Livingston: Town that evolved into major success story

The designer outlet blends into Livingston Village of 1910
The designer outlet blends into Livingston Village of 1910
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THE news, when it was finally confirmed, was so dramatic, so devastating and completely life-changing, that it made her cry.

Rhona Gordon was ten years old. Life was simple – green fields which she loved to run through and a leafy glen where she’d roll her Easter egg. There was a row of miners’ cottages that lined the road through her West Lothian village and a small group of good friends to play with.

Rhona Gordon aged 15

Rhona Gordon aged 15

Now her contented childhood world was about to shift. Peace and quiet of Livingston Station would be shattered by bulldozers, construction work, dust, disruption and a whole town full of strangers.

“I cried when they said it was going to be a new town,” recalls Rhona, now 60. “I had such an idyllic life. I lived in a village. For someone to say they were going to turn us into a town – it was devastating.”

Fifty years ago today the area around her childhood home was confirmed as the site of Scotland’s fourth new town, a brand new conurbation to ease the pressure of overcrowded cities, attract new industry and provide thousands of Scots with a better life.

The tiny communities of Livingston Village, Livingston Station and Bellsquarry would be engulfed by modern houses, schools, shops, health services and everything a town needs – sewage systems, electricity supplies, water and an organisation to pull it all together.

Rhona Gordon today

Rhona Gordon today

There’d be a mindboggling new roads system, roundabouts with names and featuring curious modern artworks and, eventually, a sprawling shopping complex.

For many, it meant bright hope for a new future. For Rhona, it meant the lush fields and glens she loved would be consumed by the march of progress. Certainly life would never be the same again.

Today, 50 years on, she still feels a pang for the rural idyll that was to be blasted apart. And yet, she admits, it’s not worked out too badly at all. “I thought all the fields and places to go would just disappear and there’d be concrete and traffic. I couldn’t imagine life in a town, it was going to be totally alien,” she remembers.

“There was this sense of losing your childhood. Suddenly where we lived was to be called Deans even though Deans to us was a village half a mile away. The miners’ rows were knocked down and every time you went out and about you’d see a new road being built.”

While Rhona, who now lives in Harburn Avenue, Deans, sobbed, few felt inspired to protest. Indeed local historian Sybil Cavanagh says the announcement made so little impact that it was able to be rushed through at breakneck speed.

“It’s astonishing, but there were no formal objections to the news at all,” she says. “Partly because the number of people in the area was small and partly because most people saw it as welcome, Livingston was the only new town to be built without any public inquiry.

“The time from the publication of the draft designation order to the first meeting of Livingston Development Corporation was just four months.”

The announcement coincided with the closure of the once thriving shale industry. Sixteen hundred jobs would be lost. A new town would provide a vital lifeline for the families in the area, drawing new businesses and a new population, she adds.

The residents were to be mainly Glasgow overspill from cramped tenement flats to be housed, says Sybil, in homes that were both unique at the time and, unfortunately, not entirely appropriate.

“The chief planner and architect wanted two to three years before building began, but it was under way in just six months. There were strict targets to build 1300 houses a year, so they used a Swedish prefab housing method of concrete blocks and flat roofs.

“It was fast but it was untried,” she adds. “All the houses leaked. But if you came from a small tenement in Glasgow, a three-bedroom house in Livingston with kitchen and bathroom was heaven.”

There were other unforeseen problems, she says. “Families arrived and found they suddenly had large houses to furnish. They came to a town that didn’t have a lot of public transport – you needed a car. Debt was an issue for many.”

Homes sprung up – the arrival of Cameron Iron Works from Leeds, providing 2000 jobs, hinged on at least 1000 homes being ready within months of the new town announcement.

Planners – visionary for their time – designed the town around the theory that families of the future would all have cars, the reason behind a snaking roads network which has frustrated and baffled visitors to the town for five decades.

“A lot of people talk about Livingston’s roundabouts and getting lost,” agrees Peter Johnson, 60, West Lothian Council leader who came to live in the town in 1978.

“The developers took the decision to separate the car and the pedestrian. It’s true that very often you can see where you want to go, you can see people walking, but the road doesn’t take you there.

“On the other hand, you can walk for miles safely. Once you understand how the roads work you get used to it. There’s a central spine with roads to the areas coming off it, and the roads are named in alphabetical order.”

He recalls arriving as a freshly qualified teacher, to find what he describes as something of a pioneering atmosphere. “It was a work in progress. The primary school was overflowing, kids were in temporary huts. They said, don’t worry, another school will be going up here and here. It was like a frontier town.”

