Ex-pat Leith man devoted to promoting Edinburgh in twin city of San Diego

Edinburgh shares some similarities with twin city San Diego
Edinburgh shares some similarities with twin city San Diego
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BEHIND a door in his San Diego bungalow is Alex Sandie’s home from home.

It was once his daughter’s teenage retreat but is now a shrine to Scotland and the city he left 40 years ago.

San Diego, California, has been linked with Edinburgh for 35 years

San Diego, California, has been linked with Edinburgh for 35 years

Inside, Drambuie bottles gather dust on a shelf, lions rampant adorn pins and postcards, while Robert Burns graces a huge woollen rug. A belt belonging to the 10th Leith Boys Brigade hangs over the back of a chair . . . and then there’s a very distinctive number plate.

“I’m not afraid to say I’ve become more Scottish since I came to San Diego,” says Alex over a brunch of shortbread and oatcakes. “I never owned a kilt back home but I’ve had three since coming here.”

There are wall-to-wall memories from Caledonia, but sandwiched between framed images of Auld Reekie are several plaques honouring his contribution to his homeland.

Born in Couper Street, Leith, Alex emigrated to San Diego in 1971 for a better life and to date the former Leith Academy pupil has founded no fewer than six Scots societies.

He became the architect of a twinning project which sparked a cultural exchange between Edinburgh and San Diego, and has seen teachers trade countries, joint scholarships flourish and official visits by city leaders.

This year, San Diego will follow Edinburgh’s lead by launching a Fringe 

Thanks to Alex, a tiny slice of each city now adorns the other.

Sheltering from the January heat in his Mission Valley home, the 78-year-old explains the origins of his prolific patriotism and the four-year struggle he faced to connect the cities.

A radio news item about twinning was the lightbulb moment.

“I started thinking about the differing beauties of San Diego and Edinburgh, he says. “I liked the idea of twinning – the fact it’s not done through officialdom but through the citizens, although in Britain it’s more through the council.

“I proposed it to the council in San Diego but when it went back to Edinburgh, one of the councillors said she had visited here during the Second World War and there was no comparisons, and so it went back and forth for a while.”

To keep up momentum, Alex wooed US officials by appending his plea to city hall with a bagpipe 
lament. However, it was a video presentation and an article in the Evening News that finally served to usher it through.

“The wife of our deputy mayor had a Scottish background and was going over to Edinburgh,” he says. “I made them take a video presentation about the city – it’s easy to sell San Diego when you see it – and that talked it up.

“But what solidified it was that a story broke that Edinburgh was considering being linked with San Francisco. I took that to the mayor’s office and convinced them if we didn’t act promptly we were likely to lose it.”

By his own admission, Alex is a “stubborn Scot” but forging twinning links – and promoting Scotland – became a passion. In 1974, he launched San Diego’s first Royal Scottish 
Highland Country Dance Society. With just one teacher in the region, Alex took lessons so he could tutor others.

Two years later, he founded San Diego’s Scottish Highland Games; the next year the Robert Burns Club of San Diego, and by 1996 he had established an annual John Muir day and St Andrew’s Society of San Diego.

His efforts have not gone unnoticed, having been nominated for an honour by lord provost Eric Milligan in 1999, but among the accolades and tributes hanging in the Edinburgh room of home there is one treasure.

Lifting up a silver pendant, he says: “I got this from South Leith Kirk a few years ago. It’s called the Pillar of Leith Award for service to the community.”

Close by are photographs of Alex’s days in the Leith BB. “It’s mottos were ‘Sure and Steadfast’ and ‘Persevere’,” he says. “Those words have carried me through my life.”

A bond forged by similar experiences

THEY are an odd couple of civic kinship.

One is a sunkissed American metropolis with golden beaches and vast palm-lined promenades, the other . . . is Edinburgh.

But despite being separated by 3000 miles of ocean and 48 US states, these two strange bedfellows are tied into an unlikely alliance.

