Sense of Place

Why we should not try to save the whale - The Scotsman

Everything changed in Scotland on May the third—and nothing changed. The squeaking home of the SNP into minority government was supposed to mark a tectonic shift in British politics, but when Alex Salmond last week unveiled his plan for a referendum on Scottish independence the polls were still showing a yes vote twenty percent behind a no—contrary to the impression given by the nationalistic reader comments on the site of The Scotsman. It’s a relief, I suppose, because the election results had made me wonder what the future held for my relationship with Scotland and Britain, mere weeks after finally getting a UK passport. Would I have to choose between the two? This has been my home for six years, but how could I justify casting my lot with five million over fifty-five when the whole point of taking on a second citizenship was to go beyond narrow nationalism?

The fact that the UK is more than its parts was what made me comfortable with acquiring British citizenship, after all; when you consider how different the Scots, Welsh, English and Northern Irish all are from each other, not to mention the different regions, being Australian doesn’t feel that different from the elusive middle than any of the rest. This year in Scottish politics has brought all of that into focus. If the union broke up, where would that leave the descendents of the Empire?—an Empire the Scots played a major role in building, as all those “Scottish not British” slogans chalked around Edinburgh’s Old Town would have us forget.

As someone born in a peripheral part of that former Empire, peripheral even within its own country, I’m well aware of the feelings of neglect and injustice that drive separatism. Politicians in my island home regularly used to beat the drum of states’ rights and even secession when I was growing up, without much thought for how secession would actually work. But although I was shaped by the place, I’ve never wanted to be Tasmanian instead of being Australian; being both has been a blessing, not a curse. Similarly, my son is now blessed to be Scottish and British—reducing him to one over the other would take away half his birthright.

(I sometimes idly wonder how many Scots have been driven to thoughts of independence by being called English by one too many tourists. They should try being mistaken for a Warner Brothers cartoon character who spins around fast...)

The claim that the EU makes the UK irrelevant, and therefore that independence wouldn’t leave Scotland isolated, is also baffling if the argument is that Scotland has been ignored within the union. If it’s ignored as ten percent of Britain, how would it fare as one percent of Europe? The European Parliament is so much more sensitive to local concerns than Westminster, isn’t it.

Sure, there’s cause for grievance in Scottish history, as there is anywhere, but any examination of that history reveals complications and caveats that suggest not only why the kingdoms were united but why they’ve stayed that way. Nothing in history makes change impossible, but all this talk of historical inevitability sounds pretty wishful to someone who voted for an Australian republic.


For a place so focussed on history and its implications, there’s a lot of it being demolished right now, at least in Edinburgh. In only a few short weeks this spring, the McEwans brewery dominating the Fountainbridge area was demolished, along with Fat Sam’s nightclub (the old meat market) nearby; a nondescript 1960s block near the Grassmarket went;

Near the Grassmarket

They began adding a lopsided glass box to the symmetrical Victorian curves of Usher Hall; the 1960s office block on George IV bridge came down;

George IV Bridge

And across the road from where I work, just behind the Royal Mile, a huge area was cleared for the proposed Caltongate development.


The next stage of Caltongate promises to be far more obnoxious: the developers proposed knocking down the listed Canongate Venture, just off the Royal Mile, and some of the terraces on the Mile itself—Edinburgh’s main tourist street, in the heart of its World Heritage area. A campaign to Save Our Old Town sprang up, and I did my bit by lodging objections to the plans, which now sit somewhere on the council website. It wasn’t hard to put together a few heartfelt words about “odious proposals” showing “a serious lack of sympathy for the historical value of the area”—“it should be perfectly possible to develop a mixed retail and residential space on the former bus depot land without destroying the character of the Royal Mile and surrounds ... visitors from around the world expect to see historic buildings in a World Heritage area, not shopping malls”—but they might not do much when the spirit of the age wants glass frontage everywhere, even at the expense of World Heritage.

New Street


Two months ago, I was wondering if we would still be here to see the results of all this redevelopment. While I was in Italy touting our MSc, I was also wondering what would happen when my contract ended a few weeks later. It’s one of the joys of the modern academic life, the short-term contract. It’s all I’ve ever known, but familiarity hasn’t bred contentment; although I was more confident this time than last that things would get sorted out, it was still nerve-racking. With a growing baby in a small two-bedroom flat, we had been planning to move, but without a secure contract we weren’t sure if that would be to somewhere in Edinburgh or... well, anywhere.

