50 years at Dumbiedykes: How Jean saw the world change

Jean Rooney enjoys the view at Dumbiedykes. Picture: Jon Savage
Jean Rooney enjoys the view at Dumbiedykes. Picture: Jon Savage
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EVERY morning, almost without fail, for the past 50 years, Jean Rooney has thrown open the living room curtains in her council flat to gaze upon one of the most spectacular views Edinburgh can offer.

From her vantage point above the tree tops, she looks down on scampering grey squirrels, birds’ nests and the lush carpet of grass beneath her window, and up towards the bright yellow flowering gorse bushes that are sprinkled across the rising slope.

Above the bursts of green and yellow, the Radical Road gently winds on a journey up the rugged face of Salisbury Crags, where the ripples of rock appear to change colour and texture as the sky shifts from sun to rain, to cloudy grey, occasionally even
brilliant blue.

The scene is stunning, not that Jean knew much of it on June 16, 1963, when she was one of the first tenants in a brand new block of high-rise flats built to replace grim slum tenements.

“It was a Tuesday,” nods Jean, who is counting the weeks to her 90th birthday but remembers walking through the door of her eighth-floor flat in Holyrood Tower as if it happened yesterday. “The mist was right down to the park, I couldn’t see what was in front of us at all.

“It was like that for three weeks, right up to the Trades’ holidays. We didn’t know what the view was like, we couldn’t see it.”

When the mist finally cleared, Jean discovered that along with her husband Jimmy and their young son Brian, she had snared a council house in a prime location with the kind of five-star view that today’s property developers would surely gaze at with pound signs rolling in their eyes.

Back in 1963, the area around Holyrood was an industrial melting pot of breweries and printers, humble and rundown houses, bakers, butchers and spit-and-sawdust pubs – a far cry from today’s mix of upturned boat Parliament, glass-fronted media offices, the white shrouded visitor attraction of Dynamic Earth and bars and cafes with their pavement tables and outdoor dining.

But while all around has since morphed into the modern age, Dumbiedykes – with its two high-rise tower blocks dominating the skyline and the honour of being the only council estate slap in the heart of the city centre – has, apart from a frantic tidy-up to coincide with the influx of MSPs and a dramatic rise in rent from £4 a fortnight to around £80 a week now, barely changed.

Jean was one of the first to arrive at Holyrood Tower, arriving from a prefab in West Pilton Crescent so prone to flooding that it made more sense to move than to continuously try to dry it out.

She left behind a bungalow with two bedrooms and a garden with a crop of potatoes that was usually submerged and crossed town to an area that had housed crumbling slum tenements and was then what the council clumsily called “St Leonard’s Comprehensive Development Area, Phase 1a Dumbiedykes”.

High-rise life might not suit all, but other than the pigeon deposits on her little balcony, Jean found she liked it just fine: “It’s lovely to be above the treetops,” she says with a smile. “My dad used to visit me and he’d say how well I looked and I used to say, ‘it’s the hill air, dad, it’s good for me’. Look at my big garden,” and she points out the window to the glorious view outside, “isn’t it lovely?”

From the window of the newly-renovated kitchen – where just two years after moving in, Jean, then 39, stood trying to make sense of what her sister-in-law was saying, something about her husband being hit by train at work – there’s an alternative view, equally fantastic, that takes in the roofs and spires of the Old Town.

“Our son Brian was just seven years old, he was in the living room and I was in the kitchen,” recalls Jean of the awful day she went from wife to widow. “It was the Talisman that got him, the London-Edinburgh express, ten past two, it was running late. He must have stumbled on the line.

“It was at the time of Beeching closing down the railways,” she continues sadly. “He was a train driver and a union man and he was going to tell the fire droppers their jobs were safe for another six months. He crossed the railway – he should never have done it – and he was killed.

“Never got a penny,” she shrugs. “I got a widow’s pension, 25p a week more.”

Across in Lochview Court, Isa Duncan’s ground-floor home is a lonelier place since her husband Joe passed away a few years ago. They
arrived, a young couple with dark hair and broad smiles, with 14-month-old son Alastair in their arms from a rented flat in a house in Portobello to what Isa remembers thinking was “heaven”.

“Everything else was a building site,” she remembers, “Lochview Court was the first to be built and then everything happened rapidly after that. The low-rise flats went up like Lego houses and there were lots of complaints about them.

“People weren’t happy they weren’t allowed to keep dogs, it was choose the house or the animal. It was a bit unfair – the folk’s dogs were more civilised than some of the men in those days.”

Isa and Joe, an engineer, were in the house three years when second son Gordon was born in the back bedroom. Children welded the new community together, young mums met at the gates of what is now the Royal Mile Primary School – back then it was called Milton House – or at the nursery in Braidwood House which is now the community centre, and planned Avon and Tupperware parties and bus trip away days.

