Blow up the Duke of Sutherland, but leave his limbs among the heather

THEY want to blow up the Duke of Sutherland. As the papers reported last week, a group of Highland radicals have asked Highland Regional Council to destroy the statue of the first Duke of Sutherland, a sandstone colossus which is 100ft high with its plinth and stands on a 1,300ft mountain. They say he was an enemy of the human race, like Hitler or Stalin.

The objectors do not just wish the Duke to be removed. They want the great statue by Chantrey broken up, so that visitors may wander among its fragments. High above the Dornoch Firth a great Roman nose would protrude from a clump of heather. Over there, a family might perch along a gartered leg, like birds on a log, to eat their picnic. Their children, roaming through the bog-myrtle, would trip over a stone ear, huge as a horse trough.

Above them, on the same plinth, there would be a different sort of monument. It would commemorate those many thousands of men, women and children whom the Duke and his henchmen drove from their homes all over this landscape. It would record how their roofs were set on fire, as they were herded into emigration so that the Duke, 'The Great Improver', could own sheep instead of people.

What should that monument be? There are plenty of eternal flames. Surely that hilltop, which once looked down on so many burning townships, should send up into the sky an eternal smoke.

What the Duke did, or permitted to be done, opened the way to the main tragedy of the Highland Clearances. It is fashionable now to be 'revisionist' about the Clearances: to point out that not all Highland landlords were as bad as the Sutherlands, that the pressure of population on such limited resources of usable land guaranteed a catastrophe anyway.

In the same way, it is in vogue to suggest that the Clearances have been 'captured' by a noisy clique of Scottish leftists, and that it is high time to evict them. 'Stalin or Hitler?' That is wild language, the bitter impotence of those who cannot undo past evil but can only punish symbols. And yet I think that the statue should be blown up and its limbs left to weather on the hill.

There are two issues here. The first is about intentions. Last week, I tried to describe how the British action to control the plague in 19th-century India led to 'one of those insoluble misunderstandings which go to the heart of imperialism'. The Clearances in Sutherland were another one.

The Duke, an Englishman called George Leveson-Gower who married the Sutherland heiress, reasoned that he was doing the Highlands a favour by removing surplus people. He was indeed an 'improver'. He built bridges and roads all over his inheritance and replaced a primitive subsistence agriculture with a stable and prosperous sheep-farming economy. The cruel violence used by his lieutenants to clear the glens of people was unpardonable. But his policy was enlightened by early 19th-century standards. He concluded that the traditional Highland economy had become a machine for multiplying poverty, and must therefore be scrapped - not only in his own interests, as a landlord requiring profit, but ultimately in the interests of the people themselves.

What the Duke did not understand - could never conceivably have understood - was that the people of Assynt and Kildonan and Rogart had a different scale of values. Land was their love and their ideology, not generalised 'prosperity'. To pay rent on an ancestral croft, men and women were prepared to travel all over Scotland to earn wages. Then, as soon as they could afford to, they would step out of the modern economy to wring a few potatoes, a few bags of oats, out of acid and stony soil which they did not even own. About this set of priorities, so awkward for grand theories, the economists of our times have nothing to say.

The second issue is about the morality of killing statues. In the summer of 1991, as Soviet Communism collapsed, I stood outside the Lubianka in Moscow and watched them remove the giant statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police. The noose round his neck, the orgasmic outcry as the crane finally swung him into the air, showed that this was an execution. Leaving by Metro, I met on the platform an Armenian who was clutching a sheared-off piece of Dzerzhinsky's bronze coat-tail: another good old Tyburn practice.

But better to kill statues than people. It is not a pretty sight. On the other hand, there is something sinister about those villages in Russia where Lenin still glowers over the square simply because nobody gives a damn whether he is there or not. Indifference of that order is a sign not just of apathy but of masochism. It is good that nobody is indifferent about the Duke of Sutherland.

I would blow him up, not just as a statement about the Clearances but as a gesture about 'Heritage'. The statue is a Grade B Listed Monument. As every local bureaucrat knows, Listed Monuments count as Heritage and therefore as Tourism Potential. The Heritage rules say: Never mind what we think of the Duke himself. His statue is our statue. We have to cherish it. Anyway, it is a Resource.

This is what ought to be challenged. Heritage is not just country houses and statues which governments declare sacred and untouchable. It is also memory and passion carried down from the past. Normal people who inherit something decide whether they want to cherish it, sell it or wipe their boots on it. A nation - in this case Scotland - is entitled to consult its own emotions about a piece of Heritage.

That does not justify smashing everything which offends current orthodoxy, like the left-wing council in Fife which wanted to knock down a castle because it was 'a relic of feudal times'. It is wrong and totalitarian to pretend that the past never happened, which is why I hope that the people of Moscow will not exercise their right to throw away the Stalinist sculptures which ornament the Metro stations. And yet it would be another sort of pretence - this time a liberal, free-market one - to let the Duke go on reigning over the landscape he devastated.

This seems a dilemma. But the Sutherland protestors have found the way out of it. The Duke should remain, but dishonoured. Let his disjointed, Ozymandias limbs litter the moor, while the pillar of eternal smoke rises over the wreckage to recall what he did to those who were in his power. Heritage, after all, is not just a dry schedule of monuments. It is also a ceaseless, rolling judgement by a people on its past.