Catherine Gillies: Politicising our heritage – the fiasco of Holyrood Park

Ben Wray

Catherine Gillies, a museums and heritage consultant, says that by denying the All Under One Banner independence demonstration use of Holyrood Park on the grounds of being a-political, Historic Environment Scotland have unwittingly politicised heritage in Scotland and thus made a fundamental mistake

I FIND myself musing endlessly on the current furore over Historic Environment Scotland’s decision not to allow stalls and speeches after the forthcoming All Under One Banner march in Holyrood Park on the grounds that they, as an organisation, are a-political.

It is, on so many levels, an extraordinary statement to make. That HES are a-political goes – or should go – without saying. They are civil servants whose job is simply to care for the built heritage in Scotland, keeping the wheels on the bus regardless of which political party is in power.

As a person who also looks after heritage for living I can confirm that it is a nuts and bolts task, sometimes locally contentious (occasionally nationally) but never drifting into political waters.

Many of Scotland’s great buildings and places reek of political history, a fact which is both inevitable and irrelevant. As a custodian or museum curator our job is to acknowledge and interpret heritage, but it is never right – and it would be downright dangerous – to apply any political lens on either a personal or institutional basis.

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People can be political, but the politics of the visitor is also not our business, and unless they are planning to damage or deface the heritage in our care, or threaten other visitors, then we have no platform from which to comment on their reason for being there.

The people who work at HES know all this, and are certainly not guilty of political lenses in the way they explore and interpret their monuments. Which makes the current politicisation of heritage as a whole by HES hard to understand – for that is what they have unwittingly done.

At best, it is a bungled mess of unintended consequences arising from miscommunication around some fragment of their mission statement, at worst it is an absolute betrayal of all that the heritage sector stands for – we aim to be impartial, inclusive, welcoming, fair. We could be better at it for sure, but these are heartfelt goals.

How on earth have HES come to this place? They have rushed at an enemy which was never there, while simultaneously retreating behind denial and being wounded by inference, while people who had never even considered that HES were part of the political landscape look on in frank amazement. Worse, they have provided a new target for the vocal few ready for a fight, and as someone passionate about our heritage I wish with all my heart that they had not done so.

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HES have made a fundamental mistake. They have somehow convinced themselves that they are a third corner of a triangle of people and historic places, but there is no triangle, it has only ever been a two-way street between people and place. People have complex relationships with built and natural spaces, which acquire layers of history from the minute they are built or defined; history which (unless it is geological) is always made by people and variously coalesces around common purpose, celebration, creativity and conflict.

We seek out places which resonate with our beliefs, and mark places where significant things happen – ochre handprints on a cave wall, a talisman for fertility, a shrine, a mural on an abandoned factory. Our buildings have been created as tools for life, for staying safe and warm, being buried, worshipping God.

HES are caretakers, the janitors with the key and the mop bucket who care for all this. That is all HES are; they are the keepers of the built environment. They do not own it. They are not the arbiters of its soul, and above all they are not the thought police who decide why people choose to interact with heritage.

To do so is to tamper with pilgrimage, which is as old as time and only rarely to do with religion. Pilgrimage is a massive part of any heritage organisation’s business; I have been director of two sites which owed a substantial part of their income to having a particular emotional resonance. Neither was a church, neither was political, underlining the fact that as people we seek out places for a myriad of significances.

“Historic Environment Scotland are keepers of the built environment. They do not own it. They are not the arbiters of its soul.”

HES, who have a huge talent for creating policy and rules, have somehow hard-wired themselves into a corner where being a-political has become an active stance rather than passive, invisible position. They have ceased to be bystanders.

It is wholly unnecessary. Look at the National Trust for Scotland, who a few months ago welcomed the AUOB marchers across the finish line at their Bannockburn property, which was coincidentally (was it coincidental?) in the throes of a battle re-enactment. The battlefield of Bannockburn swarmed with saltires in a heady melding of people, politics and heritage. The café sold out, tickets to the exhibition were up. NTS fulfilled all their aims – engaging people with heritage and making the money to conserve it.

The NTS is not political, and nor would anyone coming away from Bannockburn that day even consider that the doors were opened because of some political or a-political stance. It simply wasn’t in the air. NTS did not compromise themselves by allowing an independence march to finish on their ground. They provided a safe place in which people could legally gather, and also loos, which were infinitely more of a draw than the speeches.

Stirling Castle is an almost equally super-charged historical site, and it was here that HES chose this week quite literally to come out and tell the 500-mile independence marchers effectively to get off their land, bizarrely calling the police to reinforce the message. The police were great, the marchers (who hadn’t even crossed the threshold) gained publicity beyond their wildest dreams and HES looked very, very political.

“HES have somehow hard-wired themselves into a corner where being a-political has become an active stance rather than passive, invisible position.”

Holyrood Park has none of the affiliations of Bannockburn or Stirling – or it didn’t until now, but HES may just have created a nationalist icon which would in my view be the worst outcome of all.

HES are beleaguered and facing who-knows-what this Saturday when the marchers (lots of cheery families, grannies, dogs as well as the diehards and politicos of all hues and none) make their own fun afterwards in this very public park to which they all have a right. I suspect it will be a forest of flags. I hope everyone keeps it nice.

How HES play it from now on is crucial. If they have have any sense, they will just ignore the whole show and let it be. I know good people in HES, many of whom will be shaking their heads in despair. Like me, they will be regretting the politicisation of heritage which has been triggered, and which should never have been. For the time being at least, I cannot forgive HES for bringing my world into disrepute.

Picture courtesy of Loz Pycock