The Melville Monument in St Andrew Square in Edinburgh stands 152 foot-high and with a statue on top of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville. (1) The monument was constructed between 1821 and 1823 and the statue was added in 1827.
The monument has been the focus of controversy over the past few years in response to proposals to install a plaque containing a contextual explanation of Dundas’s role on the abolition of slavery. (2) This blog is not about this controversy, however, but about who owns and controls St Andrew Square and the monument that’s stands within it.
The issue has come to the fore as a result of the decision by City of Edinburgh Council in 2021 to affix a new interpretive plaque to the monument in 2021 (see picture above) and its subsequent removal last month by the Committee on the Naval Monument to the Memory of the Late Viscount Melville Ltd.
So, whose monument is it and what are the respective rights and responsibilities of the different parties?
St Andrew Square garden was constructed as part of the New Town as a private garden owned in common by the proprietors of the square. It remains in the ownership of the proprietors today.
The proprietors originally offered the garden as the site for the proposed monument but, understandably, did not want to take on the liability of 1500 tonnes of stone standing 152 feet high and so a contract was agreed whereby the Town Council agreed to accept responsibility for the monument on its completion. I have not seen a copy of this contract.
Essential Edinburgh is a private company comprising non-domestic ratepayers in Edinburgh City Centre established to run a Business Improvement District whereby a levy is added to their rates bill to pay for improvements in the city centre. To facilitate proposed improvements in St Andrew Square, the Council entered into a 50 year lease from the proprietors in 2007 and subsequently granted a sub-lease to Essential Edinburgh running from 2008 until the expiry of its own lease in 2057.
A copy of the Council’s lease can be downloaded here (2,5Mb pdf). I do not have a copy off the sub-lease.
In June 2020, the Council, advised by Professor Geoff Palmer, agreed a text to be included on a new plaque to be affixed to the Melville Monument. (3) In order to implement this decision, the Council would need the permission of the owners of the monument (the proprietors of St Andrew Square) and would also need to secure listed building consent since the monument had been designated as a listed building in January 1966.
An application for listed building consent was submitted in August 2020 by Roddy Smith from Essential Edinburgh via its agent, Fiona Rankin of Edinburgh World Heritage Trust. Permission was granted in March 2021. (4)
Under Part 4 (Section 9.1) of the Council’s lease, the tenant has the obligation;
not, without the consent of the Landlords (which consent shall not be unreasonably withheld or delayed) to paint, write, place, attach, affix, or exhibit and figure or letter, or any pole, flag signboard, advertisement, placard or sign on the Premises.
I presume that the Council obtained such consent to affix a plaque onto somebody else’s property although the Committee on the Naval Monument to the Memory of the Late Viscount Melville Ltd. who later removed the plaque, suggested that the Council may never have “properly sought permission from the owners to install the plaque in the fist place”. They further claimed that Freedom of Information requests to the Council asking for copies of correspondence with the proprietors had returned nothing. (5)
Either way, the plaque, once affixed to the monument, became part of the monument and thus part of the property of the proprietors.
The Committee on the Naval Monument to the Memory of the Late Viscount Melville is a company incorporated in January 2021 and controlled by the descendant of the 1st Viscount Melville, Robert Dundas, the 10th Viscount Melville. The Committee disagrees with the text on the plaque and has sought to have it removed.
In September 2022, the Melville Committee submitted an application for listed building consent to remove the plaque. This was granted in March 2023. (6) On 18 September, the Committee removed the plaque and claimed to have been acting within the law and with the consent of the proprietors.
What is Going On?
Responding to the removal, Cammy Day, leader of the Council, said;
“We are investigating the improper removal of a plaque at the base of the Melville Monument in St Andrew Square. As caretakers to the statue any works to the monument would require the council’s consent, which was not sought or given in this case.” (7)
On 28 September, Mr Day responded to a question from Councillor Finlay McFarlane;
“We have reported this matter to Police Scotland and just this week have sent a legal letter to Viscount Melville asking for the plaque to be returned, replaced and that any damage to the structure paid for by him and his group.”(8)
Let’s analyse the issues highlighted in bold.
Any removal would only be improper if the Committee had removed the plaque without listed building consent and the consent of the owners. Both consents appear to be in place.
The Council’s responsibilities as a caretaker are unclear. The original contract appears to have placed a duty on the Council to maintain the monument. It is not clear whether this extends to it having any role in consenting to the removal of a plaque.
The role of Police Scotland is also unclear. The plaque was the property of the Council and, so far as it can be regarded as stolen property, its removal could be theft. However, once it was affixed to the monument it became the property of the proprietors and they appear to have consented to its removal. The Council is demanding the return of a plaque that does not belong to them.
As for the damage to the structure caused by the removal, a condition of the listed building consent was that the stonework would be repaired within one month of the removal in accordance with methods agreed by the Development Management Sub-Committee of the Council.
The methods proposed by the Melville Committee were as follows
The plaque is to be carefully removed to avoid any damage to the existing
stonework. The four 5mm diameter plastic rawlplugs are to be extracted and the holes filled to a flush finish with a sand/cement mortar mix in a colour to match the existing stone.
This condition was a greed by a planning officer in May 2023 but the works to implement it have yet to be carried out.
The removal of the plaque appears to be lawful since the Melville Committee had secured listed building consent as well as (they claim) the permission of the proprietors. If the Council has any legal powers to grant consent as “caretakers” of the monument, this is yet to be explained and made public.
The Council may not have obtained the consent of the proprietors as required under terms of its lease. If such consent was obtained, it has not yet been made public.
Ownership of the plaque transferred to the proprietors once it was affixed to the monument. What right, if any, the Council have to recover ownership is not clear and has not been made public.
(1) See Historic Environment Scotland for further information.
(3) The process process by which this agreement was reached remains obscure. The Council’s press release can be read here. Further analysis of the process was documented by Martyn McLaughlin in the Scotsman on 16 February 2022 (Edinburgh counts cost of Dundas plaque shambles).
(4) 20/03382/LBC | A new A3 brass plaque on the Melville Monument. | Melville Statue St Andrew Square Edinburgh https://citydev-portal.edinburgh.gov.uk/idoxpa-web/applicationDetails.do?activeTab=documents&keyVal=QF7FWLEWIOS00
(5) The Herald, 20 September 2023 Questions for council over slavery plaque on Dundas statue
(6) 22/04496/LBC | Removal of plaque. | Melville Statue St Andrew Square Edinburgh https://citydev-portal.edinburgh.gov.uk/idoxpa-web/applicationDetails.do?activeTab=documents&keyVal=RHVRK6EWFSB00
(8) The Herald, 29 September 2023 https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/23822907.melville-monument-edinburgh-council-demands-return-slavery-plaque/