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Monuments and moral in the Highlands

In light of the recent controversy about confederate statutes in the USA, Dr Elizabeth Ritchie considers what the modest Sutherland monument to Sir John A. MacDonald, the Scottish-born first prime minister of Canada, tells us about the complexities of public memorialisation, and asks what might be done to improve the way we commemorate our past
The ‘Mannie’; the statue of the Duke of Sutherland, Golspie. The plaque reads ‘of loved revered and cherished memory erected by his tenantry and friends’
Plaque on Northern Infirmary building acknowledging the legacy of the slave trade

Last summer there was quite a furore in the southern states of the USA over statues honouring confederate generals. Some people find they celebrate and perpetuate white supremacy. Others feel that, however unacceptable was slavery, the statues note a real part of the past and removing them would obliterate that. Similar questions about memorials have arisen in Canada, though without the violence of 2017.

The focus of Canadian discomfort is their first prime minister, Glasgowborn Sir John A. MacDonald.

Heated disagreement about monuments is familiar to the people of east Sutherland, where I live. The ‘Mannie’, strategically positioned to be visible from Helmsdale to Tarbet Ness, continues to dominate the landscape that his money and ideas reshaped, with much distress to its inhabitants, 200 years ago.

The huge plinth and figure atop a prominent hill effectively display his power. Irregularly sprayed graffiti of ‘monster’, the chipped edges of the masonry, and the protective steel grating evidence mixed opinions about what should be done with this stone legacy of the first duke of Sutherland, financer of the Sutherland clearances.

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About History Scotland

History Scotland launches a ground-breaking new series - The Stewart Queens of Scotland, providing a window in the lives of the little-known Stewart queens. Enjoy a range of news, expert articles and commentary, covering centuries of Scottish history and archaeology. Highlights include: * Queen Victoria's trip to the Clyde * New history of art with National Galleries Scotland * The legend of Lovat's Scouts * Discovery of a rare antler t-axe