Standing on the shoulders of Giants:- Plaques commemorating and creating for writers warning about war - RSA

Standing on the shoulders of Giants:- Plaques commemorating and creating for writers warning about war


  • Picture of Neil McLennan FRSA
    Neil McLennan FRSA
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In 1867 the RSA instigated the commemorative plaque scheme as a way or recognising places linked with figures from history. In 2018 RSA Fellow and Fellowship Councillor Neil McLennan instigated a series of commemorations to mark Scotland’s Great War poets. Now he calls on more fellows to mark people from the past in places of significance to them, especially in this, the year when peace should be commemorated.

Commemorative plaques of all shapes, colours and sizes are commonplaces across the UK.  The RSA’s Heritage Index (2016) shows the scale of our homage to history. The plaque scheme to commemorate historic figures at places of importance to them was instigated by the RSA in 1867 at Lord Byron’s birthplace in  Holles Street, just off Cavendish Square, London. This was the first of 36 plaques erected.  It provided the inspiration for such schemes worldwide. The house Byron was born in was demolished in 1889. In 2012 a new plaque was placed at the site. More recently, in 2016, a green plaque was unveiled for RSA founder William Shipley, marking the tercentenary of his birth at the site of the RSA’s first meeting at Rawthmell’s Coffee House in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden.

Certain aspects of our history are omnipresent. It is interesting that the first plaque was to a poet. This nation holds poets in high regard. So to does it respect the fallen in war. “The lost generation” of the First World War (1914-1918) are marked in almost inhabitable location across the UK, save the ‘blessed villages’ unaffected by the slaughter which wrought Europe at the start of the 20th century. 

In 2017/18 First World War official commemorations continued to recount battles of the Great War. In Edinburgh in 2017, a collaborative of some seventeen education, arts, business, literary, veterans’ and civic partners united to deliver twenty-five public education events to commemorate war poets Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves being in Edinburgh in 1917. The events ranged from lectures to film screenings to walks in the Pentland Hills and attracted a wide range of participants. A plaque was unveiled in Juniper Green in Edinburgh to mark the location of the meeting of war poets Owen, Sassoon and Graves in October 1917. This unveiling took place before one of the programme’s talks and musical inputs. The programme’s warm reception gave the inspiration for some partners to do more to highlight Scotland’s War Poets in 2018.

Was it not said that you can change anything in the world, but the first step is forming a committee? And so, a small committee was again formed. Together it sought to firstly have a national memorial to Scotland’s Great War poets and writers- Scotland’s own Poets’ Corner. Secondly, to ensure national coverage, we applied for Historic Environment Scotland plaques to be placed across the country to commemorate Scotland’s poets of war. 

On the 23rd November 2018 the national memorial to Scotland’s Great War poets was unveiled at a splendid ceremony in Makars’ Court, Edinburgh. A walk through Makars’ Court in Edinburgh is a literary lover’s dream.  Wise words and known names are etched into the paving slabs that run along the side of Lady Stair’s House, now the Writers Museum. Our national memorial is now sited there. Working with partners from University of Aberdeen, Edinburgh Napier University, Dignity Funerals Ltd, Wilfred Owen’s Edinburgh, City of Edinburgh Council and the National Library of Scotland a Celtic Cross was unveiled. The cross design was largely inspired by an idea of Annette MacDonald of Dignity.  Initially we had considered a memorial to writers of war from across the world. However, the committee focussed on the Scottish concept. As such, a Celtic Cross both symbolised Scotland but has strong international connections. Engraved into the middle of our cross is a sword, like so many war memorials that are dotted across towns and villages and the length and breadth of the country. However, this sword is very different. The point of the sword turns into the nib of a pen- echoing the sentiment 100 years on, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” As Annette said, “their words touched us more than conflict could hurt them.”

