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Insights

I seek to debunk this unfair and glib characterisation by reference to a historical Scottish monument and a legal ruling that has just celebrated its 100 year anniversary.

Background
McCaig’s Tower is a prominent folly on the hillside (called Battery Hill) overlooking Oban in Argyll, Scotland. It is built of granite with a circumference of about 200 metres with two-tiers of 94 lancet arches (44 on the bottom and 50 on top).

The structure was commissioned, at a cost of £5,000 sterling [worth perhaps 1.2 million dollars in present currency], by the wealthy, philanthropic banker, John Stuart McCaig.

John Stuart McCaig was his own architect. The tower construction commenced in 1897 until the date of his death, aged 78, on 29 June 1902.

McCaig’s stated intention in his last Will was to provide a lasting monument to his family, and to provide work for the local stonemasons during the winter months. McCaig was an eclectic admirer of Roman and Greek architecture, and had directly created plans for an elaborate structure, based on the Colosseum in Rome. His plans allowed for a museum and art gallery with a central tower to be incorporated. Inside the central tower he planned to commission statues of himself, his siblings and their parents. His death brought an end to construction with only the outer walls completed.

The Testamentary Trusts
The issue of whether or not to give effect to McCaig’s vision was finally determined after the death of Mr McCaig’s sister who, in her will, ordered the erection of eleven colossal bronze statues, to cost not less than £1000 each, to her father and mother, herself, and her five brothers [one deceased at infancy] and three sisters, to be placed on ledges around the wall of the McCaig Tower.

The gift was found to be invalid for public policy reasons.

The Ruling
The decision is reported in McCaig’s Trustees v Oban Magistrates [1915] ScotCS CSIH_1 (05 February 1915).

The reasons why the Court found the trusts contemplated should not be given effect are set out in the case:

Lord Salvesen
“I think, further, that it would be a dangerous thing to support a bequest of this kind which can only gratify the vanity of testators, who have no claim to be immortalised, but who possess the means by which they can provide for more substantial monuments to themselves than many that are erected to famous persons by public subscription.

A man may, of course, do with his money what he pleases while he is alive, but he is generally restrained from wasteful expenditure by a desire to enjoy his property, or to accumulate it, during his lifetime. The actings of the two McCaig’s form an excellent illustration of this principle of human conduct. For many years they had apparently contemplated the erection of similar statues, but they could not bring themselves to part with the money during their own lifetimes. Such considerations do not restrain extravagance or eccentricity in testamentary dispositions, on which there is no check except by the Courts of law.

A testator may still leave his means to be expended in stone and lime which will form a monument to his memory, provided the bequest he makes serves some useful public purpose and is not merely for his own glorification. The prospect of Scotland being dotted with monuments to obscure persons who happened to have amassed a sufficiency of means, and cumbered with trusts for the purpose of maintaining these monuments in all time coming, appears to me to be little less than appalling. What a man does in his own lifetime with his own property may be removed by his successor, and no doubt will be as soon as it has ceased to serve a useful purpose.

I am of opinion that the bequest in question is unnatural, contrary to custom, and unreasonable…….because of the method of commemoration by bronze statues of people of whom it would be impossible to make non-ludicrous representations without abandoning likeness and without putting people into picturesque costumes, which they never wore.

Lord Guthrie
“In this case, it seems to me that to give effect to the part of Miss McCaig’s codicil concerned with the erection of eleven statues would be of no benefit to anyone except those connected with the carrying out of the work, for whose interest she expresses no concern. If anybody went to see the statues, supposing they represented faithfully the persons to be commemorated, it would not be to admire them but to laugh at them, and perhaps to philosophise on the length to which morbid family pride may drive an otherwise sensible person. These statues would not, in fact, achieve Miss McCaig’s object of perpetuating an honourable memory. They would turn a respectable and creditable family into a laughing stock to succeeding generations.”

The contemporary views
Interestingly, the hearing was subject to reporting in the local newspapers prior to the final ruling being delivered. The Wednesday, 20th January 1915 edition of ‘The Scotsman’ reported the following discourse in the Court between their Lordships and the Dean of Faculty of Advocates (representing the beneficiaries):

“The Lord Justice Clerk said it was a good thing it was limited to statues and not to obelisks such as were set up. These things were monstrous………….It was a disappropriation of architecture. These obelisks were on top of a hill, and were about 150 ft (46 m) high. They could be seen fifty miles away. It would be useful if Zeppelins would come and knock them down.

Lord Salvesen said that the bequest might be looked upon as a kind of charitable bequest for young sculptors. At all events, Peter, the infant might be treated judiciously, there being no family likeness to trouble the artist, he being an infant at the time of his lamented death.

The Lord Justice Clerk said that they could get a prize baby to copy from. He noticed that the statues were now to be hidden away. They were to be on the top of the great tower before and to be of colossal size.

Mr Aitchison, for the beneficiaries, said that about the only purpose that would be served by the statues would be that archaeologists would have discussions about 2000 years hence. (Laughter)

The Lord Justice Clerk: – Mr McCaig might look splendid in a Roman toga. (Laughter)

The Dean of Faculty: – Our own statesmen are always enveloped in a toga which they never wore. They would have been taken up for indecent exposure if they had. (Laughter)

Lord Guthrie: – If the statues were put in, the place would be called “McCaig’s Folly”.

The Lord Justice Clerk: – It is called that already.”

The Present
Trust law and the public generally owe a debt of gratitude to the 1915 Scottish Court of Sessions both for a wonderful precedent –which saved future generations from grotesque statutes of dead non-entities on every hillside –and for the rich and entertaining language used in arriving at the Court’s decision.