many an epic drinking session has started when someone declared that they had a drouth and then herded the company into a pub to rectify matters.  Its adjectival form is drouthy and Tam O’Shanter, perhaps Burns’ most famous poem, begins with an evocation of the boozing that happens when ‘drouthy neebors, neebors meet.’  Indeed, Drouthy Neebors has become a popular pub-name in Scotland and there are, or at least have been, Drouthy Neebors serving alcohol in Edinburgh, St Andrews, Stirling and Largs.

 

From Tripadvisor / © Drouthy Neebors, Largs

 

Dunt (n / v) – a heavy but dull-sounding blow.  It figures in the old saying, “Words are but wind, but dunts are the devil,”  which I guess is a version of “Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you.”

 

Dux (n) – the star pupil in a school.

 

Eejit (n) – idiot.  Inevitably, in 2008, when Dundonian poet Matthew Fitt got around to translating Roald Dahl’s 1980 children’s book The Twits into Scots, he retitled it The Eejits.  Actually, there’s a lot of other Scots words in the D-F category that mean ‘idiot’.  See also dafty, diddy, doughball and dunderheid.

 

© Itchy Coo

 

Eeksiepeeksie (adj/adv) – equal, equally, evenly balanced.  A quaint term that was recently the subject of one of Miss PunniePenny’s ‘Scots word of the day’ tweets.

 

Fankle (n/v) – tangle.  I’ve heard the English plea to someone to calm down, “Don’t get your knickers in a twist!” rephrased in Scots as “Dinna get yer knickers in a fankle!”

 

Fantoosh (adj) – fancy, over-elaborate, a bit too glammed-up.

 

Fash (v) – to anger or annoy, commonly heard in the phrase “Dinna fash yerself”.  Like a number of Scots words, this is derived from Old French, from the ancestor of the modern French verb ‘fâcher’.

 

Feart (adj) – scared.  During my college days in Aberdeen in the 1980s, on more than one occasion, I had to walk away from a potential confrontation with Aberdeen Football Club soccer casuals. the juvenile designer football hooligans who seemed to infest the city at the time.  And I’d have the scornful demand thrown after me: “Are ye feart tae fight?!”  Meanwhile, a person who gets frightened easily is a feartie.

 

Fitba (n) – football.

 

Flit (n/v) – the act of moving, or to move, house.  Commonly used in Scotland, this verb has had success in the English language generally, as is evidenced by the use of ‘moonlight flit’ to describe moving house swiftly and secretly to avoid paying overdue rent-money.

 

Flyte (v) – to trade insults in the form of verse.  This combative literary tradition can be found in Norse and Anglo-Saxon cultures, but flyting was made an art-form in 15th / 16th-century Scotland by poets like William Dunbar, Walter Kennedy and Sir David Lyndsay.  There’s a poetic account of one flyting contest between Dunbar and Kennedy that’s called, unsurprisingly, The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie and consists of 28 stanzas of anti-Kennedy abuse penned by Dunbar and another 41 stanzas of Kennedy sticking it back to Dunbar.  According to Wikipedia, this work contains “the earliest recorded use of the word ‘shit’ as a personal insult.”  Thus, flyting was the Scottish Middle-Ages literary equivalent of two rappers dissing each other in their ‘rhymes’; and Dunbar and Kennedy were the Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls of their day.

 

Footer (v) – to fumble clumsily.  I remember reading a Scottish ‘coming of age’ story – though I can’t recall its title or author – in which the inexperienced hero footered haplessly with a young lady’s bra-clasp.

 

Favourite Scots words starting with ‘G’, ‘H’ and ‘I’ will be coming soon.

 

From unsplash.com / © Illya Vjestica

Favourite Scots words, A-C

 

From the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

 

Today, November 30th, is Saint Andrew’s Day, the national day of Scotland.  To mark it, I’d like to post something about a favourite topic of mine, the Scots language.  And yes, the way that non-Gaelic and non-posh Scots have spoken for centuries has been classified as a language, a separate one from ‘standard’ English, by organisations like the EU and linguistic resources like Ethnologue.

