Linlithgow at a crossroads

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A missed opportunity for business revitalisation will rob the community of its greatest economic potential in half a century.

by David Tait

The ancient Royal Burgh of Linlithgow finds itself at a crossroads.

With a wonderful story to tell, previously home to kings and queens, county town of Linlithgowshire and a centre of considerable economic activity, the town is on the slippery slope to ignominious dormitory town status.

No longer the county town, the last vestige of power and influence having recently migrated over the Bathgate Hills to Livingston, the home of Black Bitches faces a stark choice.

Already being described as a dormitory town, a decision will be taken shortly which will determine whether it continues to sleep walk to oblivion or takes the bold route, maximises use of its assets and becomes once again a thriving centre of economic activity.

A prime town centre site is available for development – will the end product take the town down a road to nowhere or become the first step on the road to a new future?

To say Linlithgow is at a crossroads is literally true.  The Cross stands at the centre of the town and is well documented as its beating heart for 500 years and more.  Local historian Bruce Jamieson has described the Cross this way,”Here have been held food sales, livestock auctions, public executions, royal proclamations, witch burnings and aristocratic festivities.”

In the opinion of the late Colin McWilliam, director of the Scottish National Buildings Record, “No other town in Lothian, perhaps not even Edinburgh, has a grander civic focus”.

On the north side of the Cross stands the superb Burgh Halls, dating from 1668 and thought by some to have been built to the design of the master mason to King Charles I.  Just behind the Burgh Halls is St Michaels church occupying a site that has been used for such purposes since before written records began.  And behind that again, the magnificent Linlithgow palace, a place of kings and queens since the fifteenth century and birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots, one time Queen of France.  And if you want to go even further back then the palace overlooks the crannogs on Linlithgow Loch.  Altogether a visitor goldmine, largely untouched.

To the east of the Cross is a row of 19th century buildings now put to good use by local businesses.  On the west side, until the 1960s, stood a range of late medieval buildings including the most well known, the Spanish Ambassador’s House.  The decision to demolish those buildings was highly controversial and the process of replacement described by author William F Hendrie as “to the horror of the townsfolk” were built “three and four storey monstrosities”.  So they remain fifty years later.

So we come to the south side of the Cross, to decision time and perhaps to the key to Linlithgow’s future.  At present a bus company occupies a large site as its centre of operations for the area.  It has now decided it is time to move on and has put the site on the market creating an opportunity right at the historic centre of old Linlithgow.

So, thinking about Linlithgow’s history and its future potential, at a time when complacency risks ignominy for the ancient Royal Burgh, is its past the key to its future?  Could something be done on the south side of the Cross to complement the wonders on the north side, to compensate for the disaster on the west side and to help Linlithgow play a far more prominent role in Scotland’s tourism industry?  In the palace alone it has fantastic potential – how can that be developed?  Add to that the myriad attractions round and about, with additions arriving on a continuous basis, and it surely has to be asked if something better than is currently being proposed – 42 sheltered housing units – cannot be contrived for the site.

So what could kick-start a new future for Linlithgow as a major visitor destination?  Visitors need close access to places of interest.  Other towns and cities around the world with similar assets and access problems find solutions.  What about a development, based on social enterprise principles, with user-friendly access for bus parties, underground parking for visitors’ cars, an open European style piazza at ground level, surrounded by a combination of retail and business premises with some residential accommodation at second level?  What about an international competition drawing on the talents of the Scottish diaspora and all its connections around the world to add to local talent to produce some novel solutions?

Against that kind of vision, it has been said, informally, that “nothing can be done” as the sale and purchase of the site is a transaction between two private companies and as long as plans comply in all particulars with regulations that is the end of it.

Presumably a similar line was taken when the Spanish Ambassador’s House was demolished to the consternation of local people.  Do we have to be slaves to the “regulations” and make a similar mistake again?  Or is a point reached when the telescope should be put to the blind eye and a bold decision taken for the long term benefit of the community as a whole rather than for short term gain?

Having recently attended a seminar presented by the Development Trust Association Scotland, and heard a brilliant presentation from a feisty lady from Twechar on how to get things done in your community, it’s clear there are people out there who can succeed, despite the system, and create wonderful facilities appreciated and used to the full by an engaged community.

Blind uncritical obedience to rules led to the carnage of the Charge of the Light Brigade while the putting of a telescope to a blind eye led to a famous victory.

Citizens of Linlithgow, which is it to be? Decrepitude or fame?

What legacy will you bequeath to the next generation of Black Bitches?

David Tait
Chair, Linlithgow Business Association