DESPITE stagnation and a sense of loss, you don’t have to search for long to discover the soul of Scotland’s towns
ARBROATH, first thing on a sunny working day, presents to the world a fresh face and the smell of fresh fish being gently smoked while the church bells chime over the Kirk Square.
Old Bill Spink, a town worthy, is already hard at work in his shop down a close off Market Gate, as he has been for most of his 79 years. He wears a tweed bunnet and wellies, an outfit he might have come out of the womb wearing, as he ties gleaming haddock by their tails to a charred-black stake. Smoke drifts from a turret above his shop, passes over the Brothock burn, from which Arbroath takes its name, and out to sea.
Spink was born and bred in this town and remembers the thriving fishing industry. His grandmother sold fish round the countryside from a creel on her back, his mother used a barrow. He himself spent time on the waves. “Now,” he says, “there’s just one fishing boat left here. That’s all away.”
That’s all away. This is the refrain I hear as I travel around the towns of Angus. Visit Arbroath, Kirriemuir or Brechin and you will find that these places are beautiful in their understated way – all gables and steeples and old red stone. Yet you will also find a sense of loss, even grief. There has been a growing feeling over the past few years that all is not well with Scotland’s towns, an air of stagnation and sterility. We see the vacant stores. We see the stoating drunks and the young folk without work. We see the morning queues for methadone at quiet, quaint high street chemists. There is, then, a feeling that Something Must Be Done, or, to be precise, that something must be done but without spending any money.
Earlier this month, the Scottish Government launched a National Review of Town Centres. Intended to revitalise our towns, it will open with a symposium in Kilmarnock, home of The Scheme and the Killie Pie. In attendance will be Ross Martin, head of Scotland’s Towns Partnership, an independent think tank. “Towns are the backbone of the community in Scotland,” says Martin. “We shape our towns, but they shape us as well. They make us who we are. They shape our values and our character.”
The STP has announced its own Scotland’s Towns Week, beginning on 5 November, the centrepiece being a conference at Perth Concert Hall. It is hoped that all this will result in concrete solutions rather than mere debate. Talking shops are not the sort of shops this country presently needs.
A foreign visitor walking along the main shopping street in Arbroath might be forgiven for thinking that the chain store To Let is doing rather well. There’s a run of vacant premises and plenty others which, going by the lack of custom, would appear to be on a shoogly peg. One young woman, Stacey Black, mother of four children, welcomes the recent arrival of giants such as Asda and B&Q – “I used to have to go into Dundee for a tin of paint” – but local shopkeepers are less keen.
“Arbroath has seen better days,” admits Ian Beattie, a local barber, “but I believe it’s a sleeping giant.” Beattie is proud of the town and has photographs of its historic monuments on the walls of his salon. Since 1973, he has been cutting the hair of Arbroath – “I’d like to see it in a heap” – and believes that locals, sometimes known as Red Lichties, are “fine resilient people”. Angus’s largest town, with a population of around 22,000, is still a fairly traditional place, he believes. There are some old fishing families from the “fit o’ the toon”, the area around the harbour, who still refuse to mix with “the toonsters” – everyone else – and would kick up hell if their daughter wanted to marry a toonster lad. “It takes you a long time, if you weren’t born in Arbroath, to get your citizenship,” says Beattie.
Travelling around Angus, from Arbroath to Brechin, one is struck by the architecture, the way that dark closes and pends give way to long beautiful streets. This, I think, has something in common with the folk themselves. They can be reticent at first, their charms shut away, yet spend a bit of time and they begin to open up.
Down a pend next to the court, I meet three middle-aged ladies who have stopped for a blether. Arbroath, they feel, has no luck. Forfar and Montrose are blessed by comparison. There is a sense of something thwarted about Arbroath. “It sounds daft,” says Annie-Marie Slater, but the local bingo is an example of this. Only here, she explains, do you have to share the £5 prize if more than one player shouts house at once. “Do they think folk in Arbroath are daft? Ach, it just scunners you.”