 

Sadly, I think that Scots is now living on borrowed time.  It’s not likely to expire due to the disapproval of educators who dismiss it as a debased dialect (or accent) of standard English and regard it as the ‘wrong’ way to speak, although their hostility certainly didn’t help its status in the past.  No, the fatal damage to Scots has probably been inflicted by television, exposing Scottish kids to a non-stop diet of southern-England programming and conditioning them to speak in Eastenders-style Mockney or, worse, in bland, soulless ‘Estuary English’.

 

Personally, I love listening to and reading Scots.  Here are my favourite Scots words starting with the letters ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ that I’d be sad to see slip into linguistic extinction.  Most of the definitions given come from my heavily used copy of the Collins Pocket Scots Dictionary.

 

Agley (adv) – wrong, askew.  The saying, ‘The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry’ (which provided John Steinbeck with the title of his second-most famous novel) is an anglicised version of lines from the poem To a Mouse by Scotland’s greatest bard Robert Burns: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.”

 

Aiblins (adv) – perhaps.  The late, great Glaswegian writer Alasdair Gray borrowed this word for the surname of the title character in his short story Aiblins, which appeared in the collection The Ends of Our Tethers (2003).  This is about a creative writing professor being tormented by an eccentric student called Aiblins who is, perhaps, a literary genius or is, perhaps, just a fraud.

 

Avizandum (noun) – a word in Scots law meaning, to quote the Collins Pocket Scots Dictionary, ‘a judge’s or court’s consideration of a case before giving judgement’.  Avizandum is also the name of a bookshop on Edinburgh’s Candlemaker Row specialising in texts for Scottish lawyers and law students.  Not being a lawyer, I’ve never had cause to go into Avizandum-the-shop, but I do think it’s the most majestically titled bookstore in Scotland.

 

 

Bairn (n) – a baby or young child.  I once saw an episode of Star Trek (the original series) in which Scotty lamented, after Mr Spock had burned out his engines in some ill-advised space manoeuvre, “Och, ma poor wee bairns!”  So I guess this Scots word is safe until the 23rd century at least.  Also, the Bairns is the nickname of Falkirk Football Club, so it shouldn’t be dying out in Falkirk anytime soon, either.

 

Bahookie (n) – rump, bum, backside, ass or, to use its widely-deployed-in-Scotland variant, arse.

 

Bampot (n) – a foolish, stupid or crazy person.  During the documentary Big Banana Feet (1976), about Billy Connolly doing a stand-up tour of Ireland, Connolly responds to a heckler with the gruff and memorable putdown, “F**king bampot!”

 

Bawbag (n) – literally a scrotum, but normally, to quote the online Urban Dictionary site, ‘a derogatory name given to one who is annoying, useless or just plain stupid.’  Thus, when former United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage steamed into Edinburgh in May 2013 in a bid to raise UKIP’s profile north of the border, he ended up besieged inside the Canon’s Gait pub on the Royal Mile by a horde of anti-racism protestors who chanted, “Nigel, ye’re a bawbag / Nigel, ye’re a bawbag / Na, na, na, hey!”

 

Bertie Auld (adj), as in “It’s Bertie Auld tonight!” – rhyming slang for cauld, the Scottish pronunciation of ‘cold’.  Bertie Auld was a Scottish footballer who played for Celtic, Hibernian, Dumbarton and Birmingham City and whose finest hour was surely his membership of the Lisbon Lions, the Celtic team that won the European Cup in 1967.

 

Bide (v) – to live.  Derived from this verb is the compound noun bidie-hame, which refers to a partner whom the speaker is living with but isn’t actually married to.

