Edinburgh facing a towering dilemma - Leader

Scotland’s capital has a monumental problem.

Monday, 14th September 2020, 7:30 am
The David Hume tower sign now says 40 George Square

In common with historic cities around the country and the world, it is having to make an uncomfortable reckoning with parts of its past.

The fact that much of Edinburgh’s past wealth, like Glasgow’s, was drawn from the slave trade has for too long been overlooked. A nation that cannot take an honest and unflinching look at its past is ­destined to go on making the same mistakes in future.

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The process of re-evaluating our relationship with historic figures such as Henry Dundas and David Hume is a welcome and healthy one.

The Black Lives Matters movement has rightly placed a focus on questions of race and our slave trading past.

That is not the only problem. It is a source of shame – or rather, it should be – that there are still today more animals than women commemorated with statues in our country’s capital.

A reassessment is overdue, but it is also fraught with difficulties.

The decision by the University of Edinburgh to drop the name of David Hume from one of its student buildings is a case in point.

We now know that the great philosopher supported the slave trade and held views on race that would be rightly viewed now as abhorent.

Those aspects of his life certainly deserve condemnation, but are they grounds for removing his name from the university campus?

The university administration says it wants to avoid causing distress to students. That is a fair consideration, although it is hard to believe many would be actually distressed, and it is not the only one.

Hume’s writing on philosophy, history and economics continue to inspire modern students. How much of this incredible legacy do we lose if over time we allow his name to fade from prominence in his home city? Or, if we take the “no offence” approach to its logical extreme, should we also remove his statue from the Royal Mile?

In his case, the Melville Monument solution has merit: Keep the monument to the man, but add a plaque explaining his achievements and why to some degree his legacy is tarnished today.

We can still celebrate great figures from our past while at the same time educating the next generation on race issues. The problem is that the wording of the plaque is a whole new controversy to tackle.

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