Glasgow's 'monumental mistake' stokes debate

Critics say monuments in Scotland's biggest city are not truly representative of local identity and ignore commoners.

    Glasgow's 'monumental mistake' stokes debate
    The Statue of Robert the Bruce is seen at Bannockburn, site of a battle in 1314 against an English army [Reuters]

    Glasgow was once the "Second City of the Empire". At its peak, it was an industrial powerhouse that held the mother country and its colonies together.

    At the end of the 19th century, one-fifth of all the ships in the world and more than half the steam locomotives that rode the railways of the British Empire were built on the River Clyde and in the city's engineering workshops. George Square has long been the city's political heart and the public expression of its wealth and confidence.

    This great public space is to Glasgow what Trafalgar Square is to London or Times Square to New York. But its statues and memorials tell only part of the city's story. There is little place for the common man and none at all for the ordinary woman.

    One of Scotland's best-known historians, professor Tom Devine, said "George Square represents the values and aspirations and culture of a previous age."

    Its 12 statues include just one woman, a young Queen Victoria riding on her horse. Those commemorated alongside her include her husband Prince Albert and two former prime ministers, William Gladstone and Sir Robert Peel.

    There are also military heroes such as Field Marshall Lord Clyde, whose troops held the "thin red line" against the Russian cavalry at the Battle of Balaklava, and the brilliant engineer James Watt, who developed the steam engine.

    Working-class heroines

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    Looking down on them all from a 25-metre high sandstone column is the author Sir Walter Scott, who gave the world famous characters such as Ivanhoe and practically invented Scotland's tartan cult.

    Devine told Al Jazeera, "Those memorials are almost entirely Victorian. They represent a period when, if you like, the great and the good of society including politicians, were greatly respected, which is not currently the case."

    Maria Fyfe, a former Labour MP, is leading a campaign for George Square to have a new permanent resident. She wants a statue to celebrate the achievements of one of Glasgow's working class heroines, Mary Barbour.

    "The Glasgow rent strikes in 1915, during the First World War, are a part of working class history that is a fairly familiar story. Yet few know anything about Mary Barbour, the woman who led the tenants to victory," Fyfe said.

    The rent strike started when "greedy" landlords tried to impose massive increases on tenants, while the men were away fighting in the trenches. One of the messages on the placard held by a child in an old photograph read: "While my father is a prisoner in Germany the landlord is attacking us at home."

    The women blocked tenement entrances to stop evictions and threw flour bombs - and sometimes worse - at the sheriff's officers to keep them out.

    Eventually, after Mary Barbour organised one of the biggest marches that Glasgow had ever seen, the government pushed a bill through parliament restricting rents for the duration of the war. This was the first legislation of its type anywhere in Europe.

    Just two years after women in Britain got the vote, in 1918, she became the city's first female Labour councillor, and fought on for better housing, public baths, play parks and free milk for schoolchildren.

    Fyfe told Al Jazeera it is astonishing the name of a woman such as this is not more widely known.

    "Could that be because Mary Barbour was a councillor and not an MP?" she said. "Could it be that she fought for and achieved practical improvements in people's lives, but the 'heroes' are the ones who led political movements? Or perhaps it's just been the usual sexism, which pervades other aspects of life."

    Public art

    Glasgow's public art is a metaphor in stone for the position of women in Scottish society. According to Glasgow City Council, there are at least 150 statues and monuments in the city, but just three are of women.

    This has drawn criticism from some commentators who are not usually known for their commitment to feminism. Right-wing historian Michael Fry said: "That's pretty poor. It is a very male chauvinist city. It is about time, certainly in terms of statues, that it mended its ways."

    Mary Barbour is a significant figure in the history of the city and - irrespective of her political affiliation - it is appropriate for a statue to her to be raised in Glasgow.

    - Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson

    The campaign to build a permanent memorial to Mary Barbour has drawn support from across the political spectrum.

    The Scottish left has enthusiastically embraced her cause. Marchers at this year's Glasgow May Day celebrations carried a banner with her name on it and sang songs celebrating her victory over the landlords.

    Mary Lockhart, who recently stepped down as chair of the Scottish Co-operative Party, said they are fighting to defend her legacy. 

    "The women and families who march behind Mrs Barbour's Banner today have found her an inspirational figure, and very relevant to what is happening today, as the coalition government demolishes the welfare state, and dismantles the structures built over 100 years to build the communities which allow society to flourish."

    Perhaps more surprisingly, Scottish Conservative leader and Glasgow MSP Ruth Davidson is also backing the campaign.

    "Mary Barbour is a significant figure in the history of the city and - irrespective of her political affiliation - it is appropriate for a statue to her to be raised in Glasgow," Davidson told Al Jazeera.

    The campaign to raise monuments to the struggles and achievements of ordinary people is something new.

    Glasgow City Council is also debating a long overdue proposal for a memorial to those who perished in the potato famine, which blighted Ireland and the Scottish Highlands in the 19th century.

    Professor Devine said each generation focuses on those that best fit its identity. "These two potential developments are representative of the common people, not the great and the good who you could argue nowadays are seen to have feet of clay."

    Follow Andrew McFadyen on Twitter @apmcfadyen

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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