The BLM Mural Trail in Edinburgh

Photographs by Jamal Yussuff-Adelakun on the railings on Tolbooth Kirk on the Royal Mile (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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.

Ribbons tied to the railings of Tolbooth Kirk on the Royal Mile in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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!)

A piece by Rudy Kanhye at The Queen’s Hall, exploring the meaning of the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ and its controversial counter ‘All Lives Matter’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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.

Street art by Shona Hardie at Dance Base in the Grassmarket (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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.

The large mural by Abz Mills at Usher Hall commemorates Sheku Bayoh, who died in police custody in Kirkcaldy in 2015 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The East End’s Radical Murals

Cities are too often bleak places to live in and a mural is one way of making them more attractive and human.

The East End can boast a large number and variety—in sharp contrast to the lack of art galleries in the area.

(East End News, 1986)

I have recently been doing some research on the Cable Street Mural in the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive (which is, by the way, a lovely place to work- the staff are very helpful). The Mural is located on the west wall of St. George’s Town Hall in Cable Street, and was completed in 1983. It is over 3,500 square feet, and it commemorates the Battle of Cable Street, which took place in the area on the 4th October 1936. Demonstrators clashed with police as they tried to clear a route through the East End for the British Union of Fascists to march. The march was called off, and ‘They Shall Not Pass!’ the demonstrators’ slogan, has become a catchphrase of anti-fascist movements of all kinds.

The Cable Street Mural on the side of St. George's Town Hall.

The Cable Street Mural on the side of St. George’s Town Hall.

Detail of a policeman fighting with protesters in the Cable Street Mural.

Detail of a policeman fighting with protesters in the Cable Street Mural.

When doing archival research, it is not uncommon to get distracted by not strictly relevant, but still very interesting, material. I discovered that the East End does indeed seem to have a strong tradition of street murals, and the Cable Street Mural is not the only one with radical subject matter. London is perhaps not the first city that springs to mind when you think of politically motivated murals- Belfast or Dublin might seem more obvious. London does not like to be outdone however, and political murals do exist here if you are willing to look for them.

Sadly, there are not as many protest-themed murals in East London as there used to be. The Peasants Revolt mural, previously located in Bow Common Lane, was unveiled in 1981 to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Peasant’s Revolt. The peasants had camped in Mile End on their way to London to demand reduced taxation, an end to serfdom and the removal of the King’s senior officials and law courts. Richard II did not meet their demands, but it remains a well-known period in English history. The mural was designed by Ray Walker, who was one of the three artists who took over from David Binnington when he resigned from the Cable Street Mural project in 1982. I have not been able to find out exactly when or why this mural was removed, and why it wasn’t afforded the same protection and investment that the Cable Street Mural has. The Cable Street Mural has been repaired every time it has been vandalised, and was restored in 2011 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle.

The Peasant's Revolt Mural (Source: Unite the Union).

The Peasant’s Revolt Mural in Bow Common Lane. Unfortunately it no longer exists (Source: Unite the Union).

(Source: Unite the Union).

(Source: Unite the Union).

One radical East End mural which can still be seen today is that commemorating the Poplar Rates Rebellion. Located in Hale Road in Poplar, the mural was completed by Mark Francis in 1990, and restored in 2007 by David Bratby and Maureen Delenian with help from local children. In 1921 30 local councillors were sent to prison after refusing to collect the rates from residents because they were unfair. The mural tells the story of the Rebellion in 4 panels, mainly using words. It does include an image of the well-known political radical George Lansbury, and local residents holding placards that declare ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay.”

The Poplar Rates Rebellion mural

The Poplar Rates Rebellion mural in Hale Road (Source: London Mural Preservation Society).

Poplar Rates Mural Detail

A close up of George Lansbury and Poplar residents (Source: London Mural Preservation Society).

The East End has a strong tradition of radicalism and protest, but a lot of it is not well known. Murals and other forms of public art are a good way of ensuring that historical protests are not forgotten. The Cable Street Mural in particular still draws visitors, and its striking colours and imagery are well worth going to see for yourself. If you have a few spare hours, why not go and check out these memorials to the East End’s turbulent history?

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “Mural by George.” East London Advertiser. 31st August 1990.

Anon. “Murals in the East End.” East End News. May 1986.

Anon. “Poplar Rates Rebellion Mural.” London Mural Preservation Society. No date, accessed 9th September 2015. Available at http://www.londonmuralpreservationsociety.com/murals/poplar-rates-rebellion-mural/

Anon. “Trade Union and Labour Movement Heroes Commemorated.” Unite. No date, accessed 9th September 2015. Available at http://www.unitetheunion.org/growing-our-union/education/rebelroad/murals/

Rolston, Bill. “Politics, Painting and Popular Culture: The Political Wall Murals of Northern Ireland.” Media, Culture, and Society. 9, no.1 (1987): 5–28.