Burns Night, 25 January 2017

I cross over the road.

Wind howling. Sleet slapping. Jaw clenching. Sky dripping black and blue. Knuckles flaring red raw.

Palms beneath the knuckles clasp around a bulging cylinder of vegetarian haggis. Its phallic sheath coating oatmeal, black pepper, nutmeg and nods to both heritage and modernity. Hands, grain, spices. Bound together and becoming one. This, my pulsing, transparent offering to neighbours.

Burns Night. January and the year still blinking and bleary. Our annual celebration of the national Bard. Ritually marked with a supper of sheep’s stomach stuffed with offal and washed down with drams of whisky. Then the re-telling of a long Scots poem no one can quite remember one year to the next. Something about a drunken man (Tam) riding home on his horse from the pub one stormy night and happening upon a witches’ dance led by the devil playing bagpipes, with one particularly beautiful, young witch (Nannie Dee) dancing in her nightclothes, her cutty sark. And all the meanwhile, Tam’s long-suffering wife (Kate) waiting at home, nursing her wrath.

A toast to the lassies and a reply. Tam and Kate. Tam and Nannie Dee. Kate and Nannie Dee. A conversation. A song. A quarrel to be soothed. Union and disunion.

At home here on Constitution Street, Leith, we women are gathering by invitation to celebrate exactly twenty years’ sobriety of our friend and neighbour. No booze, no meat, no men. For tonight at least. The best of times and the worst of times. And only just beginning.

Later, the fake haggis will be cooked in the microwave and its split insides served with a clapshot of neeps, tatties and tomato ketchup. Plates on trays on knees. Children and dogs tumbling at our feet. The TV volume turned low, providing an unsettling, constant hum from the wider world and the news out there that threatens louder voices.

While further along the street at the north/ south junction stretching parallel to the sea, a commemorative statue of Rabbie Burns bestowed in waistcoat and breeches, his hand raised over heart, hings his head wistfully toward the temptations of the Docks, the dancing girls, the honest poverty, the dignities and the hamely fare on which we will dine tonight. For a’ that.

I climb the eight slanting, concrete slabs of the steps to no.59 and chap on the door. Unfurl my scarf and flatten my hair. Shuffle back and forth, to and fro, tapping out a swaying rhythm in my heeled boots, trying to keep warm and to not drop the haggis. Poised. Ready. Hovering on the threshold of inside and outside, the day and the night. On the periphery. In between. The sky above and the ground below. Here and now.

I knock again. I’m late. Push open the brass letter box and post my ‘It’s only me’ into the slit of electric light. See my breath be absorbed into the gathering warmth of the hallway beyond. I wait. A dog barks. A pair of denimed legs attached to bare feet appear in the rectangular picture frame of the letter box, hinging and enlarging into view across floorboards like a half-shut knife.

‘Ah, it’s yourself” comes the reply. ‘Come away in’.

On Constitution Street

I am lucky enough to live and work on Constitution Street. Constitution Street is a broad, nineteenth-century thoroughfare connecting Edinburgh city and sea, of fading grandeur and plenty of soul. It is book-ended by statutes of two unlikely bedfellows in Scottish history. Queen Victoria is queen of the Great Junction Street and Leith Walk empire. And Rabbie Burns, Ayrshire poet – newly uprooted to make way for tramgate indecision- looks east towards the Docks and mischief-making.

Victoria is not amused. She presides over a scene of grey gloom. A place where it permanently looks like a November morning, and always smells of the fried onion scraps left behind by the burger van and fought over by pigeons. Spiked metal railings make a fortress around the two chemists and their supply of methadone scripts. Bored-looking husky dogs loyally stand guard over heartbroken alcoholics . Scars of 1960s civic vandalism are evident in the hulks of concrete tower blocks and shopping prescient that intimidate the frailty of surviving medieval and Victorian architecture and their exposed layers of social history.

This is less than one mile from Edinburgh’s affluent New Town, or three bus stops from John Lewis at the top of Leith Walk. But it is forgotten or largely invisible to the solicitors, bankers and estate agents that taxi into Leith for meals in The Shore’s Michelin star restaurants. I, too, pass on by. I pass on by to coffee shops, business meetings and jogs in the park further along the street.

