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Towns and Town Life in Scotland

Rosie Findlay
Tri Tran
William Findlay

Towns and town life in Scotland: introductory remarks

Rosie Findlay et Tri Tran

Texte intégral

1When people think of Scotland, especially from a distance, it is the romantic rural image that springs to mind, the image often found on the tartan-coated shortbread tin. There are usually wild windswept coastlines or vast expanses of rugged mountainous countryside with herds of wild deer or golden eagles caught against a menacing skyline. Scotland’s historic castles and other vestiges of its past in their idyllic settings also figure large in this stereotyped image, usually with a kilted piper thrown in for good measure. Scotland is seen as the land that time forgot, the land out of history. Nowhere is there room for the Scottish city (with the notable exception of the capital and its castle rock), as if somehow the city does not fit comfortably inside the image of what Scotland should be.

2When students first come into contact with Scottish studies, especially in foreign universities, these same tartan clichés are also the first things they learn. Scotland is a relatively big country, roughly 60% of the size of England, but with a small population, only slightly over 10% of the population of its nearest southern neighbour. Indeed, with a population density of somewhere around 66 inhabitants per square kilometre, it is one of the least densely populated countries in Western Europe. Hence the old joke which always seems to amuse French university students: Scotland is a country with five million inhabitants and six million sheep. The sheep roam the north and the south and the people are packed tightly in the middle. Scotland, the land of sheep, the land of the four-footed clansmen!

3The title of the second annual conference of the French Society for Scottish Studies traces its roots to these images. It was planned as a challenge to researchers, as an invitation to explore the distinctive “rejection” by Scottish people of this beautiful natural environment in favour of the cramped and often unhealthy living conditions of the towns where they apparently preferred to congregate.

4Urban studies have for long and quite rightly focussed on the English experience, Scotland much less so. Our conference, therefore, was an attempt to redress this imbalance, for the distinctiveness of the Scottish urban experience is arguably even more remarkable than that of its southern neighbour. After all, when looked at from the opposite angle, in this great rural expanse, almost 70% of the people prefer to confine their living experience to a mere 11% of the nation’s surface. Indeed, by 1951 almost 40% of the total population was crammed into its four cities! For a country so predominantly rural and a nation so distinctly “stateless” the fascination with the urban lifestyle is quite obsessive: four traditional cities (six today) and TWO capitals-Edinburgh, the historic political capital in the East, and Glasgow, the industrial capital, some forty miles away to the West.

5The Scottish urban experience deserves attention for another reason quite independent of these statistical characteristics. For some time now historians have pointed to the Scottish urban experience as a key element in the shaping of the distinctiveness of Scottish national identity after the disappearance of the Parliament with the Union of 1707. It is, they have suggested, in the notion of a civic community that the fires of Scottishness were kept burning during this long period. The Scottish urban phenomenon has therefore much to teach us and must surely help us towards a deeper understanding of this national identity.

6Urbanisation, particularly during its aggressive phase of expansion in the nineteenth century, largely shaped modem Scotland in another way. The growth of its towns and cities produced a radical shift in the balance of population and of power away from the traditional rural and agricultural way of life. As such it is one of the most sensitive indicators of the gradual emergence of the modern industrial state. Certainly, a country may become urban without becoming industrial, and some kinds of industry can develop without large urban centres, but the scale and nature of Scotland’s economic development since the nineteenth century suggests that urban growth was fundamental to it.

  • 1 In a rare insight into the distinctive image projection of the Scottish urban scene Lewis Grassic (...)

7From this perspective the Glasgow experience stands out on its own. A major Empire port, Scotland’s principal population centre, and a distinctive driving force behind Britain’s engineering and shipbuilding industries, Glasgow epitomizes the enormous effects of urban development in the high age of British economic development. Glasgow the city magnet attracted its inhabitants by the thousands, not only from its surrounding rural areas but also from the Highlands and the North as well as Ireland, before attracting more still from other parts of Europe and indeed the Empire. It is these “foreigners” who have made the city so distinctive, so unclassifiable1 so unique an urban experience. From a small quaint town of some 77,000 in 1801, Glasgow’s population was to shoot up at a phenomenal rate, reaching 357,000 within fifty years and climaxing at over one million inhabitants by 1912.

