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. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

So how could Northern Ireland spend £400m on new infrastructure?

Great Victoria Street station, Belfast. Image: Milepost98/Wikipedia.

Last year’s confidence and supply agreement between the Conservative party and the DUP saw 40 per cent of the Northern Irish party’s £1bn price tag allocated to infrastructure. Although there is, at the time of writing, no functioning government in the North to spend it, where could £400m be best used?

Northern Ireland is not, geographically, a large place. The six counties are inhabited by under 2m people and, to use a comparative metric that anyone who has sat in a high school geography lesson may remember, the North is less than half the size of Belgium. Belfast and Derry, Northern Ireland’s two major urban centres, are only a 70 mile drive apart. On the face of it then, an injection of cash into infrastructure should be relatively straightforward.

Yet the Belfast Rapid Transit system is the only notable public transport infrastructure currently being developed in the North. That takes the form of a web of connected bus lanes, as well as investment in a new bus fleet for use in them, that aims to cut car use in the heavily congested city.

One way to spend the money might be to tame the Irish Sea. Democratic Unionist Party MP Sammy Wilson claimed back in January a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland was “feasible” and would be a “much needed alternative” to the current ferry route. Unsurprisingly, he isn’t the first to notice that Northern Ireland’s east coast is only 20 miles from Scotland.

But while some MPs dream of bridges across the sea, interest in more useful infrastructure is less forthcoming. Take the NI Railways service, which despite the name only covers a fraction of the North. A simple glance over a map shows how fractured coverage is.

Even where the trains do run, the service is hardly efficient. The Belfast-Derry journey takes over two hours, which doesn’t compare well with the current London-Birmingham fast service, which covers almost twice the distance in 1hr22. Belfast City Airport, which last year handled 2.5m passengers, is serviced by Sydenham Station – but only via shuttle bus, which you have to request, or via the verge of the A2.

Meanwhile there is no train at all to Belfast International Airport: instead, an expensive taxi or a bus through the Northern Irish countryside is required. It may be scenic, but it isn’t good infrastructure.

That said, NI Rail saw 14.2m  passenger journeys last year, compared to 11.5m in 2012-13: the problem isn’t that there is no demand for infrastructure, simply that no one has bothered to build it.

It is a similar story with roads. Belfast and Derry are only a 70 miles apart, yet there isn’t a direct, or even indirect, motorway link between the two. In fact, there are only 60 miles of motorway in the entire North: all are in the east, almost exclusively focused on Belfast.


Northern Ireland is, of course, not the only part of the UK poorly supplied when it comes to transport. Anyone reading this who lives in the North East of England or who relies of commuters trains around Manchester, for example, will have experienced similar problem. So what makes Northern Ireland special?

Well: for a relatively small geographical area, there is a striking polarisation in the provision of transport. Not only is there an overall lack of infrastructure, but what does exist is overwhelmingly concentrated in the east. To take one instructive statistic, 51 of Northern Ireland’s railway stations are located east of the River Bann, the traditional dividing line between east and west.

This divide isn’t an accident: rather, it’s a legacy of the North’s sectarian history. The east has been traditionally unionist, the west nationalist, and there has been a strong bias in economic power and investment towards the former. As analysis from Northern Irish regeneration advisor Steve Bradley shows, the main rail and road networks are almost exclusively confined to areas where Protestant are more common than Catholics, and where the DUP holds political power.

So, if the North does come under direct rule from Westminster, there are some fairly obvious gaps in the transport network that could do with being filled – based on the needs of citizens, rather than their background or voting preference. But with the open question of the Irish border hanging over us – something which brings implications for cross-border travel along with everything else – the chances of that appear slim.