Brian Ferguson: Edinburgh needs to nurture culture

Edinburgh council has presided over the closure of a host of venues including the Gateway Theatre. Picture: TSPL
Edinburgh council has presided over the closure of a host of venues including the Gateway Theatre. Picture: TSPL
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IT is hard to avoid looking at Scotland’s cultural landscape through an Edinburgh-Glasgow prism when I am from (just outside) one city, live in the other, and work has me regularly travelling between them.

Despite their proximity, the passage of time since my student days has done nothing to blunt the apparent differences in the people, the landscape, the architecture, the atmosphere. And when it comes culture, they have always appeared poles apart.

Two decades ago, Edinburgh felt so much more accessible, with its main theatres, cinemas and art galleries all a short stroll away from each other. The city would also burst into life for six weeks every summer – the festivals were a brilliant, if bewildering, marathon you didn’t want to end. Glasgow’s cultural scene always seemed much edgier, slightly cooler and dominated by music. To an extent it still is. But it is also much expanded when compared with 1990, the year I left school, when the city reigned as a European capital of culture.

It now throbs with festivals and major events every month and at the latest count there are more than 130 gigs on every week. A whole host of new venues have sprung up since the late 1980s, including the Tramway, the Royal Concert Hall, The Arches, Oran Mor and, of course, the SSE Hydro. It seems fitting the 25th anniversary of that landmark cultural year will see the publication of a book celebrating the city’s musical heritage through its iconic venues.

In Edinburgh, though, it is a different. I’m sorry to say it feels like culture is in danger of becoming a dirty word outwith August. Arts and heritage campaigners seem at constant loggerheads with the city council, which has presided over the closure of a host of important venues, including the old Bongo Club on New Street, The Venue on Calton Road, the Gateway Theatre on Leith Walk, and The Picture House on Lothian Road.

Developers have dropped or scaled back cultural elements from major schemes including Caltongate, the St James Quarter, SoCo and the reopening of the Royal High School on Calton Hill, while student flats and budget hotels are sprouting up – and pub gigs which have been running for years are being suddenly shut down following protests from a handful of campaigners.

The council itself seems incapable of delivering on ideas for new cultural infrastructure. There has been only one major new venue built for the Edinburgh International Festival since it began in 1947, the Traverse Theatre (which moved to its purpose-built home in 1992), which now feels hopelessly outdated. Venues like the Ross Bandstand and Leith Theatre are crying out for a new lease of life.

Perhaps it is time for someone in the capital’s corridors of power to at least dust down a drawing board.


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