The Melville Monument in St Andrew Square is one of the most prominent landmarks in the city, but unlike the Scott Monument, for some reason it rarely features in classic views of Edinburgh. It could be that its sheer size means people don’t look up to take in the whole thing, or perhaps there is still some uncertainty about the man it commemorates.
The imposing figure who stands on the top is Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, whose nicknames of ‘King Harry the Ninth’, the ‘Great Tyrant’ and the ‘Uncrowned King of Scotland’, tell their own story. Dundas trained as a lawyer but went on to have a highly successful political career, becoming MP for Midlothian in 1774 and shortly afterwards a government minister. As Home Secretary he used his influence to frustrate efforts to end the slave trade. Academics have calculated that this resulted in an additional 630,000 people being transported from Africa to British colonies in the West Indies. The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act finally entered the statute books on 25 March 1807. At the outbreak of war with France he became Minister for War, and many historians blame him for much of the lack of organisation and confused planning in the campaigns that followed. In 1806 he was impeached for the misuse of public funds, and although found not guilty he never held office again.
Why then would anyone build a monument to this ‘monster’? In fact, the monument was paid for, not by the government, but as a plaque on it records, ‘by the voluntary contributions of the officers, petty officers, seamen and marines’. The simple fact was that Dundas was very good at working the corrupt system of Georgian politics, and many people in Scotland had benefited from his goodwill. Dundas was an important confidante for the king at a time of very strained relations with the Prince of Wales, and tried to use this influence to gain better recognition for Catholics in Ireland. He certainly suffered from prejudice, and many of his enemies mocked his supposedly rough manners and broad Scottish accent.
The architect William Burn decided on a design inspired by Trajans Column in Rome, which dates to around 113 AD. The fluted column is 150 feet tall, something which caused some consternation among nearby businesses. To reassure them the lighthouse engineer Robert Stevenson was brought in to advise the project. Later on it was decided to place a statue of Dundas on top of the column, modelled by Francis Chantrey, the leading sculptor of his day. The statue is specially designed, with many of the facial features exaggerated so the sculpture has an impact from a distance.
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. Work on such a tall column presents many issues, but it was the conservation of the statue which proved particularly tricky. A special scaffold known as a ‘crowsnest’ had to be built around the top of the column, to enable conservators to get access. In places crumbling stonework was consolidated, but in others entirely new pieces were carved.
The Melville Monument is a good example of how the meaning of the city’s landmarks can change over time. Today the figure it commemorates is largely forgotten, and instead people appreciate it as another part of the city’s extraordinary architectural heritage, an impressive backdrop to our daily lives.