Noisy and dirty, but the Royal Mile was alive!

Michael Fry looks back 40 years to a time when the High Street he lived in was full of fascinating characters and local shops – long before it became an urban desert

FORTY years ago I was living in the Royal Mile, and for a fresh-faced youngster straight from university it proved to be quite a revelation. I suppose I might have read about this sort of urban Scotland before, but I had never seen or heard or smelt it.

The sights? Well, there were the simian inhabitants of my stair, low of brow, slack of jaw, and it seemed to me evil of eye. Actually this was often deceptive. The woman from next door knocked soon after I moved in and, Woodbine in the corner of her mouth, informed me that next week it was my turn to clean the stair. But she immediately offered to do it for me and once she found I would pay on the nail, became kindness itself.

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In fact, she later told me she had instructed all her sons not to break into my flat.

The sounds? I hoped the first Saturday night, with its din of drunken brawling, swearing and squeals, running feet and breaking glass, would turn out to be an exception. In fact it turned out to be the rule. At least the racket of a rammy can be heard some way off, and there were several ways of approaching my flat down this close or that. So I was always able to give trouble a wide berth and, after my own civilised evening out at concert or theatre, reach the foot of my stair with a sigh of relief.

The smells? Urine, blood, vomit: enough said.

Even so, the Royal Mile was a good place to live. I enjoyed all the advantages of being in the centre of the city, yet lacked none of the conveniences of ordinary life. The High Street still had butchers and bakers and fishmongers. On George IV Bridge, there was an electrical shop which sold every conceivable fitting or appliance, and further along a tobacconist with exotic offerings such as Burmese cheroots, and just opposite stood a good bookshop. It was seldom necessary to go further afield, but if I needed to, the friendly No 1 bus rumbled right past my close-mouth.

What I did not know at the time was that I and my neighbours were experiencing the end of an urban entity that had lasted several hundred years. The Old Town of Edinburgh had gone down in the world once the New Town was built, yet remained densely populated till the late 20th century. It was no longer quite such a fetid slum but, excepting the odd interloper like myself, it was a place for poor people and all their problems.

While those problems remained obvious in the 1970s, in the 1980s they vanished by simple dint of shifting the poor people out to distant housing schemes, where they could continue to do their proletarian thing without offending bourgeois sensibilities.

And so the High Street became an urban desert. Once its denizens had disappeared, all the other characteristic features went with them. Butchers, bakers and fishmongers could no longer earn a living, while retail eccentricity was drained of its vital spirit by the Tesco mediocrity of peripheral shopping centres. In the Royal Mile itself, the void came to be filled by the even more tawdry souvenir shops with their tartan tat.

But what to do with all those old buildings? If the decanting of the population had happened a couple of decades earlier, the automatic answer would have been to knock the whole lot down. In fact, that was just what had happened when the Victorian reformers tried to tackle the problems of their era, which they did by replacing genuine medieval tenements with mock-medieval tenements built, that is to say, in the Scottish Baronial style still dominating the architecture of the Royal Mile today. They, though, were buildings that people wanted to live in and to walk among.

Modern planners do not get the same chance, and we have to be thankful for that. No Scottish Baronial for them: the late and unlamented Lothian Regional headquarters (replaced by the more sensitive Hotel Missoni) showed what they would have done. But by the 1980s conservation was the ideal, and we were spared the spectacle of the High Street coming to look like Princes Street. Still, while some residents have moved back, the High Street never regained its old vitality.

So we continue to face the problem of the High Street’s role in the Edinburgh of the 21st century, which was the subject of a workshop sponsored by the town council yesterday. From the agenda, it seemed to me the delegates were constrained within unimaginative limits. One item was the “retail offering”, which amounts at the moment to garbage.

The retail offering is determined by the people who frequent any given street. In stylish George Street that means well-heeled ladies who lunch, in Princes Street it means the chainstore-seeking masses – and in the Royal Mile it means tourists. The only way to alter this is to alter the street’s population, or in the case of the High Street, to encourage more people to go and live there.

We encounter here a chicken-and-egg situation, however. The High Street is no longer a convenient place to live. It has, except crosswise, no public transport, driving is restricted, parking is impossible and so to reach it we have to climb steep slopes.

The “pedestrian experience” formed part of the workshop too, but this must be defined as in large part negative. Until that changes, I doubt if there will be many other changes. Yet the demand at the workshop, notably from Marion Williams of the Cockburn Association, was for more control of what little traffic still uses the High Street.

The patron saint of modern town planning is Patrick Geddes, who himself sought to revive the Old Town by restoring Milne’s Court and living there himself. His plans ran into the sand, but it is worth noting that he called for mixed usage, a variety of urban life, that did not exclude traffic. In his view, what made cities desirable for people to live in was the buzz in the streets, the huge range of activities going on, including vehicles driving round.

If I were a tourist in the High Street now, I would be unimpressed looking up or down a thoroughfare I might have guessed was erected as a Braveheart film set, but with no cars, not enlivened by any native inhabitants and pandering to a taste for the shabbiest goods that modern consumerism can contrive: a dead heart in a city which otherwise visibly thrives and prospers.