Designed by William Burn and erected 1821–23, this is a tall and prominent commemorative monument to Henry Dundas, First Viscount Melville (1742–1811). Located in the centre of St Andrews Square, Edinburgh, it is in the form of a fluted Doric column, over 150 foot tall, surmounted by a statue of Dundas designed by Francis Chantrey and carved by Robert Forrest (added to the column in 1827).
The monument is built from polished Culallo sandstone. Partly modelled on Trajan's Column in Rome, the column stands on a cubic pedestal with eagles at each corner. The column has a laurel wreath base and an egg and dart torus at the capital. It contains an internal spiral stair with a doorway on the west side of the pedestal.
Above the column, there is a circular drum pedestal which supports a 15-foot-tall statue of Henry Dundas, carved by Robert Forrest. It depicts him standing in the robes of a peer, left hand to chest, and facing west along George Street.
A low boundary wall of saddleback ashlar footings with metal railings encloses the square with canted corners. The railings are by architect, Leslie Grahame Thomson and were installed in 1947 to replace earlier railings.
Henry Dundas died in 1811 after a career at the apex of Scottish and British politics. In 1817, A committee was set up to raise funds and oversee the building of a new national monument to his memory. The process was not straightforward and involved negotiations over issues such as site, cost, and style of monument. Calton Hill, the top of Leith Walk, and Melville Street in the West End were among the locations debated before the final selection of St Andrews Square and the approval of William Burn's design by the Dean of Guild in 1821 (Godard Desmarest 2018).
Due to Dundas' naval connections, the monument was funded through the Royal Navy by voluntary contribution from officers, petty officers, seamen and marines. Work on the column took place from 1821–23 and was carried out by William Armstrong from Edinburgh with Robert Stevenson as consulting engineer. Stevenson finalised the foundations and column dimensions. He superintended the build, with the column erected using the iron-balance crane pioneered for the Bell Rock Lighthouse in Angus (LB45197) (Paxton and Shipway 2007 www.canmore.org.uk).
The statue of Dundas was added to the column in 1827. Designed by English sculptor, Francis Chantrey (1781–1841) it resembles his earlier marble statue of Dundas (installed 1818 in Edinburgh's Parliament House). The carving was executed by Robert Forrest, a stone mason and sculptor from Carluke in South Lanarkshire (1790–1852). The completed Melville Monument was drawn by Thomas H. Shepherd to feature in the 1829 volume, 'Modern Athens, Displayed in a Series of Views'.
In 1866 the architect, John Dick Peddie (1824–1891) was appointed to design new railings and a boundary wall for St Andrews Square in order to replace the earlier boundary structures, which were by then in poor condition (Byrom 2005: 43–44). These 19th century railings were later removed during the Second World War as part of the war effort and were replaced in 1947 by railings to a design by Leslie Grahame Thomson (see also railings at Charlotte Square, LB27840, which are of the same design). In 2008 the layout of St Andrews Square was redesigned by Gillespies in a project to improve the square as public space (www.gillespies.co.uk). The 1947 railings and earlier boundary wall remained in place as the latest iteration of a long tradition of enclosure and demarcation of the square. Also in 2008, the Melville Monument was restored as part of the Twelve Monuments Project, a joint initiative of Edinburgh World Heritage and the City of Edinburgh Council (www.ewh.org.uk).
In 2021, The City of Edinburgh Council fixed a brass information plaque to the north elevation of the pedestal. This followed a campaign begun in 2015 by human rights activist, Adam Ramsay, and Professor Sir Geoff Palmer to provide more information on the life and legacy of Henry Dundas, including his role in the delay of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade (Edinburgh Evening News, 17/03/2021). The wording of the plaque was announced in June 2020 during a period when the monument had become a site of public protest and debate about the visibility and recognition of Britain's colonial past as part of the global response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, USA (see social historical interest).
Statement of Special Interest
- Erected under the supervision of Robert Stevenson using the world's first iron-balance crane, the column is an outstanding example of Neoclassical design by a leading architect and a feat of early 19th century engineering.
- A highly visible element of the Edinburgh skyline, the monument retains its setting of a Georgian square, with St Andrews Square an integral part of James Craig's 1767 New Town plan. It is among the most prominent landmarks in Edinburgh.
