How Wellington put boot into career of Carluke sculptor Robert Forrest

Coming a cropper...the Wellington statue was originally commissioned by Lanark Town Council but rejected
Coming a cropper...the Wellington statue was originally commissioned by Lanark Town Council but rejected

BIZARRELY, a near-forgotten slight to Carluke by its old rival Lanark over 150 years ago was recalled by a recent senseless act of vandalism – in Falkirk.

As a court case is still pending, we cannot go into great detail here but, suffice to say, someone with a bit of muscle power pulled the head off a statue of the Duke of Wellington which had stood as a local landmark in Falkirk’s town centre for the past century and a half.

How it ended up in Falkirk in the first place recalls that incident of long ago when, not for the first nor the last time, Lanark got on Carluke’s wick.

According to the local press in Falkirk, the statue depicting the ‘Iron Duke’ was by the Carluke sculptor Robert Forrest, the man whose first public work was the still-famous 1822 rendering of William Wallace which stands to this day in its niche in Lanark Steeple at the Cross.

Although now much-criticised as looking nothing like what The Braveheart would have in real life – Wallace, as a southern Scottish noble, would NEVER have worn a kilt – the statue was, according to reports from the time, a major hit with the folk of Lanark.

Indeed, at its unveiling ceremony, it is said that the delighted Lanarkians carried Forrest shoulder-high through the town centre!

According to the Falkirk report, thirty years after his Wallace triumph, the Royal Burgh’s Town Council commissioned another statue of a heroic figure from Forrest, one of the Duke of Wellington.

But this time, according to the report, Lanarkians just didn’t like it.

In fact, they reportedly refused to accept it or pay Forrest’s bill.

And he ended up being forced to flog it, reportedly at the cut-price of £70, to the Burgh of Falkirk.

We cannot tell now just how hurt Forrest was by this alleged rejection but worse was to come in his career and, again, the Duke of Wellington played a part.

Forrest’s creation of the Wallace statue in Lanark was an early success in his career which, at least initially, spurred him on to bigger and better things.

Like Burns before him, his fame spread from his rural birthplace to the bright lights of the big city and Edinburgh ‘discovered’ the Carluke artist, showering him with praise and very lucrative commissions, including some of the statues that today grace the capital’s New Town banking sector.

In another Burns connection, a Forrest statue of The Bard – said to be the first of Burns – stands to this day in far-off Australia!

However, as in all cases of ‘too much, too soon’, Forrest let the fame and praise all go to his head.

With perhaps a swollen sense of his own importance and popularity, he began planning a grand exhibition of his works in Edinburgh, a truly grandiose scheme which included building his own elaborate large hall to house it.

The ruinous plan left him broke but Robert Forrest followed it up with an even more costly one.

If Forrest had got his way, Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh would have been rendered into a colossal statue of, yes, his great hero – and nemesis – The Duke of Wellington.

It would have been Scotland’s equivalent of America’s Mount Rushmore, the natural crop of rock hewen into the images of four American presidents in the 1930s.

Forrest’s grand scheme would have predated that by almost a century.

Perhaps mercifully, ill heath carried away Robert Forrest before he could get this inspired but insane project underway.

You have to wonder how today’s Scottish parliamentarians – particularly its dominant Nationalist members – would have felt with a gigantic image of a VERY British military hero and later VERY Tory Prime Minister looming over Holyrood!