From There… To Here

The social history of Wester Hailes

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This is the first of two posts by Peter Matthews who has been one of the key partners in the various social history/digital access initiatives that are currently being pioneered in Wester Hailes

As part of the activity around this blog an audio clip of Jean reminiscing about the community activism around Clovenstone Primary School was recently uploaded. This complements the activities done by the Royal Commission for the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland discussed here before. The sound clip came from me, Dr Peter Matthews, Heriot Watt University, as I am one of the partners in the project developing the “Off The Wall” QR codes and the digital totem pole.

My involvement in the project is in two areas. One of them is to evaluate and better understand all the stories being shared on this blog and on the Facebook page. I will talk about this in my next blog post. My other role is that I am fascinated by all of these stories of Wester Hailes and want to share some of them here.

I did the research for my PhD in Wester Hailes and Ferguslie Park, Paisley to better understand the big changes the neighbourhoods went through in the 1990s. In 2007-8 I sat in on most of the meetings of the old Rep Council and talked to many community activists past and present. For me as an academic, it was a fantastic experience and very interesting to hear what had happened. These stories I recorded helped us as academics better understand what it feels like to live through experiences where your neighbourhood is substantially rebuilt.

I want to focus on the stories in this blog. Many people, and academics are particularly bad at this, discount peoples’s stories because, well they’re just stories. People forget things, or embellish details or don’t tell the truth. They are seen as not objective. For me, this is exactly why stories are so interesting. We all tell stories and it is how we make sense of what we experience and tell other people what has happened.

To give you more of an idea of this I want to look at a story told by Sheila when I spoke to her in 2007:

“Each area used to have it’s own, like Clovenstone’s got a community centre there, each area used to have its own wee hub and what have you where the community run them and there was community involvement. There was plenty youth activities and stuff like that most of that has now dwindled well all the hubs have dwindled away. There’s no a lot for the young people left in Wester Hailes whereas there used to be loads. I was also involved in a youth project as well which I gave fifteen years. I brought it from inception right through to mainstream funding but through the mainstream funding the open access work has disappeared and it’s now like teacher involvement social worker involvement and it’s more intense and more clinical – that’s a good word for it. It’s orientated against kids that have stability problems rather than the everyday young person who was actually supposed to be there to be a peer to those young folk with problems. I’ve seen a lot of them grow up a lot of them have changed from being those youngsters that were nightmares to actually quite nice young men and young females I meet them on the street.”

This is a really nice story of community activity and one that was often repeated by the people who I spoke to in Wester Hailes and Ferguslie Park. It actually contains quite a few stories that are really important to understanding what has happened in the neighbourhood. Firstly there is a very positive story that starts about halfway through and ends with the last sentence – that Sheila helped get a youth group going and that the support that it provided meant that many of “these young folk with problems” are now “actually quite nice young men and young females”. Among all the bad headlines about Wester Hailes you don’t get to hear stories like this very often.

The second story is right there in the first sentence and quite depressed. “Each area used to have its own…community centre”. In both Wester Hailes and Ferguslie Park in the years after 1999 there was a massive reduction in the sort of funding that kept community centres running. The lack of facilities for affordable fun activities for the community is still felt today. The third story is more complex and it was actually one of the main findings of my research. I called it the “narrative of project rise and fall”. It was told to me over and over again when I was doing my research and Sheila’s example is typical. Community activists start up a project and it’s an amazing success. They need a bit of money to keep it going and bring in a worker to take over some of the day-to-day tasks. It’s often at this stage that projects end because funding ceases and the worker leaves and the project ends. In this case the other fate befell the project – it was taken over as a mainstream service by the Social Work department and changed from its original purpose. It now just helped the most vulnerable young people. Very good work, but not what the original community-based project aimed to do.

There is so much in this story that it is almost too difficult to unpack! As an academic who is interested in policies to support neighbourhoods like Wester Hailes I think a lot more money should be available for projects such as this and it should be a predictable amount every year that community groups can spend on what they want. In many ways as researchers involved in helping with this blog and the totem pole we’re also worried that this story will repeat itself again. We have all really enjoyed working in Wester Hailes and think it’s brilliant that we can use money from the Arts and Humanities Research Council Connected Communities programme [] to help. A big question though is: what next? I will cover this a bit more in my next post where I will talk more about the Facebook page.



Following on from last week, here’s the second part of Lisa McDonald’s question and answer interview. Lisa moved to Wester Hailes in 1974  when she was one year old and went to school at Dumbryden Primary and then the Wester Hailes Education Centre.

Did you work in Wester Hailes? If so, what was your job and can you tell us a bit about it?

I worked in Greggs the Bakers in Wester Hailes Centre for five years while I was at school and college. It was a brilliant place to work, the girls I worked with in the shop were great and the customers were lovely (mostly!) too. It didn’t ever feel like hard work to have to go in there. My most embarassing moments there were the time I sold someone a fake Christmas cake on Christmas Eve not knowing it wasn’t real ( they never did complain!) and on my 18th Birthday the Centre security asked over the tannoy for all shopping centre customers to make their way to Greggs – little did I know it was so they could watch the stripping vicar kissogram my workmates had got for me!

In what ways do you think Wester Hailes has changed over the years?

