Lions and Rhinos and Bears, Oh My!

As often happens, when one begins to pay attention to the small things around us, odd little connections appear. Having begun to notice quirky pieces of public art throughout the city, suddenly I spy them everywhere. Like the bear in Princes Street Gardens, whom I first saw from the top of the airport bus, coming into the city late one evening. “Well that makes complete sense”, I told myself, unable to fill in the blank as to how. I made it my business to visit the bear when I was next in its vicinity. With the resurgence in popularity of a little marmalade sandwich eating bear, it turns out Edinburgh’s life-size bronze bear is a beer-drinking bear who saw action in WW2. Unlike his London-Peruvian cousin, this bear isn’t named after a railway station, rather, I discover he’s called ‘Wojtek’ and is a Polish-Scottish bear. He was a compatriot to Polish troops during the war, and is depicted walking alongside a Polish soldier in Princes Street Gardens. I learn Wojtek was one plucky bear who helped the Poles carry ammunition at the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy. I had known that during WW1 shell-shocked troops were sent to Craiglockhart’s convalescence hospital in Edinburgh for treatment, and, after some time there, if deemed sufficiently fit, they would return to the trenches to fight. What I didn’t know was that bears retiring from the army might be sent to Edinburgh zoo to live out their years! And so, Wojtek’s connection to Edinburgh is established: he retired here.

Continuing my Scottish safari, I have also found a very serene lion to pet. Stretched out on the grass at the Harvey Nichols’ end of St. Andrew Square is ‘Lion of Scotland’. Serene, I propose, because he’s carved from a twenty tonne boulder of pink Aberdeenshire granite, he’s not going anywhere fast. On the day I passed, a toddler was feeding him the last of the season’s fallen leaves; her mother encouraging her to be gentle with the imposing creature, as granny took photographs. The artist, Ronald Rae, has a similarly carved baby elephant, currently visiting outside Fraser’s at the west end of Princes Street.

A bear, a lion and an elephant, what could possibly be missing? Yes, of course, a rhinoceros, and I’ve found it! The head of a rhinoceros protrudes from a university building on George Square, quietly marking American Jim Haynes’ contribution to this city. Haynes helped to found the Traverse Theatre and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. He ran the ‘Paperback Bookshop’ in George Square, until he lost the premises when the University redeveloped the area. A rhino’s head had been his shop sign, and here it nods to the past, providing a quirky and surprising marker for a little piece of Edinburgh’s literary heritage.

There are many more obvious nods to the city’s heritage in the form of historical figures adorning Edinburgh’s streets at almost at every turn. Although it looks as though I have followed a yellow brick road of lions and rhinos and bears, there are many other men (and women) – not of tin – but bronze and stone, to be found. Robbie Burns, Robert Louis Stephenson, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Knox, Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, Walter Scott, Adam Smith, (and many, many more) are all out on the streets, there to be discovered. Oh my! I will be walking for years.




Posted in Art

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