From There… To Here

The social history of Wester Hailes

Surprise Delivery!

Many people have been hooked by the stories and characters portrayed in Call The Midwife.  With the programme generating huge viewing figures, it looks likely to hold onto its prized prime Sunday evening slot.  As a nation, we seem to love stories about new babies and unusual deliveries.  Today we’re able to bring you just such a story from the pages of the Sentinel.

We were contacted on the Facebook page a couple of weeks ago about a story from the Sentinel featuring an unexpected guest.  Back in June 1989, Mary Stewart who was nine months pregnant was on her way home with her friend Rena.  She had just got to her front door when she realised her baby was well on the way.  There was no time to take off their coats, let alone call an ambulance, and Rena realised that in the absence of any midwife, she would need to step into the role.  So she rolled up her sleeves and calmly delivered Mary’s baby girl.  Mary told the Sentinel reporter

“There can’t be many women who can say they had their baby with their coat on.”

You can read the story in full by clicking here.

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On 14th July 2008, in a corner of Wester Hailes Library, a small group of people met for the first time. This informal get together had been organised by Fraser McAllister, one of the Library staff, to discuss the setting up of a local history archive.

Following the closing of the Wester Hailes Representative Council earlier in the year, the Library had become home to what remained of that organisation’s written records and photographs. Also, not long before, the West Edinburgh Times had ceased publication and the paper’s extensive archive, including that of its predecessor, the Wester Hailes Sentinel, had been transferred to Prospect for safekeeping.

Taken together these materials amounted to a treasure trove, documenting in tremendous detail, the social history of the area stretching back over thirty years. Fraser had called the meeting to put forward the idea that these collections should be catalogued and digitised and then a web site created to maximise access for anyone who wanted to study them and find out more about the Wester Hailes’s past.

As can often be the way with new ideas, there was a bit of a slow start but once things got properly into gear, groundbreaking projects followed one after the other. First, it was this blog, then the From There To Here facebook page, followed by the Wester Hailes codebook with its social history walks (courtesy of Eoghan Howard and the local Health Agency), and the Digital Totem Pole. And that’s not the end of it. Currently, as readers of this blog will know, plans for interactive wall plaques incorporating QR codes; and the establishment of a Digital Sentinel – an online successor to the old Sentinel – are also well advanced.

Unfortunately, staff reorganistion meant that Fraser was with us for a too-short time before he had to move on. Nevertheless, he was one of the key figures in those early days when we were still finding our feet. His enthusiasm helped kick-start something that turned out to be much bigger than I think any of us who attended those early meetings could ever have imagined. Thanks Fraser.

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Snapping Up History

WHALE Snappers

Last year the WHALE Snappers was established as a group.  Local participants meet up every month at WHALE Arts to improve their knowledge and practical skills in black and white photography.  The group support each other to learn, express their creativity and make new friends.  They examine many themes and forms from social history to relationships, architecture, nature and the beauty all around us.

Recently the group was awarded funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) toheritage lottery fund document Wester Hailes past and present.  WHALE Snappers was one of the first groups in the UK to receive a HLF All Our Stories grant.  This exciting social history project documents Wester Hailes old and new.  This could include portraits of local characters, how the physical landscape has transformed and what the area means to them personally.  Wester Hailes is a community which is constantly adapting and changing.  WHALE Snappers plan to document and celebrate that.

All Our Stories was developed last year by the HLF in support of BBC Two’s programme series last year The Great British Story” and was designed as an opportunity for everyone to get involved in their heritage. With HLF funding and support, community groups were offered the opportunity to carry out activities that would help people explore, share and celebrate their local heritage.  The popular series was presented by historian Michael Wood and supported by a programme of BBC Learning activities and events got thousands of us asking questions about our history and inspired us to look at our history in a different way through the eyes of ordinary people.

Checking photosWHALE Arts has just celebrated its 20th Anniversary running art activities for the people of Wester Hailes and SW Edinburgh so this project is a chance for everyone to reflect and celebrate the evolution of Wester Hailes.  As part of the project there will be workshops in photography, training available in citizen journalism and oral history, trips to archive collections and exhibitions of the group’s work.  Social networking and media will be used to promote the accessibility of the work.   The first part of the project is now available to view as the Snappers have Member of Snappersan exhibition of their work at the Edinburgh Voluntary Organisations Council buildings at 14 Ashley Place from  Monday 11th February until April 2013.  Some Snappers also went to visit the Capital Collection at the Central Library on George IV Bridge last weekend.  It’s a free collection of old photos, maps and artefacts open to everyone with very helpful and friendly staff to guide you through it.  The Snappers recommend a visit!

