SandyCampbell: You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone

Posted by in March's Magazine

On 22nd October this year, a Leith campaigner and founder of Leith Civic Trust, died aged 98. Few today will remember Margaret Street. But the footprint of her life is there for all to see on the Shore. One of the oldest and most iconic buildings in Leith; rich with stories of its days as Scotland’s most notorious pub, the Jungle – standing by the crossing with Bernard Street still, thanks to Margaret Street. The building is, of course, the Kings Wark.

Hard to believe, yet it is true: our Edinburgh planners were well advanced in their plans to demolish it in 1968 until one woman said ‘No’, and others rallied to her cause. Those were the years of official urban carnage: City Chambers’ planners fervently focussed on hauling down our physical heritage. And not just in Leith but across the city. 


Thankfully, the city at the time had many campaigners ready to take on the messianic zeal of those city planners with their grand visions of what would be ‘good’ for us. Many battles were won, the spoils so much part of our beautiful city landscape today that few could imagine that their very existence is because someone said ‘no’ and others followed. 

In Leith, Margaret Street triumphed again and saved the 17th century Pilrig House in Pilrig Park from demolition. Other small monument/statue victories were won up in the city by other such campaigners: like the stone pillars at either end of Melville Drive with lions and unicorns aloft, preventing plans to drive a dual carriage way through the Meadows. 

Main: An artist’s impression of the inner ring road crossing Howard Place, Stockbridge

One that was lost, although not entirely, was the plan to demolish George Square at the behest of the University. Today the ‘truce’ is there for all to see. Georgian buildings grace three sides of the square; a breeze block monstrosity lurks incongruously at the remaining end. You can’t win them all when you are up against the twin forces of professional arrogance: university academia and city planners.

But the biggest battle of all was over the grand plan for an Inner-City Ring Road in the 1960s. It is hard to credit it today, but these professional vandals actually had their plans approved to build a six lane, 20 feet high motorway that would have flattened Stockbridge, Canonmills, Haymarket and Tollcross, split the Royal Mile in two, demolishing John Knox’s house in the process, and completing the nightmare by tunnelling through Calton Hill. Some plans literally proposed building it into the very rock of the castle itself. Thankfully, all they got away with was the weird carbuncle that was the St James’ Centre. 

” These professional vandals actually had their plans approved to build a six lane, 20 feet high motorway that would have flattened Stockbridge, Canonmills, Haymarket and Tollcross

What really irks me about these people is: how many permanent disasters do they have to create until a smidgen of humility and repentance interrupts their arrogance? What also gets me is the gullibility of our elected representatives who are mesmerised by clean and tidy plans with happy families drawn into the 3-D visualisations of the finished product gracing the front pages of the Evening News. If it were me, I would demand an alternative visualisation – ten years on and dilapidation fully embraced: cladding ravaged by brutal weather; cracks like confetti liberally strewn over graffitied shabbiness; boarded up windows that never get fixed. And grim dangerous wind tunnels that no-one in their right mind would walk through without a fierce dog.

We in Leith live with the demolition of the old Kirkgate to this day. In the last 20 years there have been numerous re-brandings and refurbishments of this soulless, out-of-date vision of modernity and sanitation. One of the maddest manifestations of this being the mercifully short-lived blue metal hollow spike rising above the tenements: a Narwhal’s horn, for heaven’s sake. Such a patronising post-modernist bow to Leith’s history of whaling that amusingly turned into an unofficial public toilet. (Now that’s a fine Leith way of protesting; turn official arty idiocy into something useful.)

Margaret Street 1920-2018 Leith campaigner, founder of Leith Civic Trust and saviour of Leith buildings

It takes just one person to stand up and shout: “the emperor has no clothes!” In the case of the Kings Wark and Pilrig House – and countless other causes she held dear across Scotland – it was Margaret Street. In the case of the Inner-City Ring Road my dad was among those who first ferreted out the madness making its slow progress through the secretive committees in the City Chambers. Then when the horror of it became public, all hell broke loose.

Today the fight against these bullies continues with the Save Leith Walk campaign. It beggars belief that we still have to do it. On this occasion all the Leith politicians are at least on our side, yet still the planners persist. What does this tell us about local democracy? But I suppose we are now living in a world where ‘professional experts’ are getting ever more powerful, and the only chance powerless people get to make a noise ends up with Brexit and Trump.

So, I end where I began, with the prophetic words of Joni Mitchell in 1970: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” In this centenary year of remembrance let us reflect on those urban warriors who fought to preserve the integrity of our own city paradise.

Twitter: @SandyinLeith

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