Please send me SCA's fortnightly briefing:

February 17, 2010

Are we best suited to live in ‘wee burghs’?

Much has been written about the plight of Scotland’s small towns. Mostly the decline is reported as the inevitable consequence of economic forces.  But cities had been the economic powerhouses of Scotland long before the vibrancy of small town life began to falter. An article in the Scottish Review suggests that the root of the problem can be traced back to when these small towns were stripped of all responsibility for their own affairs

The malaise on our own doorsteps
Kenneth Roy, Scotish Review

Many years ago I was introduced to the small town of Newport-on-Tay by perhaps its best-known inhabitant, the poet and academic Douglas Dunn. I loved the Victorian solidity of the place and remember its sense of vitality. We went for lunch to the local pub – formally called a hotel in the traditional manner – a buzzy establishment serving plain food well-cooked. And, of course, the company was good; I think Douglas Dunn was then much involved in the anti-poll tax campaign. Yes, it was that long ago.

But I didn’t imagine that Newport-on-Tay would have changed much; in many matters Scottish I remain a sentimentalist. So when it was decided that Islay McLeod should do her Thursday photo feature on a small town in winter, I said at once: ‘You could do a lot worse than Newport-on-Tay’.

The results – you can see them for yourself in this edition – are not what I was expecting. The pub where Douglas Dunn and I once enjoyed a convivial lunch is in a poor state, awaiting redevelopment into flats. The area around the pier, where ferries once set off across the river to Dundee, has been left to rot. Last Saturday afternoon, when the Scottish Review visited, the streets were deserted and it was hard to tell whether the few eating places were simply closed for the winter or closed for good.

Yet it would not be hard to imagine Newport-on-Tay, so easily reached by car across the Tay bridge, as a stylish, bustling coastal suburb, full of smart bistros and boutiques, a fashionable place for a weekend excursion or Saturday night dining.

Instead it has become just another small, neglected Scottish town. It is part of a national malaise.

In 1970, another Douglas – Douglas Young, the poet and romantic nationalist who lived in Tayport, the small town next to Newport – wrote a wonderful book about the state of modern Scotland. Its first chapter was entitled ‘A Peculiar People’. One of the peculiarities Douglas Young identified early in the book was our preference as a people to live, not in an urban environment, but in small towns. He added up the population of the four cities and the eight largest towns (Paisley, Motherwell and Wishaw, Greenock, East Kilbride, Coatbridge, Kirkcaldy, Dunfermline and Clydebank) and calculated that these 12 centres accounted for less than half the total population. With the continuing dispersal of population from Glasgow, it may now be much less than half.

The point Douglas Young was making – one which appears to have been forgotten or conveniently ignored by politicians and policy-makers – is that, in his words, ‘for very many Scots the wee burgh is the natural environment; they are basically small-town types’.

The other point he was making was that all of these ‘wee burghs’ were self-governing communities, some with charters going back to the 12th century. He found 16 with populations of under a thousand, and it is worth naming them if only for the melody: Fortrose, Falkland, Dornoch, Inverbervie, East Linton, Elie and Earlsferry, Aberchirder, Kintore, Gatehouse of Fleet, Doune, Abernethy, Tobermory, Cromarty, Culross, Inveraray and, smallest of the lot with 331 people, New Galloway. As Douglas Young asked, do you not find these names much more inspiring than most modern verse?

He discovered 36 burghs with populations of between 1,000 and 2,000; 23 with populations of between 2,000 and 3,000 (including his native Tayport); 16 with populations of between 3,000 and 4,000 (including Newport); and so up the scale to such relative giants as Kilsyth, Stranraer, Denny and Dunipace, Lochgelly and Thurso; and further still, on and on, to the Hamiltons and Falkirks, Ayrs and Perths. He concluded that, ‘from Kilmarnock down’ – I am not sure why the home of the Scottish Review should have been the selected marker – the burgh environment was a ‘readily comprehensible and intimate one, really an extended village neighbourhood’. This was the lovely, chaotic, functioning Scotland, each community fixing its own rates, administering its own budget, and for all but the largest services determining its own priorities, which Douglas Young described and celebrated. Within four years of the book being published, it was all gone.

The towns remain, of course, but shorn of all responsibility for their own affairs. Is it any coincidence that many, if not most, are sadly diminished communities? It will be argued that the decline of the small town owes more to economic forces than to the deprivation of self-governing status brought about by local government reorganisation. But the malaise has deeper roots. When human beings lose the capacity to exercise a degree of immediate control over their own conditions, when intimacy of scale is sacrificed, the result is Newport-on-Tay; or, from my own experience, the derelict small towns of Ayrshire, sullen places from which all vibrancy and hope seems to have been sucked. (An exception is the recently revived West Kilbride, which never enjoyed burgh status, and has been re-born as a craft town as a result of local initiative).

Remoteness or perceived remoteness – it amounts to the same thing – from centres of decision-making contributes inevitably to a haemorrhaging of civic esteem and pride. That is a truth so obvious that it should scarcely need stating; it is simply how we operate, or fail to operate, as human beings. But it is not a truth which has influenced policy on how decisions are taken in this country.

The burghs were destroyed in the interests of a greater efficiency. Where is the evidence of this efficiency? Does anyone seriously believe that Scotland is a more efficient, better governed place than it was in 1970 when Douglas Young wrote his book lauding the eccentricities of the wee burghs, among other national peculiarities? I doubt that many people even know the name of their councillor. The former system had many imperfections, but it was essentially human-shaped. What we have now suits the executive. It is convenient because it is a long way from the people. But, as we have seen in the last few months of SR’s various campaigns, what suits the executive is not what suits us