A descendant of an 18th century politician accused of delaying the abolition of slavery has claimed responsibility for removing a controversial plaque adorning his ancestor's monument. 

Yesterday, The Herald revealed that the A3 brass panel at the base of the Melville Monument in St Andrew Square had been taken away the previous night, in what Cammy Day, the leader of the City of Edinburgh Council, described as an “improper removal.”

He said that as “caretakers” for the statue, any “works” required the council’s consent, “which was not sought or given in this case.”

However, the Melville Monument Committee, which includes descendants of the politician, insisted they had acted lawfully. They also suggested that the council had "proceeded contrary to law" in multiple ways. 

READ MORE: Controversial plaque on Edinburgh Dundas statue removed

The inscription on the plaque has long proved contentious. It accuses Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville of being “instrumental in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade.”

It goes on to say that as a “result of this delay, more than half a million enslaved Africans crossed the Atlantic.”

The Herald:

It was crafted by a committee comprising of city councillors, Scotland's first black professor, Sir Geoff Palmer, and another academic. However, the panel did not include any historians.

That led to Professor Sir Tom Devine, the former Sir William Fraser Chair of Scottish History at Edinburgh University, comparing the task force to a "kangaroo court."

He said they were rushing to judgment "on a complex set of questions without taking the advice of any real expert" and that it was "bad history" to pin the enslavement of half a million people on Dundas alone.

Earlier this year, the Melville Monument Committee applied for and received listed building consent to have the plaque removed.

They described the description as “cartoonishly inaccurate."

While that meant that technically the panel could be removed, the final decision was for the landlords of the buildings around St Andrew Square, who are the owners of the monument.

At the time, Councillors suggested that was unlikely.

READ MORE: Sir Henry Dundas slavery plaque may be removed after family appeal

However, the Melville Monument Committee contacted the owners and their lawyers and received no objection when they asked if they could take the plaque down.

They also suggested the local authority may have breached the terms of their sub-lease concerning St. Andrew Square, as they had never properly sought permission from the owners to install the plaque in the first place.

They said numerous freedom of information requests asking for correspondence with the owners returned nothing.

Viscount Melville said: "We had all the necessary permits, and ensured that the owners of St Andrew Square, who have ultimate authority, had no objection. We acted completely within the law.

"It is the height of hypocrisy for the city to object to the removal of the plaque.

“The city should be concerned about its own unlawful acts. It had no authority to install the plaque without consent of the owners in the first place and continues to defy an order to remove the large signs about the plaque in St. Andrew Square.

“It is in no position to object to the removal of the plaque, which we have done in complete compliance with our legal obligations."

Last month, writing in Scottish Affairs, published by Edinburgh University Press, Angela McCarthy, Professor of Scottish and Irish history and a director at the University of Otago in New Zealand, said Dundas had, if anything, helped steer the way for abolition.

She said the politician realising that William Wilberforce's charge to end slavery faced certain defeat in parliament from powerful slave owners had tried “to chart a path by which Britain could abolish the slave trade, albeit gradually, starting with an immediate end to slave trading with foreign colonies."

"That alone should settle the controversy," said Viscount Melville. "The newly discovered evidence proves that Sir Geoff Palmer and others misinterpreted the historical evidence. This should help to reassure the public that removal of a plaque littered with errors was the right thing to do".

Professor Palmer has rejected Professor McCarthy's evidence, describing it as an “insult to abolitionists such as Wilberforce and Clarkson."

Taking to X, the site formerly known as Twitter, yesterday, he tweeted: “The truth once known cannot be removed.”

Professor Devine said there were now questions for Edinburgh council.

He told The Herald: "From the beginning of this fiasco I have argued that military, political and economic factors rather than anytime actions of any one individual ensured that abolition of the  British slave trade was impossible in the 1790s.

"Professor McCarthy’s forensic and meticulous research on original materials has provided the hard evidence to support that view.

"The plaque was based on nothing other than scapegoating, prejudice and false history.

"It has now gone. When sited in a public place it brought nothing but dishonour to Scotland's capital.

"Now we find out that C Day and his cronies on the Council played fast and loose with due legal process in installing it.

"What are the penalties to be for a local authority which acted in such an egregious  fashion?"

The City of Edinburgh Council has been approached for comment.