I have been writing a lot recently on the issue of plaques and commemoration of local figures in Edinburgh. I have added a substantial number of plaques to the Open Plaque database, some of which are more worthy than others.
I make a number of suggestions for potential new ones here. See what you think. If you’re not the literary type, then check out my sport-related suggestions later on. I’ve gone for a spread – not just the one.
The book of Literary Corstorphine maps a number of sites of local interest in Corstorphine and all the surrounding suburbs e.g. Clermiston, South Gyle, Saughton, Murrayfield & Roseburn etc. In many cases, I have been able to narrow down locations to an actual house, street, park etc. If you haven’t bought it already, then please do – it not only gives me some pocket money, but it helps to promote some of the more neglected heritage of this area. Pretty much everyone who has read it has told me that they’ve learnt something new from it.
The main problem with plaques etc is that one has to get permission off the owner of any property to have one installed. Some may be favourable to this, and some less so. With public or corporate buildings this can be a bit easier. But it is worth pointing out any such owner that it will increases the value of a property.
Who is commemorated already in this area? Helen Cruickshank, Wilfred Owen, Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson that I can think of.
So who might be worthy of some more recognition?
- Coltbridge Gardens: Writer and campaigner Wendy Wood and the painter Florence St John Cadell. Wood is a controversial figure. Cadell less so.
- Murrayfield Road: Sculptor and poet James_Pittendrigh_Macgillivray who lived in Murrayfield. Many of his sculptures can still be seen round Edinburgh. His daughter Ina was also a writer, but little or none of her work appears to have been published. I intend to try and get a look at her papers some time.
- Traquair Park West: Photographer Colin Jarvie who died a few years ago. I wrote about him in the previous post.
- South Gyle Road: The very underrated poet William Neill who lived on South Gyle Road.
- Roull Road?: The poet Roull of Corstorphine whom I wrote about here and here
- Ormidale Terrace, Roseburn Park etc: John Lennon – I have written about this here
- Saughton Mains area & Tyler’s Acre Avenue: Novelist Elizabeth Gaskell – I have written about her connections here and here.
- Kaimes Road: The writers Rebecca West (and Madge Elder), who I have written about here.
- Roseburn: Agnes Campbell – a notable printer of the 17th century – more on her in another article.
And there are others, I mention in the book. Maybe some of them too.
Spare a thought too for the lost buildings of our area – Corstorphine Castle, Corstorphine Railway Station, the old cinema on Manse Road, the mansion by Dunsmuir Court etc, maybe all of these could do with some markers too.
Local sporting heroes
There are several sporting heroes that have some kind of local connections too, although all but one of them are living, which means some organisations won’t memorialise them:
- Cyclist Chris Hoy, with connections to Corstorphine and Murrayfield. His achievements are well known.
- Footballer Graeme Souness, who grew up in Saughton Mains. There are many other players from round here, but Sounness is a stand-out example.
- Rugby player Donna Kennedy who played for Corstorphine RFC: “the world’s most-capped women’s player from 2004 to 2016 and the first Scottish player — woman or man — to reach 100 international caps. As of November 2017, she remains the most-capped player in Scotland with 115 caps.” She is in the Scottish Rugby’s Hall of Fame.
- Tennis player and coach Judy Murray who used to be an active Corstorphine Tennis Club, when she was known as Judy Erskine. Her sons, Andy and Jamie have become more successful than her, but this is largely down to her efforts. I believe Judy Murray has done more to encourage tennis in Scotland than anyone else… or indeed any organisation.
- Rugby internationalist and cricketer Henry Stevenson (1867 – 1945) who was from Corstorphine.
Analysing commemoration in Edinburgh
In my view, there are definite biases in who and what is commemorated. One can do this purely by breaking down the numbers, which I don’t intend to do here. Here are a few conclusions I draw:
- The vast majority in Edinburgh city centre. There are several reasons for this. In the case of Historic Environment Scotland, their rules state that a subject must have been born at least a century ago, and been dead for at least twenty – this means that many of them lived in the city before the suburbs started to sprawl. It’s one of the reasons that Edinburgh’s substantial rock ‘n’ roll and folk revival movements are practically invisible.