The administrative cogs eventually turned in my favour, though, and the contract got sorted, which fired the starting pistol on the next race: finding a new place while they’re still remotely affordable. The price of everything has doubled since we moved here, which will be great when we sell our current flat, but isn’t so great when we’re buying; that extra bedroom for one small boy will take us right back to where we started with our mortgage, and then some. (It isn’t only because of him; we never planned to live in this flat for as long as we have.)

Then there’s the Scottish system of “offers over” and closed bids. You’re supposed to somehow magically intuit what a place is worth, in the order of 20 to 30 percent above the advertised price, and make an offer while hoping that nobody else offers a hundred pounds more. It’s like an eBay auction, but without the reassurance that you’ll only ever pay one bid above the next highest offer. We’ve heard of people who paid twenty percent more than the next highest offer, which is scary when you’re dealing with Edinburgh prices.

Last time around we dodged the issue by buying a fixed-price property. That isn’t really an option this time; there are far fewer 3-bedroom places in central Edinburgh than 2-bedroom, and hardly any end up as fixed-price. So our Thursdays and Sundays since mid-July have been a succession of terrace flats and the like, all costing x + y where x = the kind of money J.K. Rowling makes and y = a mysterious figure known only to the Sorting Hat. A depressing number of them are ex-student-rentals with the kind of grimy patina you would hope not to be getting for more money than you’ve ever paid for anything in your life, while others have been redecorated and priced at a premium by developers who bought them three months ago and are looking to make a quick £50K profit.

In our first few days of trying, there was little we could actually see ourselves living in, but a week in we saw one place that got us thinking. It was across town from where we live, off a busy main road and next to a building that’s about to be demolished and redeveloped. The thought of living next to a construction site was offputting, but the place itself was intriguing: an A-listed Georgian mansion with a flat on each floor. The chance of living in a place like that seemed worth putting up with jackhammers for a year, especially as its value would only increase once work was done, so when the closing date arrived a few days later we put in an offer, which was accepted.

That evening, we thought we’d found ourselves a really special place—something with character, part of that history that attracts people to Edinburgh in the first place, unlike the twenty-year-old flat we’ve been in. Our offer was subject to survey, though, and unfortunately the survey came back with problems, starting in the roof and leaking down from there. Any structural repairs to an A-listed building could end up with a lot of noughts in the bill, so we had little choice but to withdraw.

One of the secrets nobody tells you when you start this caper is that you can find out a UK property’s previous selling prices since 2000 online for free. I discovered it the day after we’d pulled out, which was a bit annoying, as we could see that we’d offered £30K more than the current owner had paid for it three months before. Still, it was irrelevant by then, and the site has been useful since.

In the weeks since then we’ve made one more offer, coming fourth out of seven and £9K short of the winner, which was dispiriting when we’d offered about as much as we could. There are a couple more possibilities looming, and if those don’t work out something will. But I hope one of these ones does—all of these viewings are wearing us down, and we’re only six weeks in. A friend of mine did this for a year before finding a place. If we’re still in our flat next summer it’ll be so cramped we’ll have to buy a treadmill for William to learn to walk on.

Buying a place is only the half of it, though. Then we’ve got to sell this one. And move. And, if we get the one we hope, renovate it. I wouldn’t expect too many more posts here for a while.

(One of the other secrets you learn when your partner texts you to buy the Scotsman for its property section is that the predictive text for “Scotsman” is “Pantsman”.)


With all of that going on, this has been the first August in Edinburgh we haven’t been knee-deep in the Fringe. Having William around makes it tricky, too—Jane and I have only seen one show together, Tony Law’s sequel to last year’s. I’ve seen a few more here and there—Terry Saunders (telling a feel-good tale that builds nicely), Binari (Korean drumming, impressively loud) and the Wooster Group’s La Didone (at the Festival proper, and properly strange)—but apart from the crowds on the Mile it hasn’t really felt like a Fringe.

Royal Mile

Royal Mile

It’s the year I made my Fringe debut, though. A friend was doing some recitals at an open poetry reading near where I work, and I tagged along, first to watch him and then, last Friday, to have a go myself, reading Lights and A Road Map of NSW to a decent reception from the two dozen present (which could have been even better if I’d recited them from memory). They were a spur-of-the-moment selection from four possibilities I’d printed out, but given everything that’s been on my mind these past few months I suppose it wasn’t surprising I chose the ones with a strong sense of place.

Warhol at the Scottish Academy

(Photos all taken on my camera phone, amazingly enough. That’s the Warhol exhibition at the Scottish Academy, yet another thing I haven’t had time to see.)

23 August 2007 · UK Culture

We just came SECOND out of ten offers for the one we wanted most. Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn.

Now I know how Olympic silver medallists feel. I’d rather have come fourth.

Added by Rory on 30 August 2007.

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