Volunteers get their hands dirty to revitalise Royal Mile

Keira McMillan, main, cleans a sign
Keira McMillan, main, cleans a sign
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FINGERNAILS blackened and with digits now poking through ragged latex gloves, George McRaild battles a stubborn ad sticker defacing a red telephone kiosk.

Wielding a battered paint scraper, the 65-year-old diligently unpicks tiny fractions of adhesive from windows that appear determined to thwart his best grime-busting efforts – despite the fervent elbow grease.

An elder at Carrubbers Christian Centre on the High Street, by happy coincidence he is stationed at its doorstep scrubbing away at the nearby phone box.

Today George isn’t just being houseproud – instead he is one of 30 volunteers committed to giving Scotland’s most historic street a facelift amid enduring concerns over its vibrancy and aesthetics.

The street is thronged with high-visibility jackets from 10am as local traders, residents, police staff, and workers from Lothian Buses set about giving the thoroughfare a thorough spring clean.

It comes six weeks after a council-run summit invited participants to shape the future of Royal Mile and against a pattern of huge rent increases.

Some traders have claimed their annual tariff has been hiked by up to 88 per cent sparking fears that as businesses fall away the famous street could soon become ever more populated with so-called “tartan tat” outlets.

But for George the issue isn’t political or commercial, he just wants to do his bit.

“Because we are a church group we like to get involved with community engagement,” he said. “And it’s important to be involved in the community, which for us is the Royal Mile, so I was happy to lend a hand.

“I can’t speak for businesses here but as a church and a charity we should be involving ourselves in this – even if that means sweeping up and scraping off stickers. People running businesses here might not have the personnel to allow staff to leave and help out with this.”

Christine Lewis, another volunteer, is a Royal Mile resident who elected to join the band of cleaners during a rare day off.

“I could say ‘I pay taxes why should I clear up other people’s mess?’ but that’s not very community spirited and in the long run that attitude won’t help us,” she said.

Some traders aren’t feeling quite so charitable, however – especially as after noon the cleaning troop had disappeared for the day.

Peering out of their shop windows as legions of would-be cleaners stormed the street, some denounced the clean-up as a “PR stunt” and urged the council to address what they see as the major hurdles to progress: soaring rates and “tartan tat”.

One retailer, who asked not to be named, said: “I have not noticed a lot of support from the council and I don’t now whether my shop has a future on this street to worry about.”

“From my point of view Canongate is a forgotten backwater compared to higher up the Royal Mile. I have found it frustrating that they have made claims about reducing tartan tat shops which seems like it’s all talk.

“There’s a shop here that’s just become available and there’s another tartan tat shop in it. It’s ‘say one thing but do another’ from the council so I don’t have much confidence anymore.”

Peter Tritton, owner of Solo Menswear on Canongate, said he was all in favour of the spring clean event but questioned why volunteers were carrying out work that should be performed by council departments. He also argued that better lighting towards the foot of the Royal Mile would aid business prospects there.

“I think it’s a good idea to get people out volunteering to clean the streets,” he said.

“But we pay higher rates on the Royal Mile to have a business here so why are we paying these if the council is organising people to come and do it for free? We pay for this already.”

Another trader, who declined to be identified, said that rather than offering solutions to enhance the street, the council had become “part of the problem”.

“I opened a second shop up on the Royal Mile before and it was doing OK but then overnight the council doubled my rates,” he said. “I had to close it and, of course, it then became a shop selling tartan souvenirs.

“Basically the council want whoever can afford the rents and it is the retailers who buy goods in very cheaply and sell them on at huge profits – like these tartan shops – who fill the void.”

“Now it seems like any vacancy that comes up in the Royal Mile becomes a tartan shop.”

William Auld Smith, whose father James owns the Royal Mile Gallery, said attempts should be made to promote the history of the Royal Mile while backing away from tacky souvenir shops.

“It’s dragged down the historical quality of the street,” he said.

“There’s Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace and all these attractions but when people come up the street there’s just shops selling cheap bagpipes and kilts.

“It doesn’t feel like visitors are going to be too impressed with that and come back to see this stuff again. Ideally, the council could regulate the quality of shops so it would benefit everybody.”

Despite the relatively short shift – volunteers worked from 10am until noon – the exercise is being repeated over three days so a real difference to the street’s appearance is expected.

Among the major transformations is the removal of large and unsightly graffiti above the Mitre Pub, which was whitewashed by council workers.

Volunteer Keira McMillan, 27, the marketing manager with Timberbush Tours at the mouth of Edinburgh Castle, said the clean-up was a useful exercise and called for the formation of an umbrella body to look after the interests of Royal Mile traders.

“We have such a fantastic street here,” she said. “We know that the bulk of tourism is centred on the Royal Mile so when you see graffiti on walls and cigarettes strewn in closes it’s disappointing.

“Just today I must have picked up hundreds of cigarette butts on the approach to the Castle and we found council traffic notices that were out of date by a month, which we cut down using secateurs. So in a way we were clearing up their mess. We want the Royal Mile to be a shining beacon and there should be an overall Royal Mile traders association because as far as I know there isn’t one.

“My view is we are not the only ones affected by recession, the council also has to tighten its belt and we should help where we can.”

Speaking after the inaugural clean-up, which saw teams concentrating on four different sections – Castlehill and the Lawnmarket, High Street to North Bridge, High Street to St Mary’s Street and the Canongate – Councillor Tom Buchanan the city’s economic development leader, said: “We’re delighted so many volunteers turned out today to support the council and our other partners in this community clean-up campaign.

“Part of the reason for organising three days of action in the Royal Mile was to encourage local businesses and residents to take ownership of the street they live and work in. In fact, it was one of the things stakeholders felt most strongly about in the workshop organised back in January.

“The Royal Mile belongs to the people of Edinburgh and we all stand to gain from looking after and maintaining one of Scotland’s most historic street.”