- Plaques to women and girls are far less common. There has been a movement to redress this balance, but there are still many more who deserve recognition, and not just in some form of tokenism.
- Aristocrats and rich people are also well remembered. Notable working class people less so with some exceptions unless they were military. There is also a clear bias towards establishment figures, rather than rebels and reformers. I remarked in a previous post that Sarah Elizabeth Siddons Mair may be an example of a “safe feminist.”
- Edinburgh has a thing about commemorating animals – Greyfriars Bobby, Bum the dog (what a name!), Wojtek the Bear, Dolly the Sheep, giraffes, Brigadier Nils Olav (a penguin) etc. In fact the city seems to prefer remembering them to women as as I wrote in this post..
- There are surprisingly few sporting plaques in Edinburgh. Not even for football. I think I have seen some for golf and one for a swimmer. The first ever rugby international is completely ignored.
- There are many plaques connected to buildings or places. Personally I have no issue with this at all, and we could probably do with a few more… outside the city centre!
- The British military is well commemorated, with a memorial of some sort in every community. “Lest we forget” is a common motto on such memorials, and there is no danger of that in the near future. Certain individuals and wars are probably more celebrated than others – for example, there don’t seem to be any prominent memorials which specifically celebrate Scottish service personnel in the Falklands Conflict, Korea, Malaya etc. In my experience they tend to feature on other monuments, but I may be wrong. There is a Spanish Civil War Memorial in central Edinburgh, but to be perfectly honest, you’d never notice it unless you were right on top of it.
And before anyone tries to one-up me in the Internet’s current favourite blood sport – no, minorities don’t feature much in these commemorations either: ethnic, religious, LGBT+, linguistic etc, you name it. Edinburgh’s Gaels have secured one or two, but even they are under-exposed.
Here are a few suggestions for literary memorials outside western Edinburgh:
- Numerous places: Muriel Spark – as Kevin Williamson once remarked to me, probably one of the women of this city most deserving of a statue. Thankfully she’s been getting some due attention this year. I’ve written on her here and here.
- Leamington Terrace: poet Norman MacCaig.
- Milnes Bar – probably requires some kind of permanent external feature, before the pub clears out even more of the literary paraphenalia. There are other worthy candidates such as Sandy Bells, and some of the other bars on Rose Street.
- Duddingston – Lady Carolina Nairne. Her work can be sentimental, but given that her songs remain popular, I’m amazed there are no plaques to her.
There is an extremely strong argument to suggest that women are still woefully under-commemorated in Edinburgh. Some redress has been made in this direction, but not enough. You’ll notice that I have suggested quite a few above.
Scientific organisations are particularly bad in this area – look at this list of plaques erected by the Royal Society of Chemistry – it covers the entire UK, and the only woman on it is Dorothy Hodgkin! Now I know that the sciences are traditionally male-dominated, but they aren’t exclusively male. There are many notable female British chemists – probably the most famous is Margaret Thatcher, although perhaps not for her scientific work! Does Edinburgh have any notable female chemists? Well yes – Lesley Yellowlees, although again, she is still living so unlikely to get a plaque.
The same thing can be said about those put up by physicists. Women in medicine are at least getting a showing now, thanks to Edinburgh University,. but still!
A few other notable Edinburgh women (apologies if some are already commem’d – blame my memory):
- Isobel_Hogg_Kerr_Beattie (1900–1970), possibly the first woman in Scotland to practice architecture on a regular basis.
- Eliza Wigham (1820 – 1899), campaigner against slavery.
Chrystal Macmillan has a plaque, I think, but she is worthy of more consideration.
For another interesting take on the Edinburgh Plaque issue see here:
“Isn’t is about time we started to mark the locations of prehistoric sites and discoveries in ways that are visible, informative and accessible to local communities and visitors?”