It often feels like events like Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic have forced climate change down the political priority list. Movements such as Extinction Rebellion and School Strikes for Climate have lost momentum, and they are not getting the same kind of press coverage as they were in 2019. Nevertheless, climate change continues to be an urgent issue, and it keeps cropping up in Edinburgh’s protest stickers, alongside other environmental issues. With the next UN Conference on Climate Change being held in Glasgow in November 2021, Scotland might see an increase in environmental activism.
Cramond Island sits about a mile off the coast on the outskirts of Edinburgh. The Island can be reached on foot via a concrete causeway at low tide, and it is a popular spot for Edinburgers to visit. There is a long history of human use of the Island, but the most prominent human-made features date from the Second World War. The Island was part of a string of defenses designed to protect the Firth of Forth, and many of the concrete structures used to house searchlights, guns, stores, and generators remain. This uninhabited coastal environment is not the kind of place that you would expect to find graffiti, but it seems the smooth grey concrete is an irresistible canvas, with tags ranging from basic scrawls to elaborate designs covering every available surface. I was even more surprised to discover that quite a lot of the graffiti is political, turning this little island into a radical outpost.
Protest stickers tend to reflect the issues that people care about. It should come as no surprise then that the coronavirus pandemic has emerged as a popular topic of stickers over the last 12 months. I have written about coronavirus protest stickers in Brighton, where I spent the first lockdown, but since I moved to Edinburgh I have found a whole new set of stickers, which have evolved as the pandemic has. From criticism of the government’s handling of the pandemic, workers rights, and complaints from the city’s student population, through to questioning the efficacy of lockdowns and masks and even rejecting the existence of Covid-19, the stickers I have found over the last few months represent a range of conflicting views.
Towards the Leith end of Leith Walk is a long red sandstone building. 106-154 Leith Walk is currently the focus of a bitter struggle between developers who want to demolish the building to build student housing and the grassroots campaign group Save Leith Walk. In January 2019 planning permission for the new development was denied, a significant victory for the community group. New plans have been submitted that propose to keep the building intact and reopen it as commercial spaces, but in the meantime the shop fronts remain boarded up. The dark gray wooden boards have come to serve a purpose of their own however, as a sort of community pin board. Slogans, street art, and other miscellanea appears, disappears, and reappears often. One of the most recent installations is called False Idols, by Creative Electric.
The death of actor Sean Connery on the 31st October 2020 sparked a predictable outpouring of grief and admiration, particularly in his home city of Edinburgh. Not everyone mourned his loss, however. It was well known that Connery physically abused women. On several occasions he explained how he felt entitled to hit women who ‘deserved’ it, and his first wife Diane Cliento accused him of sustained physical and mental abuse during their marriage. Many people, myself included, didn’t know about this until after Connery’s death, and False Idols questions how such a man could be celebrated as a national hero.
False Idols is described as a community art project, and in some ways it is the literal embodiment of this term. It is made up of comments posted on the I Love Leith Facebook group in the wake of Connery’s death. It must have been installed quickly, because it was destroyed on the 4th of November, just four days after Connery died. It was replaced on the 13th of November, and I took these photos two weeks later, on the 22nd. It was still largely intact when I passed by again on the 29th. You can never be sure how long street art is going to last, and the more controversial something is, the more likely it is to upset someone enough that they will try to obscure or destroy it. This is part of what makes political street art so special; it gives people an opportunity to express their opinion in public space, a privilege normally reserved for those who are rich or famous enough to attract media coverage or buy advertising.
It is generally accepted that people say things on social media that they wouldn’t be willing to say in ‘real life’. So it is interesting to see the language of social media transposed onto the public space of Leith Walk. The comments have been anonymised, but I wonder how the commenters would react if they suddenly saw their own words as they walked past. Would they regret their choice of words, or their tone? Or would they stand by them? Would they be upset, angry, or proud that their opinions have been plastered onto the physical fabric of Leith? Would they even recognise their own words in this strange context?
Both political street art and social media provide ‘ordinary’ people with a platform to express their opinions. False Idols brings these two platforms together, with thought-provoking results.
