Great men – and others
The town and port of Montrose, on Scotland’s north-east coast, has a fine collection of sculptures waiting to be discovered by the open-eyed visitor. (The seagulls, inevitably, have already found them). Some are of local figures, others made by locals, and still others haven’t even a tenuous connection to the town.
Two of the Montrose sculptures stand very close together either side of the junction at Peel Place (the southern end of the High Street). The first is the famous – some would say infamous – local man James Graham, 1st Marquis* of Montrose, who lived from 1612-1650.
James Graham, Marquis of Montrose
Born in the town in 1612, Montrose went on to become one of the greatest soldiers of the time of King Charles 1st. Charles 1st wanted to impose the English brand of Protestantism on the Presbyterian Scots. They weren’t keen on either the Bishops or the rites that Charles proposed. The Presbyterians signed a Covenant upholding their right to worship in their own way and took arms in defence of their chosen religion.
At first Montrose supported the Covenanters but later he supported the King. Many people therefore see him as a turncoat who followed whichever course would be most advantageous to him. Others say that he turned against the 1st Marquis of Argyll, leader of the Covenanters, thinking he was trying to usurp the King’s power in Scotland.
No-one, however, disputes Montrose’s skill as a General; this complex man won many battles for whichever side he was supporting. He was also a fine poet, probably best remembered for the poem he wrote to his wife. The most famous lines from it are inscribed around the statue’s plinth:
“He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
That puts it not unto the touch
To win or lose it all.”
Montrose did both win and lose it all.
His loyalty to the monarchy was his downfall. After Cromwell had King Charles 1st beheaded during the British Civil War, Montrose pledged his support to the exiled Charles 2nd and tried to raise an army to restore the monarchy.
Montrose was defeated in 1650, and executed as a traitor in Edinburgh by being hanged and quartered. Charles betrayed him, denying all knowledge of the plot. A tragic end for a gallant man who fought for what he saw as right.
The statue marked the 350th anniversary of Montrose’s execution. It’s perhaps unfortunate that it’s stuck outside the Job Centre on a bend in a busy road.
Sir Robert Peel
The man on the plinth opposite him was very different, though also a doughty fighter in his way. Some might see him, too, as a turncoat.
Sir Robert Peel was not local. He came from Lancashire and had nothing at all to do with the town. So what did he do to earn this fine statue?
Peel has two main claims to fame – three if you’re a Catholic. The first is that, as Home Secretary, he founded the Metropolitan Police force in 1829. (That’s why policemen are still called “bobbies”, Bob being short for Robert; they were also originally known as “peelers”.)
Police forces weren’t an entirely new idea. Glasgow had had one since 1800 and the Royal Irish Constabulary was founded in 1822 (partly also thanks to Peel). But this time the concept spread right across the country, which hadn’t happened with the earlier forces.
Women and children first
Peel was also responsible for passing the Mines Act, which banned the employment of women and children underground, and the Factory Act, which limited the number of hours they could work.
He also got the Railway Regulation Act through Parliament. This required railway companies to provide regular affordable trains, every day, with seats and roofed carriages even for third-class passengers. At 1d a mile they still weren’t cheap but they did help people move around to find work.
Although originally so anti-Catholic that he was nicknamed “Orange Peel”, Peel came to see that the danger posed by riots against Catholics was worse than the danger of religious freedom. His change of heart helped to win repeal of the Test Act and pass the Roman Catholic Relief Act.
But that’s not how he earned a statue in a staunchly Presbyterian town!
His greatest legacy was forced on him by the Irish potato famine. Peel was not in favour of free trade and most of the landowners in his Tory party strongly opposed imports of cheap corn. But, faced with a spreading famine, Peel did something almost unprecedented in British political history.
He got the Opposition to support him against his own party to repeal the protectionist Corn Laws and relieve the hunger of millions of people. It took five months of bitter struggle to get the repeal through Parliament. The day it became law in 1846, Peel was defeated on another Bill and resigned. He died in 1850 after a fall from a horse.
Erected in 1855 to mark Peel’s political achievements, his statue now sports a plaque which, ironically, misrepresents them. It mentions only the police force, the Corn Laws and the first of his two terms as Prime Minister, ignoring the rest of his surprising career.
Montrose sculptures trail
Two men separated by two centuries and very different ideals stand within yards of each other at a busy road junction, where few passers-by give them a thought. But they are by no means the only statues Montrose boasts.
A couple of hundred yards further up the High Street, for example, stands a Montrose man who knew Peel in Parliament and fought for many of the same things. He’s Joseph Hume (apparently one of the worst speakers in Parliamentary history: the sight of him standing to speak could clear the Chamber within minutes).
Beyond these three, there’s a whole trail of Montrose sculptures; there’s a link below to download the guide.
They include a bust in the Library of Dr. Robert Brown, another Montrose native. He’s the man who discovered Brownian Motion (you know, the thermal movement of molecules in liquid) and plant cell nuclei.
There are also several works by local sculptors David Annand and William Lamb. You can visit Lamb’s studio in July and August on Tuesday-to-Saturday afternoons, or at other times by arrangement with the Curator of the Montrose Museum.
As well as statues of people, there are sculpted drinking fountains, swans and geese (Montrose’s tidal Basin is famous for its water fowl) and even a famous naval dog.
But I won’t spoil the surprises. Download the guide, slip on your comfy shoes and go and find them for yourself. They should keep you entertained for several hours. You’ll also discover the lovely old town of Montrose, with its hugely wide High Street and tiny hidden wynds. It’s worth a visit.
When you’re done, please let everyone know what you thought by leaving a comment!
Find out more:
You can download a map of the Montrose sculptures trail at www.montrosesociety.co.uk/Sculpture%20Trail%2005.pdf
For details of William Lamb’s studio: http://www.angus.gov.uk/directory_record/177/william_lamb_studio_montrose
* ‘Marquess’ or ‘Marquis’? Either form is correct but ‘Marquess’ is the currently accepted spelling. According to Chambers Dictionary ‘Marquis’ is “a variant spelling used esp. by holders of pre-Union titles”. As James Graham lived between the Union of the Crowns (1603) and the Act of Union (1701), I’ve used the old spelling, as does the statue plinth.