TV presenter and historian Michael Wood said:

“We British love our history, and no wonder: few nations in the world, if any, have such riches on their doorstep, and so much of it accessible to all of us. It is really tremendous that the people of Wester Hailes have been inspired to get involved to tell their own story and to dig deeper into their own past. It’s brilliant that so many people are being given the chance to get involved through the All Our Stories grants. Having travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles this last year filming The Great British Story, I am certain that fascinating and moving stories will be uncovered which will not only bring to life the excitement of local history, but will illuminate and enrich every community’s connection with the national narrative.”

The WHALE Snappers is for everyone from beginners to skilled enthusiasts.  If you would like to join the Snappers just come along to the next session  which is on Wednesday 6th March 6pm- 9pm at WHALE Arts 30 Westburn Grove, or phone WHALE on 0131 458 3267.

We’re hoping to put some of the Snappers’ work in a future blog post.

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Last week’s Community Council meeting saw a presentation by housing developer Places For People and architects Cooper Cromar which outlined ideas and designs for the redevelopment of the vacant land at Harvesters Way. The meeting was well attended by members of the public demonstrating the keen interest there is within the local community about what is happening on this key site in the centre of Wester Hailes.

Various options for the overall design of the scheme – including the layout of roads, location of car parking and potential bus routes – were put forward. Members of the Community Council were heartened to see that Places For People aim to make a vibrant public realm area, located between the Healthy Living Centre and the proposed housing, the lynch pin of their plans. The architect also drew attention to the importance of establishing good pedestrian and cycle routes to inter-connect with adjacent areas.

Although the design process is still at a relatively early stage, Places for People indicated that the anticipated scale of the project will be between 150 and 170 homes and that these will be all or mostly flats. It is likely that social rented housing will comprise around 20% of this total with the remainder being made up of mid-market rent properties, housing for sale and shared ownership. The hope is that one or more small shops will be located within the housing block next to the public realm. The situation of this block will also allow a degree of passive surveillance over the area.

The representatives from Places For People confirmed that a further presentation will be made to the Community Council when more detailed designs have been prepared. As part of this ongoing process, the Community Council will be formally responding to Places For People in the near future with comments and suggestions as to how the outline designs might be developed and improved.

It’s great to see the developer and the Community Council working together closely like this and the input of local peoples’ knowledge and experience can only be good for the project and assist in ensuring its success and long-term sustainability.


Harvesters Way was originally known as Wester Hailes Drive and the land which is to be redeveloped was then occupied by five huge multi-storey blocks (numbers 70, 71, 72 73 and 74) which cast grim shadows over the surrounding area. From the beginning there were dampness problems within many of the flats due to poor design and construction. Very soon after that, the fabric of the buildings began to deteriorate at an alarming rate and all five blocks were demolished in 1994 just over twenty years after being built.

 – two of the blocks in their (non-) heyday

The site has since lain derelict despite various redevelopment proposals – including an ice rink, five-a-side football pitches and a leisure centre – being mooted over the years. 

Wester Hailes Drive looking west –

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Playing Out

It’s now a week into the school holidays and many children and young people will be accessing a range of local activities.  When people remember their school days, their best memories are usually around the long summer days of the holidays, playing outside with friends, often out with immediate adult supervision.  Whilst sunshine might seem like a distant memory this summer, many of today’s children are also less likely to have access to the same range of play experiences that their parents will remember being part of. 

 Whenever images of the old Venchie playgrounds are publicised, they generate comment and stories as people remember playing there.  From the early days of Wester Hailes there was a recognition that local children, particularly those living in the high rises needed access to somewhere where there was adventurous play with sand, water, building materials and climbable structures.  The playgrounds were altered on a regular basis in response to children’s comments and suggestions.  In 1979 in a story on support for the Venchie, the Sentinel commented

 The problems of Wester Hailes children should concern all of us who live here, not just their parents.  We should all share in creating a community in which they will mature happily and healthily. 