Today Livingston houses 70,000 people. New homes are still being built: West Lothian Council is building properties for rent at Ladywell, Alderston Road near the football stadium and in Eliburn.

Peter, a councillor since 1985, says the town has evolved into a major success story, the light industry of the iron works later giving way to “silicon glen” jobs, then becoming the modern retail hub it is today.

However, he admits: “I still miss the fact that there’s not a town centre feeling to Livingston.”

James Baillie, above, is one of the town’s newest faces, arriving in Livingston just over a year ago. As director of retail complex The Centre he argues the town has a distinctive focal point – one that draws 12 million customers a year through its doors.

“Livingston has got a ‘shopping town’ reputation but when it comes to tourism, we’re not our own biggest advocates,” says James, who is also chairman of Visit West Lothian. “We have a lot here but not enough people know about it.

“Location is our biggest asset. We’re close to lots of attractions in Scotland, we need to position ourselves as a convenient place to stop with lots going on. I think the area has character and it has history. We need to make more of it.”

The key to Livingston’s future could, Peter Johnston suggests, rest partly with the town’s football club.

Once Meadowbank Thistle, Livingston FC was formed in 1996 – now, he says, it provides the glue to help forge a strong community spirit in the town. “LFC unites people and brings people together, it gives Livingston one voice,” he says. “

“We need Livingston Football Club to do well and get into the SPL.

“And then it can be the glue that holds it all together.”

New beginnings

Thousands of families poured into Livingston from across the Central Belt, led by James and Jean Gilchrist and son Robert from Musselburgh – the very first residents to move into the new Craigshill area.

But many, like the Sweeny family, came from Glasgow. Martin Sweeny, 50, arrived in Livingston aged nine in 1971, fresh off the removal truck from Drumchapel in Glasgow.

“We hung on to the straps all the way through, and when the back door opened to let us out I remember how bright and clean everything looked. All the houses were brand new with white roughcast walls. Not like the slums of Drumchapel.

“The countryside was just on our doorstep. Walk for five minutes and you would be playing in a cornfield.”

Martin, his three brothers and sister, moved with parents Madge and Gerry to set up home in the brand new Pinebank area. “In Drumchapel we were in a block of four houses to a close. There was no garden. This was wonderful. Ladywell was there at that time but Knightsridge and Dedridge didn’t exist,” he recalls. “There wasn’t a school so Craigshill High School had some huts set up in the grounds for us primary pupils.

“It wasn’t hard to settle in, turned out that there were other children that I knew from Drumchapel had also moved through and were at the same school.

“Coming to Livingston was the best move my parents could ever have made. I joke now and say I moved out of Glasgow before I learned how to break into cars and houses. But I think if I had stayed there I’d have had a different outcome in life.”

Any criticism? “I hate the underpasses, they’re like a place to get mugged. And they got the planning wrong. Everything’s backwards. The roads snake around, you can drive for miles and go nowhere. And it could do with a proper town centre, it needs a main street.”

Madge, now 75 and a widow since 2003, stayed in the family home in Pinebank until last year when she moved to Murieston.

She remembers being delighted to get a house in Livingston, even though she had no idea where it was.

“I looked at the drawings and thought it was brilliant. A five-apartment house with my own front door!

“My husband said ‘That’s great, but where’s Livingston?’. I didn’t have a clue either.

“We thought he’d get a job at the iron works but he was too old. So for a while he had to get the bus every day back to Glasgow to go to work. But he loved the house and neither of us ever regretted coming through.

“I used to get homesick and I pined a bit for Glasgow,” Madge adds. “But I don’t think my kids would have been as well done for if we’d stayed in Glasgow. I think they’d have turned out differently if we’d stayed.”

I’ve been happy here

ROLEY WALTON, 81, arrived in Livingston in 1976 with husband Bernie and their teenage sons Jonathan, Clive and Paul.

“We had lived in tied accommodation in Balerno but that came to an end and we needed to find somewhere else to stay,” she recalls. “We moved to a brand new three-bedroom house in Clermont Rise and I immediately loved it. Everyone around us was very open and accepting of each other. Everyone seemed keen to be a part of the community.

“I don’t agree with people who say there’s no heart to the place,” she adds. “There are several places in Livingston that I think are very much the heart of the town. An obvious one is the shopping area, which is vast and extensive now. But there are also lots of green areas around which make it a lovely place.”

Rosie, a retired biology teacher, now lives in Ambrose Rise in Dedridge. “I love Livingston. I’ve always been extremely happy here and had lots of high points here.

“I always say, we came here from necessity but stayed because we chose to.”