The memorial is the centre piece in what is now quite a war poets trail across Scotland.  For on 5th November at Powis House in Aberdeen (now Powis Community Centre) we unveiled a plaque to Aberdeen born Charles Hamilton Sorley.  Charles had lived in Powis House as a child when his father was Professor of Moral Philosophy at University of Aberdeen. A ceremony at Powis saw pupils from St Machar Academy sing a wonderful arrangement of one of Sorley’s poems, poet Martin Malone read his interpretation of Sorley ‘Sorley’s Bullet’ and civic, academic and military figures support the event. Sorley was killed at the Battle of Loos, a battle which scarred many Scottish regiments.  In some ways it was Scotland’s Somme. Sorley had been in and English regiment but he never forgot his Scottish routes. Moreover, his childhood playing in field around Powis House and at Aberdeen beech started a creative mind which left us with some of the most powerful poems. He was supposed to have made up stories about where the railway line at Kittybrewster went to. Sorley’s final poems were found in his kit after he died.  His body was never recovered. Now the words of one of this poems is etched on the plaque at the site he grew up.

On 6 December we unveiled a plaque at Airlie Place in Dundee on the date of poet Joseph Lee’s birthday. Lee lived in Airlie Place in his lifetime. The writer and artist served in both wars, and was a prisoner of war in the First World War. Matthew Jarron (who features in our earlier podcasts) organised a splendid event with readings and music again celebrating the life of a poet whose words endure to this day.

Later this year a plaque will be unveiled to Mary Symon in Dufftown and also to Lady Margaret Sackville in Edinburgh.  We will resubmit requests for plaques to JB Salmond in Arbroath, WD Cocker in Glasgow and RW Kerr in Edinburgh. Thus, all corners of Scotland will have their own war poets’ corner to link to the splendid memorial that now adorns Makars’ Court in Edinburgh.

The work on commemorating the Scottish war poets has added three more war memorials to Edinburgh’s civic architecture (adding to the noted 99 war memorials in the RSA 2016 Heritage Index, Edinburgh sitting in third place in the Scottish Heritage Index League table); added one more memorial to Dundee (39 noted in 2016, with Dundee at that time top of the Scottish Heritage Index), one more to Moray (who were noted to have 43 war memorials in 2016) and one more to Aberdeen City (who were noted to have 53 in 2016). 

However, there are many more war poets whom this work has brought attention to. Each one is deserving in the towns and villages which nurtured, housed and inspired them. Some of them can be found at the web link below. I would encourage RSA Fellows to find out more, not least in this, the 100th anniversary of the year of peace. Much was done over the past four years to commemorate the First World War.  Considerably less has been done to commemorate the peace that followed, the peace talks and the words of warning about war which the war poets wrote. A key aim of the Scottish War Poet’s Corner was to bring attention to these hidden war poets and war poetry in general.  Their words share humanity and echo warnings into another century. For all their words are read at commemoration services, are they heeded in the modern world? And what will happen to their words as the First World War fades into distant memory? Within the school curriculum there remains a risk that the Great War could, at some point, suffer the same fate as the Crimean War by slipping from relevance.  Both remain relevant for they formed the modern world we know. And what is more, those who lived through those war eras recorded the impact of war on that scale and the intense human suffering at an individual level. It is why, as well as remembering battles, commanders and victors, we must remember the writers and poets of war, and ensure their warnings do not wane with time. 

For those figures in history, and for RSA fellows today, the words of 19th century Edinburgh born churchman, and aptly, poet ring true. Horatius Bonar (known as Horace) words ring true as we look at the past and consider how we mark moments, monuments and people of times gone by. The words of Bonar are now often used for remembrance events:-

Fading away like the stars of the morning,

Losing their light to the glorious sun

Thus would we pass from this earth and its toiling

Only remembered for what we have done.”

The words were used in the stage production of Michel Morpurgo’s War Horse, this modern-day literary legend building on the firm foundations of others’ contributions. Whilst our present enlightenment work at RSA must look to the future, we cannot forget that we stand on the shoulders of giants, literally.  It is on their efforts we build towards a continued creativity in society and hopefully a more peaceful one.  Leadership approaches which take heed of the past, learn from literature as well as victors’ stories, and which look widely at what has gone before may create a more peaceful society.  We owe it to those who suffered before to create that society.   

Follow the link for more details of Scottish War Poets from your area.

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