 The Venchies provoked a mixed response from parents, but were extremely popular with children.  Unfortunately, the playgrounds’ existence were relatively short lived.  In 1989, the Sentinel reported on the dismantling of the original Venchie.  Lack of funds had made it impossible to maintain its upkeep and it had become unsafe.  The playground had survived previous near disasters including a fire.  You can read the full story here.

 The Venchies were in many ways ahead of their times.  There is perhaps now a greater understanding that children need to experience play with an element of risk and challenge, play that is unstructured, that makes use of natural elements, enables children of different ages to play together, with play areas that are designed in consultation with local children and the wider community.  An extensive report by Play England demonstrates the value of this type of play and details examples of good practice, including several playgrounds in Stirling.  Pictures of the Venchie playgrounds would not have looked out of place!

 Edinburgh is currently engaged in improving its play area facilities and has produced a Play Action Plan for the next five years.  The plan aims to increase the number of households that meet the Play Access Standard which recommends that every house and flat in the city should have access to a play space of good value within 800m walking distance, of very good value within 1,200m walking distance and of excellent play value within 2,000m walking distance. It also upholds the importance of natural materials, free play and the value of risk.  And it states that

   The views, opinions and experience of children and young people should be central to the development of play policies and especially the planning and design of the environments in which they play.

Whilst the era of the Venchies is now long gone, perhaps we’ll see more of their successors both here and in other parts of the city. 


In 1983 Wester Hailes Representative Council produced a special map of the area which showed in impressive graphic detail every individual block of housing and the whole range of community facilities that existed at the time. Drawn by Rolando Ugolini it’s more than just a map, it’s a very valuable social history document and a little work of art in its own right.

Previously, we’ve shown some sections from this map on the blog but we can now let you see the whole of it and at a much better level of quality. Also, if you click on it and scroll you’ll be able to zoom into specific parts to look at them more closely. Very many thanks to Kathie from Malcolm Fraser Architects who undertook the technical wizardry to make this happen and Eoghan Howard who arranged it all on our behalf.

And here’s a few photos from our archive to accompany it. The first shows the bypass under construction (in 1983 you’ll see from the map that it was still only at the proposed route stage). In the immediate background is Wesburn Grove and just beyond that a couple of the multis and some of the four storey housing in Wester Hailes Drive.

This next one is an interior shot of the Cafe Venchie…

And finally, one of the Westburn Gardens multis, we think this is probably block one on the map (the block itself may be long gone but the fences are still here!)…


In the first part of her Q & A, two weeks ago, Lisa McDonald revealed that she had helped edit an issue of the Sentinel along with some of her classmates at the WHEC. Intrigued by this, we searched through our archive and were able to find the particular edition (December 1988) to which she was referring. The front page carried a picture of the intrepid cub reporters and here they are:

As well as Lisa, the team consisted of Lynne Gow, Lorna Anderson, Sarah-Jane Hiroz and Conchi Peacock. The girls carried out a survey around Wester Hailes to find out people’s views about two popular subjects in 1988 – Bros and Neighbours. Bros had recently been topping the charts and the wedding of Scott (Jason Donovan) and Charlene (Kylie Minogue) in Neighbours had been screened on British TV the month before. 

Presumably to make the whole thing a little bit quicker and easier, the girls interviewed themselves as well as others and we thought we’d take the opportunity to share their responses with you. All of them, bar one, were rabid Bros fans…

Lynne loved Bros and described them as “wickedly happening” and the “best thing since Elvis“. Lorna thought they were “trendy dressers” and Luke was “so sexy“. Sarah-Jane also loved Bros, “they are happening” she said. Conchi thought they were “hip and trendy” and that Matt was “cool” and she also owned up to being a fan of Brother Beyond.

The one exception was Lisa who is quoted as saying that Bros were “indescribable rubbish” naming her favourite group as Aztec Camera. So far so good… but then she went on to confess that she loved neighbours ESPECIALLY Jason Donovan!

However she was in good company, all the rest of the girls were also big Neighbours fans: Lynne – “the talent is well chosen“; Conchi – “it is neat“; Sarah-Jane – “it keeps you watching“.

The feature which took up the whole of page 15 was written and designed by the girls and included a “Bros Factfile” and a list of “Ten things you always wanted to know” about Neighbours. 

Many thanks to Lisa for providing us with the clues to track down this long lost piece of journalism!