The Streets Where We Live

In case it wasn’t obvious from recent posts (and ones not so recent), I wholeheartedly support the movement which has led to protests against systemic injustices around the world in the past few days. That it should be even necessary to state this is purely because too many people are either conditional in their support, or outright silent, & I didn’t want to leave any ambiguity on my part. I value the lives & wellbeing of my BAME relatives, friends, colleagues, and fellow people, than I do “accommodating” or “keeping the peace” with people who disagree.

Every time I see a Union Flag, I have to look away. That flag, whatever good and great it might encourage in the hearts of others, invites only a cold resentment in me. Passing by streets named for foreign kings and queens, named for the Union I want no part of, hearing the peals of another nation’s anthem that is anathema to me, I ache for the day that Scotland can be a normal independent nation. Yet how much worse must it be for those who are faced daily with the names, the flags, the symbols of those who treated their ancestors – their people – as things to be bartered; as chattel of no more value to them than stocks and goods; as something lower than human? And worse – how it must feel for even those who claim to support and empathise with you deciding that your pain is not worth their inconvenience? After all, if we start renaming streets, we’ll have to remember the new names; we’ll have to confront the horrors of our pasts; we’ll have to go outside our comfort zones.

To Hell with that.

Scotland is very much a part of this world, even if it seems a far corner metaphorically and in actuality. Nonetheless, we’ve seen the protests here in the heart of our capital – a city built on the exploitation of human beings who were treated as little more than things.

To be perfectly frank, my opinion on this feels largely irrelevant: I defer to the opinion of those who would be most affected by having to walk in the shadow of these tributes to the sort of people who made their ancestors’ lives Hell on Earth, and (because people are individuals) there isn’t a consensus there either. At the end of the day, I would not be particularly concerned if the names stayed, though I certainly wouldn’t shed a tear if they left. That said, I do have issues with the conversation.

Most criticisms – legitimate ones, anyway – of this protest fall under two headings: “It’s our heritage, good or bad, so we must preserve it,” and “It’s tantamount to whitewashing our history, we must keep the names to remind us all of what happened.” Neither strike me as particularly compelling.

For the first: as a member of Gourock Heritage & Arts with a long appreciation for all sorts of history, I’m struck by how casually dismissive folk can be of the heritage they claim to love. Monuments fall into disrepair; buildings are demolished to make way for new projects; local figures and histories are neglected and allowed to slip into obscurity. The concern so many people display for mere names would be well received when it comes to rescuing heritage at genuine risk of ruin. It already sticks in the craw that the names of slave owners and old dead English royals are memorialised in Gourock’s streets while our own sons and daughters and stories and legends are left to gather dust in libraries: how much sourer it is so to see active support for those vultures.

As for the second, that criticism would only hold if there was literally no other way of knowing about history than street names, which is patently absurd. If we are to presume that Greenockian children will never hear the stories of James Dunlop or Duncan Darroch if a couple of streets are renamed, then does that not tell us about the priorities of not just the Scottish curriculum, but of our collective consciousness? And, what, a tiny damning plaque is supposed to wash away the majesty of these memorials to these cruel peoples’ greed and pride?

The statue of the Duke of Sutherland was erected 4 years after his death. The only “history” it’s commemorating is that there were enough people as despicable as him to pay for its construction.

My esteemed pal Jeff Shanks wrote eloquently on the debate regarding Confederate memorials in the United States, but many of the arguments ring true here.

My second point — and this is the important one and most contentious — is about the nature of the history that these monuments are celebrating. The vast majority of the monuments in question were erected in the early part of the 20th century, beginning around the 50th anniversary of the war. It was a significant part of a movement at the time to rebrand the South and its role in the Civil War. This was the beginning of the creation of the Lost Cause myth that painted the antebellum South as a doomed golden age of chivalry and gentility destroyed by Northern invaders and harsh and unfair Reconstruction policies. The institution of slavery was minimized in both significance and in cruelty — this is when the idea that war wasn’t really about slavery was created, as well as the stereotypes of the kindly master and happy loyal slave.

