From There… To Here

The social history of Wester Hailes

Mapping History

This article by Roy McCrone considers the different aspects of mapping an area and looks at how maps of Wester Hailes from different eras provide an historical perpective of the area beyond the immediate geographical snap shot. 


© Roy McCrone 2011

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.

In the three decades after the Second World War, the changing picture of Wester Hailes revealed by successive maps is no longer one of slow, small-scale development. The alterations recorded are huge and, from the perspective of the previous hundred years, very sudden.

It begins immediately after the war with the construction of 537 prefab houses in an area of land between the A71 in the north, the canal in the south and west and Wester Hailes Road in the east as part of the Temporary Housing Programme launched by the government in response to the tremendous housing shortage of the time. The OS map published in 1956 shows a complete mini-estate, arranged in a regular pattern on what had been open fields before 1945. The names of the streets are redolent of the grids and curves of planned suburbia: Calder Gardens, Calder Broadway, Calder Drive, Calder Circus, Calder Terrace.

The 1966 map still shows the prefabs in their entirety but, in that very year, this short-lived community was actually being bulldozed to make way for the Calders housing that exists today. Begun in February 1966, by the summer of 1969 a total of just over 1,300 houses and flats and 9 shops had been built on the same area that the prefabs had occupied. The map of 1973 shows a very different layout of angular blocks distributed in an almost cubist arrangement that gives some clue as to the “modernist” nature of the design. What it can’t do, of course, is to give any sense of scale in the third dimension and, therefore, the contrast in the densities involved. In this map, a shaded rectangle which, for the prefabs, would have represented a terrace of 6-8 houses, is equivalent to a multi-storey block of over 130 flats.


As urban populations have grown dramatically and towns and cities have expanded into new areas, Governments – national and local – have sought to direct and control  what gets built.

Because of this, a different type of map has been produced with increasing frequency. New buildings, new roads, whole new neighbourhoods conceived and planned in advance of a single brick being laid.

Such plans are maps of the future. What should be, what might be, as opposed to what is. And they are records of a process – from theory and concept, through outline to detailed proposals and on to the final version which the builder actually builds.

The basic shape of Wester Hailes envisaged by its initial plan was like a giant letter “C” – from Hailes Quarry in the north, heading down along the west edge of Kingsknowe golf course, south across the railway line and then bending back east below the golf course.

Through the middle of this, running like a spine from top to bottom under the railway and over and under roads, was to be an unbroken pedestrian walkway. This, as the first planning study described it, would be “the central stem curving through the site from which all the rest of the plan would grow and develop”.

Which, in reality, was very much what got built. The “C” did indeed describe the main area of the estate and the Greenway pedestrianised route is still a main feature of Wester Hailes today, running from Dumbryden to Clovenstone exactly as intended in that first plan.

The greatest deviation between original drawings and the “as built” reality was the location and type of some of the housing. Twenty one huge multi-storey blocks were constructed which greatly increased the density of development. These were either not directly linked to the pedestrian route or angled off and away from it, defeating one of the main purposes of the original concept.

The separate contracts are shown below. 



When Wester Hailes was first built it consisted of little more than an expanse of housing and roads and a couple of primary schools – the bare bones of a community.

 From the word go, it was the local people who took the lead in fighting for what the area lacked.  Their campaigning and organisational efforts meant that not only did the authorities belatedly get their act into gear, but various community-led groups set up their own schemes to plug the gaps, including the actual design and construction of facilities.

 “Wester Hailes Ten Years On”, a 50 page document published by the Wester Hailes Representative Council has a map identifying all the community facilities in existence by 1983 with an inset showing what was there ten years earlier. The difference is striking – in 1973, virtually nothing; by 1983 – a community workshop complex, youth huts, the Acorn Centre for people with disabilities, youth huts and 5 adventure playgrounds all built and run by local groups.

In the same year, a comprehensive Wester Hailes Community Plan was produced by the Rep Council. It shows the area at its most densely populated (prior to the progressive demolition of much of the high rises) and, arguably, at its most vibrant in terms of grassroots community activity (no less than 23 different facilities listed). It is drawn with real verve, a visual expression of energy and optimism and a little work of art in its own right.

Detail from 1983 map showing Hailesland

Detail from 1983 map showing Clovenstone and the Park and Drive

Detail from 1983 map showing Westburn


Detail from 1983 map showing Calders


However, many of the premises, built and run by the community were temporary structures, often reliant on the drip feed of specific sources of revenue grant. The 1983 Community Plan was the first of a series of three and, when we look at the last of them, the 1997 version, we can see that the area has undergone a further transformation.

The vast majority of the high rises have gone, after a lifespan of no more than 15 years. But a lot of what was constructed by the community has also disappeared including the Acorn Club building, the adventure playgrounds and the youth huts. By now, the huge Wester Hailes Partnership had been set up, operating on a much grander scale, incorporating or taking over from many of those earlier, smaller initiatives.

Detail from 1997 map showing Hailesland and Walkers


Detail taken from 1997 map showing Clovenstone

Detail from 1997 Map showing Westburn


Detail from 1997 Map showing Calders

These maps are probably the only remaining record of the numbers and location of the various community-led projects which may have flowered for a relatively brief period but were absolutely vital in supporting and sustaining the people of Wester Hailes during a time when they often had little option but to do what they could to help themselves.


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