Stepping out: The Scotsman Steps get a new lease of life

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A proud Edinburgh landmark that had fallen into neglect is today coming to life life with an artistic touch

• Oliver O'Keefe from the Fruitmarket Gallery, which helped pay for the marble coverings

THE YEAR is 1899. The Enlightenment may long be over but Edinburgh continues to grow in size, status, and confidence. Away from the cramped Old Town slums around the Royal Mile, the city is on the up. Waverley is undergoing a redevelopment. The North Bridge has been widened to admit increased traffic from the Old Town to Leith Docks. The North British Hotel (now The Balmoral) is in the process of being constructed. And on the west side of the bridge so too is an impressive promenade of shops, which eventually became the The Carlton Hotel. Opposite this, the first purpose- built home of the newspaper you're reading right now.

As part of the deal on the plot of land, a set of public steps were included in the plans for The Scotsman (now a five-star hotel), linking the North Bridge with Waverley, and the Old Town with the New. The Scotsman Steps, finished in 1899, were a magnificent creation in their own right: an ornamental octagonal tower comprising 104 steps, decorative wrought iron and stonework, glazed bricks, and grand wooden doors and windows leading into the cavernous building.

Not that you would notice, walking up or down the steps over a century later. Or rather running, to escape the dark, graffiti, and stench of urine. Over the past decades, the Scotsman Steps have become more known for rough sleepers, rubbish, and antisocial behaviour than great Victorian engineering. Since the newspapers moved to their new home on Holyrood Road in 1999 the steps have seen less traffic, and less care.

Now, that's set to change. Today these Grade A-listed steps reopen to the public following a two-year restoration by 25 people, from local painters and blacksmiths to stone masons and Polish sculptors. The 300,000 conservation project was funded by Edinburgh City Council and Edinburgh World Heritage.

And the Fruitmarket Gallery, supported by the Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund who contributed 125,000, also commissioned the Turner Prize-winning Scottish artist Martin Creed to create a permanent piece of public art for the steps. He decided to cover each one in a different colour of marble from a different part of the world.

"Whatever I did had to be functional," he tells me. "But I also wanted it to be beautiful. In the past it was used as a toilet, and in fact marble is used in toilets a lot." He laughs. "So I thought I'd try and make a beautiful toilet.

"I like that each colour of marble represents all the colours and peoples of the world," he says of his Work No. 1059. "And I've always liked steps. When you go up them you feel like you've got somewhere. I like steps for the same reason that people like mountains."

Fiona Bradley, director of the Fruitmarket, where Creed held a hugely popular exhibition last summer during the Festival, adds that turning these historic steps into an art work will make people value them again.

"This project puts a work by one of our best contemporary artists literally under people's feet," she says. "It can be encountered by people on their own terms. They can engage with it as a beautiful marble staircase, or start to think through what it might mean to do this to a set of steps."

It's certainly beautiful, even on a dark, rainy afternoon in June. When I visit, water is gushing down the steps from an overflowing pipe, but the hostile weather can't take the shine off the steps. It now feels like a place to stop, linger, and look (and, indeed, sniff the clean air). Marble in shades of pink, cream, grey, green, and blue from countries including Italy, India, Turkey, China, and Croatia cover the steps. Some of the marble is mottled, patterned, and lined, some almost monochrome. The glazed brick lining the curved walls has been cleaned, the stonework repointed, and the wire mesh where rubbish was once stuffed has been removed from the windows. New lights have been fitted, giving everything a soft, Renaissance glow.

New wrought iron gates, modelled on the original Victorian ones, have been fitted. The Scotsman Steps were originally locked every night after the last train into Waverley, and opened in the morning to coincide with the first train. This practice will now be resumed, partly to pay homage to history, mostly to discourage antisocial behaviour.

"A number of factors make this more than a set of steps," says David Hicks of Edinburgh World Heritage. "There is the practical use, the romantic notion that these steps connect the Old Town to the New. And they are a very good example of the kind of architecture for which Edinburgh is renowned. What better place than Edinburgh to see Scots baronial, a Victorian reaction to the more austere Georgian elegance of the New Town? And the combination of the conservation work with Martin Creed's artwork has transformed the Scotsman Steps into something it has never been before. These steps will become a tourist attraction in their own right."

The Scotsman was doing a fine trade by the time it moved into its new offices there. Around the turn of the 19th century the newspaper supported the Boer Wars, campaigned for "provincial" reporters to be included in the Commons Press Gallery, and in 1901 reported the death of Queen Victoria with 32 black-edged columns. Its new home in this iconic location in the city was an impressive mark of its confidence. It was at the time the largest building in Edinburgh constructed purely through private enterprise. At 190ft tall, the Scots baronial masterpiece, which housed The Scotsman and its sister paper The Evening Dispatch, cost 500,000. With the Carlton Hotel opposite, the buildings flanking North Bridge together created a grand, turreted gateway between Old and New Towns.

"It was roughly the same time that The Scotsman opened offices on Fleet Street," says Hicks. "The proprietor of the newspapers was Sir John Ritchie Findlay, whose father was the nephew of The Scotsman's founder. His influence in the city was huge. He put up the money for the Portrait Gallery and Well Court in the Dean Village, too. Quite clearly, he wanted to leave his mark on Edinburgh in stone."

The question, though, is whether the Scotsman Steps had a function beyond public access. "The steps are hugely grand and somewhat overly engineered," explains Hicks. When the idea to cover each one in marble was mooted, there was some concern that the structure wouldn't be able to support the weight. No chance of that. "They built them so solidly we started to wonder what they were used for," laughs Hicks. "Why were there doorways into the building?"

The doorways have long been blocked. However, rumours abound of staff at the paper leaning out of the open windows to sell directly to passing members of the public. Around the office today, staff recall the fire exit of The Evening News leading on to the Scotsman Steps and the newsroom often smelling of urine and disinfectant. One journalist remembers a young Ewan McGregor being photographed on the steps after his interview.

"I would speculate that way back, there was some practical use in the newspaper having these steps," continues Hicks. "That could have been additional access to the newsroom or even a fire escape for the printers in the setting room. What's certain is that the bottom of the steps would have been an absolute hive of activity. That's where the newspaper vans would be parked up and waiting, right next door was a special goods yard, and then you had the fruit market across the road."

Hicks tells me about the rivalry between The Evening Dispatch and The Evening News on Cockburn Street in the first half of the last century. "This was where you got the newspaper away," he says. "Because their two sets of vans were in Market Street, apparently it was a bit like a race track. Each set of papers wanted to get their vans away first. There would certainly have been a bit of argy-bargy."

Hicks also points out that 2011 won't mark the first time the Scotsman Steps have been used to display art. "From the 1950s to the 1980s the Edinburgh College of Art used to run a competition with The Scotsman and the winning works would be displayed on the steps," he says. "That just shows how different they were then – they were considered a grand place where you could exhibit art."

Today, the next phase of the Scotsman Steps begins. For Creed, it's a rare chance to make a permanent work that people will walk on every single day: "I want people to see my work outside the gallery. I want it to exist in the world, not the cliquey and specialised art gallery.

"I like the thought that the people who see it are just getting on with their lives. They haven't gone to a gallery to see art, they've gone down some steps to get to the station."