We had the good fortune to spend New Year in Edinburgh this year, thanks to the loan of a New Town flat, and among the many cultural delights which we enjoyed was a visit to the National Galleries’ current exhibition Modern Scottish Women . Truth be told, we found the exhibition overall quite disappointing, but among the revelatory highlights were a number of sculptors whose names were previously unknown to me. Most impressive of all was the work of Gertrude Alice Meredith Williams, who, together with architect Robert Lorimer, created Paisley’s War Memorial, The Spirit of the Crusaders, which must be one of the most imposing of all UK War Memorials, fit to stand comparison with Charles Jagger’s Royal Artillery Memorial in Hyde Park.
In my Regional Screen Scotland role I’ve been doing some work with contacts in Paisley, so when I was in the town for a meeting last week, I took the opportunity to see Meredith Williams’ masterpiece ‘in the flesh’. It’s even grander and more powerful than the exhibition photographs, and the plaster maquette, had suggested. Yet I imagine that most Paisley folk pass it on a daily basis and never give it a second thought. Like so much public art of the past, it’s effectively ‘hidden in plain sight’.
But as I stood at the base of the memorial and looked around me, it occurred to me that Paisley as a whole was also ‘hidden in plain sight’. The assemblage of grand architecture before me, from the 14th century Abbey to Victorian civic buildings, is truly exceptional, and only partially marred by some truly horrid 60s and 70s infill and a number of very poor quality shop fronts. Just round the corner are three grand churches in a row, one of them housing the Wynd Centre, which includes a handsomely equipped small venue, with retractable seating, lighting and sound equipment.
Paisley is of course bidding to be UK Capital of Culture 2021, an ambition that I can imagine being greeted in some metropolitan circles with disbelief, even ridicule. But those imposing buildings are testimony to a long and rich history, even if that history has become largely invisible to the rest of Scotland. With a population of 75,000, Paisley is considerably larger than Scotland’s three most recently created cities, and as I’ve been finding, there’s a creative energy in the community that, whatever the outcome for 2021, demands that Paisley achieve a more prominent place in Scotland’s identity.
It could be argued that it’s not just Paisley, but Scotland’s towns in general that are ‘hidden in plain sight’. After last week’s meeting in Paisley I took a train back to Edinburgh that avoided me having to change stations in Glasgow, but took a roundabout route through Motherwell, Wishaw, Carluke and Carstairs. Now, in my various professional capacities over the years I’ve visited very many parts of Scotland, including such remote spots as Barra, Unst, and the Mull of Kintyre. But I don’t believe that, in all of my 61 years, I’ve ever visited any of those four towns. Yet they have a combined population almost as large as that of Paisley, and each has a distinctive history and culture.
I also visited Dumfries last week, and in the bizarre world of Scotland’s rural transport system, I could get there from Edinburgh much more quickly by taking a train to Lockerbie, and then a bus to Dumfries, than by training it all the way. So I set foot in Lockerbie for the first time. Like Dunblane, whose own sad history was being commemorated last week, ‘Lockerbie’ is a name that has become forever associated with a single atrocity, only mentioned in the media when inextricably linked to the word ‘bombing’. The reality, today, is that Lockerbie is a neat country town, with, as far as I could see, a pretty full complement of High Street shops, a piece of modern public art in the central square that should make anyone smile, and, as I waited for my bus, what seemed to be a cheerfully interacting community. But for the rest of the world the ‘real’ Lockerbie is hidden behind a single moment in history in which the town was only the victim of collateral damage.
Much the same could be said for the much larger town of Dumfries, which usually only comes to national attention as a result of one of the Nith’s frequent bouts of flooding. Dumfries is a special place for me, as, at the end of my first year as a University Drama student, we took over the Georgian Theatre Royal for a three week summer school—a period of sheer, unalloyed, unforgettable pleasure. So I’m delighted that the theatre is now the subject of a major restoration project .
The more time I spend in Scotland’s many and various towns, and the more opportunities I get to work in places as diverse as Banff, Aberfeldy, Cowdenbeath, Galashiels, and Campbeltown, to name just a few that I’ve been involved with recently, the more convinced I become that, as Nicholas Crane argued in his TV series, towns are the future. Yet, despite the best efforts of bodies like Scotland’s Towns Partnership and Can Do Places it seems to me that Scotland’s towns, as a whole, are Hidden in Plain Sight, too often the subject of neglect, or the butt of humour. Deprived of proper political representation, yet home to almost half of Scotland’s populations, Scotland’s 500 towns deserve better.