IT’S a question that has tantalised Glaswegians and visitors for years: just who is it that puts the traffic cones on top of the Duke of Wellington statue? Is it the work of small clusters of shadowy volunteers, operating under cover of darkness, especially after closing time?

Writing in the Herald in May 1993 (some five years after the Herald first ran a photograph of the coned Duke), our arts editor, John Fowler, pondered this very issue.

“The hero of Waterloo was first capped some years ago: I know the person who claims to have done it”, John wrote. “She was working for Mayfest at the time in the office they used to have below Stirling’s Library in the centre of town.

“One night, so she says, she and a colleague were working late. Tired and jaded, they found a traffic cone on the pavement as they left the office after midnight. Above them towered the plinth, the horse, and finally the duke upon its back.

“The spirit of adventure seized them and in no time at all my friend was on her colleague’s shoulders and grabbing for a hold. Somehow she managed to clamber on to the plinth, surmount the horse, and pop the cone on the Iron Duke’s pate.”

John himself once gave thought to staging an all-night vigil to spot the coning culprits at work, picturing himself lurking in the shadows of a nearby doorway like Orson Welles in The Third Man in post-war Vienna. Common sense, however, prevailed: “It was midwinter, it was cold and frosty, and there was no guarantee that the phantom cone man would choose to operate that night. Also, being a law-abiding person and not such an intrepid reporter I was apprehensive about what the police might think if they found me loitering in Queen Street in the early hours. I chickened out.”

The statue and its cones (the horse often has one, too) have become a familiar sight, shorthand for Glaswegians’ sense of humour. The image adorns T-shirts and posters and fridge magnets. One reviewer on the TripAdvisor website wrote recently: “Our sister moved to Glasgow several years ago and has a tattoo of this on her arm. While over visiting it was nice to see it in the flesh, with its classic cone!”

“Walked by on a Friday and the cones were on the Duke and his horse”, wrote a second contributor. “This is so funny, but I wonder is it done by individuals or do the City Council have a full-time cone master?”

Read more: Herald Diary

In an interview earlier this year, the present Duke of Wellington said he had initially been bemused by what had been happening to the statue. He said: “I was surprised. It has become, I realise, an iconic image of Glasgow. I think it’s amusing in a way and bizarre in another way. When I did a book a few years ago on all the statues and paintings of the first duke it was very, very difficult to get a good photograph of the statue without a cone. Eventually someone in the city council very kindly did supply me with a photograph of the statue without the cone and I was able to put it in the book”.