I had a gap of around fifteen years where I didn’t go into Wester Hailes, so to me it feels like it’s changed massively. My primary school in Dumbryden has gone and Greggs has moved within the centre, but the biggest changes for me are the ones around Westside Plaza, especially with the canal being open. It’s great to see money being put into improving housing too.

If you live somewhere else now, how does it compare with living in Wester Hailes?

I still live in West Edinburgh now, so I’ve not ventured far and while it’s nice where I am now, there’s not the same community spirit that we had in Dumbryden.

Dumbryden Gala Day 1979 – Lisa is the wee flower girl

What was the best thing about living in Wester Hailes?

The people and the community spirit.

And the worst?

Other people’s perception of what Wester Hailes was like. Even now occasionally people will judge me or comment on me having been brought up in Wester Hailes, yet I’ve got nothing but good memories. Wester Hailes is like anywhere else, it has its good points and its bad points, but a place is only as good as the people who live there and the people I know from Wester Hailes are pretty good!

What one thing would do most to change Wester Hailes for the better?

Ensure that there are enough things for kids to do in the community so that they grow up to be proud of where they come from.

What are your hopes for Wester Hailes twenty years on from now?

That organisations like the Council, WHALE and Prospect Community Housing continue to invest in the area and the people to ensure that the community continues on. Also that the Facebook groups like “Dumbryden Primary School” and “From There To Here” continue to flourish – having an archive of the history of Wester Hailes is important and it’s all the better when the archive is being added to by the people who lived and continue to live in Wester Hailes.

Next week we’ll be featuring a page from the January 1989 issue of the Sentinel written and designed by fifteen year old Lisa and four of her classmates from WHEC. It’s all about  Australian soap Neighbours and the pop group Bros (any Matt & Luke fans still out there?).

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Many local people, especially in the Calders, will remember Clare Galloway who lived and worked there for a number of years. Clare is a hugely talented artist and visionary who became passionately committed to transforming the environment of the Calders and the living conditions of its residents.

Soon after moving into the area she joined the Calders High Rise Neighbourhood Council and before long she had become it’s chairperson. In this role, she brought tremendous energy to the tasks of championing the area, badgering the authorities to recognise and tackle long-standing problems and reinvigorating local people and organisations with her fresh and radical thinking.

Sadly, Clare moved away in 2008 and it was a huge loss to the community. Now she has written a no-holds-barred piece about her experiences as a resident and activist in Wester Hailes. Find it at: Hailes.pdf

It is worth a read if you are at all interested in the issues and problems surrounding peripheral housing estates and multi-storey flats. You might not agree with everything says but her insights and conclusions are certainly provocative and stimulating.


– A Process of Stigmatisation in Action

Even when the building programme was still in its early phases, criticism of Wester Hailes had begun to surface publicly. In December 1969, one City Councillor proposed a motion that the whole design and scale of the scheme should be reconsidered and the Evening News report of the debate highlighted his comment that he “would certainly not want to live there”. The article also recorded discussion about the “unattractiveness” of multi-storey housing (a major component of the development) and the general consensus that such flats were likely to be “difficult to let”.

A pattern had already been established and although, a year later, The Scotsman ran a story which was positive and upbeat in tone, even this chose to emphasise the sheer size of the new scheme, an aspect which the press would, in future, return to again and again from a far more negative standpoint. Describing it as “Edinburgh’s biggest housing development for 200 years”, the paper informed readers that the projected population of Wester Hailes would be equivalent to those of Linlithgow, Rothesay, Crieff and Grantown-on-Spey combined and that not since the construction of The New Town had the city undertaken a building project on such a scale.

Six months on, and under the headline “Meet 10,000 people with nothing to do”, a two day special report in the Evening News on “the Wester Hailes housing giant” painted an almost uniformly bleak picture – vandalism, dearth of facilities, tenant apathy and lack of community spirit.  Negative comments about the place by various Councillors such as “a huge housing mistake” which “should never have been built” were quoted at length. Described by the writer as “this collection of impersonal architecture”, the article was accompanied by suitably stark photos of housing blocks.

Then, in June 1974, the News really put the boot in. “THE SCANDAL OF WESTER HAILES” and “The Hailes Indictment” were the headlines this time. The paper informed its readers in big bold print that the estate was “a poverty-stricken area…where people are unable to pay their rents…where old people are terrified to turn on their heating…where marriage break-ups, delinquency and a total lack of amenities…threaten to destroy community life”. The content of the article, based on “a shock report” by the Social Work Department, was so damming that it provoked a swift response from the Wester Hailes Association of Tenants who, a week later, having carried out a residents survey of its own, stated that:

“A lot of anger was expressed by residents about the article and claims made in the report. This seemed to be the general feeling in all areas visited. They felt it was a slur on the people of Wester Hailes”

It certainly cannot be denied that Wester Hailes, from the outset, suffered from problems directly related to the design and construction of the housing and a serious lack of facilities, but its sustained public vilification by politicians and the press for political or sensationalist ends simply compounded these difficulties. The examples quoted above all come from the period when the estate was still under construction. By the time of its completion, in 1975, it would already seem to have become a byword for all that was wrong with council housing. Wester Hailes had become firmly fixed in peoples’ minds as nothing more than a big, bad and ugly mistake. This was a bad news story that would run and run over the decades to come, only hindering attempts to turn the place around.