Montrose sculptures

Montrose sculptures, James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose

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.

Soldier-poet

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.  Montrose sculptures, Sir Robert Peel

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.

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Montrose Airfield: Scotland’s First Airforce base

RAF Sopwith Camel, Montrose Airfield
An RAF Sopwith Camel, as used at Montrose Airfield during WWI

The ghosts of Montrose Airfield

Montrose airfield is peaceful now, home to skylarks and rabbits.  Only the concrete bunkers around the perimeter and a lonely barrier in the middle of nothing tell a different story.  77 years ago this is where “the few” trained: the young men of the RAF who saved Britain in the hot summer of 1940.

In 1913 Montrose was Britain’s first military airfield and the original hangars are still in use (though they’re now workshops and warehouses).  The first planes flew here from Farnborough in Surrey, taking 12 days.  When they needed fuel, the pilots landed, ordered it from the nearest blacksmith or chemist’s shop, waited for it, and flew on.

Three years later the first squadrons of the RFC (Royal Flying Corps) left from Montrose to fight over the trenches in France.  Many didn’t return.  Most pilots on the Western Front died within two weeks, and the airfield where they trained is notorious for its ghosts.

Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre

The Station Headquarters building now houses the Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre.  My guide, John Melville, described his own ghost experience.  He was approached by a middle-aged couple asking to see a photo of their son at the base.  He went off to find other information for them.  When he returned there was no sign of them and no-one else had seen them.  Then someone pointed out that the couple’s son had died during World War II.

Visitors are shown a film of the airfield through the years.  One lady said afterwards, “All the boys enjoyed the film”.  It turned out that “the boys” were the ghosts of pilots who recognised the buildings, flyers and ground crew shown in the film.

Flying crashes were common around Montrose Airfield.  The base sits between the mountains and the sea, both lethal to flyers without blind-flying instruments.  (Another ghost story tells of a “shepherd” plane guiding a pilot down to the base in fog and then vanishing.)  Both air-sea- and mountain-rescue were pioneered here.

Visiting Montrose Airfield and the Heritage Centre

Anyone can visit the airfield any time and, indeed, it’s a very popular dog walking area.  Joggers regularly give the word “runways” a whole new meaning, and the football pitches in the middle are busy at weekends.  You can even still see the occasional pane flying from here – but it’ll be a model one!

The Montrose Airfield Heritage Centre houses exhibits covering the life of the Air Station from 1913 to 1950, when it closed.  One case is devoted to heroes who flew from Montrose, including the pilot Richard Hillary, author of the World War II classic “The Last Enemy”.

The Butler Building houses a Sopwith Camel, standard issue during World War I and famously flown by Biggles.  The “kite” seems so small and frail – bits of cloth, wire and balsa wood, more like a model than a fighting machine.  There was no protection for the pilot; I was left with a deep admiration for the courage of the men who flew them.  Even the metal WWII planes seem very small and fragile, considering what they were up against.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the air is never still at Montrose Airfield, however hot the day may be.  Some would say it’s because the sea is just over the dunes; I think it has a lot to do with the ghosts of the aeroplanes  and the men and women who flew and maintained them.  It doesn’t disturb the rabbits or the skylarks – but it serves to remind you that things were not always so peaceful here.

Find out more

… about visiting the Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre at http://rafmontrose.org.uk/visit/.  It’s open at weekends (Saturday 10-4 and Sunday 12-4) all year round, weather permitting.  During the summer (April-October) it’s also open Wednesday-Friday 10-4.

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