Why We Need a Memorial to Conscientious Objectors in Princes St Gardens

The aspiration to create a memorial to COs arose with the centenary of the First World War. We noted that there are memorials to COs in London and other places but not yet in Scotland’s capital city.

Design overview desciption with textConscientious objection and opposition to War is a significant part of Scotland’s history. 80,000 people marched to oppose the First World War on Glasgow Green in 1914. There were nearly 20,000 COs during the First World War and 60,000 in the Second yet they are scarcely recognised in public spaces. A CO Memorial in Princes St Gardens will ensure that this history is recognized in a site that is visited by millions of people.

The Memorial has significant public support. Our petition was signed by more than 400 people. It has been endorsed by Edinburgh East MP Tommy Sheppard and Lothians MSP Alison Johnstone. Partners on the project include University of Edinburgh School of Social and Political Science, St Thomas Aquins RC High School, Religious Society of Friends Scotland, Edinburgh Peace & Justice Centre, Stop the War, and Peace Pledge Union amongst others.

The proposal for the Memorial received unanimous suppport from a key City of Edinburgh Council committee. A proferred site in Princes Street Gardens is expected to be confirmed by the Planning Committee in the New Year.

The CO Memorial will celebrate the fact that Britain was the first country to recognize a right to conscientious objection to military service, a right that is now recognized by most European countries. It will memorialize the history and struggle of COs and opposition to war and suggest another way to resolve conflicts than through war – the way of peacebuilding. It will not criticise those who have fought and died in wars, but will invite reflection on the role of those who followed their own consciences even against dominant norms.  Such people have often led the way to changes in attitudes. Thus, the Memorial will celebrate the values of liberty, humanism, tolerance and diversity.

During the First World War thousands of COs were imprisoned in harsh conditions with a poor diet, forced to do manual labour, subjected to abuse and torture and force fed. 73 died in or following imprisonment. They were however better treated during the Second World War. Others, particularly Quakers, did Non Combatant service and risked their lives as stretcher bearers saving the lives of thousands of men.

6d4bbee9388297a3936144886a88386f--conscientious-objector-to-fightCOs were socialists, nationalists, Christians, labourers and intellectuals. Many became significant figures in artistic, religious, academic and political life, including the poets Edwin Morgan and Norman MacCaig, the composer Ronald Stevenson, Bishop of Edinburgh, Alistair Haggart, Scottish Nationalist politician Douglas Young, Arthur Woodburn – who was imprisoned in Calton Jail – and became an MP and Secretary of State for Scotland. Amongst the leaders of the No Conscription Fellowship were the philosopher Bertrand Russell and Ramsay Macdonald who became Prime Minister.

There are at least 37 memorials in Edinburgh to those who have fought and died in wars. The time is right for these to be balanced with a space for reflection on the way of peace.

Princes St Gardens is a haven for local people who seek peace and quiet during hectic work days. Consultations on the Ross Development resulted in recognition of a desire to retain that character of the Gardens. What then could be more suitable there than a dedicated space for reflection on peace? The Gardens are an appropriate place for such a memorial as they already contain memorials of different kinds, including spaces for reflection such as the Brigades Monument.

It is fitting that the Memorial should appear now, as conscription is returning in half a dozen countries and more than fifty armed conflicts are taking place around the world. The appearance of the memorial will coincide with the centenary of the end of the First World War for COs who were imprisoned until August 1919 and represent the aspirations of people across Scotland for peace in the future.

An associated website will be linked to the memorial so that it will be a site of learning engagement. Exploring the history of conscientious objection, including stories of local COs and and setting the conscientious objection in the context of struggles to reduce violence and discrimination at a time when differences in belief are increasingly seen as threats.

An open competition for the sculpture design ensured stakeholders’ involvement in development of the concept. Shortlisted artists met with people with knowledge of conscientious objection, adult learners, academics and descendants of First World War conscientious objectors.

Read a description and view photos of the winning design created by local artist Kate Ive here.

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