Leith Festival kindly invited me to propose the toast at its fundraising Burns Supper this week. Here is the text in full; it had a mixed reception, and I accept that some may think it’s too political for the occasion, that’s a matter of judgement. Several people afterwards said it helps generate an honest conversation that we need to have. Decide for yourself. Feedback welcome.
THE IMMORTAL MEMORY: Leith Dockers’ Club, 23 January 2020. By Tim Bell
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a great honour to be invited to speak to the Immortal Memory. It’s always a special occasion, but this year, here in Leith, it also marks the beginning of the centenary year of Leith’s amalgamation with Edinburgh. So, with your permission, or without it, I would like to refer to both.
Famously, the amalgamation was against the wishes of the people as given in the plebiscite. But the people were wrong. Plebiscites and referendums are only snapshots on a day, influenced by the weather, and constitutional matters need far more careful consideration than that. The Edinburgh Extension Act was nothing more than an obvious and necessary bit of tidying up of the local administrations following the suburban spread of the previous decades. It was aimed as much at the new Liberton and Corstorphine as much as at Leith, which was surrounded by Edinburgh-administered Newhaven and Portobello. And over-crowded Leith immediately benefitted from it – a lot of Leithers were allocated good quality housing – houses fit for Heroes – in Craigentinny, built at Edinburgh’s expense.
It’s a little-known fact that Muriel Spark was a closet admirer of Leith. in a stage production of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” at the King’s a few years ago, there was a scene in which Jean Brodie is talking with her girls:
“Don’t develop leadership skills gels. You’ll end up as a Girl Guide leader in some dreadful suburb like Corstorphine.”
I have lived in Leith for the best part – and I mean that in all its senses – of my life, arriving here in 1980, and there are no plans to leave. I came for a job, but there’s a longer path than that. In 1838 my great-great grandmother, Anne Henderson, living in Kirk Street, married Mr Prophet from Berwick – spelled as in the prophets Ezekiel, Isaiah, Elijah, that sort of chap. Very sadly, the name Prophet was married out of my mother’s line. Tim Prophet – that would be a really cool name. I could finish everything I say with “Thus saith the Lord”.
My Bell ancestors were good honest sheep-stealers in Dumfriesshire, and they threw it all up for a career down the lead mines of Wanlockhead. They paid the landowners, the Hope family, a rent for the privilege of shortening their lives by lead poisoning as they earned a living; the Hopes did very well from it, and from the Union in 1707, and built themselves a nice wee pad at Hopetoun House near South Queensferry. My people, in a migrant workforce, were in the lead mines of Swaledale, Yorkshire, as the industry was coming to an end. My father headed north, and my childhood home is Otterburn village, that’s a kick of the ball down from the border at Carter Bar on the A68 just south of Jedburgh. The spirit of a young Rabbie Burns was with me in my youth:
We twa hae run aboot the braes, and pulled the gowans fine
We twa hae paiddled i’ the burn, from morning sun till dine
I’ve lived all my life between Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall. There’s a newer border between them running the width of the country, which I have crossed hundreds of time, mostly on tarmac using wheels, but several times over the heather in boots and once or twice in my bathers. My tartan, which you’ll agree is very fine, is Bell of the Borders, conspicuously not saying which side of the Border. Someone bought me one of these open-necked shirts, but I would need a stick-on hairy chest to go with it.
I’m indivisibly English, I’m Scottish, no gap, no clash, no problem. You’ll understand that it concerns me a lot that at present on both sides of the Border between the Roman walls now we have governments that will be quite happy, or careless enough, to make that border into a hard border, like we need another to add to that unhappy border in Ireland, in this small archipelago of islands. You’ll allow me to have a foot on either side of the Border, and I look both ways, and I claim international Socialist Rabbie Burns, who did not omit the politics of his day in his writings, by my side when I say: we deserve better.
Well, we all have different roads to Leith. When I was Port Chaplain in Leith a few years ago, I was on board a ship that was fetching Russian coal for Cockenzie power station. She was crewed by 22 Philippinos, and they asked if I could arrange for a Mass on board. I got on the blower to Stella Maris, and Father Tony said of course he would come. In the mess room, while he was togging up, he was talking to the men: “Thank you very much boys, it’s very nice of you to invite me. I’ve never been on a ship before, you know.” He did the Mass, and they had set up a buffet, and it was possibly the best two or three hours I ever spent as chaplain, as we lifted the spirits and the horizons of those men who work so far from home for months on end, in an unchanging environment, an unchanging community, and unchanging daily routines. And not a drop of the good stuff passed our lips.
The ship was unloaded, so as we left she was high in the water and the gangway was steep. Father Tony was in front of me at the top I said: “You’re a wee fibber, you have so been on a ship before. You’re Irish, how do you think you get here?” He didn’t say anything, but he waited for me at the bottom and took my elbow as we walked across the empty dock to the van. “You know, you could be right, Tim, you could be right. But you need to understand. You see, when I go back and forth between Scotland and Ireland, sure I’m straight into the bar. I can’t be certain those things are ships.”
He was a flawed man, that Robert Burns, perhaps a bit like myself in some respects, reality not entirely in keeping with the studied pose of the statue we know so well in Bernard Street, and replicated throughout the country. The Black Burns statue, recently in the Portrait Gallery up the road, more represents the man: not upright but fallen, fractured along a natural fissure in the stone, a divided self, full of contradictions, a polished boot emerging from the unhewn rock like a soldier’s boot in the mud of the trenches. He was a drinker and a serial adulterer (not like me), he died young and poor, at one stage so desperate that he bought a ticket to the West Indies where he would have taken an active part in the slave business, in contradiction to the common humanity expressed in the best of his poetry. He was a ploughman poet, rough and unhewn, the best and the weakest of all of us, confident in himself but ill at ease in Edinburgh society.
