How Edinburgh's beautiful Southside was saved from demolition and a six-lane urban motorway – Donald Anderson
I recently bought a rare old book that I’ve been hunting for years. ‘Forgotten Southside’ is both an excoriating criticism of the way Edinburgh was run in the 60s and 70s, and a rallying cry to support and preserve a community that was dying.
It was collated by author Helen Peacock, and a key contributor was David Black whom I once had the great pleasure of meeting. David helped establish the Southside Association and was also a driving force in saving a whole community. Many city centres were in trouble in the 1960s and 70s, but the issues set out in ‘Forgotten Southside’ were particularly grim. Housing conditions were awful and large swathes of the area from the Pleasance through to the Meadows was either being demolished or at risk of being demolished.
The book, written in around 1974, described Nicolson Street as being “empty since 1966”. Empty, the whole street. Housing conditions were horrific. The proportion of homes in serious disrepair or lacking in one basic amenity – like an inside toilet, was staggering. In the Pleasance 100 per cent were substandard. In West Crosscauseway, the figure was 97 per cent, in Buccleuch Street 93 per cent, and in West Nicolson Street 84 per cent.
The authors set out that although the Southside didn’t have the classical architecture of the city’s New Town, the local architecture was of equal value and should be saved. There were setbacks. Parkers Triangle was lost due to the expansion of the university, and so was much of George Square. There were harsh words for the university, but the harshest criticisms were for the council. “Dilapidation is the symptom; indecision is the disease.”
The book describes how councillors voted for the preservation of ‘Naysmiths’ at 55 Nicolson Street, but “council officers disagreed”. This beside a photograph of the demolition of the building. Just ponder that. The elected politicians voted one way, but the officials did the exact opposite. Inconceivable that such a thing could happen today.
The outlook was bleak. The Housing Act of 1969 favoured demolition. The council’s plan for the area included driving an urban motorway through the area. The proposed ‘Eastern Link Road’ was proposed to have four lanes in place of six in the initial proposals. It would have left a trail of utter destruction with the loss of part of West Nicolson Street, the historic Pear Tree House, Thins Bookshop and much of the west of Buccleuch Street.
Thankfully the plea in the book was heeded. The university and the council backed off the most radical of the proposals. Gradually buildings were improved and upgraded. New homes and shops were built on car parks and gaps sites. A whole community was saved and restored and today there are few places in the world that can provide the quality of life that the Southside provides for those that live there.
The result was a successful regeneration as significant for the city as saving the magnificent New and Old Towns. Margaret Mead famously said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world, indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” Edinburgh is lucky that just such a small group took a stand in the Southside and should be proud of all they achieved.