A map tells us about location and distance, where something is and how to get there. It is about physical reality at a particular point in time – when the land and places were surveyed – and it is also about describing and naming. However, comparing different maps of the same area drawn up over the years can shed a fascinating light on another dimension, that of time – and how quickly or slowly change happens.
For a century or more up to the outbreak of the Second World War, the three hundred or so acres now known as the housing estate of Wester Hailes remained essentially unchanged – a tract of open land in the vicinity of the city of Edinburgh with a railway and a canal running east/west across it and a road, the original Wester Hailes Road, bisecting it north/south from what is now the A71 Calder Road, over the canal and under the railway, to the A70 Lanark Road.
Look closely though at the maps dating from different times throughout the period and those individual snapshots start to come together a bit like a very crude and jumpy film with big gaps between frames. A slowly evolving picture can be discerned. Even before the abrupt and massive transformation wrought by the construction of thousands of houses, what we see is a process of social and economic alteration.
The Ordinance Survey map of 1855 identifies three farms in the area: Wester Hailes, Dumbryden and Fernieflat each with thrashing machines to extract the grain from oats or wheat. The major man-made feature shown is the massive Hailes Quarry and there are also three much smaller quarries, two labelled as “sandstone” and one “old”.
In 1932 only Hailes Quarry is still operational. Of the others, one is lying disused, one has disappeared entirely and the fourth, located on the other side of the railway from where the shopping centre now stands, has metamorphosed into the Sun-Ray Poultry Farm.
Between the railway and the canal there are two dairies: Morven and Forresthill. The Wester Hailes and Fernieflat farms still exist but Dumbryden is now sub-divided into a number of smallholdings with their own individual names: Sunnyside, Nantara, Duncombe, Ashcroft, Windyrig, Standpretty, Whare and Barscobe.
The encroachment of suburbia is a slow but steady trend. Kingsknowe train station appears in the 1895 map along with Baberton golf course. By the time of the 1915 map Kingsknowe golf course and clubhouse is also shown. Over the years, Juniper Green to the south gradually expands in size while, here and there, within Wester Hailes itself, further houses and cottages spring up. Then, in the period between the 1932 and 1938 maps, the large public housing scheme of Sighthill comes into existence in the north-east.
A person from 1855 would still have been able to recognize Wester Hailes, on the eve of the Second World War. Railway, canal, roads, farmland were all still there. Nevertheless, the changes had been considerable. Land was being subdivided and new commercial ventures were springing up, more and more people were living and working there – even more so in the immediate vicinities. From the east, the south and the north the city of Edinburgh was advancing and bringing changes.
Map details from historical Ordinance Survey documents