Edinburgh’s Political Martyrs Memorial

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 in the Old Calton Burial Ground, Edinburgh (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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.

The memorials for philosopher David Hume and Scottish-Americans who fought in the American Civil War (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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.

The names of the five martyrs inscribed on the north face of the memorial (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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 two quotes inscribed on the west face of the memorial (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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.

Protest Stickers: Edinburgh 2

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This is one of the oldest buildings on the Royal Mile (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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.

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Fair Fringe is a campaign to improve the wages and working conditions of people working for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. They are asking Fringe Employers to sign a charter guaranteeing they will give their employees certain working conditions (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Edinburgh is famous for several public events, including the Edinburgh Festival, the Fringe Festival, a Christmas Market, and Hogmanay. As these events have expanded, tensions have increased between organisers and local people, who often have to put up with significant inconvenience and restrictions on their movements around central Edinburgh. Some feel that the city doesn’t get enough benefits from these events. I think this sticker is referencing those ongoing debates (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Like most big cities, the cost of housing in Edinburgh is high, and increasing all the time. Living Rent is a tenant’s union which campaigns for tenant’s rights across Scotland, including calling for a nationwide rent cap (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The campaign for a second referendum on Scottish Independence has been boosted by Brexit, and it was the topic of quite a few protest stickers in Edinburgh. This sticker is responding to the argument that Scotland wouldn’t be able to make it as an independent country (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Just in case the Yes campaign wasn’t patriotic enough, this sticker takes it one step further! (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The image on this sticker has faded so it’s quite difficult to make out, but the text is very clear (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker incorporates anti-fascist symbolism and design style with the transgender flag (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker, on the other had, is rather sarcastically criticising the transgenderism. This debate has split the feminist movement in recent years (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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In December 2019, university staff around the country went on strike over working conditions and changes to pensions. The Autonomous Design Group designed these stickers in solidarity with those on strike in Edinburgh (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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I found this sticker outside one of the University of Edinburgh’s buildings. It is also probably left over from the strike. Tuition fees were first introduced in the UK in 1998, but there are still some who oppose them. VCs, or Vice Chancellors, are the most senior people in the university hierarchy, so they often become the focus of opposition (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

 

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I’m guessing that this sticker is from before the General Election on the 12th of December. It is comparing Boris Johnson to Pinocchio, who’s lies famously got him into trouble (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker looks quite old, but it could just be that paper stickers don’t tend to last as well as other materials. Boris Johnson only agreed his Brexit deal with the EU in October 2019, so the sticker can’t be more than a few months old (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Sometimes, you have to take a sticker’s location into account in order to appreciate it fully  (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker is really interesting because I have seen quite a few stickers in various places calling for solidarity with Hong Kong since the latest round of protests started there in mid-2019. I have only seen this anti-solidarity stance in Edinburgh however. The graffiti is referring to the fact that the Extradition Bill which kick started the protests was in response to a woman from Hong Kong being murdered by her partner in Taiwan. Most people don’t know this however, and the Extradition Bill was almost universally criticised as an attempt by China to gain more power over Hong Kong (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker is advertising vegankit.com, a website that offers advice and guides on eating and living vegan. It isn’t clear who is behind the website though. (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Protest Stickers: Edinburgh

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This is one of the first things I saw when I arrived in Edinburgh. It’s so stereotypically Scottish, it felt like a perfect welcome to the city (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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.

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Brexit is the most divisive issue in the UK at the moment. This sticker was produced during the EU referendum campaign in 2016. It is practically an antique by protest sticker standards, it is unusual for one to survive so long ‘in the wild’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker looks more recent, but it could also have been produced in the run-up to the EU referendum. Scotland voted to remain in the referendum, which is now helping to fuel demands for another referendum, this time about Scotland’s independence from the UK (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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I assume that this sticker is also pro-EU, combining the flags of Scotland and the European Union. I didn’t see a single pro-Brexit sticker whilst I was in Edinburgh (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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There has already been a referendum on Scottish independence recently. On the 18th of September 2014, 55.3% of Scottish voters voted to stay in the United Kingdom. The main campaign in favour of independence was simply called Yes Scotland. The campaign produced lots of resources with this logo on it, so there’s a chance that this sticker could be even older than the Remain sticker (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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As with Brexit, calls for another referendum on Scottish independence began not long after the result of the first vote was announced. This sticker is shorthand for the campaign, calling for a second chance to vote yes on Scottish independence (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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J.K. Rowling, the creator of Harry Potter, lives in Edinburgh. The cafe where she wrote some of the books has become a site of pilgrimage for tourists and Potter fans, and there are several shops in the city dedicated to the franchise. The author can be quite vocal on social media about her political opinions, so this sticker could be referring to the criticism she receives because of this, or it may be about complaints she gets from fans who disagree with decisions she made about particular characters or storylines (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