Last weekend I was out on the Royal Mile preparing for a Geographies of Protest walking tour for the third year students. It just so happened that I witnessed a protest organised by Extinction Rebellion whilst I was out and about. The protest was in two parts: the first was an animal die-in in West Parliament Square, and the second was a march down the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle to the Scottish Parliament. It is always interesting to witness a protest first hand, and this was no exception.
Founded in 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement has experienced a renaissance since the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in May 2020. From protests to art, the resurgence of BLM over the Summer of 2020 has been dramatic. Racism has been a topic of protest stickers for as long as I have been studying them, but the recent BLM revival has resulted in a corresponding surge in stickers that use the language and symbolism of BLM. Since my recent move to Edinburgh, I have found a lot of protest stickers on a whole range of topics, but racism and BLM have been some of the most common.
On the first day that I arrived in Edinburgh in August I went for a walk up the Royal Mile. As I walked towards the castle, my eye was caught by a set of pictures and yellow ribbons attached to the railings of the Tolbooth Kirk. On further investigation, it turned out to be an installation of photos called ‘I can’t breathe’ by British born Nigerian photographer Jamal Yussuff-Adelakun. The ribbons are expressions of solidarity with Black Lives Matter Scotland.
The installation at Tolbooth Kirk is just one part of the Black Lives Matter Mural Trail, a series of artworks in towns and cities across Scotland led by creative producer Wezi Mhura. Scottish Black and Asian artists have created new artworks in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The formats range from stereotypical street art murals, to less conventional photography and digital artworks. The project is “a call out to the people of Scotland to challenge racism wherever you see it – in the streets, in institutions, at work and at school.” As I have continued to explore Edinburgh over the last few months, I have come across more examples from the mural trail (of course I could just look them up on the map, but I think it’s more fun to stumble across them!)
Black Lives Matter was founded in 2013, but the movement has experienced a resurgence since the death of George Floyd in May 2020. I am interested in the ways that protest movements make their mark on public spaces, and I have recently written about the traces that BLM protests left on the streets of Brighton, my home city. The BLM mural trail is more formal than the traces I found in Brighton, but it has a similar effect; it brings the debate into public space, and reaches out to those who might not otherwise have become involved in the conversation.
There seems to be a perception amongst many Scots that racism isn’t really a problem here. Interventions such as the mural trail help to undermine this narrative, and draw attention to the very real examples of racism in Scotland, as well as how broader systematic discrimination affects ethnic minorities here. The first step to achieving change is to start a conversation, and the BLM Mural Trail is an innovative and effective way to do this.
Whenever I move to a new city I like to get to know its history, especially its radical history. So when I started reading up on Edinburgh, and found out it has a memorial to five political reformers, I knew it had to be one of the first places I visited when I arrived. The memorial is a familiar part of the skyline of central Edinburgh, but few know who it commemorates, or what they did to deserve such a tribute.
The Political Martyrs Memorial is located in the Old Calton Burial Ground on Waterloo Place. Edinburgh’s graveyards are interesting and atmospheric places. The Greyfriar’s Kirkyard is probably the most famous for its connection to Greyfriar’s Bobby and JK Rowling, amongst others. It is a popular stop for Edinburgh’s numerous ghost tours. The Old Calton Burial Ground has several notable features too, however. As well as the Political Martyr’s Memorial there is also a grand memorial for Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, and the only memorial to soldiers of the American Civil War outside of America, so it’s worth a visit even if radical history isn’t your thing.
Unveiled in 1844, the Political Martyr’s Memorial is a 27 metre tall obelisk on a square base. The plan to erect a monument to the five martyr’s was the brainchild of David Hume, a Scottish doctor and MP. He chaired a London-based committee to raise the funds for the memorial. It was designed by Thomas Hamilton, who also designed the Burns Memorial on Calton Hill. The original plan was to site the memorial on Calton Hill itself, but the local council refused, so a plot was acquired in the burial ground instead. On the north face are inscribed the names of the men which the memorial is dedicated to: Thomas Muir, Thomas Fyshe Palmer, William Skirving, Maurice Margarot, and Joseph Gerrald.