Isa, now 73, keeps the solitude at bay by throwing herself into the local writers’ group, penning the estate newsletter and various community events. “There have been lots of changes here,” she adds. “A lot of them have been good, like the Parliament and Dynamic Earth.

“And for all the area is decried by some, I’ve never had any bother. These flats will still be here long after I’ve gone.”

More than 80 families moved into Lochview Court and then Holyrood Court in 1963, some from well outside the area, others from just a stone’s throw away.

Ann Cameron moved less than a mile, from a tiny room in the Royal Mile for a house a couple of storeys above Isa.

“I didn’t think we were going to get one of the houses,” recalls Ann, 72, who turned out to be first to get keys to a Lochview Tower home. “We were in a room that had a kitchen-come-living room with a wee recess where the bed was, for me, my husband and two kids, Jean, who was three and Steven who was two.

“Lots of people lived that way, we weren’t unusual, but I put my name down for a house as soon as I saw them building these flats.”

She was over the moon when the keys to the second-storey two-bedroom house finally arrived. “Someone said ‘you’ve not got a hope in hell of getting one of those’. There was a stampede for them. It meant we had to find more rent – £4 a fortnight – but it was worth it.

“I got a house with a lovely view. I open the curtains and it’s lovely. I think that’s why a lot of private landlords have come in and bought up a lot of the houses, because of the views.”

Indeed, many of the council homes were sold under the right to buy scheme and are now in the hands of private landlords. It’s meant a fluid community with an older generation like Jean, Isa and Ann rooted at its heart and a much younger, itinerant and multi-cultural influx around them.

Jean, who as a young widow relied heavily on the support and kindness of her neighbours to help look after young Brian so she could work, has seen many of her old neighbours pass away. Today, she hardly knows a soul.

“There’s Nigerians living here, people from Eastern Europe, Chinese, Polish, they come from all over. They all seem nice enough, but it’s not the way it was, because everyone used to know each other. Now you don’t see your neighbours at all.”

The 50th anniversary of the multi-storey flats has not passed without recognition: recently Sheila Gilmour, MP rolled up to have a celebratory lunch with Jean and other high-rise residents and there’s a plan to tidy up the area by covering unsightly stone planters with some wooden cladding.

“Doing something about the pavements and the road might be better,” sighs Jean, whose failing eyesight means she rarely ventures outside.

“There are times when I think I’d like to get a wee sheltered house somewhere, without any stairs and near the shops,” she adds.

“I’ll be 90 soon. I don’t think I’ll be moving from here. This is my home.”

MORE THAN A FEW FAMOUS SONS …

DUMBIEDYKES is home to Benjamin Ellis, one of Edinburgh’s brightest opera prospects.

Ellis, 23, was chosen to take a key role in Edinburgh Grand Opera developing artists programme and quickly secured a leading role performing at the Queen’s Hall.

He is now studying singing at Trinity College in London.

Father of geology James Hutton could be loosely described as a Dumbiedykes boy. He lived just behind where the modern estate is now, in a cottage that looked on to the Crags.

Super featherweight boxer Alex Arthur MBE grew up on the estate. The former British, Commonwealth, European and WBO champion’s last fight was

in April last year at Meadowbank, just a few miles from his childhood

home.

Former Bay City Roller singer Nobby Clark lives in the area. He was appointed to fight for the estate in the role of chairman of the Dumbiedykes Environmental Group.

Redevelopment of the area with the construction of the Parliament has pushed up prices in neighbouring properties – among the owners of one penthouse apartment nearby was Simple Minds singer Jim Kerr.

ANSWER TO THE BIG QUESTION – WHERE DID THE NAME COME FROM?

THE area that stretches from the Pleasance to Holyrood was once farmland divided into sections by a series of dykes.

The name Dumbiedykes emerged after Thomas Braidwood’s Academy for the Deaf and Dumb – the first school of its kind in Britain – was founded in the area in 1764.

The academy, built on St Leonard’s Toad – later Dumbiedykes Road – became known as the Dumbie Hoose.

It was there that Braidwood pioneered a form of sign language – the foundation for the modern version.

The academy closed in 1873 and was demolished in 1939.

The area became a thriving hub of industry, with breweries such as William Younger’s in Holyrood, MacKay’s in St Leonards standing side-by-side with printing firms like Cowan’s at the foot of Arthur Street and Nelson’s at Parkside and McNiven and Cameron in Blair Street.

The factories provided work for locals but housing conditions were poor and the slum tenement homes were knocked down and the tight-knit community dispersed.

Modern Dumbiedykes was built between 1959 and 1964. It consists of 650 homes including two multi-storey tower blocks – Holyrood Tower and Lochview Tower – of ten and 11 storeys.