- While commemorative monuments of the 19th century are not rare, this example stands apart from others due to its scale and ambition.
- This monument is associated with a major figure in late 18th century politics and is of outstanding historic interest.
- The commemoration of Dundas is a focus point in modern debate about public memorials, collective space and our imperial and colonial past. A brass plaque fixed in 2021 interprets his legacy with regards to his political offices, the British Empire and his role in the delay of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. The words dedicate the plaque to the memory of more than half a million Africans enslaved and trafficked in the period from 1793–1807.
The Melville Monument is an architecturally outstanding example of a commemorative column designed by William Burn using the massive proportions and classical detailing inspired by antiquity. His design was based on Trajan's column in Rome, built in 113 CE, with simple fluting replacing the original's encircling sculptural frieze. The statue, commissioned from Francis Chantrey at the height of his success as a portrait sculptor was designed with the facial features exaggerated for viewing at a distance. In scale and design, the monument contributed to the emerging architectural character of the New Town of Edinburgh, shaping its identity as a city of the Enlightenment and empire (Godard Desmarest 2018).
The use of innovative engineering techniques is part of the monument's special architectural interest. Leading up to the build, neighbouring landowners had expressed concern about the stability of such a tall and heavy structure so close to their properties (Godard Desmarest 2018: 120). The engineer, Robert Stevenson, ensured the success of the design by strengthening the foundation walls with stone instead of rubble and supervising the erection of the 1500 ton column using the iron-balance crane pioneered during his construction of the Bell Rock Lighthouse off the coast of Angus (LB45197) (Institute of Civil Engineers plaque 2013; Paxton and Shipway 2007 www.canmore.org.uk).
The Melville Monument is centrally located in St Andrews Square at the east end of George Street. It retains its historic setting of a deeply formal, planned urban environment based on principles of order and symmetry. St Andrews Square was the very first of the new garden squares to be completed following the adoption of James Craig's 1767 plan for the first New Town, serving as private pleasure grounds for the surrounding properties. Initially a fashionable residential area, the square acquired its more commercial character from around 1820. While St Andrews Square is now public space, the physical relationship between the monument, garden grounds and surrounding streetscape remains little altered (2021).
The monument has outstanding architectural interest as a focal point in long distance views. The control of urban vistas and sightlines preoccupied architects and urban designers during this period as they sought to enhance the picturesque qualities of the Scottish capital. The erection of the Melville Monument completed the vista of George Street (for which an equestrian statue had previously been suggested) and the column remains a landmark in the view east along George Street (Godard Desmarest 2018: 109). From elevated vantage points elsewhere in the city the column punctuates the skyline and contributes to the ornamented historic character of Edinburgh's New Town as developed during the early 19th century.
Age and rarity
Nineteenth-century classical-style commemorative monuments such as columns, pillars and obelisks are not a rare building type in Scotland. Many were built in prominent locations on hilltops, country estates and in towns and cities to memorialise important individuals or events and those that survive are of historic interest in understanding how cultural and national identity was represented during the 19th century.
The Melville Monument is a particularly large example and is among a series of prestigious monuments built during a relatively short space of time in early 19th century Edinburgh, including Nelson's Monument on Calton Hill (1814–16, listed category A LB27823), the National Monument to the dead of the Napoleonic Wars (1826–29, listed category A, LB27820) and the Burns Monument (1830, listed category A, LB27801). Impressive public monuments using classical architectural references were a means to celebrate Scotland's distinct national culture and participation in what was conceived as a wider 'heroic age of progress' (Carter McKee 2015, Godard Desmarest 2018).
The form of a monumental column on this scale is relatively rare. The best known in a UK context is probably Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, London (1839–1842, listed grade 1, reference 1276052). In Scotland, the Duke of Gordon monument in Elgin (also by William Burn) is a Doric column (1839, listed category A, LB30775). The Glenfinnan Monument in Highland (1814, listed category A, LB308) is a cylindrical tower, part modelled on Roman columns (Rodger 2016: 41). Other examples on a lesser scale include the Reformers Monument in Kilmarnock (1885, listed category B, LB35926), and the Langside Battlefield Monument in Glasgow (1887, listed category B, LB32360).