I love this street. I love the urban friendliness of its shopkeepers, landladies and neighbours. I love the ‘Sunshine on Leith’ chorus on a Saturday night; the sandstone frescoes chronicling maritime trade on the Corn Exchange facade; the 30 somethings designers and tech start ups jostling with old time dockers for a seat on the quayside; and the new arrivals dreaming of a garden but making do with a window box. Civic pride is alive and well @Constitution_St .

Yet by acquiescing the health and housing conditions of our neighbours at the end of the street, we are all complicit in the tacit normalisation of poverty. It should come as no surprise that Leith is a stronghold for the flourishing Caledonian spring that, for some, offers up an alternative to the status quo. ‘Yes’ brands many windows, shop fronts and pavements on Constitution Street.


The Shore, Leith. A tale of two cities.

Nationally, one in five Scots children live in household poverty and a life expectancy of 72 in some postcodes is one of the lowest in western Europe. If messers Cameron, Miliband and Clegg wanted to demonstrate their new ‘love’ for Scotland, they could put down their flags and come and spend time alongside the young graduates working three jobs on zero hour contracts to pay the rent, the asylum-seeking families unable to work or volunteer under right to remain restrictions, or the older people facing social exclusion in poor quality, high-rise housing.

An independent Scotland will not be a celtic utopia. I don’t consider myself a nationalist. I’ve lived and worked in different countries across the world and am inherently mistrusting of separation over unity. Nothing is black and white and I can identify with parts of both Yes and No.  However, I have come out as a Yesser because I think it’s the best chance we’ve got to address structural inequality – Rabbie’s ‘A Man’s a Man for Aw That’ if you will, with a feminist update.

A written constitution- written by and for the people of Scotland- is a chance to set down a formal benchmark for the things that matter on my street and the many other streets like it – the right to adequate housing, the right to accessible healthcare, the right to work, the right to play spaces, the right to cultural engagement, and the right to take part in the decisions that affect you. These are the social, cultural and economic rights that we don’t have sufficiently protected under British ‘constitutionalism’ and the vulnerability of successive governments playing party politics with membership of the Council of Europe (European Court of Human Rights) and the European Union.

The draft interim constitution currently out for consultation by the Scottish Government states simply that “In Scotland, the people are sovereign“. This contrasts with the principle of UK Parliamentary Sovereignty with Royal Assent. ‘Team Scotland’ negotiating constitutional settlement with the UK must bring rights home and give roles to the forgotten powerless at the bottom of the street.

As Lesly Riddoch articulates in her book ‘Blossom: What Scotland Needs to Flourish’, we need a new social democracy for Scotland, above and beyond a ‘Yes, where power is legitimised by authentic, local relationships. To facilitate these relationships, we need to increase our accountability of local government leadership and ensure meaningful participation in local service delivery (see the rise of so-called ‘mini publics’), and much more besides.

no yes

No and Yes peaceful domesticity at my sister and her boyfriend’s Leith flat.

I realise I have been seduced by the inclusive, positive embrace of the new young radicals leading the Yes charge. Several of whom, locate their activism out of a self-titled ‘art cave’ on nearby Great Junction Street. With the IndyRef result on a knife edge, I feel strangely anxious and protective of their fragile hope. This Generation Yes looks and sounds ever younger with the recent arrival of the UK homeguard.

With a No vote, or indeed a protracted legal dispute in the event of an inconclusive result, dreams will be crushed and hearts broken. The energy powered by the civic confidence of the last two years will have to be released somewhere. I worry that the Yes generation will feel let down by their doubting older peers, see no future in a ‘business as usual’ UK with high youth unemployment and look to abroad for the development of their talent and creativity. The potential for this new brain drain concerns me far more than the possible relocation of some banking brass plaques. As you might expect, there are no brass plaques at the foot of Leith Walk on Constitution Street.

On Thursday, and the days that follow, I hope that we can all have the courage to ‘Tak A Cup O’ Kindness Yet’ to accept, reach out to, and love those who have voted a different way, wherever we call home.