A gentle kind of utopia
Writer and TV historian Daniel Gray is leading our ongoing ReimagiNation residency in Glenrothes, which sees him work with local teenagers and adults to distil their tales of life in the town across its seven decades of existence, and what they think the future might hold for Fife’s New Town. Here he shares his thoughts so far.
Under Fife, black diamonds. A century of coal still to be lifted, they said in the 1950s. Sink a new mine, modern and future-proof, and the people would come.
The miners and their families, and those who peopled supporting industries too, would live in a town planned and made for them. From the rest of Fife, the Lothians, the west and beyond they’d flit from yesterday with all its bad teeth and drafty houses, and into tomorrow, into Glenrothes. It was simple and clear, like the way a child builds a wooden train-set town.
Then the mine closed. All that remained was the town and its citizens. But what foundations to build upon. The place was neat and it worked; the people were solid and bright. New industries came. Young shiny businesses for a gleaming town. A new kind of Fife, a new way of living.
They had to build tradition and identity. Town artists gave hippos, toadstools and other sculptures. Residents founded the type of organisations that cultivate belonging and backbone: clubs, churches, societies, teams… Few had family here – the grans and uncles that paper the walls of an old town. Friends and neighbours were everything.
There were places to play and dance, greenery to walk in and jobs to walk to. Footsteps were taken among low-rise architecture, often innovative but never invasive. Only one towerblock ever rose from the ground. Light could be felt, space too. No building or scheme would obstruct the fact that Glenrothes was a countryside town.
New Town ideals underpinned planning as in Cumbernauld, East Kilbride, Irvine and Livingston, but there was less sense of architectural or social experimentation. Glenrothes would be a gentle kind of utopia, quietly getting on with the dignified poise of a Fife miner.
So much of then, but what of now? For several weeks, I have been opening conversations with people in Glenrothes and then listening. We have talked past, present and future, often at the same time.
I have spent hours with teenagers from Auchmuty High School, a creative, principled and funny bunch who make me feel like the future will be alright. We have talked about utopias, about Glenrothes, about their sense of place. They have drawn maps for me, filled an imaginary Museum of Glenrothes, and railed against the sexism of a 1959 film made to promote their town.
I have also been working with a group of older people, some of whom are from Breathe Easy, a local charity empowering people with breathlessness. They have given me the kind of welcome that makes you want to buy a house in a town you have no previous connection with. They have told me about times gone by here, about life now and future hopes.
One woman spotted childhood acquaintances in that same 1959 film. It was a moment when the walls between years thinned, where you felt as if you might well have gone back outside afterwards to find an altogether different time.
The two groups have met together too, a mutually enriching arrangement. One week, we all visited the Fife Collections Centre, viewing archival items and being given a tour of the county’s extraordinary museum store. As I watched a teenager enthralled and flabbergasted by a pensioner’s explanation of a telephone exchange, I knew that this project was doing something good.
The two groups talk and listen intently, asking questions across years, many about life in Glenrothes. There are revelations; nearly every teenager, it emerged, would give up 2018’s Xbox and internet life to live the outdoor and free youths of their seniors.
I will continue to work with them, and to visit other organisations too. All work and words will go towards locals telling their stories of their town at ReimagiNation: Glenrothes in May, and Edinburgh in August.
The script is a work-in-progress, but so far I know this much: in Glenrothes people are satisfied with their lot, content in their town. Those black diamonds were worth digging for.
The ReimagiNation: Glenrothes residency is supported by the Wellcome Trust.
Tales of Your Town – 17 May
Daniel hosts a special event in which Glenrothes residents share their stories of life in the town at the Rothes Halls on Thurs 17 May.Find out more and book your free ticket
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