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This sticker is weathered and faded, but it is still possible to make out that Harry Potter is being used to recreate the famous Kitchener recruitment poster from World War One. The sticker could be referring to trade unions, but because of the Union flag background I think it is more likely referring to the union of Great Britain. If this is the case, then it is possible that this sticker also dates back to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Gender was another recurring theme amongst the city’s protest stickers. This sticker was produced by the Edinburgh branch of Sisters Uncut, a group which takes direct action to demand better funding for domestic violence services. Since 2010, funding for refuges for survivors of domestic violence has been cut by a quarter (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker refers to another referendum, this time in Ireland. In May 2018, the Irish people voted to repeal the 8th amendment of their constitution, allowing the government to make abortion legal. The vote represented a huge shift in cultural values in Ireland, traditionally a very conservative and Catholic country (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Most of the protest stickers I come across are printed, but some, like this one, are handwritten. They cannot be mass-produced, but they require no equipment or computer skills to produce (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker is in French, it translates to: “Neither to take take, nor to sell…women are not objects!” (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker is in Spanish, the text means: “Death to patriarchy, death to capital.” It is not uncommon to find stickers from other places in a city, but it is uncommon to find stickers from other countries unless you are in major cities like Edinburgh or London (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker is truly international. FC. St. Pauli is a German football team based in Hamburg, and Fanclub Catalunya is a fan club dedicated to the team based in Catalonia. They combine their love of sports with campaigning on all kinds of political issues, particularly Catalonian independence. After an unofficial referendum in October 2017, pro-independence parties in the Catalan parliament declared independence from Spain. The Spanish government responded by ending the region’s autonomy. A year and a half on, 2 activists and 7 politicians are still in prison, facing charges of rebellion and misuse of public funds. Others are in exile, and would be arrested if they returned to Spain (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker isn’t quite as exotic as some of the others. It was produced by Glasgow Marxists, which I think is a student group (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker is advertising a fundraising concert in Glasgow in August 2018. The proceeds went to the Scottish Refugee Council and United Glasgow (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

 

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This sticker is advertising a local event, part of a nationwide demonstration against the highly unpopular Universal Credit, which rolls several different benefit payments into one. It hasn’t been rolled out across the country yet, but in places where it has been introduced it has been blamed for severe financial difficulties and hardship (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker was produced by the Anarchist Federation, which makes quite a few different stickers. They often use cartoons and other characters from popular culture  in their stickers. I don’t recognise this character though, if anyone can tell me I would be grateful! (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker also makes use of popular culture, playing on Yoda from Star Wars’s unusual style of talking. Veganism and animal rights is one of the most popular topics of protest stickers recently (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Book Review: When the Clyde Ran Red- A Social History of Red Clydeside

When the Clyde ran Red

When the Clyde Ran Red by Maggie Craig.

Maggie Craig. When the Clyde Ran Red: A Social History of Red Clydeside. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2018. RRP £9.99 paperback.

I don’t need much of an excuse to go book shopping, but traveling is one of them. Whenever I go somewhere new, I keep an eye out for books about local history, particularly relating to protest and dissent. On a recent trip to Scotland, I bought When the Clyde Ran Red: A Social History of Red Clydeside by Maggie Craig. The book tells the story of a period in Glasgow’s history known as Red Clydeside. In the first half of the twentieth century Glasgow and the surrounding areas experienced a period of radical politics which saw a number of dedicated campaigners fighting to improve the lives of working-class Glaswegians. When the Clyde Ran Red tells the story of Glasgow between the Singer Sewing Machine Factory strike in 1911 and the Clydebank Blitz in 1941.

Warm and witty, kind-hearted and generous, interested in everything and everyone, the spirited men and women of Red Clydeside had one goal they set above all things…to create a fair and just society, one in which the children of the poor had as much right as the children of the rich to good health, happiness, education and opportunity.

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When the Clyde Ran Red is an engaging and lively read, it is a book that I thoroughly enjoyed. Maggie Craig has an informal writing style, her prose peppered with phrases in Scots that helps to transport the reader to Glasgow in the first half of the twentieth century. The book is comprehensive, covering everything from party politics undertaken by idealistic and self-sacrificing men, to rent strikes organised by fierce and determined housewives. Craig also brings in social history, explaining the context of Red Clydeside by describing the social, economic, and cultural life of Glasgow. For example, the Scottish Exhibition (1911), the Empire Exhibition (1938) and the popularity of increasingly ‘raunchy’ dance styles as a form of social revolution.

I criticised the last book I reviewed, The Road Not Taken by Frank McLynn (LINK), for going into too much detail. Sometimes, When the Clyde Ran Red goes to far in the opposite direction. I occasionally found its lack of detail frustrating. For example, the Singer Sewing Machine Factory strike in 1911 failed, but Craig does not any offer explanations about what went wrong. There were several points where I just wanted more information. Nevertheless, I think the book is a good introduction to an area of history that I previously knew very little about, and I can always find more detail elsewhere about all the events featured if I wanted to. When the Clyde Ran Red is an excellent starting point.

I admit that my knowledge of Scottish history is patchy at best, but When the Clyde Ran Red was an enjoyable way of filling some of those gaps. I would recommend it to anyone interested in labour history, the history of protest, or Scottish history.