 

Blether (v) – to talk or chatter.  Journalist, editor and Rupert Murdoch’s one-time right-hand-man Andrew Neil used this word a lot while he was editor-in-chief at Scotsman publications.  He was forever fulminating against Scotland’s blethering classes – the equivalent of the ‘chattering classes’ in England who were so despised at the time by the English right-wing press, i.e. left-leaning middle-class people who spent their time holding dinner parties, drinking Chardonnay and indulging in airy-fairy political discussion about how Britain should have a written constitution, proportional representation, devolution, etc.  Then, however, Neil started working for the BBC in London and suddenly all his references to blethering ceased.

 

Boak (v / n) – to vomit / vomit, or something unpleasant enough to make you want to vomit.  One of those Scots words that convey their meaning with a near-onomatopoeic brilliance.  In his stream-of-consciousness novel 1982 Janine, Alasdair Gray – him again – represents the main character throwing up simply by printing the word BOAK across the page in huge letters.

 

From pinterest.co.uk

 

Bowffin’ (adj) – smelling strongly and unpleasantly.  Once upon a time, mingin’ was the favoured Scots adjective for ‘smelly’.  Now, however, mingin’ seems to have packed its bags, left home and become a standard UK-wide slang word – with a slight change of meaning, so that it denotes ugliness instead.  It has thus fallen upon the alternative Scots adjective bowffin’ to describe the olfactory impact of such things as manure, sewage, rotten eggs, mouldy cheese, used socks, on-heat billy goats, old hippies, etc.

 

Breenge (v) – to go, rush, dash.

 

Bourach (n) – sometimes a mound or hillock, but more commonly a mess or muddle.  Charmingly, this has recently evolved into the term clusterbourach (inspired by the less ceremonious ‘clusterf*ck’), which Scottish politicians have used to describe the absolute hash that the London government is making of the Brexit process.

 

Callant (n) – a lad or young man.  The Common Riding festival held annually in the Borders town of Jedburgh is called the Callant’s Festival.  Accordingly, the festival’s principal man is called the Callant.

 

Carlin (n) – an old woman, hag or witch.  Throughout Scotland there are stone circles, standing stones and odd rock formations that are known as carlin stones, presumably because people once linked them to the supernatural and imagined that witches would perform unsavoury rituals at them.

 

Carnaptious (adj) – grumpy, bad-tempered or irritable.  For example, “Thon Belfast singer-songwriter Van Morrison is a right carnaptious auld c**t.”  There’s a lot of carnaptiousness in Scotland and another common adjective for it is crabbit.

 

Chib (n/v) – a knife, or to stab someone.  Considering the popularity in modern times of wearing Highland dress at Scottish weddings, and considering the custom of having a ceremonial sgian-dhu (i.e. dagger) tucked down the side of the hose (i.e. socks) in said Highland dress, and considering the amount of alcohol consumed at such affairs, it’s amazing that Scottish weddings don’t see more chibbing than they do.

 

Chitter (v) – nothing to do with the sound that birds make, this means to shiver.

 

Clarty (adj) – dirty.  A dirty person, meanwhile, is often called a clart.  And a pre-pubescent boy who avoids soap, shampoo, showers and clean socks and underwear, like Pig Pen used to do in the Charlie Brown comic strips, would undoubtedly be described in Scotland as a wee clart.

 

Cleek (v) – to hook, catch or capture.  It’s also a noun denoting a large type of hook, especially the gaffe used by fishermen, and poachers, when landing fish.  At least once, in my hometown next to the salmon-populated River Tweed, a cleek has also been used as an offensive weapon.

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

Cloots (n) – a plural noun meaning hooves.  By extension, Cloots came to be a nickname for the world’s most famous possessor of a pair of hooves, Auld Nick, a.k.a. the Devil.  In his poem Address to the Deil, Robert Burns not only mocks Auld Nick but brags that, despite his wild and wanton behaviour in this present life, he’ll escape the fiend’s clutches and avoid going to hell: “An’ now, auld Cloots, I ken ye’re thinkin’ / A certain bardie’s rantin’, drinkin’ / Some luckless hour will send him linkin’ / To your black pit / But faith! he’ll turn a corner jinkin’ / An’ cheat ye yet.”

