By Daniel Tarade
History is the story of great men. And great buildings. Castles and cathedrals embody history and become larger-than-life monuments to religion and nationhood. Unanimated structures serve as mascots for those in power; we are to revere these voiceless and hollow forms above all else. Yet, even great monuments fall. Faced with symbolic ruins, those in power are faced with questions about how to preserve legacy and authority. I faced these questions when traveling through Scotland and gazing upon their castles. Some lie in ruin, others stand rebuilt. Decisions to construct monuments anew are not devoid of political motivation. It is not simply a preservation of some natural and essential component of our universe. Instead, an intense focus on monuments serves to orient consciousness away from the material conditions of suffering and towards false ideals of hierarchy and nationalism.
The two castles I visited are Urquhart, nestled on Loch Ness, and Eilean Donan Castle, located on the mainland across from the Isle of Skye. Castles have been present on both sites since at least the 13th century, each featuring multiple rounds of destruction and rebuilding. Through the 17th and 18th centuries, Jacobite and British forces fought over these strategic positions. After successfully fending off a Jacobite attack in 1690, the Brits blew up portions of Urquhart castle to prevent future occupation by enemy forces. Conversely, Eilean Donan was destroyed in 1719, when the British navy fired upon the Jacobite-seized castle. Two castles lay in ruin, but their trajectories would diverge. The ruins of Urquhart were looked upon romantically by painters in the 18th century. This dilapidated state was preserved intentionally and has become a popular tourist destination. Eilean Donan Castle was instead rebuilt in the early 20th century, a romantic impression of what a castle ought to be. While Urquhart remains a ruin, preserved in an unpreserved state, Eilean Donan has been reimagined as a glorious monument.
A tension arises in the dichotomy illuminated by the different treatments of Urquhart and Eilean Donan. Do we preserve, rebuild, or let fallow our bygone monuments? Remember the ultimate purpose of monuments in the first place. A monument is a cheap but effective defence strategy. A monument includes and excludes certain groups of people, much like the flag flying above parliament. A seemingly solid and unchanging monument is packaged with the values of a society, the very values that benefit those who are in the position to commission monuments in the first place. Monuments naturalize both the superiority of a certain group of people and also the inequality among those very same people. I began considering other monuments that are being restored, like the Parthenon, the Notre Dame, or even the World Trade Center. The Parthenon, sitting atop the Acropolis in Athens, was destroyed in 1687 when a mortar struck Ottoman munitions stored within the ancient temple during a battle with Venetian forces. Following the Greek War of Independence (1821-1832), it is easy to imagine that the ruling class wanted to consolidate their power and repair their national image. By 1834, the newly installed King Otto presided over an elaborate ceremony declaring the Parthenon an ancient monument. The chief adviser on architecture and archaeology, Klenze, said the following;
But Klenze offered a messianic vision of the classical Acropolis ‘re-born’ as the symbol of the new nation-state. ‘Your Majesty stepped today’, he declared, ‘after so many centuries of barbarism, for the first time on this celebrated Acropolis, proceeding on the road of civilisation and glory, on the road passed by the likes of Themistocles, Aristeides, Cimon and Pericles, and this is and should be in the eyes of your people the symbol of your glorious reign … All the remains of barbarity will be removed, here as in all Greece, and the remains of the glorious past will be brought in new light, as the solid foundation of a glorious present and future.’
From this moment, the new state of Greece would be symbolized by the ruins of the Acropolis, to be stripped of any barbaric imagery, including the minaret installed by the Ottomans. The Parthenon always served as propaganda, and in its rebirth, messages of xenophobia and strict hierarchy were doubled. The importance of these national symbols explains the controversy surrounding the Elgin marbles. Greek politicians do not want to regain those old rocks for the betterment of the citizenry but to reaffirm their control over the citizenry as representatives of a glorious Greece.
The importance of monuments to the maintenance of the status quo cannot be overstated. It is why protests and counter-protests have erupted over American Confederate statues. It is why a monument to the victims of communism is being constructed in Ottawa. It is why the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were targeted on 9/11, with United Flight 93 speculated to have been heading towards the Capitol Building. The chosen targets of terrorism were less about the loss of life and more about targeting symbols of American capitalism and imperialism. As a corollary, the newly constructed One World Trade Center is also imbued with symbolism. Despite being an office building for use by Fortune 500 companies, with almost no bearing on the average New Yorker, it has come to represent American ideals. This is most clearly seen in the original name, “Freedom Tower.” What does an office tower have to do with freedom? Very little unless one considers the jingoistic nature of the wars in the Middle East and the consistent framing of the 9/11 terror attacks as an attack on American ‘freedom.’ The successful framing of this tax-payer-subsidized building as an American victory is potent propaganda.
The fostered reverence from monuments illuminates the reverence given to property, in general. During the protests in Ferguson, Missouri following the killing of an unarmed Michael Brown by a police officer, news coverage focused on the torching of stores. As described in the documentary Whose Streets?(2017), the mainstream focus on destruction of property laid bare the priorities of a capitalist society: possessions not people. Rather than focusing on systemic inequality in America, one where cops killing unarmed black people is endemic, the narrative promoted by Black Lives Matter protesters is subverted. Similarly, the spectacle of the Notre Dame fire highlights how the masses have been conditioned to value exceptional property as symbols of nationhood. Somehow, an event with no human deaths became the tragedy of the week, if not month or year. Before the fire was even extinguished, the ultra-wealthy pledged millions to its restoration. Conversely, the Grenfell Fire, which killed 72 people in London, resulted in a broken promise to permanently rehouse 209 families within a year. Of course, the tragedy of the Grenfell fire, affecting poorer migrant families, was only possible due to cheap flammable external cladding and a lack of appropriate safety features. No billionaire has come to the rescue. No powerful people want to rebuild an apartment of practical utility and no symbolic meaning. The fact that millions are instead committed to the restoration of the Notre Dame while yellow vests fight the austerity that is crushing the working class highlights how the ruling class functions; Billionaires can feint being charitable by rebuilding a cathedral but actively fight against any system changes that would strengthen the working class.
The story with the rebuilt Scottish castles are the same. The motivation that prompted rebuilding the Parthenon or the World Trade Center also fed the restoration of Eilean Donan. Efforts were led by John MacRae-Gilstrap, who wanted to restore glory to the clan MacRae, supporters of the Jacobite uprising. If you are to wander around the castle today, you will read tales of famous MacRaes and see their photos. As in every capitalist society, to build a monument is to construct a national identity, with an explicit hierarchy, and to prioritize that identity above the livelihood of the multitudes who exist at the bottom of that hierarchy. We need to remember that all monuments are constructed by those who benefit from the current system. Their monuments validate the system that made them powerful and wealthy at our expense. Yet, their monuments only have power if we accept them. They can be subverted.