8Yet if the magnitude of the scale and speed of Glasgow’s nineteenth century transformation was unique, Scotland’s other cities also followed their own determined path to industrialisation. By the 1850s, for instance, Edinburgh had become a major commercial city as well as a long-standing national centre of government and law. Its hinterland, which combined rural pursuits, such as farming, and semi-industrial developments, for example mining, lacked the dramatic growth rates and sheer size of Clydeside’s urban areas, but, with Leith fast becoming a major port, the area was of both regional and national importance. Edinburgh, reputed to be Britain’s third largest city in 1811 with a population of some 103,143 inhabitants, had by the last years of the century more than doubled in size to over 269,407. The third and fourth-placed towns of Dundee and Aberdeen likewise followed this same pattern albeit on a more modest scale as did the fifth and sixth towns of Scotland, Greenock and Paisley, but the fact that none was more than 100,000 inhabitants indicates something of the nature of Scottish urban society.

9The Industrial Revolution undoubtedly turned Scotland into one of the mostly starkly divided countries in the world. The maintenance of strong agricultural districts in the Lowlands and Borders, and in the north-east counties of Fife and Angus and further north on the east coast, and the perpetuation of traditional crofting culture in the Highlands ensured that much of Scotland would contrast sharply with the rapidly developing central belt. Here, between Edinburgh in the east and Glasgow in the west-in a narrow band some 40 miles wide and 20 miles deep-there developed one of the most intensely industrial and urban regions in the world. With its concentration of heavy industries such as textiles, mining, metal manufacture and shipbuilding it likewise ensured that by the 1880s dozens of large villages, small towns and more substantial urban centres could be sustained around this generally crowded region. Hence, although most of the population of Scotland lived in this urbanized region in 1900, very few of the towns were themselves large in terms of population. Thus, although Glasgow was a city to compare with any in Britain or the world at this time, and Edinburgh, though smaller, was an important capital city, the majority of the central belt’s population was to be found in satellite towns that fanned out from the major rivers (the Clyde and the Forth) or were studded throughout coal-and iron-fields.

10Yet the story of Scotland’s towns and cities does not stop with the nineteenth century industrial transformation of the country. The following century with its industrial decline and rebirth equally played a significant part in it as well. As the major cities have declined since their peak in the early part of the century, so too have they diversified and modernized, although always with a keen eye on their past. Thus, for instance, we find the city of Glasgow shrugging off its gangland image of hard men, hard drink and hard work, and donning the mantle of a European city of Culture. Likewise “Auld Reekie” has established its international credentials as a Festival city of world repute with its annual international gathering every August since 1947 and more recently its Princes Street “Hogmany” party, one of the largest and most popular venues of its kind in existence. Quite clearly the Scottish town and Scottish town life still retain their distinctive qualities and their hold over the Scottish mind.

11The papers and discussions which made up our conference naturally reflect this popular fascination and the colourful variations of Scotland’s urban culture. In particular it was hoped that a distinctly “French” perspective might be brought to the questions under examination, for after all, France and Scotland go back a long way. The conference was therefore a deliberate attempt to blend together the contributions from experts in a wide range of fields. Scottish history figures large in this but so too do Scottish literature, architecture and the fine arts. They have been regrouped here for the sake of ease of reading under three main headings. In the first group we have a collection of studies of the images of the city and how these became part of the Scottish mind-set. In a word, how the urban Scot saw and sees him/herself, A second perspective which, without any prompting on the part of the organizers, imposed itself on a sizeable number of participants of this conference was the Scottish city during the nineteenth century. Here we have a selection of this research which is currently underway in France. Finally, and by no means least, there is the twentieth and twenty-first century revival. The modern Scottish town, like its nineteenth century ancestor, would appear to be a rich source of questions for French academics interested in these new avenues of development from a political, social and economic perspective. All in all, a tribute to the renewed dynamism of Scottish studies in France and the continued fascination which the Scottish people have invested and continue to invest in “their” distinctive way of urban living.


