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Edinburgh World Heritage/News/From Russia with love… the Scott Monument and the St Petersburg connection

From Russia with love… the Scott Monument and the St Petersburg connection

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15th May 2020

Patricia Andrew

On the death of Sir Walter Scott in 1832 there was immediate enthusiasm to create a memorial to the great poet, novelist, and promoter of Scotland’s history and culture. Donations swiftly poured in from home and abroad. These included some from St Petersburg (then the capital of Russia). A surviving ledger, held in Edinburgh Public Library, records the donors name by name, and provides a fascinating glimpse of the Scottish community in the city.

A study of the document, and the project to build the Scott monument, prompts comparisons with other memorial projects in early 19th-century Edinburgh. Alas, they all had one thing in common – their costs always rose above the original estimates!

Monuments, monuments…

Take the Melville Monument in St Andrew Square, for example. Inspired by Trajan’s column in Rome, it was erected in 1823 in memory of the Tory statesman Henry Dundas, first Viscount Melville (1742–1811). When unexpected additional costs arose, appeals were made to the public to meet the shortfall, but even so the managing committee had to dig deep into their own pockets to complete the project.

The campaign for the National Monument on Calton Hill, planned to commemorate the Scots who fell in the Napoleonic wars, struggled from the start. This enormously costly building was to be a replica of the Parthenon in Athens. Work started in 1822, but came to a halt seven years later. Not only was it too expensive, there were continuing disagreements about the eventual use of the memorial, and the project failed to win public hearts and minds.

After this, it was a bold move to start building another monument on Calton Hill in 1831 – but this one commemorated Robert Burns (1759-1796), a man dear to Scottish hearts. The idea was first proposed by a Scottish merchant working in India, who began collecting subscriptions there. Like the National Monument, it too was inspired by ancient Greece, but based on a smaller and more decorative ancient building. Even this project, however, required repeated requests for public donations in order to achieve completion.

Yet the financial problems experienced with all these projects did not dampen enthusiasm for a large memorial to commemorate Walter Scott. The design competition of 1836 was won by George Meikle Kemp, and the monument inaugurated in 1846. But yet again the initial estimates proved inadequate. When the project was already well advanced, major additional fundraising efforts became necessary in order to avoid the embarrassment of leaving a second, prominently-sited monument unfinished.

Russia, the Scots and Walter Scott

For over two centuries many of Russia’s professional class were Scots. They worked as naval and military officers, doctors, engineers, architects and even garden designers. By 1832 they were not the only devotees of Walter Scott in Russia; the Russians themselves were huge admirers, reading his works in French translation.

The ledger listing those who sent their roubles from St Petersburg for the Scott Monument reads like a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of Scots in Russia. For example, there is Sir James Wylie, one of the most eminent medical men in Russia. He had studied medicine at Edinburgh before being lured to St Petersburg by Dr John Rogerson of Fife, personal physician to Catherine the Great – he had also studied in Edinburgh, as had two other donors, Sir Alexander Crichton and Dr Thomas Walker. There are also engineers such as Charles Baird, one of the men who left the Carron Company at Falkirk to develop an ordnance factory in Russia (a controversial matter for Britain!). And his nephew William Handyside who developed the first Russian steamships and suspension bridges. The list goes on…

Read Patricia Andrew’s full article in the Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, New Series Vol. 15 (2019), available from the Old Edinburgh Club (details on the Club’s website). Or wait until lockdown ends and read it in Edinburgh Central Library.

Dr Patricia Andrew has also published the histories of other Edinburgh landmarks in the Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, including St Anthony’s Chapel on Arthur’s Seat (vol.10, 2014) and St Bernard’s Well on the Water of Leith at Stockbridge (vol. 9, 2012).

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