Geographical Discrimination, Class and Communities in Scotland
Aaron Sheridan | University of Strathclyde
“Ah’m a skyscraper wain, I live oan the eighteenth flair But ah’m no gaun oot tae play onymair For since ah’ve moved tae Castlemilk, ah’m waistin’ away For ah’m gittin’ wan less meal everyday!”
-The Jeely Piece Song, Matt McGinn
The lyrics to Matt McGinn’s Jeely Piece Song satirize the new domestic experiences that council housebuilding offered to the former slum dwellers of urban Scotland. Throughout the song, the narrator’s mammie tries several times to continue the tenement tradition of throwing a piece, a sandwich in Scots, to her children from a window. Due to the height of their new home, however, the food never reaches the wains and instead variously ruins a performance by the Salvation Army band, blinds a low-flying pilot or is carried into the atmosphere to orbit the earth. In the end, the children have had enough: they form a ‘piece brigade’ to campaign for their rights, primarily ‘nae mair buildings ower piece-flinging height’.
Beyond the humour, this song tells us several things about the residents of Scotland’s new housing schemes. First, that the experience of council homes was novel, unfamiliar and not always positive. For hundreds of years, the urban Scottish working class had largely been consigned to small homes within tenement blocks, often composed of only one or two rooms and regularly without electricity or indoor plumbing even well into the twentieth century. Their new homes offered improved amenities and spatial standards, but their design and their location could prove disorienting. Secondly, it shows that these new residents were coming to the schemes with a strong tenemental culture; everyday life for the working classes was shaped by the old tenements and some habits formed by semi-communal living, like piece-flinging and windae-hinging, proved hard to drop even if they proved impractical or impossible in their new neighbourhood. Lastly, the song points to an active, participatory and organised culture among the tenants of council homes.
This is a sharp contrast with the modern concept of the ‘sink estate’ and its residents which has become prevalent in the UK since the 2000s. The Conservative opposition during the New Labour years increasingly came to target these council-built areas with slogans like ‘broken Britain’ in which working-class residents were painted as benefit dependent, jobless and often violently self-destructive. The Labour government were not much friendlier, responding to these whipped-up fears with the introduction of the Anti-Social Behaviour Order and police-enforced curfews targeting ‘problem areas’. These associations are as old as the industrial revolution, used to justify the poor treatment and poor conditions of working-class people, seeking to inspire apathy and judgement among better-off on-lookers. Sociologists Lynn Hancock and Gerry Mooney have referred to this as “territorial stigmatisation”. Historical investigation, however, provides us with the power to resist these easy stereotypes.
Negative associations between working-class people and the areas they live in have their roots in the changes of the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions of the late eighteenth century. In neighbourhoods such as the Canongate in Edinburgh or the Blackfriars’ in Glasgow, social classes often shared the same tenement building, the more spacious and accessible homes were occupied by the richest and the less welcoming and cramped cellars and attics were occupied by the poor. As the former cottars – the landless peasant class dominant in much of the rural Lowlands – made their way into urban centres following their expulsion from the modernising estates, landlords often responded by subdividing existing spaces or building new homes haphazardly. Social conditions rapidly deteriorated and, blaming the new urban working classes, the rich and the professional middle classes sought out new areas to live in places like Edinburgh’s New Town or Glasgow’s West End. Ironically, Glasgow’s Gorbals district, considered one of the worst slums in Europe by the mid-nineteenth century, was initially planned as a quiet suburb aimed at receiving those well-off Glaswegians fleeing the Blackfriars’ earlier in the century.
Housing conditions for workers in Victorian and Edwardian Scotland rarely improved, despite large slum clearance programmes from the 1860s onwards, municipalisation of gas power, transport and other amenities along with slowly tightening regulations on housebuilding. This was due to a combination of Victorian ideology which viewed the workers as responsible for their own suffering and the dominance of landlords within local government. Middle-class social and moral reformers were more concerned with imparting their interpretation of Christian teachings, using the promise of financial and social aid as a means of controlling working-class behaviour. There are few examples of real government-sponsored housebuilding prior to 1919, the duty to build houses and control rents was thrust upon reluctant local governments only after a concerted and consistent campaign involving growing trades unions, budding Labour and Communist Parties and, most importantly, a women-led rent strike in Glasgow in 1915.