12The vision of the city in Scottish literature has been dominated historically by the Big Two: Edinburgh and Glasgow. Yet, despite the historical importance of the Scottish capital, it is unquestionably the industrial city of the West which attracted most interest during this conference. In the first of the articles published here, Bernard SELLIN presents an overview of the representation of the city in the Scottish novel. In particular he draws attention, as others have, to the “urbane silence” which so distinguishes the Scottish city from its southern counterpart. The city, with a few exceptions, remained a relatively marginal subject until the 1930s, and the publication of works such as Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long’s No Mean City, Edwin Muir’s Scottish Journey, and George Blake’s The Shipbuilders. It is only after the Second World War that the Scottish city became a real subject of literary interest. Perhaps it is not surprising then that the majority of the other researchers working on the city and its literary image should concentrate on the dynamics of working class life and the Glasgow experience in particular. Danièle BERTON’s paper invites us to explore the mysterious and often hidden world of women’s daily existence as presented in Tony Roper’s play The Steamie. This work, set in the Glasgow of the 1950s, stands out in stark contrast to the macho world of the Glasgow male and his pub culture, and shows the deeply entwined strands of day-to-day social existence experienced by Glasgow’s working-class women. Far from being a place of hard and unpleasant work, the “Steamie” (the municipal wash-house) was a meeting place where women could find solidarity and friendship and answers to the challenges they faced.

13Another view of women’s life in the industrial heartland of Glasgow is offered by Fabienne MOINE and her study of the female poet and worker Ellen Johnston. Johnston, girl poet of the factory and the workshop in its mid-nineteenth century heyday, had the particular gift of being able to capture the essence of working-class life and living conditions during these harsh times without making any political statement. Her poetry which is above all a dialogue with her fellow workers can be seen as a valuable contribution to the making of the distinctive working-class culture of the city as well as an uncompromising denunciation of the evils of industrialization.

14Yet, if Glasgow was the focus of much attention during the conference it was not the only aspect of industrial Scotland which caught the eye of French researchers. Jean BERTON for instance, invited us to explore the less likely setting of Inverness and its role in the shaping of the history and way of life in the Scottish highlands. Under the provocative title of “Inverness: Heart, Head or Navel of Caledonia?”, the past, present and future evolution of this newly invested “city” is analysed through the works of poets and politicians in an attempt to highlight the distinctive and sometimes disconcerting nature of traditional Celtic culture. In the context of the conference this exploration of the Scottish north and its relationship to the town was interestingly highlighted by another paper read by Morag Landi on the marginal status of the urban landscape in some of Neil Gunn’s novels.

15Marion AMBLARD brought the attention of the conference to the Edinburgh scene at the turn of the nineteenth century and explored the relationship between the paintings of Alexander Nasmyth and the city in transformation. On one level these artistic impressions of the capital can be appreciated for their artistic quality and the portraits of the town that they capture. But, they also contain a hidden message, for they were also intended as allegories of Scottish identity. They show Nasmyth’s conviction that Scotland has not lost its soul with its Union with England and that progress and a new dynamism have stemmed from this great political moment. Here too the conference was able to contrast the changing city and its people with another paper read by Lesley Graham on “44 Scotland Street” and the way McCall Smith analyses the reality of daily life in the modem era.


16From the images of Scottish urbanization and how they impacted on the literary mind, the conference turned its attention to a more traditional exploration of the history of the town and town life over the last two centuries. Not surprisingly perhaps the dominant emphasis of research here was focussed on the giant of the West, Glasgow, through angles of approach which underlined the restless dynamism of the city. Tri TRAN focussed his attention on the remarkable symbiosis which the city developed with its river. Unlike some cities where the river cuts and divides the town and ultimately weakens it, the Glasgow experience is one of fusion. The Clyde made Glasgow and Glasgow made the Clyde. By examining the city’s docklands during the nineteenth century the distinctiveness of Glasgow’s working-class culture is highlighted. The distinctive characteristics of industrial unrest on the Clyde during this period were as much part and parcel of the city as the ships the rivers became famous for: “Clyde Built” and “Red Clydeside” were very much two halves of a complex whole, whose roots can be traced deep into the origins of shipbuilding on the river itself.

