The other side of Morningside

SECTARIAN riots, violence and, who would have thought it, poverty? Not in Morningside of all places, surely.

Edinburgh's leafy suburb, legendary for its alleged proliferation of fur-coated ladies who lunched in the genteel tearooms of the city's prime department stores and its desirable homes with jaw-dropping price tags, hasn't always been the kind of area we might have thought.

The first Festival for Morningside will kick off later this month, a celebration of the community's cultural and historical heritage - even the bits that the good folks of Morningside might well have preferred to have forgotten.

Yet the shameful sectarian riots of June 1935 - when buses carrying Catholics were stoned and jeered by a crowd of up to 10,000 - forms the backdrop to the dramatic highlight of the festival, Morningside Memories, a play based around real-life events.

The sectarian demonstration - organised by the Protestant Action Society and led by city councillor John Cormack - was, of course, just a tiny slice of Morningside's history. For what began as a rural farming district, is now one of the Capital's most thriving and individual communities.

In fact, Morningside first appeared on Richard Cooper's Plan of the City of Edinburgh and Adjacent Grounds in 1759 - all three houses of it - while one description of the early settlement described it as "a row of thatched cottages, a line of trees and a blacksmith's forge".

That would change, however, in the late 18th century, when wealthy residents flocked either to the New Town or the "morning side" of the city to relax and holiday. Eventually they decided they preferred the outskirts and built grand townhouses, employing the lower classes to serve their every need, as chambermaids, cooks, gardeners and message boys.

One of the most fabulous of new buildings was Falcon Hall, which sat in 18 acres of land from 1780 until 1909. It took pride of place at what is now the junction of Falcon Court and Falcon Road West and was built for William Coulter, who became Lord Provost. By 1889 though it had become a boarding school and the last owner was cartographer John Bartholomew, before it finally made way for tenements and 20th century flats.

With a growing population came horse-drawn trams, the Edinburgh and South Side Suburban Railway and eventually electric trams; several cinemas like the Dominion and pubs like The Hermitage, the Merlin - which at one time was for men only, which sparked protests when the feminist movement hit the area in the early 70s - and The Volunteers' Rest, a forerunner to the Canny Man's, where in the 1970s some of the city's first go-go dancers strutted their stuff.

There would be hospitals - the Royal Edinburgh and the Astley Ainslie - and sports clubs like Morningside Victoria Football Club and Southern Hearts.

But perhaps what has defined Morningside most are its characters - both fictional and factual - with their refined accents, their tea parties and their affluence: from Muriel Spark's Miss Jean Brodie to Aileen Paterson's Maisie the Morningside Cat; from current Morningside residents JK Rowling, Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith to Reginald Johnston, born in Canaan Lane in 1874, who went on to become the tutor to the last Emperor of China and who was immortalised on the silver screen by Peter O'Toole.

And of course there have always been the ordinary folk, the pupils of South Morningside School, the shoppers at the long-gone St Cuthbert's Co-op in Morningside Road and the ladies in their fur coats heading to their afternoon tea parties. Today's Morningside is surely a much more cosmopolitan and tolerant mix of social classes, where students in rented flats live alongside families in million-pound-plus homes. And the days of poverty, riots and masters and servants are firmly in the past.