Sue Gyford: Striking the right balance in roll of the great and good

With Billy Connolly set to be granted the Freedom of the City of Glasgow, Sue Gyford takes a look at those who have received the same honour in Edinburgh

IT'S a roll of honour on which world leaders and war heroes brush shoulders with an Italian balloonist and a rebellious dance teacher – and, of course, a certain former milkman from Fountainbridge.

Hundreds of people have received the Freedom of the City of Edinburgh since it was first granted in 1459. It is the greatest honour the city can bestow, granted only in rare circumstances, following a motion to the city council approved by a 75 per cent majority.

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Early recipients had the right to travel through the city without paying tolls, but the title is now purely honorary.

In 551 years of Freemen, there have only been 11 women, and there are just five living Freemen – The Queen, Prince Philip, Sean Connery, Nelson Mandela and Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The first person to receive the honour was Sir Edward de Boncle, first provost of the city's Trinity College, founded in 1460 by Mary of Gueldres in memory of her husband, King James II.

Since then, the list of Freemen has included Royals, military leaders, prime ministers and colonial governors.

But occasionally – as with Sean Connery – more colourful, populist characters appear among their ranks.

Perhaps the earliest was rebellious playwright Ben Jonson. The London-based satirist walked to Scotland in 1618 to visit his ancestral homeland, and during his year-long visit was made a Freeman of Edinburgh.

The achievements of others are a little more mysterious – who, for example, was "Pierre de la Motte, dancing master", granted the freedom of the city on 3 December, 1735?

What little is known about him does not suggest a man of honour. The French emigre lived in Trinity, and in 1742 a John Mitchell of Windlestrawlee complained to the Burlaw Court of Leith that de la Motte had crossed his cornfields while hunting, there being "eight or nine gentlemen with him with dogs".

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Not a man with respect for the law, it seems, de la Motte sent a friend to Court to explain that he could not possibly attend in person as it was the day for the dancing lesson at his school.

Two years later, he was again before the court, accused of filling up a ditch near his home, and of stealing "fulzie", or manure, from a neighbour's ground and using it on his own. From Freeman to dung thief in less than ten years – not an auspicious decade.

Another eccentric Freeman was balloonist Vincenzo Lunardi, also known as "The Daredevil Aeronaut".

The flamboyant Italian's exploits sparked a fad for ballooning and even inspired fashions of the day – a Lunardi bonnet was a 2ft-high balloon-shaped hat, and Lunardi skirts were decorated with balloon motifs.

He was awarded the Freedom of Edinburgh during a visit to the Capital in October 1785. Business in the city was suspended for a day as more than 80,000 people gathered at George Heriot's School to see him take to the sky, and he flew 46 miles to Fife.

The accolade may have been a little premature, however. Two months later he took off from Heriot's again, but ditched into the sea near the Isle of May at North Berwick, and would have perished if not for a passing fishing boat that dragged him from the water.

The listing for George Arbuthnot hints intriguingly at nepotism, his achievement listed simply as "Lord Provost's brother".

He was made a Freeman on 30 April, 1817 by older brother Sir William Arbuthnot, 1st Baronet of Edinburgh. George had been deputy secretary of the government of Ceylon and then a banker in Madras. He returned to the UK in 1816, his twin daughters being born at 47 Queen Street that year, but shortly afterwards moved away, not suggesting any great Edinburgh connections – apart from a rather magnanimous brother.

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In the 20th century, prime ministers from the former colonies featured prominently, along with, unsurprisingly, a number of war heroes – Douglas Haig, Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Montgomery among them.

Freemen from outwith the worlds of war and politics include singer Harry Lauder and authors J M Barrie and John Buchan.

The list of current Freemen demonstrates that a direct link with Edinburgh is not a prerequisite. Aung San Suu Kyi was nominated by Sarah Boyack MSP, as part of events in the Capital to mark the Nobel Peace winner's 60th birthday.

Ms Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest since winning a general election in 1990, was awarded the Freedom of Edinburgh in absentia during a birthday party held in Parliament Square on 18 June, 2005.

Ms Boyack said: "The proposal built up because there were several councillors and MSPs who were very involved in trying to raise awareness of what was happening in Burma, and it coincided with her birthday.

"We know there are Burmese refugees living in the City, and it was partly a statement to them that we were very conscious of their situation, and also about celebrating the fact that we live in a democracy."

What of the future? Does she think Freemen should have popular, as well as political, appeal?

"We haven't had enough women being nominated, and if it was up to me to choose, I can think of some really good local community activists who put in a lot of hours and don't earn any money. I suppose there is something in the award that reflects the spirit of the age and we do live in a celebrity culture, but I would pitch for people who've really worked for their community."