Straightening the spine of Edinburgh

Souvenir shop

Tourists browse the wares at one of the Royal Mile´s many souvenire shops.

The Royal Mile The Royal Mile is a succession of streets that form a main thoroughfare of the Old Town

With a castle at the top and a royal palace at the bottom, the Royal Mile in the Old Town of Edinburgh is one of the strongest tourist magnets in the city. It’s not hard to see how important this street is for the people who visit it; there are souvenir shops along the entire street and sightseeing-buses frequently cause traffic jams. It is a good place for street performers; walking down the street, accompanied by bagpipes, of course, you might meet a living statue of Charlie Chaplin, the world’s most pierced woman or a charismatic sword swallower.

But the Royal Mile is not just a street to check off the must-see list in Edinburgh; it is also a place where people live and work. Being such a huge attraction has its downsides when local grocery shops and newsagents turn into souvenir shops and the vibrations of heavy traffic slowly damage the many historic buildings. Many feel that the Mile is failing to achieve its potential as an historic street with its stunning stonework buildings.

Royal Mile, view from Canongate

Looking down the High Street towards the Tron Kirk.

The Edinburgh City Council has launched an action plan in order to tackle the different issues and to improve the image of the street. It is not an easy task to keep everyone happy. Besides being a tourist attraction, the Mile also functions as Scotland’s centre of power as it’s home to the Scottish Parliament, the seat of local government and Scotland’s supreme criminal court.

“There is so much on one street, so it becomes tricky to control and manage it,” says a spokesperson from the Project Team. “But that is what the action plan is trying to do, to address these conflicts. The action plan is about giving people a voice, we wanted to hear people’s opinions.”

The sense of community

The most heated debate might be the balance between visitors and local residents. Buying a quick sandwich for lunch near the Royal Mile is a challenge when most of the restaurants are tourist priced. Rosemary Mann, who has lived in the Old Town since the late 70s, has been on the committee of the Old Town Association for many years and is a bit sceptical about the new action plan.

“In 30 years you do get a bit cynical about consultations and plans,” she says. “I also feel that the Old Town is not just the Royal Mile. The Old Town is so much more than that one street, but the Royal Mile is where the tourists go, and sometimes you feel that the City Council with its proposals is driven by the tourist agenda.”

Mann is also concerned that the sense of community in the Old Town is disappearing. Since she moved to the Old Town in the late-70s, a lot of things have changed. Children don’t play outside anymore, local stores have disappeared, and it is getting harder for families to live in the Old Town, where it is tricky to own a car and where few properties have lifts that makes it easier to carry groceries.

Royal Mile, view from the top

A birds-eye view of the Old Town.

“If you look at the population it is a bit skewed,” says Mann. “You have more young adults, and you have elderly people. There is a hole in the middle, where you would expect families. The population is unbalanced. And the students stay for two or three years and then they are off, they never form part of the long-term community.”

Although tourism is a huge employer in Edinburgh, it is the voice of the local people that will hold the greatest weight in the finalized action plan.

“It is the people of Edinburgh who have the last call about everything,” says the Edinburgh City Council. “If you lose the population of the Old Town it becomes just a tourist destination and a place to work, it is they who have to live with our decisions and it is they who will be most vocal about our decisions.”

If no one lives in the Old Town, the whole spirit of the city would change. It might be crowded with visitors in the daytime during the high season, but after closing time it would turn into a ghost town. And although Edinburgh is famous for its ghost tours, a ghost town may not be a desired result.

“When you are in the city centre, you are conscious that there are people around,” says Mann. “Whereas somewhere like York, which is another tourist place, with a wonderfully maintained and kept historic medieval city centre, far more medieval than the Old Town of Edinburgh, but when you’re in there in the evening, the only thing that is opened is the pubs. In the upper stories there is complete darkness, and there is a definite feeling about it. Edinburgh has a different feeling because people live here. That is what makes Edinburgh special. Maintaining that living community should be the first priority of any plan.”

I heart Edinburgh

Kilts in various colours and patterns, little Nessie monsters, whiskey pocket flasks, “I heart Edinburgh” t-shirts and sweatshirt are displayed all along the Royal Mile. The tourists seem to love it, but the local residents are not so fond of them. But preventing tartan-tat shops from popping up is not an easy task for the Council.

“There has been a misconception quite widely that the council owns a majority of the properties, when it is only 49 out of 189,” says another representative of the Project Team on the Council. “The problem is that we can only control new leases coming in, and they are much stricter than they have been in the past. But quite a lot of the souvenir businesses own their own properties and we have no control of that at all.”

The fact that many shops display their products outside on the streets with big, yellow price tags is what people have the biggest issue with. Someone has even called it a cultural rape of the historic street.

“In the action plan we flirted with the idea of basically having a ban on anything on the streets. But then you would lose fruits and vegetables, newspapers – everything, and it might look empty and boring. So we have to take that into consideration as well,” says the spokesman.

“And I’m not sure that we necessarily want to,” the spokesman adds. “There is a historic precedence for that; it is something that has always happened on the streets. And I mean, if you go anywhere in the world it is the same. It is how you deal with it and manage it and I think it is something we need to look at.”

Heavy traffic

Graeme Cruickshank is a local historian with a big passion for the Royal Mile. He’s worried about the impact that heavy traffic has on old buildings. When a huge, noisy truck with ten wheels on both sides and heavy metal construction is rumbling up the cobblestoned street, the ground vibrates.

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Tourists bustling past the Tron Kirk.

“To my mind the whole Royal Mile needs to be completely pedestrianized,” he says. “There are so many old buildings surviving. By no means is it a complete medieval street, but I think it is a fair claim that it has the largest concentration of medieval buildings of any city in Europe.”

“I have a friend who runs a craft shop at the bottom of the Royal Mile,” Cruickshank continues. “She has been there almost thirty years, and she says that twenty times a day the whole shop shakes. These buildings are not going to survive many more decades. And they are listed, listed with a capital L.”

Less traffic is also on the wish list of the Old Town Association.

“I would like to see visitors getting off the tourist buses and walk around instead,” says Mann. “That way they would get a much better experience of the Royal Mile.”

The purpose of the action plan is to improve the experience of the Royal Mile and make it the best living, cultural street in the world. Time will tell where the action plan takes Edinburgh’s most important street.

“The Royal Mile is the spine of Edinburgh,” says the Council, “No where else in the world has a place like this. It’s set up to be the best cultural living street. That is the challenge of it, to get it back. It is really this street that brings people to Edinburgh.”