Two quotes are inscribed on the west face of the obelisk. They are part of speeches given by two of the radicals during their trials. The first is from Thomas Muir, and reads:
I have devoted myself to the cause of the people. It is a good cause – it shall ultimately prevail – it shall finally triumph.30th August 1793.
The second quote is from William Skirving:
I know that what has been done these two days will be rejudged.7th January 1794.
The 1790s were a politically turbulent time across Europe. Inspired by the French Revolution in 1789 and the publication of texts such as Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, reformers in many countries began to demand change, and Scotland was no exception. The men commemorated by the Political Martyr’s Memorial were just some of the reformers who fell victim to a wave of oppression that swept across Europe. Thomas Muir and William Skirving were the only two out of the five who were Scottish (the other three were English), but all five were arrested for sedition in Scotland. They were part of a movement that was demanding universal suffrage (for men) and annual elections. Contrary to the fate the name of the monument implies, however, the men were not executed for their ‘crimes’; they were sentenced to transportation to Australia. Margarot was the only one who ever made it back to Britain alive.
Hume also initiated plans for a similar (but smaller) memorial in London, which was erected in Nunhead Cemetery in 1852. Campaigns for political reform in Britain continued, on and off, well into the nineteenth century. Hume and the other members of the committee that funded and built the memorial wanted some heroes for the new generation of reformers to rally around. It takes political power and financial resources to build a memorial, so it is relatively unusual for radical people and events to be commemorated in this way (unless they later come to be seen as fighting for a good cause). Although wanting change, Hume was still part of the political establishment, so he would have been keen to tone down the more radical elements of the 1790s campaign. The Political Martyr’s Monument doesn’t mention any specific demands or actions, and the two quotes featured are quite moderate.
As an object, the Political Martyr’s Memorial is relatively nondescript. There are lots of monuments on Calton Hill, and if I’m honest most of the others are more interesting to look at. However, the story of its’ construction, and those of the men it commemorates, are interesting. I’m certainly glad I went to visit, even if only because it led me to these stories.
Sources and further reading
Bambery, Chris. A People’s History of Scotland (2nd edition). London: Verso, 2018.
Canmore. “Edinburgh, Waterloo Place, Old Calton Burial Ground, Martyrs’ Monument.” No date, accessed 9th September. Available at https://canmore.org.uk/site/117414/edinburgh-waterloo-place-old-calton-burial-ground-martyrs-monument
MacAskill, Kenny. “How Scotland’s Martyrs for Democracy were Written out of History.” The Scotsman. Last modified 27th February 2020, accessed 9th September 2020. Available at https://www.scotsman.com/heritage-and-retro/heritage/how-scotlands-martyrs-democracy-were-written-out-history-kenny-macaskill-1995976
Wikipedia. “Political Martyr’s Monument.” Last modified 6th May 2020, accessed 9th September 2020. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_Martyrs%27_Monument#:~:text=The%20Political%20Martyrs%20Monument%2C%20located,18th%20and%20early%2019th%20centuries.
At the end of 2019 I went on a last-minute trip to Edinburgh. It was great to explore the city, and it also meant I got to add to my protest sticker collection! There are a range of topics on protest stickers that often crop up in in big cities, including: gender, working relations, vegetarianism, housing conditions, elections, and Brexit. There are also specific local issues, which you don’t tend to find anywhere else. In Edinburgh, examples of these are: working conditions at the Fringe Festival, the use of public land for events which profit private companies, and Scottish independence.
In the summer of 2018, I visited Edinburgh for the first time. I really liked the city, it has a vibrancy and energy that is something quite special. I was there for the start of the Edinburgh festivals, a month-long celebration of theatre, music, and comedy that is famous around the world. One of the other highlights of my trip was visiting the Scottish Parliament, which is much more open and accessible than the Palace of Westminster. It was great to be able to visit the building where mainstream politics in Scotland plays out. The Parliament is not the only space for politics to play out in the city, however. The streets are an active site of informal, everyday politics, protest, and social movements. One form this takes is protest stickers, fragments of politics that can tell you an awful lot about a city, if you look closely enough.