The Controversial History of a Famous Scottish Statue and Its Traffic Cone Hat
One night in June 2013, shortly after she had graduated high school, Glasgow resident Shannon McDaid was feeling nostalgic. She was feeling mischievous. She was also feeling drunk—and that's how she found herself taking part in a decades-old city tradition.
Earlier that evening, McDaid had met up with a former classmate at a bar a few blocks away from the city’s Royal Exchange Square. “We probably had a bottle of wine each,” McDaid tells mental_floss. “And [my friend], a few pints on top of that.” The two had always been partners in crime. In school, the duo had served as Head Girl and Boy, but they were "always silly and annoying the teachers,” McDaid, now 21, says. “The worst thing we probably did was break into a staff room and lick all the teachers’ biscuits before putting them back in the tub again—disgusting, I know.”
This time around, the two friends had a much larger prank in mind—a last hurrah, if you will. To cap off six years of friendship, the drunken pair spontaneously decided to leave the pub, head to a famous local landmark—the historic Duke of Wellington statue in the middle of Royal Exchange Square—climb it, and place a traffic cone atop its head.
Around 3 a.m., McDaid and her schoolmate stumbled the few blocks to the Duke statue, nabbing a cone from George Square along the way. McDaid is short—around 5 feet tall—so her friend had to give her a boost to reach the 21-foot monument's top. Then, McDaid's companion handed her the cone, and she placed it atop the Duke's head.
The two were technically breaking the law. But even though they were laughing, and there were several people milling around Royal Exchange Square at the time, not a single person admonished them. That's because the teen duo weren’t the first intoxicated Glaswegians to perform the feat—and despite government officials’ best attempts to eliminate the tradition only a few months later, they certainly wouldn't be the last.
In 1844, the city of Glasgow erected
a bronze sculpture of the Duke of Wellington, a.k.a. Arthur Wellesley, the famed Anglo-Irish military strategist and politician who defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo and served twice as Britain’s prime minister. For over a century, the metal military hero sat placidly astride his horse, a sword at his side, in the center of Royal Exchange Square. But sometime during the 1980s, the fusty figure received an irreverent makeover. Someone—likely an inebriated reveler, enjoying a night out on the town—scaled the 21-foot monument with an orange traffic cone and placed it directly on the statue's head.
Officials made sure that the cone was removed, but eventually, it popped back on again ... and then again. City Council maintenance staffers suddenly found themselves engaged in a never-ending war with pranksters, who, without fail, would always replace the vanished cone with a new one.
The custom stuck, and soon it became normal to see the Duke of Wellington wearing a pointy orange hat. Sometimes, the Duke’s horse even had a single cone hanging off each ear, or a cone dangled off the Duke's sword. At first, the mischievous act was simply viewed as a playful prank. But over time, the “cone-ing" tradition took on a life of its own. Once a symbol of British sovereignty, the be-coned statue became emblematic of Glasgow’s quirky spirit, and of residents’ refusal to take authority figures—and themselves—too seriously.
As the years went by, the Duke and his cone became so famous that local businesses, organizations, and media outlets began adopting the figure as an unofficial mascot. It appeared in a Glasgow Evening Times TV advertising campaign; it graced postcards and T-shirts; and tourists could even purchase traffic cone-shaped hats. Everyone seemed to love the cone—everyone, that is, except Glasgow’s City Council.
The Duke of Wellington’s cone is popular among Glaswegians
(and businesses that profit from its image), but local officials have always had mixed opinions. Some consider the tradition to be cheeky and fun; others view it as a crime.
Former Glasgow Lord Provost Alex Mosson, who led the City Council from 1999 until 2003, was a fan: He once reportedly refused to have his photo taken next to the Duke of Wellington until someone placed a traffic cone on his head, and in 2000, he publicly objected when the Greater Glasgow & Clyde Valley Tourist Board removed the cone before taking promotional pictures of the landmark. "The statue of Wellington has become famous for the cone on its head," Mosson said. "The image typifies the unique mixture of culture and humor Glasgow has to offer. After all, the humor of the Glasgow people is the city's greatest selling point."
Charlie Gordon, who served as the council’s Labour leader in 2005, felt differently. “I don’t like it and perhaps the joke has worn a bit thin,” he said. “It is a minor act of vandalism.” That same year, the Glasgow City Council and city police issued a reminder that climbing the statue to place a cone on its head was a "criminal act" that could lead to prosecution. But in 2007, Steven Purcel—who led the city council from 2005 to 2010—disagreed with Gordon, and called for the cone to stay put.
Conflicting views aside, Glasgow’s City Council has provided the public with a variety of reasons for why some of its members have disliked the Duke of Wellington’s irreverent hat. For one, they claim, it costs the city lots of money to remove. Public safety is another concern. “I have been told by one city councilor that the city council was 'worried sick' that someone would be injured if they or a cone fell off the statue,” Gary Nisbet, an amateur art historian and outspoken critic of the coning tradition who runs the website Glasgow Sculpture, tells mental_floss. The most commonly used cones reportedly weigh around 17 pounds, and “the result of it falling over 20 feet from the statue’s head could be lethal,” Nisbet says.
Plus, Nisbet and officials both added, people who climb the Duke statue might damage the historic monument, which is already missing its spurs and half its sword (although how those items disappeared is unclear).
But many Glaswegians suspect that officials really dislike the cone because they are afraid it reflects poorly on the city’s image, and evokes memories of its industrial past. "I’d speculate they think the cone confirms what is largely an outdated external vision of Glasgow as rough and gritty," says Donna Yates, a lecturer at the University of Glasgow who specializes in antiquities trafficking, art crime, and heritage protection and preservation. "Thing is, I don’t think much of anyone thinks of Glasgow that way anymore."
