Edinburgh Pilmeny Youth Centre in Leith closes after 33 years and manager Bryan Maughan shares memories
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Bryan Maughan is a born and bred Leither and a well-known face in the community. In the late 1980s, the former cooper approached the Pilmeny Development Project to organise activities for kids in the area – a move that led to the establishment of the Pilmeny Youth Centre that would see tens of thousands of young people come through the doors across a 33 year period. That journey came to an end in December 2022.
“I’ve got a lot of good memories here,” said Bryan as he entered the main hall for a ‘final spring clean’ before handing over the keys this week: "It’s a shame, there were certainly a lot of young people in the community who were relying on the provision."
Providing a range of sports activities, art programmes and cultural projects for young people aged five to 16, the organisation’s funding was cut by the council in 2019 leading in part, to its closure. The majority of programmes on offer at the centre were free, some cost 50p, and all were underpinned by inclusivity.
Bryan, who turns 66 this weekend, said: “A lot of them used to say they came to Pilmeny because it was warm and safe. When we announced our closure some of them really felt it - it was their main social focal point outside of school. So there have been a lot of casualties in that sense. It was something tangible that they can hold on to.”
The hall is decorated with artwork from over the years – memories that capture the voice of the community’s younger generation. At the far end near the canteen, children wrote their signatures on the wall before leaving one last time.
Bryan takes a seat and looks around the hall: “The teenagers have all been in for the last time, people who have been through the doors over the last 30 years have been in contact – I lot of them are now parents themselves. I’ve got lots and lots of memories – sometimes don’t realise the value of something until it’s not there anymore. I really hope the building remains a community space and can provide some of the good stuff that we did in the past.”
Bryan first used the space when he launched a boys’ football club in the late 1980s, before joining the local community to lobby the council for three years to secure £180,000 to develop the site into a permanent youth centre. Becoming caretaker of the building soon after, he also helped secure funds from various trusts and created youth programmes, becoming manager of the centre in 2000.
“I was contracted for 36 hours but I would usually do a minimum of 50 hours” he said. “When people would ask how many kids I’ve got I’d say four – but my wife would correct me and say five, she’d say this place was my fifth child. And there’s some truth in that.”
Leasing the space from Pilrig St. Paul’s Church for £1 per year, the youth centre used money raised from renting the space to local community groups to fund projects that provided physical exercise and inspired children to learn and challenge ideas.
One ‘flagship project’ commemorated soldiers who were killed in the 1915 Gretna train disaster. “Two hundred and sixteen men and boys were killed in that train crash and most of them were from this community - there were 15 boys from Albert Street alone and some of them were only 15-years-old. The kids spent hours at New Registers House looking at birth certificates, death certificates, we got two art pieces made, a beautiful commemoration plaque, the centrepiece was glazed stain glass poppies made by all the kids.”
The proud Leither had creative ways to get the group to engage with their heritage – one day asking a group travelling over from Leith Academy to take an elongated route along Halymre Street, Dalmeny Street and Albert Street via the youth centre.
On the group’s arrival Bryan told them: “Do you know you’ve just walked the exact same pavements that those men walked? They came out their stair in the morning, they saw the exact same view as you saw today. You could see the light bulbs going off. It was a social education for these young kids.”
The 18-month partnership with Leith Academy won three awards including the Prince’s Trust Community Award and the group was invited to the London Palladium to meet Prince Charles. Their artwork now has a permanent home at McDonald Road Library. Bryan said: “It belongs to the people of Leith, and it’s a legacy of this place. It was quite unique and there will never be another project like it. The research we did was phenomenal.”
Bryan recalled a time when the police visited to say they were having 'real problems' with anti-social behaviour: “They said they’ve got a database of young people who are on the cusp of committing crimes, is there anything you can do?”
The centre manager then setup a programme that ran on Monday nights and lasted nearly two years: “One night we had 33 young people in the building. It was such a success that the chief constable at the time said calls on a Monday night are now so negligible they don’t record the stats anymore. They were all in the youth centre.”
The decision to close the doors last year was ‘difficult’ but Bryan said the youth centre leaves behind a strong legacy and believes the building will continue to be used as a community space: “If the new tenant finds the right connection with young people it can thrive again.” A council spokesperson said: “Pilmeny Youth Centre submitted an application for funding from the Children and Families Grants programme in 2019 but were unsuccessful.”