Brian Monteith: Change can help Meadowbank steam ahead

Whatever your own age, do you know much your local community has changed in the last 50 years?

The closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games at Meadowbank Stadium in 1970
The closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games at Meadowbank Stadium in 1970

Just before the 1960s dawned, when Jerry Lee Lewis was number one with Great Balls of Fire, I was born at Elsie Inglis maternity hospital, near Abbeyhill. Raised in Meadowbank, I knew the Old Meadowbank speedway stadium and the athletics track well before the new sports centre and stadium were built for the Commonwealth Games of 1970.

Those dramatic changes were not just because one of the world’s largest sporting events graced Edinburgh but can also be traced to the demise of steam locomotives that began in the 1950s and was completed by 1966.

For next to the speedway, on Clockmill Lane, was St Margaret’s Locomotive Depot (64A), with its sheds, turntables and water towers. The railways were the beating heart of Meadowbank and its surrounding tenements, employing many in the community, their wages spent in local pubs like the Golden Gates, The Crown and Jock’s Lodge. There were aptly named streets such as Smokey Brae and, with no supermarkets, there were still bakers, butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers, dairies, newsagents and a post office.

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    The end of steam trains meant the end of the loco sheds – allowing them to be replaced by two office blocks, Meadowbank House and St Margaret’s House. Taste is personal and subjective, but I never thought of either of these piles as anything other than a blot on the landscape, eyesores that hopefully one day would be pulled down.

    Nearly 50 years on from the 1970 Commonwealth Games and Meadowbank is barely recognisable from its old self. Gone are the local food shops with only one small general store surviving, and nobody delivers the milk or papers up the stairs any more – a job I enjoyed in my teens.

    The stadium has itself been marked for demolition and redevelopment – crystalising further change, with the announcement that the adjacent St Margaret’s House has been sold for redevelopment into student flats and affordable accommodation. Frankly, given the demand for family housing and the need to get students into purpose-built flats rather than encouraging the huge growth in buy-to-lets that make a community so transitory, the change cannot happen soon enough.

    The few shops and local pubs that are left will welcome the custom the additional footfall brings.

    Naturally the tenants of St Margaret’s House – a growing assembly of artists, charities and social enterprises – are hugely disappointed that the building they have occupied under a benevolent owner for the some 15 years will be no more. What they offer is undoubtedly greater than the sum of their parts and every effort should be made to see if suitable accommodation might be found elsewhere that can keep those that wish to be together in a new Arts Pallette.

    Change is, however, always with us. Just as the acrid smell of the speedway departed along with Old Meadowbank, and the soot landing on my mother’s washing disappeared once the loco sheds closed, so too will the redevelopment of the new Meadowbank and St Margaret’s House bring positives and negatives that we must learn to adjust to.

    If the council and developers can accentuate the positives ­– such as saving as many of the existing trees around Meadowbank stadium that are now threatened with felling – and helping the Arts Palette relocate – then change will be much more easy to embrace.

    When asked why he was a Tory, my late friend, the MSP Alex Johnstone, said it was to help slow down the pace of change so people could adjust. As one journeys through life, that modest ambition looks more and more attractive. Meadowbank will never be the same as when the railway sheds and their workers were there but if redevelopment can return some sense of community it will have been for the good.