Edinburgh's Calton Hill shows that not even buildings are safe from the tide of populism

A view looking down on Edinburgh from the Dugald Stewart Monument on Calton Hill. Image: Carlos Delgado

Despite “post-truth” appearing to be a recent turn of phrase, the mechanisms of heritage have been at this game far longer than any Trumpian political spin. Editing the past to conform to our modern agendas is inherent to our historic cities, and ultimately how we see ourselves.

“Heritage” is different from “history”, but not just semantically. More than the investigation of the past or authorised textbook tales, “heritage” ultimately relies on faith. It’s a shared certainty that transcends mere facts. It even rises above the views of experts (and just as well, our nation has apparently had enough of those).

Heritage is collective belief, and it is belief that creates our identities. Heritage is populist.

Our capital cities – places so often saturated with selling their own imagery that they become mere façades of themselves – coalesce this belief. Nowhere is this more obvious than when it pertains to the construct of national identity. Traditional nationalism, relying as it does on a shared belief in a reimagined past, feeds off the built abstraction of heritage. Littered with totems of national iconography, our architectural past is a battleground for today’s political ownership.

Whether the backdrop to faded delusions of imperial grandeur, or to firebrand Scottish independence campaigners, Edinburgh’s Calton Hill acts as an analogue of the struggle to align the past with today’s identities.

The Dugald Stewart Monument, left. Image: Max Pixel

Today’s tumultuous political conditions make this battle pertinent. With the recent hubbub around another Scottish independence referendum following Brexit – and with the SNP pulling the levers of government in Holyrood but increasingly threatened by the reviving fortunes of the Scottish Conservatives – this is a problem as much in the present as in the past.

Dominating the skyline, the edifices of Calton Hill hold a dual identity, feeding off one another. On the one hand, Nelson’s Tower and the unfinished National Monument commemorate the conflicts that truly cemented the British political union.

A full spread of monuments and national buildings on Calton Hill. Image: Saffron Blaze

The grandiose architecture atop the hill went hand in hand with nation building across the continent during the 18th and 19th centuries, reinforcing the identity of a state that was to be an equal partner in the British Empire.

Conversely, Calton Hill is often described in terms of its radical political connotations, indeed today one can even undertake a “democracy tour” around the hill itself. Home to mausoleums of the intelligentsia of the Scottish enlightenment, the hill also hosts memorials to important political martyrs such as Thomas Muir.

Calton Hill's unfinished National Monument. Image: Donald Thomas

The landscape boasts a permanent cairn to Scottish democracy and even inspired an eponymous written declaration. This bill demanded fair democratic process against an apparently “undemocratic” British establishment, a legacy of the long vigil for a Scottish Parliament held on the hill. Even the unfinished nature of the brooding national monument is often spun as some colonial folly, and has been setting for recent rallies and protests for Scotland to be free from a perceived remote Westminster rule.

Calton Hill is simultaneously both a testament to a historic unified British identity and a resurgent independent Scotland. It just depends on where you stand.

Sunset in Edinburgh from the Duguld Stewart Monument. Image: Pixabay

Therein lies the challenge for the SNP’s brand of “civic nationalism”, self-described as beyond the traditional divisive and exclusionary tropes which often define nation building. Instead of the narrative of shared cultural history, there is only the idea of common endeavour. To be Scottish, one must only want to contribute to “Project Scotland”.


Belonging to the nation is an unspoken daily plebiscite (although with our current frequency of heading to the polls, that somehow doesn’t feel too large a jump).

However, shoehorning this progressive definition of national identity into our historic cities, rich with contentious heritage, highlights the difficulty of civic nationalism.

By its nature, built heritage is a marker of some shared past or culture, the very themes of nation building that civic nationalism seeks to avoid. Our monuments often make visible past wrongs, real or imagined, rather than inspiring future hope and unity.

Calton Hill illustrates the ease with which buildings become belief, almost in spite of their histories. Forged, shaped and sharpened on the whetstone of public opinion, there is an inherent potency to the political weapon of heritage.

How we care for and design within these battlegrounds is worth more than a pause for thought.  After all, heritage is clearly far greater than the sum of its past. 

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What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.


Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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