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‘An embarrassment to the town’: Calls to stop using ‘tenuous’ Elgin Marbles name for controversial Greek sculptures

The British Museum has already renamed the artefacts that have very little to do with the Moray town.

Collage of Elgin Marbles at British Museum on left and Elgin councillor Jeremie Fernandes on right.
Elgin councillor Jérémie Fernandes says the controversial nature of the sculptures is an "embarrassment" to the town. Image: Shutterstock/Supplied.

The diplomatic row surrounding the Elgin Marbles has thrown the name of the Moray town unintentionally into the spotlight.

Connections between the two have always been tenuous at best.

Tensions are currently raised after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak cancelled a meeting with his Greek counterpart about the sculptures, which are on display in the British Museum.

The artefacts date from between 447BC and 432BC and depict a procession to celebrate the birthday of the Greek goddess Athena.

Elgin Marbles being photographed by tourists at British Museum.
The removal of the sculptures from Greece was investigated by authorities in the 19th Century. Image: Jay Shaw Baker/Nurphoto/Shutterstock

They were transported to Britain in the 19th Century as part of an operation later investigated in parliament and found to be “entirely legal”.

However, Greece has always disputed the removal and first made a formal request for them to be returned in 1983.

The British Museum has already renamed the artefacts The Parthenon Sculptures. Is it time everyone else followed to distance the Moray town from the Elgin Marbles dispute?

What do the marbles have to do with Elgin anyway?

Actually, very little.

The sculptures were removed from Greece under the authority of Lord Elgin, who was British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

He successfully petitioned the authorities to be able to draw, measure and remove them and transport them to the UK.

After a parliamentary inquiry found the move legal, he sold them to the government of the day in 1816 for £35,000, the equivalent of £2.8 million today.

Ruins of Kinloss Abbey.
Kinloss Abbey is ruined today but was once one of the most prominent places of worship in Scotland. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

Apart from his name, Lord Elgin himself has very little to do with Moray with his family’s historic seat being at Broomhall, south of Dunfermline.

The Earl of Elgin title was created in 1633 and awarded to Thomas Bruce, the then Lord Kinloss.

Edward Bruce, the first Lord Kinloss, was given the title two years after being named commendator for Kinloss Abbey. He was born in Derbyshire and was buried in London.

‘Association with marbles is embarrassing for Elgin’

The name Elgin Marbles has entered everyday usage after they were put on display at the British Museum.

Today the museum argues there is “great public benefit” in seeing the Parthenon Sculptures in the wider context of its world collection.

Elgin City North councillor Jérémie Fernandes has argued for the sculptures to be returned to Greece to permanently distance Moray’s largest community from them.

He said: “The association between the marbles and Elgin is a source of unease and embarrassment.

Tourists looking at Elgin Marbles in British Museum.
The marbles take the Elgin name from the Moray town across the world. Image: John Wreford/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

“The people of Elgin had nothing to do with the theft of these cultural artefacts from Greece’s most sacred landmark.

“The Greek government rightfully employs the term Parthenon Sculptures to refer to these artefacts, a name that accurately reflects their origin and cultural significance.”

The British Museum has stressed Lord Elgin’s actions were investigated by authorities in the 19th Century and found to be “entirely legal”.

Moray MSP Richard Lochhead has believes the town is better off distancing itself from the “culture war”.

Moray MSP Richard Lochhead says the Elgin name has ended up in a “culture war”. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

He said: “Given the controversial history of how these iconic sculptures ended up in the British Museum, I expect there will be many in Moray who feel uncomfortable that they were renamed the Elgin Marbles.

“Embarrassingly, we had a UK Government Secretary of State unable to even pronounce Elgin when asked about the Prime Minister’s snubbing of his Greek counterpart.”

Does marbles name attract attention to Elgin and Moray?

A Press and Journal story in 2003 revealed the tourist information office at the time regularly fielded telephone calls from people asking how they could see the marbles.

A miniature version of the marbles has been displayed at Elgin Museum with exhibitions previously being held about the controversial past of the full-sized sculptures.

There were reports in the Press and Journal at the time of people visiting the attraction expecting to see the marbles themselves.

Man holding up framed pencil drawing to camera.
Elgin Museum curator David Addison in 2004 with drawings of the marbles that were on display. Image: DC Thomson

And the link has provided a catchy name for The Elgin Marble Company and provided endless jokes about various people in the town “losing their marbles”.

However, an official guide published by Moray Council about the region described the connection between the town and the artefacts as “tenuous”.

Moray MP Douglas Ross says nobody has approached him to suggest distancing Elgin from the marbles.

He said: “I have to say that despite the media attention this has received recently, and in the past, I haven’t had anyone contacting me about changing names.”

Is Elgin a city? We dive into the archives to try and solve the question once and for all