My Edinburgh: A Tale of Two Cities

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Edinburgh city skyline in the distance, between tower blocks, and Arthur's Seat hillside on the right.

My Edinburgh: A Tale of Two Cities by Kamala Santos

I was 17 and homesick, when I wrote an ode to my home city and its seven hills, and the most famous of these – the sleeping lion of Arthur’s Seat:

Always at my back,

A lion of land.

I wish to return,

To the slow and the fast,

Of the place that I know.

A group of us were living in Denmark as part of a high school exchange, organized by Lothian Council. We stayed in Ribe; a charming ancient town of cobbled, tree-lined streets, artisan bakeries, jazz festivals at the weekends, and a school and community life steeped in creative activity. We’d cycle to school early, cycle home early, then spend afternoons and evenings attending choir practice, football practice and traditional folksong nights. It was an idyllic life, but after six weeks, I was missing Edinburgh.

Then, it was time for my Danish exchange partner to stay with me. I’m sure she’d heard a lot about the famous city, but the reality was quite different. We lived in a small ex-council flat, 5 miles from the city centre, with a daily trek to school through grey suburban housing, to spend a long day confined in classrooms, and then two miles home again, wearily climbing one of those lovely seven hills.

In the second week, as we trudged home, she commented, “You don’t really do anything. You don’t have clubs after school or anything like that.” I replied somewhat defensively that there were clubs, I just didn’t go to them. But she was right, there was nothing to do within walking distance, unless you were over 60 and into line dancing. My home was welcoming, the neighbours were kind, but for a population of thousands, there was no leisure centre, no library, no choirs, and definitely no artisan bakeries. Unless you counted the sausage roll counter at the Scotmid where I worked in the evenings.

I’m sure Edinburgh’s education authority wanted us to learn many enlightening things through the school exchange. Realizing that where I lived had such a lack of resources, was probably not one of them.

The town centre offered a gateway to possibilities – so much of what happened tapped into a wider world, leapfrogging Britishness, straight into Europe and beyond.

But it was okay, because every weekend and during the holidays my friends and I would head into town. We loved it, and couldn’t get enough of it. Edinburgh wasn’t one of those impersonal cities where you felt like a stranger. Whether it was the same wee man selling the Evening News from a tiny booth on the corner, the body-popping silver robotic guy, or the castle gun fired at one o’clock every day, the urban life was predictable and contained, and more like a large town than a city.

And yet the town centre offered a gateway to possibilities – so much of what happened tapped into a wider world, leapfrogging Britishness, straight into Europe and beyond.  Whether it was going to the military tattoo with visiting family, stalking clusters of French boys in Princes Street, hovering at the edges of the summer crowds at the Mound, watching Peruvian pan pipers and Australian fire-eaters, and maybe even chatting with them afterwards – it was all easy and accessible. It gave you a different perspective, and opened your mind to the possibilities of a world outside your neighbourhood.

People loved their new homes; modern, clean and surrounded by fields. There were new shops – butchers, bakers and grocers – but the city centre was still their main ‘town’. It was in their hearts and it belonged to them.

In the 1950s and 60s Edinburgh families were moved from city centre slums into new council housing on the outskirts. People loved their new homes; modern, clean and surrounded by fields. There were new shops – butchers, bakers and grocers – but the city centre was still their main ‘town’. It was in their hearts and it belonged to them.

Edinburgh city centre belonged to them because some of them worked there, like my friend’s dad who was a furrier at Jenners, sewing fur pieces together into hats and coats for the city’s wealthier citizens. ‘Town’ belonged to them for shopping in Princes Street, or for a trip to one of the iconic cinemas, for the August parade that marked the start of the festival, or eating an ice cream sitting in Princes Street Gardens, or a school trip to see the blue whale skeleton at the museum, for the pubs and the nightclubs, and at Christmas, to see the enormous 40-foot tree in Jenners department store. It was these places, activities and more that gave the older generation pride in their city.

However, things were starting to change.

Throughout the nineties and noughties, out-of-town shopping centres and cinemas were increasing. Businesses moved from the centre to the outskirts, followed by the city’s main hospital. As fewer people shopped there, Princes Street began to decline, at the same time local shops were boarded up in favour of superstores. The student population increased, and cheap flights and the internet facilitated all-year-round tourism, along with the huge growth of the festivals. A shift was taking place. Faced with the recognition that the emphasis was moving from a city centre for locals, to a city centre for visitors, the trams project came as a slap in the face. It was nothing against trams; it was the sense that the council spent millions on a project which many locals deemed unnecessary, and when there was still so much room for improvement in outlying communities.

Friends held hands in a chain, threading up and down the length of the street – wishing everyone they passed a ‘happy new year’ with a hug and a kiss.

