29 March 2010

*Exclusive* Those Committee names Holyrood rejected...

Man is a naming animal. In the Old Testament book describing the world’s birth, Adam has hardly drawn his first breath before the Creator processes before our first father “every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof” (Genesis 2:19). The Qur’an tells it differently, however. In the Sura Al-Baqara, Allah “… taught Adam the nature of all things; then He placed them before the angels, and said: ‘Tell me the nature of these if ye are right.’ They said: ‘Glory to Thee, of knowledge We have none, save what Thou Hast taught us: In truth it is Thou Who art perfect in knowledge and wisdom’” (Verses 31 & 32). For those of us less keen on God-allotted truths, we might feel more resonance with the Christian history of Adam, when it comes to the choices our own naming enterprises. Unlike Adam, we have a wealth of history and tradition to draw upon in affixing our labels to our environment. That being said, its precisely this richness and manifold options afforded to us which make our public choices about which history to highlight, which self-reflection to sanctify, which archetype to claim worthy of our curiosity. Although bigging up the power of naming can sometimes seem a bit hysterical, its daftness to deny that naming is a mere insignificance, just a common sense selection which tells us nothing about the sort of history we're choosing to remember, one eye always on the present and its interests.

On a simple level, having decided to follow Kenny Gibson’s suggestion to name Holyrood’s six committee rooms, the parliament was simply determining on a shorthand reference for particular familiar spaces, and allotting a smidgeon of their capital to the provision of a clutch of shiny door name plates to so describe. But it was also doing more than that. When the Parliament’s Corporate Body (which consists of MSPs Tricia Marwick, Mike Pringle, Alex Fergusson, Alex Johnstone & Tom McCabe) rubber stamped Gibson’s thoroughly reasonable suggestion, I argued that it is crucial for us to recognise that “…history is not gender-innocent in this respect, simple memory and uninterrogated prominence not to be trusted. Women’s absences and silences in Scottish history are progressively being addressed and their lives and contributions uncovered by the work of members of Women’s History Scotland and others, in academic garrets across the country.” The point can be extended beyond questions of gender, to encompass the whole list. Kenny Gibson proposed a list with no Scottish women, including:

1. James Clerk Maxwell

2. Alexander Fleming

3. Adam Smith

4. James Watt

5. John Logie Baird

6. William Wallace

As Hythlodaeus has already brought to our attention, the final list of names chosen to adorn the six Committee Rooms by Holyrood’s Corporate Body are:

1. Robert Burns

2. Mary Fairfax Somerville

3. Sir Alexander Fleming

4. James Clerk Maxwell

5. Adam Smith

6. David Livingstone

Gibson clearly had his nose pressed pretty close to the tea leaves, or was able to make a pretty perspicuous window into the souls of the Corporate Body, four of his six suggestions ultimately adorning the doors of Parliament’s smaller chambers. One woman out of six is hardly impressive. A fact vigorously pointed out by one of the goodly Scottish Labour MSPs, Malcolm Chisholm, in the pages of his local Edinburgh Evening News. Quoth Chisholm, “I think it's a disgrace having only one woman. What kind of message does that send out about the Scottish Parliament and Scotland?” Moreover, the Edinburgh MSP has tabled a motion in parliament, arguing, quite rightly, that …

“… the Parliament is seriously concerned about the inclusion of only one woman among the six Scots selected by the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB) for committee room names; believes that this reflects a one-sided and distorted view of Scotland; welcomes the fact that a hundred exceptional Scottish women are recorded on panels near the entrance hall of the Parliament; notes that other names of Scottish women were put forward for consideration for committee room names, and calls on the SPCB to reconsider the matter in recognition of the very many great Scottish women whose contribution, like that of Scottish women in general, is every bit as important and distinguished as that of men.” (Motion S3M-6080)

For myself, I suspect that the deciders struggled with the (limited number) of women proposed precisely because they lack the prominence of their male alternatives. In this sense, the fact that only one woman was honoured is a factor of the lack of attention paid to the history of Scottish women, while also replicating and reinforcing the tendency.

