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New Left Review I/13-14, January-April 1962

Jan and David Weir

Scotland: The Houses that Last a Thousand Years

From further up the hill it may have looked almost like a new block of flats, except, of course, they don’t build the chimneys on the outside walls any more, and those Huguenot style cornices are dated now, but the granite glistens in the winter sunshine and the whole building gives an appearance of rather sanctimonious solidity and precision, so that it comes as a surprise to notice the patently decaying wood of the door frame, the cracked windows, and the granite step worn quite hollow. There are three bells on either side of the door, two ‘houses’ on each of the three landings, probably twenty-five people behind the one front door— perhaps two hundred ‘houses’ within the whole rectangular, hollow block of masonry, perforated at intervals by narrow passages —the ‘closes’. These lead past the prams and bicycles to the area at the back of the building, what has obviously once been a drying green: although the clothes lines still indicate the use made of this space, it is green no longer. There is an air of decrepitude about the buildings round the green that contrasts with the clean lines of the main block, slates missing on the wash-house roof, broken hinges on the lavatory door. The ‘green’ itself isn’t paved, and the dustbin bays are too obviously a haven for rats. But amidst the jumble you miss the peripheral bric-a-brac that distinguishes ‘living high’ in the English city; no pram stores, no lifts, no coal hoists or refuse chutes, only a common wash-house, two or three lavatories and a row of coal cellars—this time very obviously a haven for cats! Even ‘wash-house’ is too dignified a term for these often dark, damp rooms, cold and badly ventilated, and too frequently used as a storehouse for excess rubbish—invariably little used by ‘more particular’ tenants, who might only enter to fulfil their ‘turn’ at keeping it reasonably clean, every two weeks or less. The uniformly brown doors of the houses leading off the green repel curiosity by their massiveness, keeping out both the dirt of the green, and the ‘too prying’ interests of the neighbours, and no doubt also the cold; but where communality is forced on one by the physical structure of the environment, privacy can be good in itself. Looking outwards from the green instead, through the ‘closes’ punched at intervals in the other side of the block, you see the noisy traffic of the street beyond.

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Jan and David Weir, ‘Scotland: The Houses that Last a Thousand Years’, NLR I/13-14: £3

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