Kevin Buckle: Tartan tat poses threat to high-minded plans for Tron

The Tron Kirk is to become a heritage centre (Picture: Neil Hanna)
The Tron Kirk is to become a heritage centre (Picture: Neil Hanna)
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News this week that Edinburgh World Heritage had won – by the narrowest of margins, six-to-five – the right to a three-year lease on the Tron Kirk highlighted to me again the dangers of what happens when people operate outside of their comfort zone.

Last week, it was the chair of the Scottish Music Industry Association, who clearly knows his business-speak but arguably less about the realities of the music industry, talking his way to a £500,000 grant. And this week, when I watched Adam Wilkinson on the council webcast talk about the quality retail experience they were going to have to finance their exhibition space, it was clear that while he maybe had some idea of the footfall the Tron attracted he didn’t really understand what that footfall was looking to buy.

I had been asked to help with the Tron Market when it first opened as the hope was to make it an arts market. A small record shop was built in a corner of the Tron and next to it was the artist Gerry Gapinski. Among other things, Gerry made necklaces from broken watch parts but also stocked a selection of pocket watches that were good quality but were made in China. The display worked well and the necklaces were very popular. When he was busy, I would help out if I could.

READ MORE: Historic Edinburgh church to become heritage centre

Further along was a stall selling photographic prints from a business that regularly supplied interesting pictures for hotels. Most were Scotland or Edinburgh-related but they steered clear of the most obvious landmarks.

One thing that was a bigger factor than I had previously encountered was that visitors from different countries arrived at different times of the year and what they bought varied considerably. The Tron of course has beautiful stained glass windows and many visitors stopped to take photos, but those from Asia in particular would spend some time, often even setting up shots like a photographer.

Chatting to them – sometimes if I’m honest when trying to explain they were blocking the aisle – they would explain that rather than buy postcards or souvenirs they would take photos and then show them to their friends when they got home. I got the impression this wasn’t particularly to save money but just a part of their culture.

If anything, what they did buy was jewellery so they would stop and look at Gerry’s stall. On several occasions when I was helping out, a family from China or maybe Singapore would be looking and ask about the necklaces and watches. I would explain that the necklaces were handmade by a local Scottish artist and the watches, though well-made, were imported from China. Invariably despite my best efforts, they would buy the watch.

Meanwhile at the prints stall, European and American customers who were keener on buying souvenirs wanted to know if there were any prints of the castle or Greyfriars Bobby. The owners of the stall had to oblige or not be able to pay their rent and soon went full tourist with Highland cows and a sheep in the middle of a road. I never understood that one. Fridge magnets followed.

READ MORE: Euan McGrory: Finally, a fitting use for the Tron Kirk

What became clear was those tartan tat shops survive for a reason and that there simply wasn’t the interest among the footfall on the Royal Mile for an arts market. Another good seller, unsurprisingly, was hats and gloves.

So when Adam was talking about a high-end, museum-like shop for the Tron, you will understand I had my doubts that their sales predictions will prove accurate. I’m not saying it is impossible with nice prints of the castle and beautiful hats and scarves on sale, but they may find themselves developing more into a smart tartan tat shop themselves, rather than a museum shop. With a relatively low rent and a share of the spoils, Edinburgh council may be disappointed too.

The current market is by no means perfect but it had found its level and while the Edinburgh World Heritage exhibition will maybe attract some different visitors into the building I would be surprised if things change that dramatically. As EWH themselves admit it is quite possible that after three years they are still refused lottery funding and will have to leave and Edinburgh council will be the poorer for the experiment.

Eventually it may well be that the only way for the Tron to have the millions spent on it that it needs is to either sell it or give a business a ten-year lease or longer so a multi-million pound investment can be justified. On the other hand, should the Royal High School hotel be successful after the inquiry, it may be built just in time for its guests to descend from Calton Hill and provide the sort of spending the EWH shop will need.

An irony I’m sure that will be lost on no-one. With Richard Branson’s Virgin Hotel guests approaching from the other direction, the whole idea may be saved by the very people Edinburgh World Heritage has never seemed that keen on!

Time to reveal secrets behind magic property deal

With the sale of the King’s Stables Road site now completed, Edinburgh council is finally free to stop worrying about “sensitive financial information” and be transparent about how much they have received for the site and how the winning bidders managed to get it with no arts offering in their bid for a project that involved an arts centre!

Should any of the relevant figures or information be redacted at all, people will draw their own conclusions, but to be honest I’m optimistic that all will be revealed as to not do so will only delay the inevitable given the public interest.

I genuinely have no idea how they will explain this one away but, a bit like when the masked magician reveals the secrets of a magic trick, I’m sure I’ll be left thinking so that’s how it was done!