The controversy surrounding the Duke of Wellington's cone always escaped McDaid, a lifelong Glaswegian. "I always remember the Duke with the cone," she says. "I don't think I have ever seen him without!" She knew the action of "cone-ing" the Duke was mischievous, but she didn't realize it was actually illegal.
In late 2013,
the City Council finally took a firm stance on the cone. To prevent Glaswegians from mounting the statue, they submitted a planning application to refurbish the statue and double its base to around 6 feet [PDF]. The project was estimated to cost £65,000—more than $80,000—with £10,000 of the sum coming from Historic Scotland, a now-defunct government agency that preserved the country's important buildings and monuments. (In 2015 [PDF], Historic Scotland merged with a group called the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland; together, they formed a new group called Historic Environment Scotland.)
"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,” stated a business case report accompanying the application. “This depressing image of Glasgow has sadly featured in posters and postcards depicting the city. Ironically this unfortunate impression of the city has been supported by former Lord Provosts and Chief Executives and even adopted occasionally by the City Marketing Bureau.” The project also budgeted for much-needed restoration work.
Thanks to the report's demeaning statements about the cone, public backlash was swift and furious. Some Glasgow residents thought the entire plan was a waste of money and time. Others thought that it was hypocritical that the City Council seemed to embrace the Duke of Wellington’s cone when it came to tourism purposes, but rejected the tradition itself. The overarching consensus, however, was that the coning practice was quintessentially Glaswegian—and that nobody, least of all the City Council, could stop a tipsy Scotsman from climbing the Duke.
Glasgow residents, past and present, took to social media to express their anger. One of them was Raymond Hackland, a musician/importer of fine Scottish foods, who grew up near Glasgow and now lives in Germany. Hackland—who tells mental_floss he felt like the proposal was a waste of taxpayer money—teamed up with his friend, Glaswegian photographer Steven Allan, to launch a Facebook page called “Keep the Cone.” Within six hours, it received more than 30,000 “likes," and in a day received 78,000. The duo also designed a line of "Keep the Cone"-themed T-shirts, and donated the funds to Scottish charities including the Glasgow Children's Hospital Charity (formerly Yorkhill Children's Charity), St. Andrew's Hospice, and Erskine Veterans Charity.
Yates also took action: She teamed up with a friend, a Glaswegian computer programmer named Gavin Doig, to create a Change.org petition protesting the plinth. The duo viewed the project as a misguided effort to bolster the city’s image, as well as an attempt to erase the city’s cultural heritage, they told mental_floss. Also, they thought the City Council’s justification for the initiative sounded a tad fishy.
Yates had read the business case report accompanying the planning application; it contained an assessment of the statue's physical condition, conducted by City Council landscape design manager Rachel Smith. According to Yates, Smith's report mentioned that the Duke of Wellington statue had been damaged from a bad paint job, water ingress, bird poop (which, after a long time, can degrade metal), and what appeared to be either vandalism or overzealous power-washing or cleaning attempts. However, Smith "did not cite any damage to the statue due to climbing it,” Yates tells mental_floss. “Indeed, it noted the spurs and sword were missing, but didn’t say that they were missing due to climbing or cone-related vandalism.” Yates believes they may have been stolen for scrap metal. (The City Council refused to comment on this particular matter.) Meanwhile, Smith didn't scale the statue herself, so she had no idea whether or not any damage had been done to the statue's top.
Smith's report also claimed that it cost the city of Glasgow about $125 every time they had to remove the cone, which they had to do approximately 100 times a year—totaling about $12,500. However, a Freedom of Information request that Doig had filed the prior year told a different story, making both him and Yates even more suspicious. Doig's FOIA request had asked how much money the council spent removing the cone. The response he received "told me they didn't record how often they did it, but it was done as part of routine maintenance by their lighting section,” Doig tells mental_floss. “Basically, the cost would be nominal as they'd be out changing bulbs anyway. So when I saw they were claiming a £10,000 cost per year it looked a lot like a made-up cost to justify their business case.”
In less than 24 hours, Yates and Doig’s petition received nearly 11,000 signatures, and media outlets across the United Kingdom caught wind of both it and Hackland’s Facebook group. The social media firestorm paid off: Within a day, City Council leader Gordon Matheson told officers to withdraw their plinth-raising plan. That night, Glaswegians who had planned to assemble beside the statue for a protest met there for a party instead, waving banners saying “We Came, We Saw, We Cone-quered."
For now, it looks like the Duke of Wellington's traffic cone is here to stay.
Glasgow’s City Council never publicly withdrew their application, so Hackland continues to maintain his “Keep the Cone” Facebook page “just in case they decide to attempt another act of madness,” he jokes. Still, in recent years, the powers-that-be seem to have tacitly accepted the cone's existence—even though they informed the public that they will continue to remove it, per usual. In 2014, when Glasgow hosted the XX Commonwealth Games, a replica of the Duke of Wellington statue—including the cone—was even featured in the opening ceremony. Today, the council doesn’t “have much to add on the subject, on which so many people have strongly-held (and conflicting) views,” Paul Kane, a public relations officer for the Glasgow City Council, tells mental_floss.
People who don't hail from Scotland might not understand the cone's appeal. But Yates, who's originally from the U.S., thinks she has figured it out after spending a few years in Scotland. "Why do any traditions stick? Because they represent something deeper that people see in themselves," she says. "Glaswegians don’t like to take things unnecessarily seriously. They consistently subvert formalized power structures in a tongue-in-cheek, nose-thumbing way. The cone seems to be part of that. And," she adds, "it’s silly. Glasgow likes silly."