The event that most markedly represents this shift from local to visitor, was the Hogmanay celebrations in the High Street. Until the mid-90s, there was nothing to formalise the celebration – no fireworks, no countdowns, no concert. Just an empty street, without restrictions or tickets. A meeting point where at one time in the past, church bells had rung, but where latterly, people simply waited until enough watches said midnight. Then the roar could be heard from far and wide; bottles and tins were flung into the air, and cider and Lambrusco rained down from the skies. Friends held hands in a chain, threading up and down the length of the street – wishing everyone they passed a ‘happy new year’ with a hug and a kiss (which varied in intensity depending on whether it involved one of the many Italian or French tourists in attendance). Over two decades this local event was first catered for, then relocated, and finally deconstructed, until by 2018 the ticketed event in Princes Street Gardens attracted only 20%* of local residents.  

(Of course there were parts of Edinburgh that never had quite the same attachment to the city centre, such as Leith. But Leithers had what the newer estates lacked; a town centre and local industry.)

The sense prevails, that council estates are undervalued.

I went back a few years ago to my old estate, Clermiston, to sell the flat where we’d lived as a family. I’d since lived in South-East London, and seen the difference that arts projects, enterprise schemes, church and charity projects made in local communities like Deptford, New Cross and Peckham. It was good to come back and see changes here too – there was now a leisure centre, and opposite the Scotmid, a brand-new library and community hub. Kids were cycle training out the front. It seemed like the new building provided a sense of community – as well as something to do.  Young couples and families were being attracted into an area of older residents, bringing with them new energy.

Now I live on the other side of the city, and there’s a new community centre here too – but the library has been left to decay.  Two popular community centres face closure, with the council unwilling to invest in repairs. The leisure centre for the area faces cutbacks. The sense prevails, that council estates are undervalued.

There are hints of a deeper discontent in the city. Drugs deaths doubling in a decade, a crowd of thirty youths running through a housing estate brandishing knives, suicides from the Scott Monument (including in the middle of the tourist-filled Christmas Market) and more than one random murderous attack on innocent passers-by, metres from the Castle.

In the mornings they reflect bright white sunlight, in the evenings they glow orange in the setting sun; and on a winter’s night, the windows are lit in a friendly crossword pattern, signalling the many and varied lives lived there.

From my upstairs window, Arthur’s Seat dominates the view; a summertime sleeping lion, golden with gorse bushes. I can see Edinburgh Castle and Craigmillar Castle. Princes Street is indicated by the tall white cranes positioned over the multi-million-pound hotel and shopping mall project. The big machines are unmoving – the only sign in the panorama that we are in the middle of a crisis.

There are features not normally shown in picture-postcard Edinburgh: the six towers of the Moredun high-rise flats. The cream-coloured blocks dominate and frame the scene. Some visitors have admired the view but couldn’t help commenting, “Shame about the flats”.

For me it’s the other way around: it would be a shame if these council flats weren’t there. In the mornings they reflect bright white sunlight, in the evenings they glow orange in the setting sun; and on a winter’s night, the windows are lit in a friendly crossword pattern, signalling the many and varied lives lived there. On the first night of the ‘clap for carers’, it was from these flats that the loudest cheers, shouts and pan-banging could be heard – a wall of sound, echoing wildly up the hill, and carrying on long after the minute was over. Like the Hogmanay celebrations, there were no tickets or fireworks, and like midnight at the Tron, it brought tears to my eyes just to be there.

I love seeing the flats because they complete the view. They remind me of what and who Edinburgh is. Edinburgh is not just the famous centre – this city is the whole thing. It’s neighbours looking out for each other, kids playing in the streets, and chats with old ladies in the queue at the post office.  When I was 17, I was proud to bring an outsider to the postcard version of the city – she helped me to realise that the romantic image in my mind, wasn’t a true depiction of my real life. Arthur’s Seat wasn’t ‘always at my back’ – it was 5 miles away and out of sight. But that didn’t make where I lived any less Edinburgh.

There is hope for the future in the growing number of initiatives including and supporting communities: a new proposed space in the city centre for local performances; Hearts and Hibs community initiatives; the University of Edinburgh awarding grants to support local projects; theatres, arts organisations and the Edinburgh Festival: all doing what they can to reach out and include the whole city, both before and during the pandemic. Sadly, now the coronavirus is decimating incomes, priorities might change. I hope not.

W.B. Yeats wrote his poem ‘The Second Coming’ in apocalyptic times following WW1, the Easter Rising, and the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19 (which almost killed his pregnant wife and unborn child). In the poem, Yeats describes how ‘the widening gyre’ – the falcon circling away, beyond the limits of the falconer’s hearing – leads to the collapse of things. It is the disconnection of the centre and the edges. Yeats draws a disturbing vision of what happens when this disconnection reaches a certain point and ‘things fall apart’. A sleeping lion awakes, and hope is replaced with despair;

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Now that our city centre lies silent and dormant, it is obvious how much we need our students, our tourists and events to return. We also need to ensure the connection stays strong between the city, its’ neighbourhoods and residents – its heart and its soul. There is a warning in Yeats’ words; that even in time of crisis, and maybe especially so, it is important that those on the edge continue to be heard.

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Kamala Santos trained as a film and TV boom operator but moved into writing with a screenplay about the Belizean lumberjacks who came to Scotland in WW2. Kamala is currently story advisor on The Edinburgh Passion and works freelance in communications for local charities. Find her on Twitter @Santos_Kamala or check out her Website!

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