Cockburn Conversations on Hidden Histories

POSTED ON January 21, 2022

Recordings of recent Cockburn Conversations about research and experience of hidden and contested histories

“History is always changing behind us, and the past changes a little every time we retell it” according to the author and writer Hilary Mantel.

Being Scotland’s oldest heritage organisation we have a long corporate memory and a broad and expansive knowledge of the history of Edinburgh. But history is rarely static and new stories about our city come to light almost every day. These new narratives can often impact in a myriad of subtle or not-so-subtle ways upon the way we view and interact with the streets, buildings, neighbourhoods, tangible and intangible artefacts we might have known (or thought we knew) all of our lives.

Having this week provided our detailed response to the City of Edinburgh’s Council’s Slavery and Colonialism Legacy consultation we thought it would be useful to revisit some recent “Cockburn Conversations” we held online during 2020 that each helped, in different ways, to shape our members’ approaches and responses to the enormously significant contemporary debate on the public memorialisation and commemoration of contested and often all-too hidden histories in our urban spaces.

On Monday 21st September, we heard from Prof Sir Geoff Palmer, noted academic and human rights activist, in a conversation called “Don’t take down statues, take down racism” with our chairperson Professor Cliff Hague. Sir Geoff discussed the campaign he led to erect a plaque on Edinburgh’s Melville Monument that includes a fuller account of the role Henry Dundas played in the legislative debate around the abolition of slavery and Sir Geoff’s belief that the statues memorialising those with racist connections should be left in place and better interpreted rather than torn down and removed. Watch it below:

On Tuesday 22nd September, Cliff was joined in conversation by his son Prof Euan Hague live from De Paul University in Chicago to talk about Euan’s recent work “Challenging entrenched histories: The memorialisation of the Confederacy in the USA”. The pair discussed Euan’s research into the rise of neo-Confederacy and how this is reflected in monuments and place-names in contemporary America. Euan also shared his work unearthing hidden histories in Chicago and he and Cliff looked at how his approach might be applicable in Edinburgh. Watch the conversation below:

Local writer, historical consultant, founder of the Edinburgh Caribbean Association and Edinburgh’s Black History Walks Lisa Williams joined Cliff on Wednesday 23rd September 2020 to talk about “Behind the Façade: Edinburgh’s links with the Caribbean”. Lisa shared some of her extensive research into the connections many of Edinburgh’s most notable buildings have to the Caribbean, Africa and Asia and often, by extension, the heinous trade in enslaved people. She also discussed her work with local school groups and others to develop strategies to unearth and share lesser known narratives about the streets, memorials and landmarks across the city. Watch the discussion here:

Acclaimed international artist Andrew Crummy joined Cliff in conversation on Thursday 24th September called “How we helped the people sing: The story of the Craigmillar Festival Society”Andrew and Cliff discussed the roots and output of this prolific grassroots arts festival founded in 1962 by Andrew’s mother Helen and other members of the Peffermill School Mothers’ Club. They were driven as much by their love of artistic endeavour as they were by a deep frustration at the lack of access to the arts available to their children and the marginalisation of their neighbourhood by Edinburgh’s civic and cultural leaders, especially during the traditional Festival season. In 2014, a statue of Helen’s was unveiled in Craigmillar, one a tiny number women to be publicly commemorated in this way in Scotland’s capital. Watch the conversation here:

On Friday 25th September author, writer and community activist Sara Sheridan joined Cliff to discuss “Where are the women? A guide to an imagined Scotland” her meticulously researched book of the same name, published last in 2019 by Historic Environment Scotland. In this imagined guide to Scotland’s towns and countryside, Sara revealed the stories of many of the women who have been sidelined in Scotland’s history and created a new atlas where these often unknown or forgotten women are properly commemorated in street-names, statues, plaques and landmark dedications. Sara and Cliff discussed how Edinburgh, a city with exceptionally few memorials to or statues of named women, could look if this historical and commemorative imbalance was to be equitably addressed. Watch their discussion here:

Claire Mitchell QC, human rights advocate and one of the founders of Witches of Scotland joined Cliff on the October 26th to discuss “Accused, Tortured, Strangled and Burned!” Remembering the victims of Scotland’s Witch Mania”. Claire and Cliff discussed Witches of Scotland’s campaign to obtain an official pardon, a Parliamentary apology and a national memorial for the thousands people – mostly women – who were accused, tortured and executed for supposed acts of witchcraft in Scotland between 1563 and 1736. Watch the conversation here:

Our sincerest thanks to all of our wonderful conversationalists for generously giving up their time to explore these sensitive and important issues with Cliff and the live audience who attended each Cockburn Conversation. Don’t forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel to view recordings of future events like these. 


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