Social historical interest
Further to its conventional commemorative function, the Melville Monument has acquired additional meaning in the context of discussions about imperial legacies in Scotland's built environment and the power of memorials and monuments to reflect and reproduce social ideas about the past (e. g. Draper 2020; Williams 2018; Alderman and Dwyer 2009; Managing Imperial Legacies https://www.managingimperiallegacies.com/).
In the summer of 2020 the monument became a focus for renewed debate on Britain's colonial history and the politics of commemoration as part of the global response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, USA. It was among many monuments, statues, buildings, artworks and street names worldwide subject to calls for removal, re-interpretation or renaming to address the disparity in official or established narratives of history.
During this period, The City of Edinburgh Council returned to the idea of a plaque for the monument to provide more information on the history of Henry Dundas, an issue campaigned for by human rights activists, Adam Ramsay and Professor Sir Geoff Palmer since 2015. In June 2020, the Council announced the agreement of the wording and an A3-sized brass information plaque was fixed to the north elevation of the monument in 2021 (City of Edinburgh Council, 11 June 2020; Edinburgh Evening News, 17 March 2021).
Association with people or events of national importance
Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville (1742-1811), was a lawyer and politician who became one of the most influential members of the British government in the late 18th century. From an established legal and landowning family, he rose fast in politics to become Solicitor General at 24, MP for Edinburghshire at 32 and Lord Advocate by the age of 33. He combined the role of the most powerful Scottish politician with a deepening engagement in British affairs at the centre of William Pitt's administration, holding naval offices, shaping British rule in India, and serving as Home Secretary from 1791–4 and Secretary of State for War in 1794–1801 during the period of the French Revolutionary Wars.
While Britain had lost the Thirteen Colonies of North America by this period, its maritime empire was expanding across the globe in the late 18th century, including in the Caribbean. Here gains were made from former French territories to extend Britain's slave-holding Atlantic empire. From the 1750s to the 1820s, sugar was Britain's largest single import, underpinning its financial systems, while the Caribbean formed its largest export market outside Europe. The trade depended on the mass enslavement of people from Africa, trafficked by merchants to shortened and brutalised lives of chattel slavery in New World plantations. The wealth derived from this trade created personal fortunes, stimulated British industry and furthered imperialistic expansion. Ruling classes who supported and benefitted from the status quo formed a powerful lobby against the abolition movement, which had gathered pace during the 1780s and was led in Parliament by William Wilberforce.
While he had no known slave-owning investment himself, Henry Dundas was a prominent figure in these events and disputes, influencing British colonial campaigns, and was a supporter and defender of its imperial interests. When Wilberforce proposed a motion to abolish the slave trade with immediate effect, Dundas came forward in 1792 to effect a 'gradualist' approach. While some public discussion pivots around his motives (see summary in Mullen 2021: 3, and also Henry Dundas Committee for Public Education on Historic Scotland 2020, Historians on Dundas 2020, Leask 2020 and 2021, Young 2020 quoted in Bobby Melville 2020), scholars of slavery, abolition and Caribbean history consider that his actions from this date were instrumental to the perpetuation of the British slave trade, which was eventually abolished in 1807 (Anstey 1975; Brion Davis 1975, Drescher 1998, Hamilton 2014, (all quoted in Mullen 2021: 3), Mullen 2021, Newton 2020).
In his later years, Dundas was impeached and later acquitted for the misappropriation of public money. He did not return to public office and died in 1811. Other monuments to Dundas include a granite obelisk on Dunmore Hill, near Comrie in Perthshire (erected in 1812 near his estate of Dunira, listed category B, LB5321), and a white marble statue by Francis Chantrey completed in 1818, inside Parliament House in Edinburgh. Street and place names memorialise Dundas in Scotland (e. g. Dundas Street in Edinburgh) and worldwide in former territories of the British Empire, especially in Canada, including the town of Dundas, Ontario, and Dundas Street in Toronto. A renaming project for Dundas Street in Toronto was approved in July 2021 (https://www.toronto.ca/news/city-council-approves-renaming-dundas-street/).
Listed building record revised in 2022.
Canmore: http://canmore.org.uk/ CANMORE ID 52413
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Leask, David (2020) Henry Dundas was playing long game to abolish slavery, historian suggests The Times, Wednesday 22 July 2020
Leask, David (2021) Dundas "key" to Britain's slave army, investigation finds, The Herald 29 March 2021
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