The Holyrood press release, announcing the decision, referred to the “170 nominations put forward by 45 MSPs” which the Body considered. Being a curious creature, I wondered who the rejected 164 might have been. With the gracious assistance of parliamentary staff, I’m able to bring you, I think exclusively, the 76 names which I understand were considered by the Parliamentary Corporate Body. The 170 nominations referred to can be explained by doubling, tripling and mounting multiple suggestions of the same name. Many of those wished-for are partisan preferences, readily attributable to particular tribes of our tribunes. The late departed Bashir Ahmad, Winnie Ewing, George Younger, James Maxton, John Smith, Jo Grimond. Some sports enthusiasts clearly exercised their fawning muscles by suggesting, faintly ludicrously, that one might be called the Sir Chris Hoy Room, or for rugby fans, after Alan Lawson. Interestingly, MSPs also indulged in a spot of local caballing, some of them proposing places and landmarks as well as people. Berwick, Edinburgh, Solway, the Tweed, Na h-Eileanan Siar, (The Western Isles) Shetland and Orkney were all the subject of deliberation. For the pious, a small congregation of saints gathered, including the Sainted Margaret, Columba and Magnus. For literary fans, there were many of the old familiars. Alas, the Jacobites were unable to scrounge up much parliamentary support, the lonely figure of Flora MacDonald alone in the list, emblematic of that particular strain in Scottish history. Flora constituted one of the only twelve women ruminated upon by the Corporate Body.

You will undoubtedly detect different tendencies in this long list than I. Without further ado, here was the full list of nominations that Holyrood was working from:

1. Bashir Ahmad

2. Alan Armstrong

3. John Logie Baird

4. J M Barrie

5. Alexander Graham Bell

6. Henry Bell

7. Berwick

8. Jim Boyack

9. Mary Brooksbank

10. Robert the Bruce

11. Robert Burns

12. Andrew Carnegie

13. Saint Columba

14. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

15. Brian Duncan

16. Rev Henry Duncan

17. John Boyd Dunlop

18. Edinburgh

19. Winnie Ewing

20. Alexander Fleming

21. Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun

22. Patrick Geddes

23. Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham

24. Sir Samuel Greig

25. Jo Grimond

26. Jane Haining

27. (James) Keir Hardie

28. Hamish Henderson

29. Sir Chris Hoy

30. John Hume

31. David Hume

32. James Hutton

33. Elsie Inglis

34. John Paul Jones

35. John Knox

36. Alan Lawson

37. Jennie Lee

38. David Livingstone

39. Charles Rennie Mackintosh

40. Sorley MacLean

41. Kirkpatrick Macmillan

42. Chrystal Macmillan

43. St Magnus

44. St Margaret

45. Mary Queen of Scots

46. James Maxton

47. James Clerk Maxwell

48. John Loudon McAdam

49. Hugh McDermid

50. Flora McDonald

51. Bill Mclaren

52. Bob Mclean

53. John McLean

54. Thomas Muir

55. Prof. David Murison

56. Na h-Eileanan Siar (The Western Isles)

57. John Napier

58. Orkney

59. Robert Owen

60. Marion Reid

61. Sir Walter Scott

62. Shetland

63. James Young Simpson

64. Mary Slessor

65. Adam Smith

66. John Smith

67. Solway

68. Mary Fairfax Somerville

69. Robert Louis Stevenson

70. Thomas Telford

71. Robert William Thomson

72. Tweed

73. William Wallace

74. James Watt

75. Robert Watson Watt

76. George Younger


  1. Quite shameful really that we have such shallow MSPs. Then again, with women only representing 20% of the Corporate Body, what can we expect.

  2. Some rather good names on the list I thought, Subrosa. And I tell myself that I ought not to be so condescending towards those with sporting prowess - that I ought not to give into that little neurotic voice that summons up remembrances of sports fields past, and youthful suffering in my unsportsmanlike frame.

    What particular shallowness catches the eye?

  3. Hi Lallands,

    I have often wondered who it is that is charged with the task of naming streets. Clearly sometimes they are pushed to the limits of their imagination.

    In one area I know of, in Spain, the streets are named after the planets and other celestial bodies. Please pity those who live in Uranus. Especially if they have a first floor flat! What an address that would be to write on an envelope.

    However the absolute limit of absurdity is surely reached here in the Royal and Ancient Burgh that is Rutherglen :- "Avenue Street". Good God! Is that the best they could come up with? Unless it was a Mr. Avenue who built it, but I doubt it somehow.


  4. Morning Rab,

    I'm reasonably sure that you can blame your local authority for want of inspiration in affixing and determining the titles of streets. Or indulging in tautologies of the sort you describe.

    Personally, I've a soft spot for the (rather odd) practice you see in some places of noting the past character of the street, if it has been changes. King's Walk (Formerly Bun Snatcher Lane) I always wonder what historical twist or local political spat, forgotten to memory, lies behind these ostensibly purposeless re-Christenings.

  5. I wouldn't have minded seeing a street named after Leith's most famous American naval leader.

    There are some extremely good female suggestions there. Jane Haining and Elise Inglis would have made extremely good additions to the list. Chrystal Macmillan does at least have a building named after her at the nearby University. Most of the women on that list are vastly unrecognised though. Maybe a job for the National Museums - some kind of long term exhibition on Scottish Women in the new Chamber Street.