For 35 years, San Diego has been a sister city to Edinburgh and seen the trading of culture and ideas that has enriched both regions.

Established in 1978, the twinning programme has seen a secondary/high school teacher exchange, official visits from civic leaders and swapping of gifts that has led monuments of two famous dogs – Greyfriars Bobby and Bum – cross the Atlantic.

Both cities have prestigious universities and strong ties to the military, a key employer in San Diego responsible for five per cent of all civilian jobs.

The success of the Fringe festival in Capital has inspired its US sibling to launch its own surrogate event set to debut later this year.

San Diego’s zoo is deemed to have the most successful panda breeding programme in the world, having reared six cubs since 1999. Edinburgh will be hoping for similar success.

While there are stretches of common ground, they also share similar hurdles.

Heading into 2013-14, Edinburgh and San Diego face huge spending cuts

if they are to plug shortfalls in their budgets

(£10.8 million and $40m – £25m – respectively).

Privatising public services is a political hot potato in both cities and equally controversial, with only union invention derailing San Diego’s plans to wrest waste collections out of public control – sound familiar?

Meanwhile, while the debate is beginning whether Edinburgh should have its own elected mayor, San Diego has already gone down that road.

It is a move which has proved popular with the voters so far.

On the question of trams, San Diego completed its 54-mile route in the 1970s and has been improving the circuit ever since, without much in the way of controversy.

Although unaware of the contractual disputes which has hit the Edinburgh project, Wayne Terry, chief operating officer for San Diego Metropolitan Transit System, had some words of advice.

He said: “You win and lose these projects by the strength of what you have in your contracts. Contractors are famous for low bidding a contract that’s not originated properly so they can pick out the weak points to make their money further down the line.”

Mr Terry said the most important advice he could give trams chiefs would be having an efficient preventative maintenance programme.

“A new system will take care of itself for quite a long time, but there’s a lot of things – like signalling, traction power, systems and sub systems – that need to have a tight inspection programme to make sure they are working in the fashion they are supposed to.”

While they are anything but identical twins, in many respects Edinburgh and San Diego bear a passing resemblance. After 35 years of partnership and co-operation, both cities have felt each other’s influence and can continue to learn from each other’s achievements and mistakes.


CHRISSY McPherren Ambler, president of the San Diego-Edinburgh Sister City Society, said: “There were so many Edinburgh natives in San Diego that we hooked into that and we concentrate on the similarities between the cities and not the differences.

“The Scottish people are so friendly and with the twinning organisations we have combined our lives together. I have had friends in Edinburgh for 25 years through this programme.”

“It would be a real shame if it fell into decline, we are very active in San Diego but we need our counterparts in Edinburgh to be the same.”

• Edinburgh’s twin cities – Munich, Germany (1954); Nice, France (1958); Florence, Italy (1964); Dunedin, New Zealand (1974); Vancouver, Canada (1977); San Diego, USA (1978); Xi’an, China (1985); Kiev, Ukraine (1989); Aalborg, Denmark (1991).


A STATUE to Bum the Dog – San Diego’s counterpart to Greyfriars Bobby – was installed in Princes Street Gardens in 2008, some 15 years after the US city established a monument to the Skye Terrier in a park in the historic Gas Lamp Quarter.

The move was aimed at cementing the twinning link between the two cities. Bum rocketed to local fame at the tail end of the 1800s after stowing away in a steamship bound for San Diego from San Francisco.

A St Bernard and spaniel mix, Bum roamed the streets of downtown freely, grabbing free meals from restaurants.

According to historians, he even hitched rides on streetcars and was featured in local parades.

He was so beloved that his picture was on the first dog licences released by the city of San Diego.

Members of the One O’Clock Gun Association in Edinburgh have recently begun a campaign to move the Edinburgh statue of Bum – currently placed near King’s Stables Road – to a more prominent location.