Journal of the Plague Year in the Grassmarket

Only a month ago I was due to attend a meeting to debate how community groups might counter over-tourism in the Old Town. Needless to say it was cancelled as Covid-19 came to dominate our lives.

What a lot of new words have entered our vocabularies ‘lock-down’, ‘social distancing’, ‘shielding’ replacing last year’s new language of Brexit. There are, however, no people sitting debating the issue outside the pubs. Some like the Black Bull and the Beehive are boarded up adding to the bleakness of the scene.

The whole area is deserted as the tourists have vanished and the students have returned home. The eerie silence is broken only by birdsong – no buses, no rumble of suitcases, no cries of rollicking stag nights. By day the only people to be seen on the streets are a few joggers or essential workers: at night the streets are empty. Traffic is much reduced and so is air pollution. The cranes on the India Buildings hang idle over the scene. Will we ever again need a Virgin hotel with 225 guest rooms?

Living off the Grassmarket for the last 45 years, I have witnessed immense change. What was once a rather edgy area is now the heart of tourist Edinburgh. Even in my wildest dreams I could not have imagined that the Dickensian Castle Trades Hotel for single homeless men would be turned into a flagship cashmere store. Then 90% of the accommodation was social housing whereas now well over a quarter is AirB&B short-term lets. Local food shops have vanished to be replaced by outlets designed for tourists. The Vennel steps, or should I say the recently renamed Miss Jean Brodie Steps, was until recently haunted by Far Eastern couples looking for the perfect wedding photograph.

I have never witnessed change happen so quickly and with such a dramatic effect as in the last month. Some of the change has brought out the best in people. Neighbours are getting to know each other and performing acts of great kindness from providing home-baking to simply phoning to check if you need anything. Strangers greet you in the streets. It has, however, revealed some downsides, especially just how small a community of long-term residents is left. At night there are no lights in many of the tenements and by day the streets are empty compared with many parts of the city where life has a greater feel of purpose and normality. In recent years locals have described living in the Grassmarket as being on a stage set for tourists. Now the lights are out and the theatre is dark.

This enforced hiatus in our lives provides a chance to reflect on what sort of city centre we should like. Even the Festivals are beginning to acknowledge that August has grown out of hand, unmanageable, over-commercialised, fuelled by meeting target numbers rather than by the quality of the experience. We need to think as residents what we want living in the city centre to be like. What does the buzz-word of sustainable tourism actually mean and what actions can we as a community take to achieve it? We cannot go back but we can go forward to a different future.

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