The Ghost of Burghs Past

The empty shield that once bore the Gourock Coat of Arms blazon at Gourock Park, removed by persons unknown (Picture from Greenock Telegraph)

The most erroneous stories are those we think we know best – and therefore never scrutinize or question.

– Stephen Jay Gould

It is no great surprise to see that Inverclyde Council has voted to remove instances of Gourock’s Burgh Coat of Arms from public view. The results of last year’s consultation were as follows:

Of the 205 respondents, 50 felt that the coat of arms should be retained (although a great majority of them were in favour of information boards to explain them); 77 felt the coat of arms should be changed or removed; and 23 didn’t know or weren’t clear about their views.

There were 29 comments left as part of the survey; 11 of these were strongly negative about the coat of arms (some respondents were ‘shocked’ and ‘horrified’ upon seeing the coat of arms for the first time), five were of the view that it is history and therefore cannot be changed, and two believed it to be inaccurate to describe the man as enslaved.

Inverclyde Now

And Councillors have acted accordingly:

COUNCILLORS have agreed that Gourock’s controversial coat of arms should be removed from display where practical.

The coat of arms includes a figure widely considered to be that of an enslaved man.

Councillors agreed that officials should now look into the practical issues arising from the decision and report back.

The coat of arms features at several Gourock buildings and on a stained glass window at the Watt Institute in Greenock.

Gourock Community Council use the coat of arms, and it is on the badge of the Gourock Athletic amateur football team.

The coat of arms was adopted in 1954 and was based on the burgh seal which dated from the 19th century. Gourock Burgh became part of the new Inverclyde District Council in 1975.

Inverclyde Now

The discussion & vote can be found at the 55 Minute mark on the Council’s Youtube site:

Ultimately, it was a nuanced and sensitive discussion, and I must give particular thanks to Gourock Councillor Chris McEleny for his considered words in what could easily have devolved into a heated and unproductive debate. I also appreciate the qualification “widely considered” on the Inverclyde Now article for reasons I’ve gone into before. It seemed more likely than not that the Council would choose to take the same route as other councils and local authorities, especially given the recent (and long overdue) reappraisal of Scotland’s history.

The question becomes, what now for the Gourock Man?

As I argued before, I believe there is sufficient cause to dispute the conclusion that the Demi Man, Sable is enslaved: this is based entirely on conjecture which is not necessarily borne out by Heraldic precedent, and any stories on its meaning and origin are based on a surface interpretation of the imagery. The most popular story, that he was an escaped slave who chose the sea rather than be recaptured, has a certain tragic poetry to it. This story is documented from the mid-20th Century, where then-Lord Lyon recounted it at a dinner. However, it only makes sense from that time period, when the Man was moved from the charge to the blazon itself, making it appear like the Demi-Man was actually half-submerged in the water. Prior to that, there was no reason to suppose any link between the Man and the Sea – certainly Alexander Porteous made no mention of such a story in his 1906 book on the Town Seals of Scotland, only remarking that the African slave trade was “in full vogue” at the time as a possible explanation for the Darroch element of the Coat of Arms.

But there is another link which deserves much more exploration (without more sources I’m leery of putting too much stock in this, but I find the notion most intriguing):

On 16 February 1839, in Largs, George Rainy, now aged forty-eight, married twenty-seven-year-old Margaret Darroch, the daughter of General Duncan Darroch of Gourock and his Irish wife, Elizabeth Cotter. Duncan Darroch had inherited the estate of Gourock which his father had purchased in 1784, despite being an illegitimate son, born in Jamaica to a Mary Rowan, who is likely to have been a ‘free coloured’ woman. He made in career in the army and married Elizabeth during his service in Ireland following the Rebellion of 1798, subsequently serving in Hanover, Buenos Ayres, Spain and Portugal, and Canada. His four surviving children, born in Ireland, Canada and perhaps Scotland, were not baptised until 1824, when the oldest was twenty-four. Margaret died only twenty-two months later in November 1840.

