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How Glasgow Saved Its Coneheaded Duke of Wellington Statue

After a massive public outcry, the city has canceled plans to ruin one of its best-loved monuments.

Thomas Duesing/Flickr

After a massive public outcry, the city of Glasgow has just this week fought off plans to ruin one of its best-loved monuments. The object in question isn't an ancient church or immaculately preserved city square. It's a statue with a traffic cone stuck on its head.

For decades now, the statue of the Duke of Wellington in Glasgow's Royal Exchange Square has invariably "awoken" on Sunday morning crowned with a traffic cone left by Saturday night drinkers. As the statue's plinth is fairly low, it's easy to reach the Duke even under the influence. Sometimes, the Duke's horse, Copenhagen, is also targeted, with two cones giving the animal fluorescent orange bunny ears. Over time, the harmlessly vandalized statue has transformed in the public mind, from evidence of drunken nuisance to a key symbol of the city, reproduced in many images of the city and becoming a standard tourist photo backdrop.

It seems Glasgow City Council isn't in on the joke. Earlier this week, they proposed a new plan to protect the Anglo-Irish general from his silly hat. To deter climbers, they planned to spend £65,000 ($104,000) raising the plinth by an extra 6 feet. Their justification: the vandalism was dragging the city’s image down.

Their application stated that:

For more than 30 years the Wellington monument has been defaced by traffic cones which regularly appear on the head of the horse or rider (and sometimes both) after the revelries of the weekend. This depressing image of Glasgow has sadly featured in posters and postcards depicting the city.

They have a point. Despite decades of improvement, Glasgow still has a slightly rough image in the U.K., fueled by its history as an old port town and its continuing high poverty levels. In reality, the city both past and present has a lot going for it, with great theater and live music scenes, and a vital role as one of the former chief European centers of art nouveau.

Glasgow is also architecturally very rich, not least because so many of its buildings are constructed with elegant yellow or pink sandstone. It's probably the chief unsung beauty among the British Isles' cities – though that hasn't stopped the mockery by its more photogenic neighbor and rival, Edinburgh. With all these riches underexposed, it's understandable that the city council wants to move away from images of the city as down-at-heel and aggressive, in a country where a "Glasgow kiss" still means a head butt.

Glaswegians, however, are having none of it. Over 10,000 people signed a petition this week to stop Wellington’s plinth being raised, while a "Keep the Cone" group on Facebook has over 85,000 likes. On Tuesday, the council backed down and canceled the application; the great conehead’s supporters are planning a victory rally this weekend. Fans of a tidier Glasgow, meanwhile, might take comfort from remembering that there's a tradition of largely harmless monument-customizing in Europe, be it Prague’s pink tank, Sofia’s socialist superheroes or London’s punk Churchill. On a continent that’s hardly lacking in old public monuments, Glasgow deserves points for preserving something just as important: a civic sense of humor.

Top image courtesy of Flickr user Thomas Duesing.

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