17The paradoxes of Glasgow’s distinctive city culture were also explored in the paper read by Bill FINDLAY. Here, however, it is not the river but the town which is the focus of analysis through the writings of one of Scotland’s best and earliest social observers, Alexander Brown, alias “The Shadow”. Brown’s study of the town in the late 1850s which was later published under the intriguing title of Midnight Scenes and Social Photographs is remarkable not only for its truthfulness but also for its candour. At a time of uncontrolled city development, it lifts the veil on what today could be termed Scotland’s “sleepwalking” culture, how in the relatively confined space of the city centre, various classes of citizens lived almost cheek by jowl yet, for the most part, without actually “seeing” the other despite the stench of poverty and amid the “vomit of a cataleptic commercialism”.

18The final presentation of this series on Glasgow during the nineteenth century concerns the municipal response to the seemingly intractable problem of prostitution. In his paper Christian AUER examines the introduction and working of the Glasgow System as it became known after its creation in the early 1870s. Although initially a “police” problem, the fight against this “great social evil “was remarkable for its zeal but also for its critical analysis, for it involved close cooperation between the public and the private spheres, the city’s police force, its sanitary institutions and its charitable organisations. If in some respects the experiment can be judged a success, the paper also shows its limitations and, in particular, the inability or unwillingness of the authorities to examine the fundamental causes underlying prostitution as if these could be rendered redundant by discipline alone.

19While there is no doubt about the central place that Glasgow and the West of Scotland occupied in the country’s urban landscape during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Christian CIVARDI’s research on the city of Dundee invited the conference to take a wider perspective on these issues. Dundee has not always been given the attention it deserves from academic historians yet its distinctive working-class identity and its unusual blend of female and Irish workforces has much to teach us. Female life expectancy in Dundee, for instance, was considerably less than elsewhere while the consumption of intoxicating beverages was much greater. Dundee could arguably be seen, therefore, as confirming the old Scottish adage that “Whisky and freedom gang the gither”, for by the early years of this century the city’s precocious militant culture already extended to both the industrial and the political spheres. Yet as this paper suggests the opposite could also be argued, that moral and populist causes could locally influence the realities of the socialist message.

20Poverty and the Scottish city also lie at the heart of the questions raised by Rosie FINDLAY’s paper. Here however the period is the early twentieth century and the sufferings specifically those of Scotland’s children. The many philanthropic activities which were undertaken at this time to relieve the sufferings of the young are described and the progressive expansion of such charities from the simple feeding of empty stomachs to more holistic packages of aid is charted. Particularly important were the Cinderella Clubs founded by the followers of the socialist Robert Blatchford which sprang up in towns like Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee. Yet it is not the charitable activity so much as its impact on public thinking which is the centre of this study and particularly why it took until 1908 (two years after England) for the Provision of Meals Act to come into force north of the Border.

21Poverty was undoubtedly a hard fact of urban life for the Scots of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it was not the only dimension. In a paper read to the conference by Johanne-France Just Rankin Galloway the small moments of pleasure and enjoyment of the common people were also visible in their fascination with tea. Even in “grimy Glasgow” people still aspired to beauty even in the simple pleasures of life hence the popularity of C. R. Mackintosh’s tearoom culture. The pleasure-seeking side of the Scots has therefore to be understood inside this picture of urban life and, as Win HAYES argues, the appalling industrial and living conditions actively encouraged the development of leisure provision in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Baths and washhouses, for instance, had a strong civic appeal because of their sanitary objectives. Swimming baths, on the other hand, despite their name, were initially seen as social centres and tended to be reserved for the richer sections of Scottish society. Yet, as in England, popular demand for such activities which harmoniously combined leisure and healthy living was such that they gradually became an integral part of the city scene.


