Gracemount shedding its reputation for violence

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Life is looking up in city estate tarnished by murder, gangs and lawlessness.

WELCOME to Gracemount says the sign, in letters that are big and bold and accompanied by the warning: "CCTV cameras are in operation".

It sits – just opposite one of Edinburgh's most notorious pubs, The Marmion – defaced by a dirty smear. The welcome may be warm enough, but with a growing reputation for bloody crime, how many visitors will hang around long enough to find out?

Gracemount: for years a fairly nondescript, typical estate where law-abiding families went about their business without fear of being shot, stabbed or jostled by staggering, foul-mouthed gangs of drunk or drug-fuelled hoodies. Today it is earning an unwanted association with crime and gang warfare, bloody battles and violence.

The streets of Gracemount and its neighbouring communities have seen a series of terrifying incidents that have left young men dead, stabbed and shot, with some of the violence even orchestrated from behind the walls of Saughton Jail.

The scene today though could not be further from all this lawlessness.

Fearless young mum Emma McGlynn pushes her baby son Toby's buggy past the Welcome to Gracemount sign, toddler daughter Amelia hitching a ride on the footrest, her curly red hair still soppy from her dip in the nearby Gracemount Leisure Centre pool.

The 33-year-old mum moved to the area just weeks before a brutal murder, which followed a street brawl near the Waverley Inn in Southhouse Avenue, separated from Gracemount by Captain's Road and within a few yards of the city council's welcome sign.

Within a year, the Marmion pub shootings had taken place, and then James Paxton had embarked on a spree of knife attacks. In three weeks, he struck on the streets of Southhouse, Gracemount and Blackford Hill, knifing one man – as it turned out, a victim of mistaken identity – on the orders of a convicted killer who listened to the violent attack unfolding from Saughton on a mobile phone.

While the growing violence has fuelled the fears of some about the changing face of the neighbourhood, many others remain unperturbed by the trouble, much of which has involved – and been contained within – rival families and their circles.

"I don't feel concerned at all," says Emma, shrugging off the idea that Gracemount and its neighbouring estates of Southhouse and Burdiehouse are becoming no-go areas.

"I walk back from the gym at the leisure centre regularly at night – I've never felt unsafe. OK, there are kids hanging around the shops and I've got to walk past them, but all they are doing is kicking footballs off the shutters. They're never doing anything particularly serious. They're just doing what kids anywhere do."

She is part of a wave of incoming, respectable families who have taken advantage of new homes at more affordable prices than many other city suburbs.

There are smart terraces and semi-detached homes with contemporary wooden panelling.

The gardens are well-kept, smart cars sit in many driveways and the very rare examples of a vandal's spray-can slogan have been carefully painted over.

Following heavy council investment, the 2.4m leisure centre is thriving, there's an 800,000 Astroturf five-a-side football pitch, a 25-metre pool sauna, gym, sports halls and internet cafe. A few yards away is a pristine-looking medical centre and St Catherine's RC Primary School.

Around 6m has been invested in the neighbourhood by the council and private developers in recent years. Far from oozing depravity and wanton violence, the area – by day, at least – fails to live up to its rough, tough, stab-first ask-questions-later reputation.

The majority of crimes reported here are acts of vandalism and minor thefts.

"It would be totally wrong to label Gracemount as a violent area," says a police spokesman. "The (serious violent) incidents referred to are few and far between. And issues such as youth calls and antisocial behaviour are no more prevalent than in any other part of the city.

"There is a good community spirit here and the ongoing work with our partners has been a real success."

It's a message echoed by Ellis Johnston, the softly spoken publican who took over what some might have regarded as the poison chalice of city bars – The Marmion – 18 months ago. The 36-year-old insists the pub does not deserve its reputation for violence.

"Put it this way. I stay upstairs and my sleep is rarely disturbed," he insists. "I wouldn't say there have never been any incidents, but we work very closely with the police. The truth is that things here are not as bad as people would have you think.

"When you dig into this area, you find the people who cause the most trouble are the same people over and over again.

"Police presence in this area is far heavier than it's ever been and they do a very good job. However, it's all let down by the criminal justice system that fails to properly punish people and lets them carry on with their behaviour.

"The fact is that the vast majority of people here are decent, law-abiding people, and the area is affected by what I can only describe as a few 'idiots'."

Gracemount was home for grandmother Ray Muirhead, 58, for 40 years. She now lives in nearby Burdiehouse – there is little to separate the areas of Gracemount, Southhouse and Burdiehouse – but is acutely aware that the estate has changed down the decades. That, some argue, is a result of original families moving on and a more itinerant population arriving.

"There have been changes since I first came here," she says. "It's the people they are moving in here. I realise folk have got to live somewhere, but it's the types of people that are getting put here. I've had three different neighbours in three years. And I've had bother with each of them.

"There's not enough being done about drugs. The police must know who is dealing, but they get a slap on the wrist and that's it."

Some locals pinpoint the shift in the area as coinciding with regeneration programmes in other estates such as Niddrie. Families from outside Gracemount moved into new-build properties, bringing with them – it's claimed – drugs and trouble.

Still, there are others who stress that the streets around their homes are no worse than many other areas of the capital.

"I walked through Gracemount last night and there wasn't any sign of trouble," says Tom Buchanan, councillor for the Liberton and Gilmerton ward.

"There's no doubt that there are some people who cause trouble. There is room for improvement. We need the extra police that the Scottish Government has promised us to be spread throughout the city.

"Most people who live in Gracemount want to live there. They enjoy the area and amenities."

Is Gracemount a dangerous area? "No, there are exceptions – the killing at The Marmion – and there were extra police forces put in place. Perhaps they need to re-examine the resources that are available in the area.

"The money being put into Gracemount is working, but it could work more effectively."