Adrian Poole, Emeritus Professor of English Literature, reflects on recent events.
Henry Dundas, lst Viscount Melville, did a lot of things in his life but it’s the role he played in delaying the abolition of slavery that is what he’s most being remembered for right now. It will take a good deal more force to topple the 150-foot statue erected in St Andrew’s Square, Edinburgh, in 1821, than the one in Bristol to Edward Colston. Or build a museum to re-house it.
What about the monuments already housed so securely you would have to destroy the whole building? St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh for instance. When the great bas-relief memorial of Robert Louis Stevenson by Augustus Saint-Gaudens was installed there in 1904, there were some 40 or so already occupying the space. More than fifty have since been added to bring the total in 2013 to exactly 100. Many of these were set up in the aftermath of the Great War, as you’d expect. In fact, to speak roughly, you could divide the 100 memorials into the victims of war and the benefactors of peace, such as Sophia Jex-Blake, first woman doctor in Scotland.
But in 1904 there would have been another more obvious way of dividing them up. When he undertook the restoration of St Giles in the 1870s, William Chambers envisaged populating it with memorials to famous Scots of the past. And by 1904 more than a dozen of these were indeed honoured there; almost all prominent figures in the violent politics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Some of that violence had touched St Giles itself: on 23 July 1637 Dean James Hannay started reading King Charles’s new Prayer Book and Jenny Geddes famously threw her stool at him; in 1650 the royalist Marquess of Montrose and his Chief of Staff, Sir William Hay were executed and 11 years later their arch-enemy the Covenanter the Marquess of Argyll followed them. These executions all took place just outside the church doors. Now the antagonists are remembered-and-forgotten together. Such rivalry persists in death.
However Chambers’s idea of honouring great Scots from the past was immediately challenged by the claims of the present, including those of peaceable benefactors such as himself. And the new casualties of war. This is where the company that Stevenson’s memorial joined in 1904 takes on significant historical light, at a crucial moment in Britain’s imperial history.
Stevenson would not have wished to disown kinship with the men (and women) who died in the service of British colonial interests in India, Afghanistan, Egypt, the Sudan, and South Africa. He might have been particularly moved, even angered, by the 1886 memorial to the Royal Scots Greys who formed part of the relief force that arrived too late to save General Gordon and Khartoum. Stevenson thought the fall of Khartoum a matter of ‘ineffable shame’: ‘England stands before the world dripping with blood and daubed with dishonour.’ He would have approved of the honour accorded the men, women and children of the 78th Highland Regiment who died of cholera and malaria on the banks of the Indus, in Sindh province, 1844-5 – probably the oldest memorial in the church. Also the Scots soldiers more recently dead in South Africa.
But one would like to think, as he meditates there on his couch, pen in hand, face turned away from the body of the church, looking into a corner, that he would be struck by this painful, surviving irony: that while the memorials to Scotland’s violent past do some kind of justice to its warring adversaries, albeit two centuries later, to Argyll and Montrose, to Jenny Geddes and Dean Hannay, there is no such even-handedness to the memory of these modern conflicts at the far-flung corners of empire. Stevenson lived and died at a moment in history when no-one could conceivably know how to commemorate the casualties on all sides. We still don’t.
The memories bequeathed to the future are always in some sense embodied, whether they are shaped by chance or design. In fact their shape will always be a matter of design and chance, an unpredictable collaboration between the agents who knowingly make the memory and pass it on, and all the intervening contingencies that mutilate, degrade, refashion and reincorporate it. Yet these embodied memories are all meaningless – illegible – unless we can read them.
This is familiar enough to the archaeologists – reading the past is what they do. But the digital revolution has turned us all into amateur archaeologists, as well as sedate electricians: the internet has made versions of the past instantly available on a wholly new scale, images and words floating through space, perhaps never to be erased. What is this doing to our powers of remembering and forgetting? These have been shaped by a vastly extended sense of how far back in time our histories truly go, both individual and collective; and by a corresponding sense of how frail are the means at our disposal for grasping those histories, even or especially as science and technology have advanced our claims to control of the future.
And by the further recognition that the vestiges of those histories may leap back into life with a force for which the long dormant volcano or the shifting tectonic plates beneath the earth’s surface provide appropriately sobering metaphors. As they are doing right now.
This reflection is an extract (revised) from ‘”A grand memory for forgetting”: Stevenson and survival’, in Robert Louis Stevenson and the Great Affair, ed. Richard J. Hill (Routledge, 2017)