Popular culture reflected and reinforced these fictions, from Birth of a Nation to the Uncle Remus stories of Joel Chandler Harris to Margaret Mitchell and Gone with the Wind. Confederate leaders were heroes, not traitors, who were just defending the sovereignty of their respective states, not fighting to preserve an horrific institution of enslavement. And many monuments were put up to help emphasize that idea. And let me be clear — this is understandable. Imagine the cognitive disconnect in the 1910s and 20s when many veterans of the war were passing away and the current generation of white southerners understanding the barbarity of slavery but wanting to absolve their parents and grandparents of their role in perpetuating it and defending it, needed these myths.

The “Lost Cause” mythology of the antebellum South parallels the fictional Scotland in the centuries following the Act of Union – the false narrative of a broke, backward, barren nation being “civilised” and “improved” through the beneficence and encouragement of their stronger southern “partner.” All these monuments and statues to all these distinguished and formidable men; all these streets and buildings named in their honour; all these stories of how poor wee Scotland finally flourished and thrived after centuries of mediocrity and irrelevance as a small stupid independent nation. To know that so many of these literal giants towering over our heads ascended those lofty heights on the backs of unnumbered slaves hardly bears thinking about at the best of times.

Other responses to the notion of changing our public spaces are based on incorrect notions of permanence. Literally hundreds of streets in Glasgow have been renamed this past century alone. We have a proud history of politically-motivated street renaming, as Nelson Mandela Street has shown since 1986. Even the streets ostensibly named for the Tobacco Merchants had earlier names and purposes: Ingram Street was built on the foundation of the Medieval Cow Loan; Cochrane Street was once part of the grounds of Hutcheson’s Hospital; Dunlop Street on several acres of St. Enoch’s Croft; Glassford Street’s construction was made possible with the destruction of the historic Shawfield Mansion. Not content with building their fortunes on the enforced labour of slaves, these vandals destroyed Scotland’s own heritage in the process:

For the loss of so many of its historic buildings, Glasgow has only itself to blame. It has never been sentimental about its old buildings. It has been a point of civic pride to destroy and build better, and if old buildings got in the way of any new plan, they were swept away, supposedly in the name of progress. All that is left of the medieval city are the Cathedral and Provand’s Lordship (1471(, just one of the thirty-two prebendal manses that existed around the Cathedral. The only other relics of ancient Glasgow are three seventeenth-century steeples, the Tolbooth (1626), at the foot of High Street, the Tron (1636), in Trongate, and the Merchants (1665) in Bridgegate.

Although the Georgians expanded the city outside its medieval boundaries, they unforgivably allowed the Bishop’s Castle to become a ruin and let the Cathedral fall into disrepair. They also destroyed the fifteenth-century St. Nicholas Hospital and the seventeenth-century Tolbooth, Hutchesons’ Hospital and Merchants House. The historic Shawfield Mansion, one of the earliest examples of a Palladian villa in Britain, disappeared in 1795 to make way for Glassford Street.

– Carol Foreman, Lost Glasgow

Given the irreversible destruction and devastation of Scotland’s physical and psychological heritage over the centuries, you’ll excuse me if I’m a tad sanguine about the notion of changing a few names. A few name changes won’t erase history, and keeping the names won’t do anything to preserve history. Hand-wringing about erasure and whitewashing could never hide the blood and sorrow forever staining those names no matter how hard their apologists scrubbed. Even if it did, it could scarcely compare to the destruction and desecration of history and heritage that those famous names have done themselves – be they Scotland’s existing histories, or the futures denied to the thousands of people they regarded as things.

They don’t deserve to be remembered, but they will never be forgotten. No matter if their names are erased from our streets, their statues removed from our squares, their memories banished to museums where the evil they did can never be extricated from their legacies.

To Hell with them all.


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