 

Clype (n) – a contemptible sub-species of schoolchild, i.e. the type who’s always running to the teachers and telling tales on his or her schoolmates.

 

Colliebuckie (n) – a piggy-back.  Scottish playgrounds once echoed with cries of “Gie’s a colliebuckie!”

 

Corbie (n) – a crow or raven.  The knowledgeable Australian musician / singer / writer Nick Cave uses this word at the beginning of his gothic novel And the Ass Saw the Angel, which has a couple of ‘sly corbies’ circling in the sky above the dying hero.

 

Cowpt (adj) – overturned, fallen-over.  Often used to describe sheep when they fall onto their backs, can’t get up again and run the risk of breaking their spines.  Around where I live, there’s a story of a young farmer who was about to get married and, just before his stag party in Edinburgh, was collected at his farmhouse by a coachload of his mates.  As the coach was driving away from the farm, someone on board spotted a cowpt ewe in one of the fields.  Jocularly, the young farmer told the coach-driver to manoeuvre the vehicle off the road, into the field and across to the spot where the unfortunate beast was on its back, which he did.  The young farmer got out and put the cowpt ewe on its feet again; but meanwhile all the other sheep in the field, seeing the coach and not knowing the difference between it and a tractor carrying a load of hay, flocked around it expecting to be fed.  That left the stag-party and their transport marooned amidst a sea of woolly white fleeces.

 

I’ll return to this topic in this blog and cover further letters of the alphabet.

 

© Viz Unicorn Entertainment / Brent Walker

Edinburgh’s statues – keep, erect or chuck in the Forth?

 

 

It’s been an exciting week for Britain’s civic statues.  Normally, these often antiquated, discoloured and birdshit-splattered lumps of sculpted stonework, which adorn town and city centres across the land and commemorate important figures and events of bygone eras, go cruelly unnoticed by 99.9% of the folk who trudge past them.  Well, that’s changed after what happened a week ago.

 

On June 7th, in Bristol, a statue of the 17th-century Bristolian merchant and Tory politician Edward Colston got hauled down by a crowd protesting the police’s murder of George Floyd in the USA and was tossed into the drink at the nearby harbour.  It’s ironic that this monument of Colston’s time on earth should end up underwater, for that was where many of the victims of Colston’s business activities ended up too.  During his involvement with notorious slave-traders the Royal African Company, the company shipped an estimated 84,000 Africans across the Atlantic and 19,000 of them died en route and were thrown overboard to the waves and sharks.

 

Suddenly, everybody’s eyeing up the statues that, at some time or other and for some reason or other, have been erected in Britain’s public spaces.  Suddenly, everybody’s wondering about the virtue, or lack of virtue, of those statues’ subjects.  Do they deserve to occupy public space?  Or, like the representation of Colston, do they deserve to be dumped in the nearest body of water?

 

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the city I know best, Scotland’s capital city of Edinburgh, and the chunks of stony civic artistry that decorate it.  In the manner of the old, risqué question-and-answer game kiss, marry, kill? (which was known in the less genteel parts I hail from as shag, marry, kill?), here’s an evaluation of Edinburgh’s existing statues and potential statues under the options keep, erect or chuck in the Firth of Forth?

 

The first statue many people see when arriving in Edinburgh – when they walk out of the bus station into St Andrew Square – is a strong candidate for being chucked into the chilly waters north of the city.  Perched on a 150-foot-high column in the middle of the square is a statue of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville.  Melville started off as a lawyer and became Lord Advocate (Scotland’s chief public prosecutor) at the age of 33, but then moved into politics.  It was as Secretary of State for Britain’s Home Department in the 1790s that he was responsible for delaying the abolition of the slave trade.  By the time it was abolished, a decade-and-a-half later in 1807, a huge additional number of Africans had ended up in slavery, a half-million according to Dundas’s Wikipedia entry.