22From the distant past of the Scottish city, the conference went on to explore the present day situation as well as future developments. While Scotland’s urban past has long been associated with its heavy industrial environment, with endemic urban poverty and social malaise, broken communities, housing projects remarkable only for their in-built obsolescence and high rates of physical and mental disease, with what new features should the movement for “urban renewal” be linked... or are we merely looking at the less ambitious concept of “urban replacement”? Certainly since the 17th century, the idea of “urban improvement” or “renewal” has been justified in the name of modernity and enlightenment yet without any real attempt at analysing the costs and benefits, the winners and the losers. In his paper on the “reinvention of Glasgow” Gilles LEYDIER drew the conference’s attention to the striking paradox between Glasgow’s cultural and artistic vitality in recent years and its poor economic performance. Between the early 1950s and the late 1980s, Glasgow experienced a traumatic transformation from a predominantly industrial centre to one renowned for its culture and art. At the heart of the city centre this transformation is at its most visible as Glasgow has donned its new garb as a national and international tourist and business hub. Yet, the city has also continued to be associated with some of the worst socio-economic indicators in the British Isles which have earned it the unenviable title of “the Sick Man of Britain”. In the bigger picture of the new Scotland, however, this Janus effect which hangs over the city leaves the observer perplex and raises unexpected questions about its traditional complementarity with its East coast neighbour and rival, Edinburgh.

23These same questions were also examined by Philippe BRILLET from another unusual angle, a comparison with Ireland. When the demographic and economic performances of Glasgow and Edinburgh are compared to those of Dublin, for instance, the sluggishness of the Scottish scene becomes visible. Inside the country itself, however, it is suggested that the potential for economic expansion of the capital city is significantly greater than that of Glasgow yet cooperation between these two traditional rivals would appear to offer the greatest chances of sustained long-term growth. Interestingly, these conclusions were also those presented to the conference by Nathalie Duclos who stressed the importance of the numerous advantages enjoyed by Edinburgh in its new role as political capital.

24The last two papers on present day Scotland and its urban environment both had a distinctly political angle to them. In a paper which examines the development and implementation of urban policies in Scotland since 1945 Carine BERBERI invited the audience to reflect also on the objectives that motivated them so as to better understand the potential which has opened up with the Parliament. In this new context, the dynamic role which is attributed to the six cities of the country has been extended by the addition to it of a national dimension. Yet, these cities do not exhibit a uniform image and their individual needs and demands have to be balanced against those of a national executive with responsibilities hitherto unknown.

25According to the research undertaken by Edwige CAMP on the election results of 1992, 2001 and 2003, the political composition of Scottish towns is in the process of mutation. The black and white image of the Scottish town as a Labour stronghold, so visible in the 1990s, has in recent years begun to fade. In the new political context which has come into being since the opening of the Scottish Parliament, old certainties about voting patterns can no longer be sustained. At the same time, however, no new ones have yet come into being. How these changes will affect the identity of Scottish “new” labour is therefore as uncertain as it is inevitable.

26In some ways therefore the uncertainty and unpredictability of the future development of Scotland’s urban landscape on which the conference ended its work was an oddly appropriate one. As the two days of presentations and discussion amply demonstrated, towns and town life in Scotland have their own distinctive character in this still vastly rural environment and continue to occupy a major role in the shaping of the nation’s image of itself.


1 In a rare insight into the distinctive image projection of the Scottish urban scene Lewis Grassic Gibbon once noted: “Glasgow is one of the few places in Scotland which defy personification. To image Edinburgh as a disappointed spinster, with a harelip and inhibitions, is at least to approximate as closely to the truth as to image the Prime Mover as a Levantine Semite. So with Dundee, a frowsy fisher-wife addicted to gin and infanticide, Aberdeen a thin-lipped peasant woman who has borne eleven and buried nine. But no Scottish image of personification may display, even distortedly, the essential Glasgow”.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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