This article was published as part of our Manniefest special edition. Click HERE for more information and more articles setting out a vision for the Highlands and Islands after independence.

WHY does the Mannie’s statue still matter?

Debate has raged for decades over the statue that tops Ben Bhraggie, but although other monuments have been reinterpreted or even removed since the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, the Duke of Sutherland’s statue has remained exempt.

Does that mean all locals are happy or just resigned to the 100-foot plinth and statue, erected after the Duke’s death in 1833 and visible for miles around?

Public monuments hold power as symbolic sites. According to Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, “symbols give us our identity, our self-image, our way of explaining ourselves to others”. Symbols also determine the kinds of stories we tell, and the kind of history we make and remake. That’s why it’s important to identify the significance of monuments and appreciate the cultural values they represent, remembering, as the French Martinican poet Aime Cesaire observed, that in colonialism “there are no human values”.

In Scotland there is a tendency to think of colonialism as something that happened to people in distant lands. However, research suggests Celtic nations and peoples within the UK have also been affected – reflected in continuing demands for independence in Scotland and Wales, and for Irish reunification.

Historically, Scotland was subject to repeated military invasion by England followed by dispossessions that emptied the land of indigenous people, obliterating their culture and languages.

In their place, according to Professor Tom Devine, came masses of “sheep, bird sanctuaries and shooting ranges for the well-to-do”.

Here we move into the realms of ethnic cleansing and “cultural genocide” – the state’s refusal to teach the Scots language means the process arguably continues. Scotland has been emptied of three million to four million of its people since the Union with England in 1707 – proportionately more than any other north-western European country. Mass emigration was also experienced by non-feudal neighbours like Norway, but Scotland’s clearances were mainly the product of Westminster’s political decisions and laws like the Empire Settlement Act. According to the author Billy Kay, these decisions also decimated indigenous culture and languages – Scots and Gaelic, Since the 1603 Union of the Crowns, Scottish nobility married into English nobility, and prioritised an English education, language and culture, abandoning Scottish culture in a bid to fit in.

The Scottish aristocracy, already anglicised by 1706, did not take much bribing from the English government to “sell” Scotland’s sovereignty and enslave its people: “bribes and money offered in advancement by the English… (to) the Scottish Commissioners… makes one of the most sordid incidents in the whole history of Scotland” according to Sitwell and Bamford writing in the 1940s.

Clearance policies and migration legislation passed by Westminster were designed to remove Scots from their country of birth and transport them to British overseas colonies, leading to a dramatic loss of population. This was combined with inflows (plantation) of people, mainly sourced from England – a process that continues even today, according to recent census returns. The result is a colonial picture, combined with “banishment of the natives”, according to professor Michael Hechter.

“Ecological Imperialism”, according to the French-Tunisian writer Albert Memmi, meant the imperial elite sought “to change the local habitat”, imposing new plants, animals and crops which “gradually turned the colony into a new place, complete with new diseases, environmental imbalances, and traumatic dislocations for the overpowered natives”. An imposed political system alienated people by destroying their traditions and ways of life. In this environment, “everything that belongs to the coloniser is not appropriate for the colonised” – and that includes his grand monuments.

Antonio Gramsci established that where an alien culture, language and cultural hegemony is imposed on a people, this ensures their “domination by the ruling class which manipulate the culture of that society as an artificial social construct that benefits only the ruling class”. Cultural monuments left by such elites embody this imposed cultural hegemony and its alien “values”.

In what is a colonially manufactured environment, an oppressed people develop a “colonial mindset” which leads to denial and downplaying the reality of discrimination or any past history of racism. Wars, clearances, mass displacement, ongoing cultural and linguistic discrimination and institutionalised oppression are somehow accepted as “deserved”. Colonial bilingualism means the colonised must participate in “two physical and cultural realms” – obscuring the oppressive nature of the relationship.

Frantz Fanon said: “The arrogance of the oppressor is reflected in a propensity to erect monuments to his glorification and in positions which the native cannot avoid.” These imperial memorials and symbols represent memories of the crushing of the colonised and are intended to “keep him in his place”. The coloniser, via authoritative colonial institutions, thus becomes “custodian of the values of civilisation and history” over the land and people. These are the people who tell Scots we must retain such statues in order to better understand “our history”!

Imperial and colonial statues thus generate “incredible scorn for the colonised who pass them by every day” and celebrate only the oppressive deeds of colonisation.

Such monuments are accepted by those who no longer speak their native tongue or know their national history, while the coloniser ensures they do know who Colbert or Cromwell was. Scots know this psychological condition as the “Scottish Cultural Cringe”, though its scientific name is “Appropriated Racial Oppression”.

So, the cultural heritage of a people subject to colonialism will always be contested. Scotland, when it becomes independent like Ireland and other nations, will need to come to terms with this legacy and decide on the future of statues from a former imperial power that still dominate our land.