Royalty, film stars, heads of state; Eric Milligan has met them all, as well as helping run the city in a long and illustrious career
‘How a scruffy wee laddie from Gorgie got here? I don’t know.”
Reclined on a tan leather swivel chair in his palatial city office, a wistful Eric Milligan sits silhouetted against a backdrop of world statesmen.
A veritable who’s who of 20th-century politics, religion and culture peer out from picture frames studded along soft beige walls.
The recurring theme of the gallery – which boasts images of Queen Elizabeth II, ex-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, FW de Klerk and Dick Cheney – is the beaming, bespectacled face of Edinburgh’s most-enduring public servant glad-handing with the titans of our times.
“That was when I met the Pope,” he purrs. “And that’s with Nelson Mandela when I presented him with the Freedom of the City of Edinburgh.”
It is the morning after the former Lord Provost toasted 40 years in public office with an evening at the opera and glass of champagne at the Canny Man’s pub in Morningside.
After a night on the bubbles, the 63-year-old Labour veteran could be forgiven for being a tad fragile but he is immaculately turned out and in reflective mood: gesturing towards photographs of the global icons he’s met and segueing between dazzling stories.
Rifling through a wooden cigar case crammed with business cards, he slowly brandishes a well-preserved memento embossed with the letters “FBI” and explains that having bonded with FBI director Robert Mueller at a gala dinner at the Prestonfield Hotel, he was received by the agency chief at his headquarters in Washington the following year.
“Before I left Mueller gave me a phone number that is live every minute of every day,” whispers Cllr Milligan. “If you are ever threatened or if anything ever happens to you that is unusual, he said, you call that number because we have to find out if it had some connection with the fact you are a friend of the FBI.
“We are considering you a graduate of the FBI college from here on in.”
Letters from ex-president George Bush Snr (over 1995 plans to close the US embassy in Edinburgh) and Hillary Clinton (a politely rebuffed civic invite) are among documents spayed across a large hardwood table that also groans under the weight of press cuttings and photographs charting a remarkable career in local politics.
It is a journey that led a working class boy from Robertson Avenue to street protests against Pinochet in Chile, to give a senate address on Capitol Hill and a long-standing friendship with songstress Nancy Sinatra – the daughter of his idle Ol’ Blue Eyes.
Born to a trade unionist father, he had been screaming “Vote Labour” since before he could remember and later married into the party when he tied the knot with Janis, whose grandmother was president of the Leith Co-Op branch, in 1974.
In the same year he was elected to Lothian Regional Council representing his home ward of Gorgie – and has held this seat ever since. He became convener of Lothian Region in 1990 and had his four-year term extended by a further two years because the regional council was about to be abolished.
A colourful 13-year stint as Lord Provost – or “Mr Edinburgh” – saw him tour the world promoting the Capital but was not without the odd controversial incident, including ill-fated plans to install a private toilet and shower for wife Janis at City Chambers which was widely condemned amid rows over cuts to council services. And, while convener of the licensing board, he shrugged off criticism for celebrating a Hearts win a little too vigorously by swigging Buckfast in the street.
A seasonal slip, meanwhile, saw him trumpet the savings made during a four-day New York shopping trip at a particularly tough Christmas for Edinburgh traders.
But such was Cllr Milligan’s international impact by the end of his term as Lord Provost that he was tipped for a major ambassadorial post in Scottish tourism.
He remembers: “The day I was no longer Lord Provost, [the Russian leader] Vladimir Putin had been coming in to meet me but cancelled when he found out I was no longer in the post.”
Cllr Milligan recalls his proudest moment of his civic term as speaking at Sean Connery’s award presentation by the American-Scottish Foundation in Washington, in 2001.
“We Scots took over Capitol Hill,” he says. “All the American politicians were queuing up to get their photo taken with Sean and then someone asked ‘who is going to speak on behalf of Scots?’ and I said me.
“To have gone to Capitol Hill and addressed all those senators you wouldn’t have expected that a scruffy wee laddie from Robertson Avenue would be doing that alongside a scruffy fella from Fountainbridge.”
If that was a political milestone, a cultural high water mark for the Frank Sinatra “obsessive” was striking up a friendship with Nancy Sinatra whom he meet at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2002.
“It’s been amazing, I’m an incredibly lucky boy,” he admits.
Milligan dominated the heyday of Edinburgh local politics, when the councillors could rub shoulders with leaders of European and Commonwealth countries hosting summits in the Capital, where today they would be overshadowed by MSPs in Holyrood.
These days Milligan is not so much a city father, as a grandfather.
Time served at City Chambers means no-one pushed him to relinquish his grand old office despite several political reshuffles and changes in administration.
He bristles at questions about retirement, insisting he remains at the heart of Edinburgh life with seats on several powerful city committees as well as spearheading the licensing group where he this week made headlines by denying a link between over-provision of alcohol and anti-social behaviour.
“I’m involved in it 100 per cent,” he says. “It’s not as if Eric used to be the Lord Provost and now he’s a father figure to be wheeled out on high days and holidays. I’m dug in to the local government machine here in the city and play a full part.
“Whether I would want to do this until the day I die, who knows? But I’ll never give up doing what I do in terms of enjoying life and being part of the Edinburgh scene, that will never change.”
Turning back towards his wall of memories, Cllr Milligan says: “I have met a lot of fascinating people. Being a public servant has given me incredible opportunities and I have seized them. I’ve enjoyed it so much and because I enjoy what I do. What I’m in favour of, I’m passionately in favour of whether that’s Hearts FC or Boroughmuir Rugby Club or the Jazz Festival. It’s that positive attitude that drives me forward.”
He adds: “Don’t just spend all the time looking at cracks in the pavement, try to look up.”
MILLIGAN IN HIS OWN WORDS..
• On iPads and computers: “What is the point? You become a slave to this. I don’t need to go to a committee meeting and read from a screen.”
• On the Capital: “Edinburgh is a city of amazing contrasts. It is the Old Town and the New Town. Edinburgh is a bourgeois, white city, but its also very radical and quirky.
“It’s the Festival Fringe and official festival or Hibs and Hearts.”
• On a career in Westminster or Holyrood: “I have had a far fuller, far richer political life doing what I’ve done than people who have become members of parliament at Westminster.”
• On winning elections for 40 years: “It could all come to an end at the drop of a hat and you’re only as good as your last election.”
• On his public service: “I’ve been trying to contribute to Edinburgh becoming a finer city but a fairer city.
“It’s that philosophy that underpins everything I have done for over 40 years.”
Dazzling smile of a francophile
Born in 1951, Eric Milligan attended Tynecastle High School and Napier College.
He enjoyed two terms as convener of the Lothian Regional Council before an unprecendented 13-year stint as the city’s Lord Provost.
A dyed-in-the-wool Hearts fan, he is a season ticket holder at Tynecastle and a well-kent face in the Canny Man’s and Athletic Arms pubs.
He hit the headlines in 2002 for having his teeth whitened.
He said: “Smiling is an important part of politics. You have got to radiate a positive message.”
In 2003, he received a top honour to mark his commitment to the Auld Alliance between France and Scotland.
He was named an “Ambassador of the Auld Alliance” by civic leaders in the French capital, marking his long-standing love affair with Paris, a city he and his wife, Janis, have visited many times over the years. The ceremony for the occasion featured ladies from the famous Moulin Rouge. He had already been awarded France’s top honour, the National Order of Merit, in 1994.