 

According to his descendent Bobby Dundas, 10th Viscount Melville, Henry Dundas was actually an abolitionist who’d been forced to be pragmatic.   He’d supposedly “provided the word ‘gradual’” so that abolition “would get through legislation and became law, and without that, it wouldn’t have passed for decades.”  But while there is something good to be said about Dundas during his time as a lawyer – which I’ll describe later in this entry – by the time of his political career I doubt if he was anything more than what J.M. Barrie described as ‘a Scotsman on the make’.  He saw his fortunes bound up with the rise and reputation of the ‘second’ British Empire and spent, for example, eight years as Director of the Board of Control over the East India Company.  Concern for the hundreds of thousands whose lives were blighted or ended by slavery was surely not high in his list of priorities.

 

I suppose you could make a case for Dundas remaining in St Andrew Square (with a giant plaque providing information about his misdeeds) as a rebuff to those Scottish nationalists, still too many in number, who kid themselves that Scotland was only ever a subject, a victim even, of the British Empire.  As the historian Tom Nairn memorably put it in 1968: “Scotland is not a colony, a semi-colony, a pseudo-colony, a near-colony, a neo-colony, or any other colony of the English.  She is a junior but (as these things go) a highly successful partner in the general business enterprise of Anglo-Scots imperialism.”  Dundas’s statue is an uncomfortable reminder of this.

 

From the Brown digital repository at Brown University Library

 

Meanwhile, another statue I’m not fond of stands close by, that of George IV at the intersection of George Street and Hanover Street.  This annoys me because it embodies the grovelling, forelock-tugging attitude that a certain, bourgeoise section of Scottish society has always shown to the British Royal Family.  In 1822 George arrived in Edinburgh on what was the first visit to Scotland by a British monarch in two centuries and was greeted by a grotesque, over-the-top display of kilts, bagpipes and tartanry stage-managed by that great Caledonian romanticizer Sir Walter Scott.  This helped cement the tartan-swathed Brigadoon image that the outside world has had of Scotland since (though of course Scott’s novels helped cement it too).

 

The fact that it went bonkers over a king as unappealing as George IV is rather humiliating for Edinburgh in retrospect.  George is best-known today as the vain, idiotic Prince Regent character played by Hugh Laurie in the TV comedy series Blackadder the Third (1987).  (“Someone said I had the wit and intellect of a donkey.”  “Oh, an absurd suggestion sir, unless it was a particularly stupid donkey.”)  However, Hugh Laurie was at least slim.  By 1822 George had become grotesquely obese after years of gluttony and drunkenness.  His vanity remained, though, and according to the artist David Wilkie would spend three hours getting dressed and corseted up but still resembled ‘a great sausage stuffed into the covering’.

 

Of course, the depiction of George IV on George Street / Hanover Street is a highly flattering one.  Perhaps the absurdity of 1822’s pageantry should be highlighted by having the current statue of George replaced with a more accurate one.  I’d like to see a statue of him as he really was during the visit – crammed into Highland dress with, under his kilt, his swollen gout-stricken legs wrapped up in flesh-coloured tights.  A sight for sore eyes, in other words.

 

Over in Edinburgh Old Town, within the precincts of Edinburgh Castle, you’ll find another statue that’s problematic.  This is of Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the 1st Earl Haig and commander of the British Expeditionary Force during the latter three years of World War One, who was born in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square in 1861.  Haig’s reputation as a military commander and tactician has taken a battering posthumously, notably with the publication of Alan Clark’s damning historical volume The Donkeys in 1961 and the release of Richard Attenborough’s equally damning film Oh, What a Lovely War! In 1969.  These helped create the present-day image of Haig as a deluded mass-murdering incompetent, worthy of the nicknames ‘Butcher Haig’ and ‘the Butcher of the Somme’.  His reputation also got a kicking in 1989’s Blackadder Goes Forth, in which Geoffrey Palmer appeared as Haig, using a dustpan and brush to nonchalantly sweep up fallen toy soldiers from a battlefield diorama and toss them over his shoulder.  Yes, Edinburgh has cornered the market for statues of people who were in Blackadder.

