Anna Blair discusses art, craft and city planning in Edinburgh’s Cowgate and Kings Stables Yard

What a transformation to see the sober in droves in the Cowgate last Saturday afternoon venue- crawling to pop-up markets in some of the dingiest pub and club venues in the city.

It was sweetness if not always light, with the dark, cavernous ethos of most of these venues retained. Fine for late-night whatever, this was less suited to appreciating the wide range of arts and crafts on sale at dozens of stall staffed mainly by the under 30s. It was refreshing to go to the Cowgate, now far less staggering but infinitely more sociable, a far cry from the place the city abandoned to late-night drunkenness when thirteen years ago they banned traffic from the area between the hours10pm and 5am.

So , the Old Towners are saying, What’s popping up next? Surprises aren’t always as welcome as the Cowgate experience. What the arts collective Hidden Doors has in mind for Kings Stables Yard next month is a case in point. I’m sure there will be worthwhile art and drama on show but what’s also likely is that it will extend the standard anti-social Grassmarket mayhem by another 300 yards along KSR, closer to where hundreds of folk live (Kings Stables Road, Portsburgh Sq and Webster’s Land) – and for a further 9 days in May! As if the residents haven’t enough to contend with.

The arts fraternity must wake up to the fact that they now have an established urban planning role in making unpopular developments more palatable to planners and an un-enquiring public.  While the dressing of art and festival will fade along with the locals’ sleeplessness and the revellers’ hangovers, what developers have in mind for the city will not be sorted by an afternoon power nap or the hair of the dog.

Anna Blair

Image of the Cowgate Pop-Up Market from Edinburgh Markets' photostream on Flickr used as per Creative Commons license and with thanks.

A recent event in Braidwood Centre saw the Word Bank revive an important film about Dumbiedykes made in 2000 by Pilton Video in partnership with the Workers Educational Association.

Dumbiedykes: a Community Worth Preserving was made at a critical time for the community, right in the middle of the new development of Holyrood South with the Scottish Parliament under construction. Built to replace slum housing in the 1960s, Dumbiedykes now saw itself on the verge on becoming a slum once more with a growing backlog of house repairs and housing stock transfer from the Council on the cards.

The mood of the film is largely pessimistic but there’s also ample evidence of a community resilient enough to fight for a better future. And while the pessimism about the future of Dumbiedykes as a community has not been fulfilled, some of the old problems (such as poor public transport) persist and changes in the residential population have brought new challenges.

A report on the discussion which followed the film is available here.

Most importantly, it includes suggestions to help revive the fortunes of Dumbiedykes. If you have a contribution to make to this discussion we would like to hear from you.

Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust, 8 Jackson’s Entry, The Tun, Edinburgh EH8 8PJ


The Last Public Event in Grassmarket Nursery

The Lives of Old Town Buildings – Symposium November 21st 2013


Grassmarket Nursery in the Vennel, which closed in June of this year, was the venue chosen for an inspiring discussion about ‘buildings in transition’ in Edinburgh’s Old Town. Part of the Word Bank Autumn Season, the symposium brought together three experts - Edward Hollis (Edinburgh College of Art), Bob Morris (University of Edinburgh) and Jim Johnson (Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust) - to explore the factors which determine the survival and changing functions of buildings over time.

To set the scene, local resident and researcher, Elspeth Wills, provided a potted history of the building which began life as Grassmarket Child Garden in 1930, a memorial by the parents of James Hamilton Maxwell, killed in the trenches in 1915. Their son had enjoyed 'freedom and fresh air' and his parents felt that it would have been his wish for the deprived children of the Grassmarket. In 1945 this endowment passed to Edinburgh Corporation.

Such clarity of purpose, plan and function characterises how most buildings start life but, according to Ed Hollis, ‘a building should outlive everyone, including its function’. The story of every building changes over time and it’s a matter for us, in the present, ‘how we decide to tell the story now’.

