Scotland secession: A tribute to the country's mischievous character

A Salute to Defiant Scots on the Eve of Their Possible Secession

A Salute to Defiant Scots on the Eve of Their Possible Secession

Atlas Obscura
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Sept. 17 2014 1:46 PM

A Salute to Defiant Scots on the Eve of Their Possible Secession

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With Scotland voting tomorrow on whether to secede from the United Kingdom, images embodying the country's national identity have been hitting American TV. The go-to cultural reference among satirical late-night hosts has been, of course, William Wallace as portrayed by Mel Gibson in Braveheart. Jon Stewart, a kilt-clad Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver—in a segment inspired by Love Actually—have all included Gibson's blue-striped face in their coverage during the last week. 

With respect to the real William Wallace, who incited Scotland's first War of Independence in 1297, there is another, much more recent example of Scottish defiance that deserves attention. It involves Glasgow, a statue, and a traffic cone.

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In front of Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art is a statue of the Duke of Wellington astride a horse. The Duke, born Arthur Wellesley in 1769, was an Anglo-Irish soldier who served as both Commander-in-Chief of the British Army and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Voted as one of the 100 Greatest Britons in a 2002 UK public poll, the Duke is known for his commanding role in defeating the French during the Napoleonic Wars.

None of that matters to some of the more mischievous residents of Glasgow, who, since the 1980s, have taken to placing a bright orange traffic cone on the Duke's head. The origin of the tradition is unclear—there is a chance that alcohol was involved—but the Duke's orange hat proved so popular that a new one would reappear every time city officials removed the last one.

In 2013, the city attempted to quash the conehead malarkey by proposing to raise the statue's plinth to six feet, making it much more difficult for pranksters to reach the Duke's head. The $106,000 proposal outraged the citizens of Glasgow. A Change.org petition, signed by over 10,000 supporters, made people's passions clear: "The cone on Wellington's head is an iconic part of Glasgow's heritage, and means far more to the people of Glasgow and to visitors than Wellington himself ever has."

Within two weeks of the plinth-raising application being lodged, the Glasgow City Council cancelled its plans to modify the statue. The Duke and his orange hat live on as a symbol of cheeky Scottish defiance, and shall be looking over Glaswegians as they head to the polls tomorrow.

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The statue on a rare cone-free day.

Photo: Seo J Kim/Creative Commons

Ella Morton is a writer working on The Atlas Obscura, a book about global wonders, curiosities, and esoterica adapted from Atlas Obscura. Follow her on Twitter.