Unfortunately, until more definitive historical evidence as to the true meaning and origin of the Man is uncovered, the imagery is all we have – and it is very easy to see how one could make a story about the man from his appearance, and why that story would be so deeply upsetting for people to see. Certainly, I’ve known a few folk who were shocked upon simply seeing the Coat of Arms for the first time, and the pain was particularly acute for individuals from countries with their own deep wounds, like the United States. In the absence of a quantifiable, definitive explanation of who the Gourock Man is, the story takes the place – and the story is a sad one indeed.

Be in no doubt that if I thought this was a depiction of an enslaved man in a manner like the Coats of Arms of John Hawkins, the Barnaby family, or the Company of Scotland, then I would have little inclination to defend it. A coat of arms depicting a human being as a piece of property has no place in modern public life. I just did not believe this to be the case (and have to wonder if the majority support for the option to change or remove the Coat of Arms was predicated on that perception – an option I, again, would have supported had I agreed with the interpretation). And, even if I disagree with the majority – won’t be the first time, won’t be the last – I can absolutely understand and appreciate their reasoning.

I will continue in my research, and hope that there can be some evidence to prove beyond doubt, one way or another, the meaning of the Man. For now, he is a ghost: a figure from the distant past whose physical form is removed from the light of day, with the memory of his deeds, his history, even his name – if he had any – lost to time. Some look on the crest, and see a monument to suffering, a promotion of human chattel, a tribute to the people who exploited and sold and ruined lives. That is what they see, and I would not blame them for wanting that imagery gone. What I saw was a man, a free man, a man of honour, strength, and justice.

Who is right? Both? Neither?

Nonetheless, there is much to celebrate in the ruling:

Other proposals from the report that were agreed include:

— A heritage trail across Inverclyde highlighting key aspects linked to the slave trade.

— Further research on Inverclyde’s historical links to slavery to be carried out.

— Proposed new plaque dedicated to the many abolitionists who spoke in Greenock

— Celebration of Black History Month

— New interpretation around James Watt and family’s links to slavery be included within the Watt Institution.

— Online information available about Inverclyde’s links to the slavery to be improved.

Final Council Report

Obviously, I welcome any proposals to promote heritage and history in Inverclyde, with a particular interest in Gourock’s placement in these proposals. I’m particularly happy to see mention of Black History Month and the abolitionists, as some people might have the mistaken impression that the only Black History of note in Gourock revolved around atrocities.

There is always a danger that focusing on the horrific history of slavery, however important it is to our place’s development, will alienate and upset people to the point where they will reject it. To deny the darkness in our history is no better than perpetuating any other historical falsehoods, like the idea folk of the Middle-Ages didn’t know the Earth was round until brave heroic daring Christopher Columbus proved those stupid peasants wrong. At the same time, we’ve always had a Calvinist streak in us that suspects we will be punished and condemned for things that happened before we were even born.

But even if the wee toun of Gourock is almost overwhelmingly White Scottish, it’s a port that’s been around for 500 years: people from all over the world have been here, and some of them – gasp! – were black, and they have stories to tell too. The world-renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers performed here on their European Tour to great acclaim; Dan “Konga Vantu” Crawford forged a link between Scotland and Central Africa with the then-revolutionary idea to treat the people of Africa as human beings; thousands of African-American soldiers like Al Binney, sailors like Ronald Fitzherbert Hall, and volunteers from the West Indies like Nadia Cattouse set foot on Gourock shores during the War Years. That history yet lives in families cross Inverclyde, who gathered in Gourock in 2019 to commemorate those connections, and it is they who I see in the Gourock Coat of Arms – not slaves, not property, but people.

The suggestion of a competition to design a new logo or Coat of Arms is one that I previously advocated before my research into the subject, and one I’m happy to support following the Council’s decision. If I had a suggestion for that new Coat of Arms, it would be a request – to acknowledge the presence of a person of colour on Gourock’s Burgh Seal, but in a new context, to show that Gourock’s connections to Africa deserve a place on our town’s visual space. Whatever form that acknowledgement takes is up to the designer. It was a great source of pride for me that Gourock was one of the only Town Burghs in Scotland that acknowledged the existence of black people in its very heraldry, and I would love for that to continue in a manner fit for the 21st Century. They are my friends; they are my family. They are Gourockians, just like me.

I look forward to the enrichment of Gourock’s historical heritage.

What're your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.