 

But I wouldn’t throw Haig’s statue into the Forth.  It really belongs in a museum – a museum that illustrates the historical ebbs and flows of reputation as time moves on, events become distant, viewpoints shift and opinions change.  It’s easy to forget today that up until his death, Haig was massively popular among the British public, which included the many ex-soldiers who’d served under him, and his funeral in 1928 was marked by a day of national mourning.

 

And problematic too is the statue in Parliament Square, behind St Giles’ Cathedral, of King Charles II.  After he came to the throne in 1660, Charles and his brother, the future King James II, set up the Royal African Company of which Edward Colston was a key member.  During its operations, the company was responsible for the transportation of more slaves than any other institution – an estimated 212,000, of whom 44,000 died before they reached the Americas.  However, Charles II’s statue has just been the subject of a thoughtful article by Alan Ramsay in the web magazine Bella Caledonia, so I won’t say any more about it.  Here’s a link to the article.

 

However, not far away, in the New College Quadrangle on the Mound, you’ll find a statue of a slave.  The subject of this statue spent two years toiling in a galley.  According to his Wikipedia entry, he and his fellow slaves ‘were chained to benches and rowed throughout the day without a change of posture while an officer watched over them with a whip in hand’.  Wow, you’re probably thinking, well done, Edinburgh!  You made the right choice with one of your statues!  Well, don’t get too excited.  For that slave was none other than the minister and theologian John Knox, who led the Reformation in Scotland and founded the Church of Scotland.  Earlier, from 1547 to 1549, he’d been a galley slave under the French.  Obviously, Knox is someone whose views on women (in 1556-58 he penned the memorably titled treatise First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women) and on practitioners of other religions (he described the Catholic church as ‘a synagogue of Satan’ and a ‘harlot’ that was ‘polluted with all kinds of spiritual fornication’ and full of ‘pestilent papists’) are ones most people find unpalatable today.

 

From the National Library of Wales

 

I really don’t know about Knox’s statue in Edinburgh.  He established Scotland’s national church and indirectly shaped the nation’s character for centuries to come, so you can’t really not have a statue of him there.  But it’s like have your reactionary and slightly Alzheimer’s-addled granddad at the table for Christmas dinner.  He may be coming out with a stream of racist inventive, but you know you owe your existence to him.  So you just smile at him and pretend not to hear what he’s saying.

 

To be more positive – there are statues in Edinburgh I like too.  Unexpectedly but pleasingly, the Old Calton Cemetery on Calton Hill has one of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, the man who delivered the Gettysburg address and preserved the American Union during the Civil War, and surely a contender for the title of Most Awesome US President Ever.  (Not that he’s had much competition for that title recently.)  Honest Abe’s statue stands magisterially atop a memorial to Scottish-American soldiers.  Nearby in the cemetery is an obelisk – okay, not quite a statue – erected in memory of the members of a universal suffrage group called the Friends of the People, who were persecuted in 1793.  Nowadays, of course, their ideas are seen as the stuff of basic Human Rights, but to the establishment of the time the Friends of the People were unspeakable subversives.

 

I like the fact that Edinburgh has some statues of writers.  So it should do, as it was designated the first ever City of Literature by UNESCO in 2004.  There’s one of Sir Walter Scott on Princes Street, at the bottom of the Scott monument, and one of Robert Burns at Leith (in addition to the Burns Monument on Calton Hill), and one of Robert Louis Stevenson at Colinton, and one of Sherlock Holmes commemorating the Edinburgh-born Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at Picardy Place.  A few less well-known scribblers have statues too.  For example, the poet Robert Fergusson has one pacing past the entrance to the Canongate Cemetery, the poet and playwright Allan Ramsay has one in Princess Street Gardens, and the 19th-century children’s novelist Catherine Sinclair has a gothic, tapering structure in her memory standing on the corner of North Charlotte Street and St Colme Street.