In 1786 James Sibbald wrote in the Edinburgh Magazine:
Who are you, Mr Burns? At what university were you educated? What authors have you studied? Who has praised your poems, and under whose patronage are they published? In short, what qualifications entitle you to entertain us?
You know, that’s an uncanny resemblance to the early reception of the unknown bard of Leith, Irvine Welsh, only twenty-five years ago. Welsh isn’t as rough and uneducated as Burns was, but he is a product of his environment, as we all are.
If it was inevitable and right that Leith should join with Edinburgh, we can’t say that Leith has had an easy century. As Welsh was born in the 1950s, the town centre was losing 20,000 families, many relocated to nearby housing schemes, and a good number took advantage of assisted passages to Canada, Australia, South Africa. Demolitions, dispersals, the Leith diaspora. Nevertheless, there was an optimism in the air as new housing blocks sprang up: Fort House, Linksview House, Cairngorm and Grampian houses, and the Banana Flats. With the luxury of hindsight, we can say that some of the optimism was misplaced. Not all of the above-mentioned lasted half a century, unsuccessful experiments and poor investments. Not much swung Leith’s way in the Swinging Sixties.
The Kirkgate was demolished. Germans on my tour say that if a Kirkgate had survived the war in Germany, it would have been lovingly restored and now it would be a wee gem and a tourist trap. The Port of Leith conceded its status as Scotland’s premier east coast port to Grangemouth, and the hundreds of workers in the docks rapidly dwindled to dozens. In 1983 the last Leith-built ship went down the slip where Ocean Terminal now stands. Leith hospital closed; I remember Ron Brown MP saying “They can’t do that. It’s our hospital.” He was wrong on both counts. We lost Leith Central Station, that had the potential to be something really special – a concert hall, a transport museum, even possibly a Guggenheim; all seriously proposed. We got instead a supermarket, a waterworld so badly built it didn’t last twenty years, and a car park. The site of Hitler’s bunker in Berlin is, deliberately, a car park. It’s a great way to delete history. And heroin arrived. This is the Leith that Welsh was writing about in Trainspotting.
After all the pain that Leith had been through, many people were furious with local boy Irvine Welsh for pouring more ordure on the once-proud name of Leith. But it’s a part of our history we have to embrace. But it doesn’t define us.
Darren McGarvey writes in Poverty Safari: when you’re sitting in what used to be a grocery shop that’s now coffee shop with a play area and there’s a child called Wagner scraping tofu off the floor you know you’ve been gentrified.
Don’t call the changes to Leith “gentrification” or “yuppifying”, with their perjorative overtones. Call it what it is – regeneration. Leith had to re-generate, it was going the wrong way. Many distinctively Leith institutions survived the amalgamation, and better than that – they are revived, and new distinctively Leith initiatives have sprung up. It would be invidious to list them, so in the few I’m about to mention, no attempt is made to do justice to all the excellent things going on in Leith. Look at Leith Festival, which we are supporting this evening, a direct descendant of the week of fund-raising for the hospital. Look at the revival of Leith Theatre. Look at the success of the Save Leith Walk campaign – I don’t have time to tell you much about it except to say that the street frontage is safe – it will not be demolished. I hope you find time this evening to talk to someone who can tell you more.
The Leith churches hold a joint service as a Festival event. I do know something about this. Whether you are churchy or not, don’t under-estimate the significance of this Festival event. I think it’s true that for the first time in the whole history of the Church of Scotland, it was minuted in the Edinburgh Presbytery a couple of years ago that the four parishes of the Church of Scotland in Leith would not foregather for morning worship in their own premises, as normally required by church law, but would instead repair to the Catholic parish, Stella Maris. That’s ground-breaking. And it’s here. Where Leith goes, the rest follow.
Oh aye. In the last century Leith has reclaimed its legacy as the home of golf. And – I nearly forgot there – Hibs won the Cup.
These efforts, and more, are all, in their way, examples of finding common cause across ideological divides. Since the 1980s civic institutions, where common cause is expressed, worked out, and put into action, have been eroded, and the corporate world, and the rise of nationalism which divides us, is becoming ever more powerful. In this fine establishment, itself an example of community self-help through socialising and organising, we can say that the principles and the effectiveness of solidarity and collective action will never die.
Now, along with whisky and haggis and castles and bagpipes and kilts and IRN BRU the Bard of Scotland, Robert Burns is part of the Scottish brand that travels the world like the profile of no other small country that I’m aware of, and boy does it pull in the tourists. I am well aware of the truism that says the tourist destroys what he comes to see. It’s happening, to excess, in Edinburgh city centre. You might say I’m part of the problem in Leith with my Trainspotting tours. But I claim innocence. It doesn’t work like that here. Only a few weeks ago I had a party in the back room, where Walter usually puts us. When we finished we were coming back through the bar when a chap put his hand out in front of one my clients. I said to him, helpfully, “This lady’s from Italy.” Came the reply: “I’m no caring where she’s from, pal. I’m just wantin to get a good look at these gorgeous blue fingernails.”
So I thought I would trawl through Trainspotting to see if I can find which passages they might be reading in a hundred years from now in celebration of the birth of the Bard of Leith. But then I thought… NAW. He’s not there yet. We are here in celebration of the one who has stood the test of time, with whom we all identify, brilliance, flaws and all, Robert Burns.
Ladies and gentlemen, I invite you to be upstanding and raise a toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns. ROBERT BURNS.
 Not delivered on the night – too explicitly political for the occasion
 Not delivered on the night
 A deliberately pointed reference to the nationalists’ cry: “The dream will never die”.