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.
Are you a Trekker? If so, which Star Trek series do you prefer? Although I can’t avoid feeling nostalgia for the original Shatner/Kirk series with which I grew up, I do have to admit it now looks pretty creaky, and I prefer its sequel, Star Trek: the Next Generation, chiefly due to the admirable character of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, played with such quiet authority by Patrick Stewart.
Mind you, I was already a Patrick Stewart fan. As a schoolboy I had been taken to Stratford (overnight coach both ways!) to see Richard III, and in a powerhouse RSC cast that included the late Norman Rodway and Ian Richardson, and a luminous Helen Mirren, the youthful but already balding Stewart had held his own as an actor of real presence and integrity, qualities that have sustained his entire career.
He popped up in a different role on our TV last week, as we caught up with recordings Nicholas Crane’s second series of ‘Town’. This episode was on Patrick Stewart’s home town of Huddersfield, where he has been Chancellor of the University since 2004, and by the time he appeared towards the end of the programme, extolling both town and university, we were ready to cheer him on. In fact, Crane had presented such an inspiring picture of the architecture and the people of Huddersfield that we were ready to jump on the next train south and remedy a lifetime’s neglect by finally visiting the town.
One of the peculiarities of Huddersfield is that despite, with a population of 146,000, being considerably larger than many formally designated ‘cities’, it has never sought that city status. The good folk of Huddersfield seem content with their town-ness, and one wonders, what are the virtues of being a ‘town’ that they want to hang on to? (Inverness, are you listening?) For the past few months I’ve been a member of an External Advisory Group to the Scottish Government’s Town Centre Review, the report of which was published earlier this month. Inevitably, I don’t agree with everything that’s in the Review, but the process of working on it has been eye-opening.
Half of Scotland’s population live in its 500-odd towns, and yet those towns rarely seem to benefit from any specific and focused Government strategies or policies. There have been Six (and now Seven) Cities Initiatives, and I’ve spent most of the last 20 years focusing on rural initiatives, but towns often seem like poor relations, as if there was something inherently dull or old-fashioned about the very idea of a ‘town’–exactly the prejudice which Crane’s series is trying to overturn. It doesn’t help that the concept of ‘town’ is a wide and slippery one. Like Huddersfield some Scottish towns–Paisley, East Kilbride–are considerably larger than the three new cities of Inverness, Stirling and Perth, but there are also anomalies at the other end of the scale. I realised, writing this, that I have never actually lived in a town, although we’d spent twelve years in Anstruther, which is usually referred to as a village despite, with 3,600 people, being larger than many so-called towns.
Of course there are many handsome and prosperous towns in Scotland–St Andrews, Banchory and North Berwick are among those I know well–but the ‘problem’ towns are not confined to the obvious post-industrial areas such as Ayrshire or West Lothian. Rural Perthshire towns such as Crieff and Aberfeldy, for example, have suffered from the steady retreat of their commercial sectors, while many Border towns are affected by their ready access to the metropolises of Glasgow and Edinburgh.
That the arts can play an important role in reviving a flagging town has been amply demonstrated by Wigtown (book town), Kirkcudbright (art town) and West Kilbride (craft town), but also, without the need for such formal designations, by the development of cultural facilities, such as An Lanntair in Stornoway or the new Beacon in Greenock. But what some of us were trying to argue in the Town Centre Review is that a cultural approach to improving our towns needs to go much deeper. More technical interventions, such as changes to the process of business rates, or getting more town centre properties scheduled as residential, are only really going to be effective, we argued, if applied in the context of a thorough understanding of the different culture of each town—its history, how it grew up, the stories its inhabitants tell about it, what its young people think of it.
That after all is exactly Nicholas Crane’s thesis: that towns can be the machines for living in the future, that they can be capable of change and adaptation, but that you need to understand where each individual town is starting from to kickstart such change. For me, that message doesn’t come across quite strongly enough in the Review’s final report, but at least it’s a start. Now we just need someone with sufficient authority to take the Review’s recommendations and declare, in the immortal words of Jean-Luc Picard, ‘Make it so!’.
© Robert Livingston