 

 

I’m also glad the city has paid tribute to its most famous philosopher David Hume, who has a statue on the Royal Mile, to its most famous economist Adam Smith, who has a statue on the Royal Mile too, and to its most famous mathematical physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who has one on George Street.  And let’s not forget James Braidwood, who created Edinburgh’s – and the world’s – first municipal firefighting service and is honoured by a statue in Parliament Square.

 

And what statues should be erected?  Well, it seems a no-brainer to have a statue somewhere in Scotland’s capital city commemorating the man who established the illegality of slavery in the country.  This was Joseph Knight, an African slave purchased in Jamaica by the sugar-plantation owner Sir John Wedderburn of Ballendean, 6th Baronet of Blackness.  Wedderburn brought Knight back to Scotland as a servant in 1769 and when Knight protested his freedom, the pair of them ended up in court.  A final decision went in Knight’s favour in the Court of Session in 1777, when it was decreed that slavery was not recognised under Scots Law.   Indeed, a statue of Knight in Edinburgh might even improve Henry Dundas’s reputation by a smidgeon, for it was Dundas, Lord Advocate at the time, who acted as Knight’s counsel in the Court of Session.  According to the famous lawyer and biographer James Boswell, Dundas gave a stirring speech in support of Knight’s cause.  Which makes his subsequent actions regarding the abolition of the slave trade seem even more depressing.

 

From the statues I’ve listed so far, there’s obviously a dearth of female ones in Edinburgh.  So I’d also like to see a statue of Elsie Inglis, the Edinburgh-educated, late 19th century / early 20th century doctor and surgeon who founded the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and did much to improve healthcare for female patients.  She was also involved in the Suffrage Movement and during World War I set up Scottish Women’s Hospital units to care for injured soldiers in Belgium, France, Russia and Serbia,  That last country awarded her the Serbian Order of the White Eagle a year before her death in 1917.

 

© Penguin Books

 

The great Edinburgh novelist Muriel Spark should be honoured too.  Why not have a statue of her most famous literary creation, Miss Jean Brodie, swanning around Marchmont, where Spark went to school and supposedly got some of her inspiration for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) from a teacher there?  Mind you, I could see people objecting to the statue on account of Brodie’s politics, for in the novel she was a fan of Benito Mussolini and an admirer of fascism.  Finally, I don’t see why the much-missed parliamentarian Margo MacDonald shouldn’t be commemorated with a statue outside Easter Road Stadium in Leith, home of her favourite football club, Hibernian.

 

And now for a few more personal choices…  If his hometown of Salford doesn’t get around to honouring him with a statue, why can’t Edinburgh stick up a statue of Mark E. Smith, the driving force behind the great punk/post-punk band the Fall?  Smith lived in Edinburgh in the late 1980s, wrote a song about the city, 1991’s Edinburgh Man, and is rumoured to have supported Heart of Midlothian Football Club.  Meanwhile, two of Edinburgh’s greatest bands, the Exploited and Goodbye Mr Mackenzie, could be jointly honoured by a statue of the man who played in both of them (as well as performing briefly with Nirvana), guitarist Big John Duncan.  Yes, a statue of Big John would be… imposing.  I’d also like to see a statue in Morningside of the Scottish trade unionist Alec Kitson and the young Sean Connery delivering milk on a cart together, as they famously did there in the 1940s.  And while I hate the man’s politics, I’d like to see a dynamic statue of Nigel Farage fleeing into the Canon’s Gait pub on the Royal Mile in 2013, to escape protestors who were chanting, “Nigel, you’re a bawbag.”

 

However, for visitors to Edinburgh, there’s one statue that’s famous above all others.  This is of course the one of loyal wee Scots terrier Greyfriars Bobby, which stands on the corner between Candlemaker Row and George IV Bridge, outside Greyfriars Kirkyard.  Poor Bobby has had it rough lately because a modern custom has evolved whereby sightseers rub his bronze nose to bring themselves good luck.  As a result of continued, countless rubbings, the nose has been gradually eroding away.  If Henry Dundas is ever removed from the top of his column in St Andrew Square, we’ll know where to move Greyfriars Bobby for the sake of his health.