One can understand why people feel anxious or even depressed about their towns. But, of course, towns are about more than just shops. There is a particular spirit in Scottish towns – a mix of kookiness, couthiness, drollness, sentimentality and pride – which is absent from villages and cities. Somehow, it needs a town to flourish.
The forthcoming Scotland’s Towns Conference is taking place, ironically, in Perth – a town which has, of late, become a city. This desire for promotion has always seemed to me wrongheaded. Perth is a town. A grand old town. It is the size of a town and it feels like a town as you walk around within it. The idea that the granting of city status represents a restoration of Perth’s “ancient dignity”, as the council has it, is a joke. There is nothing undignified about being a town. On the contrary, many Scottish towns, including Perth and that other pompous overreacher Stirling, have a douce grace that would be the envy of many a city.
Leaving Arbroath, I drive inland, past golden fields full of gulls, to the bustling town of Forfar. It feels very different from Arbroath – busier and more prosperous, right at the heart of farming country. There are problems with drugs and poverty here, you’re told, but what you think is – well, there must be money in tatties yet. The streets are full of well-fed farmers in wellies and ladies who lunch. “We’re just ordinary hard-workin’ fowk,” says Elizabeth, a woman in her fifties. “Friendly, too. You’ve got to stay in Carnoustie seven year afore the fowk’ll say hello to you.”
If anything, Forfarians are desperately keen to know your business. “As soon as you come into Forfar, you’ll be asked where you are from and where your parents are from,” says Ian Whyte, landlord of The Plough, a pub better known as The Ploo.
“When I go to Kirrie,” says one of his regulars, an Englishman, raising his head from a plate of steak pie, “and they hear my accent, they don’t even ask. They hit first.”
The great rivalry in Forfar is not between people from different areas of town, but between those who eat the bridies from McLaren’s and those who prefer those baked by Saddler’s. Like the Old Firm, both bakers are great Victorian institutions with one favouring a green colour scheme, the other red, white and blue. The preference in bridie is passed from father to son, mother to daughter, family loyalty intensifying with each new generation. Forfarians, however, are united in their belief that pies made in Arbroath are inedible, though the fish suppers – they admit, grudgingly – are all right.
The spirit of small town Scotland is alive and well in Forfar. I can say this with confidence having met Martin Gray, groundskeeper and kit man with Forfar Athletic, the second division team known as The Loons. Gray is 42 and has had a hard time of it lately. First the grass at Station Park was replaced by artificial turf and then, just three weeks ago, his beloved collie cross, Giggsy, was put down by the vet. “Heartbreaking,” he says. “You lose the pitch and you lose your f***in’ dug.”
Giggsy, named after Ryan Giggs, despite being a bitch (“My pal, his dad’s cat was called Larsson,” Gray shrugs) was a familiar sight around Forfar, forever running beside her master’s push-bike. She was a public figure, really, at 15 an old worthy in her own right. She was given special dispensation to enter The Ploo and many local shops which would normally be forbidden to animals, even including Jarvis Brothers – “the Harrods of Forfar”. Gray has a tattoo of Giggsy on his right forearm, has buried her within the grounds of Station Park, and is raising funds to pay for a memorial bench for his dog. He has been touched by the hundreds of pounds which have already been donated by fans at matches and in the pub. The Loons’ recent 4-0 victory over Stenhousemuir was dedicated to Giggsy. Martin shakes his head with emotion when considering all this.
“Aye,” he says, “and she used to love a bridie.”
It’s all there, isn’t it? Humour and pathos, comradeship and compassion, generosity of purse and spirit. One might call that the soul of small town Scotland.
A clock is striking five as I leave Angus, throwing the steeple’s long shadow on the emptying streets. The way forward for Forfar and Arbroath, Kirriemuir and Brechin, and all such places is, of course, uncertain. Nobody wants to see shops close and money vanish. But it seems to me that towns which have such people as Martin Gray and Bill Spinks in them have reason to be proud and to face the future with a fair degree of fortitude. «