Glasgow Corporation took eagerly to their new-found powers. In the Victorian period, they had used the crisis in spatial standards to police the homes of the working classes by instituting a system of ‘house tickets’. Homes in slum areas were inspected by city officials and a metal ticket was fixed to their doors bearing the maximum number of occupants; if a home exceeded this, the occupants would be subject to regular visits from inspectors and police, usually in the late night. Historian and sociologist Sean Damer has shown that Glasgow’s early council housing in the inter-war period was built and overseen in a way that reinforced class division and allowed for more invasive policing of the population. The bottom two types of housing scheme – termed “slum clearance” and “intermediate” – were reserved for poorer workers and residency in one of these areas meant accepting the power of appointed officials to inspect one’s belongings, enforce behavioural standards in the street and to evict one at short notice.
By contrast, no such system was in place in Edinburgh between the wars. The Edinburgh Corporation was much less enthusiastic about its newfound responsibilities, being one of only a few local governments which attempted to sell its stock of council homes privately in the period. It chose to build its largest interwar housing schemes, Niddrie-Craigmillar and East and West Pilton, far off at the city’s periphery surrounded by farmland and hidden from view. This comparative lack of interest in working-class lives, however, does not imply a simultaneous lack of stigmatism toward them as a class. These new schemes were from the outset strongly associated with former slum-dwellers from the Old Town, Canongate and other older areas of the city. Negative coverage in the press soon followed the arrival of the first tenants and continued well into the twentieth century: for example a 1980 review of books in the Aberdeen Press and Journal, one author disparaged Pilton by name, argued that it was not a real part of Edinburgh and that the residents there belonged in tenements.
Our current-day stigmatisation of “sink estates” and the people who inhabit them, then, is not exactly a new phenomenon. It is simply a revival of a much older form of class-based discrimination – is there much difference between the outcry over Victorian ‘dram shops’ and the consumption of cheap wine among industrial workers and the moral panic over alcopops or Buckfast today?
The real tragedy is that all this serves to obscure the real, good work being done by working-class people in their communities, the communitarian culture of the schemes, and the material obstacles they had to overcome to make their new houses into homes. From the earliest days of council housing, people from across North-West Edinburgh came together annually for the West Pilton Children’s Gala, celebrating the new generation that would not have to experience the hardships of the slums. In Craigmillar, local mothers banded together to start the Craigmillar Festival Society in 1962 which grew to provide, beyond the annual arts festival, education in music and drama, training courses and year-round events for locals. In 1976 it produced a document surveying its activities, the state of the scheme, and setting out a political prospectus for improvement from housing to schooling to employment. Wester Hailes, which welcomed its first residents in the early 1970s, almost instantly produced an activist cohort who campaigned successfully for improvements in housing conditions and social provision within the neighbourhood, and who held strong links to similar groups across Scotland. Though the end of the great housing projects and the post-war settlement in the 1980s, along with struggles such as the explosion of heroin use and HIV, consistent decreases in welfare provision and stagnant wage growth have proven to be significant setbacks for scheme residents, many of these organisations or similar ones continue into the twenty-first century.
Thankfully, historical research in Scotland has shone a light on the everyday experience of council-built areas. Sean Damer’s recent work Scheming: A Social History of Glasgow Council Housing, 1919 – 1956 explores Glasgow’s three-tier council housing system, furnished with oral history interviews with original residents of two of each tier of the scheme. The team of Lynn Abrams, Valerie Wright, Barry Hazeley and Ade Kearns have produced several oral history journal articles on Scottish New Town East Kilbride and the culture within the high flats in Glasgow’s post-war schemes, along with the fantastic monograph Glasgow: High Rise Homes, Estates and Communities in the Post-War Period. However, though slow to be recognised as important by academic historians and maligned by unsympathetic journalists and politicians, it certainly cannot be said that the history of these areas is “undiscovered” or “forgotten”. Besides active local history groups fuelled by the work of local, often self-taught and un-paid, historians, the history of working-class housing areas is alive in every resident, past or present. If only we would speak to them, our understanding of history would be all the richer.
Sean Damer, Scheming: A Social History of Glasgow Council Housing, 1919 – 1956 (2018, Edinburgh University Press).
Lynn Abrams, Ade Kearns, Barry Hazley and Valerie Wright, Glasgow: High-Rise Homes, Estates and Communities in the Post-War Period (2020, Routledge).
John Boughton, Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing (2018, Verso Books).
Aaron Colin Sheridan is a second-year PhD student in History at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. Having attained a Master of Science in Health History with a dissertation on the social construction of heroin users in Scotland, he won a place on an internship as a researcher with Places for People Scotland, a housing association. His research focus is on the shifting social and domestic life within council-built communities in Edinburgh from 1960 – 2000, utilising oral history as a methodology.