Discussing the differing fate of such buildings as John Knox House and Holy Trinity Church, Bob Morris spoke of the ‘meaning that attaches itself to buildings’, meaning not always reflecting historical truth. Put simply, ‘the story is re-told, the meaning changes’. Discussing the pioneering work of Daniel Wilson and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Bob described Edinburgh as being ‘remade for the people who live there as well as visitors’.

Who is remaking what and for whom? was the subject of Jim Johnson’s contribution to the symposium. Revisiting his work as head of Edinburgh Old Town Renewal Trust in the 1980s, Jim wondered how places can be improved without producing the negative effects of ‘gentrification’. Well-meaning efforts to preserve the unique character of a place can be detrimental to stable communities, driving up property values and increasing consumerism aimed at visitors rather than residents.

The venue for the evening had its own point to make according to the chair, Sean Bradley (Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust). He asserted that the purpose and values underlying Grassmarket Child Garden and Grassmarket Nursery have not changed over time. Early years education and the value of ‘freedom and fresh air’ are still a priority for the city and its people - and it is important that these values are reflected in the building’s future use.

The symposium concluded that there’s no avoiding the changing story of the places we live in. But what needs to be recognised is the central role that residents have in retelling that story.

This event was made possible by the unstinting support of Graham Walker (Community Use of Premises) and his colleagues in City of Edinburgh Council – and greatly enhanced by an exhibition of drawings of Grassmarket Nursery and the surrounding area by Sylvia MacKiewicz, Facilities Assistant with the Council.

 ed hollis


Edward Hollis, Reader in Design at Edinburgh College of Art writes about buildings, and the strange and secret lives they lead both inside and out.



bob morris



Bob Morris is Emeritus Prof of History at University of Edinburgh, and an expert on the history – notably the nineteenth century history, of the Royal Mile.





Jim Johnson of the Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust has lived and worked around Edinburgh Old town for decades, and has also played a leading role in helping householders and tenants find new ways to deal with the repair, and improvement of their living conditions.

GPAmongst the usual dross of fliers and free sheets to be found in the libraries, shops, and cafes of Edinburgh (mostly its Old Town and South Side) your eye might have been caught recently by an unusual and unusually interesting publication. It’s a full colour tabloid-size newspaper, but instead of a screaming headline and sensationalist story the cover is taken up by a photograph of a nattily dressed old man standing beside a litter bin.

Inside we find out that this is George Pitcher, Community Activist: his portrait is part of ‘Southsiders: portrait of a community’, a project commissioned from photographer Peter Dibdin by the Causey Development Trust.

The project involved capturing the portraits and stories of 32 people who live, work or have a specific connection to Edinburgh’s Southside. Each page of the newspaper is devoted to one person- ranging from Kevin Gill, Gravedigger, to Rosie Cunningham, Flamenco Dancer.

The portraits are framed by short essays and poems about the Southside. The publication and associated website where the stories can also be listened to, although only revealing the barest skeleton of the community, gives that community life, and exposes the nature of a community, when you begin to see it in terms of individual lives and the web of living and working that, in an ideal community, should connect us all.

Find out more about ‘Southsiders: portrait of a community’, see the people and listen to their stories here. Find out more about the Causey Development Trust here. Or go hunting round your community for your own copy of this enriching publication, meeting more Southsiders as you go.

The EOTDT has just published its Spring/Summer 2013 newsletter. This features a preview of the Trust's Development Plan, including its Vision for the Old Town, news about the Patrick Geddes Gardening Club and the new project to create an Evergreen magazine for the 21st century. There are previews of events happening in June, including the first of a series about greening the Old Town, and comments on Caltongate and the Royal Mile Action Plan.

The newsletter also has the first of a series of features on prominent organisations who contribute to the life and well-being of the Old Town: the first of these features the newly re-opened Grassmarket Community Project. Download a pdf of the newsletter below.