The slow beat of the charming Edinburgh trams

The slow beat of the charming Edinburgh trams
Scottish Review, By Gillean Somerville-Arjat

The first thing that strikes you about the new Edinburgh tram is its distinctive clanking bell. It’s a slow beat of a sound that, rather than heralding the future, catches you with a sense of throwback to the large-scale engineering of the boats and buses and trains that we Scots used to be famous for, rather than the sly digital beep-beep of computers, radar screens, laser beams and electric cars and hybrids of the here and now.

It’s an oddly reassuring noise to those of us who are old, and perhaps have a faint memory of the last white tram of a former age sailing down the Mound in the late 1950s. It’s probably merely quaint to those who are young.
It glides, almost silently, through the busy city at a pace that slows your heartbeat. ‘A new baby is born’, mutters my husband poetically as we go, bus pass pensioners on a gentle jolly after the fanfare and flurry of the 31 May launch and the subsequent challenge of the One Direction concert. The tram isn’t crowded today. People tramping the pavements stop and stare as you pass. You feel mildly inclined to wave, but you restrain yourself. You aren’t royalty, merely a participant in a novel phenomenon.

York Place, St Andrew’s Square, Princes Street, Shandwick Place, Haymarket. All familiar sights, but somehow you feel propelled in a different way, so smoothly it goes on the straight track of the rails. It doesn’t shoogle or wobble and hurtle you about with sudden braking as the buses do. Beyond the newly refurbished Haymarket Station, with a creaking curve to the left it takes you down a gentle incline between the opposing blocks of COSLA and Her Majesty’s Inland Revenue, then out past the Tesco Bank on the one hand and the railway line west on the other, where the blue saltired Scotrail trains speed towards Livingston and Bathgate, Airdrie, Coatbridge and Glasgow.

You stop at the grey bird’s nest of Murrayfield Stadium with its gigantic Six Nations Rugby posters still hanging months after the games have been played. On you go through Balgreen and Bankhead and the bleak deserted streets of Saughton, where a young man is giving his child a hurl in a push-chair. To your right, across the shaved greens of a golf course, rises Corstorphine Hill, where Alan Breck bid David Balfour farewell, and now the Holiday Inn beside the zoo gleams like a Soviet Palace of Congresses. So close you might reach out and touch it, the old red brick Jenners depository looms like a prison. To your left is a fine prospect of the Pentland hills that would have made Robert Louis Stevenson’s heart leap with nostalgic longing.

Hermiston Gait and the Gyle Centre. Those featureless office units, supermarkets and vast retail chains: TK Max and Staples, Morrisons, Costa Coffee and M&S. Beyond the Gyle, the tram takes another sweeping curve to the left to arrive at Gogarburn, now the tram maintenance depot, where more gleaming white robot snakeheads sit patiently on rails outside great grey hangars. Here you might halt for a change of personnel. Off go the old driver and conductor and on come the new. The conductor wears a maroon and white tabard. Not exactly steward class, but, hey, let’s not bicker. This whole tram business has cost enough without going to town on the uniforms.

The next stop takes us to the HQ of RBS, about which enough has been said elsewhere. More intriguing, as the tram leisurely wends its lonely way across open countryside towards the tall concrete tulip water tower at the airport, are newly visible historical remnants. There’s tiny Gogar Church, for instance, whose origins go back to the 12th century, nestling among trees and tumbled gravestones.

The village it once served is long gone, but here lie the remains of Dr James Pittendrigh Macgillivray, 1856-1938, once King’s Sculptor in Ordinary for Scotland and noted for his civic statues, and also a certain Thomas Grainger FRSE, 1794-1852, once president of the RSSA, a Scottish civil engineer and surveyor, involved in the construction of many railway projects in his time, but whose death, ironically, was the result of injuries sustained in a train crash. The light green doors of the church remain firmly shut, but a black car and two vans parked nearby suggest current use of some kind, perhaps a workshop, since it lacks the warmth of a dwelling.

To the left the ancient Gogar Burn, a rushing stream of coffee-coloured water, extra-shot latté coffee-coloured, to be more precise, shoots through a rough gully of marshland and scrub. A few bright poppies bend in the breeze. This is the site of a late 1650 skirmish between the troops of Oliver Cromwell and the Scots under General David Leslie. Cromwell was baffled by the surrounding bogs and couldn’t get at the continually evasive Scots for weeks, until he finally nailed us at Dunbar.

Before the tram reaches the stop marking Ingliston’s park and ride, you catch a glimpse to the right of Castle Gogar, a 17th-century baronial pile of pepper-pot towers and crow-stepped gables, surrounded now by architect-designed modern houses. It once belonged to families called Gibson-Maitland and Steel-Maitland, until 2002 when the last of the line, an accomplished artist, died. Without its modern whitewash the building might have served as the ill-famed Balfour House of Shaws.

As the tram now draws to the end of its line, you can discern in the distance the massive Broxburn bings, relics of an earlier shale oil binge, before the oil sheikhs supplied the world and fracking became a dirty word. Onward we glide past the Hilton Hotel and the airport car park till the tram slides into its final groove and we emerge, slightly dazed, into a clamjamfray of ongoing building works, part-shrouded in tarpaulin, and meet a planeload of Spaniards, newly disgorged in Escocia, vociferously hauling their wheeled cabin luggage towards us. We gen up on the tram information. Validate your ticket or bus pass before you get on and then have it validated again on the tram. It’s like confirming your password online.

On the way back, within the city boundary a small boy boards with his cheerful, immensely stout gran and mum. He is about two years old, wears a bright yellow anorak and bounces about, lively as a cricket. He’s ecstatic to be riding on the ‘ham’. On his knees on a seat beside his gran, he whiles stares out of the window, whiles turns round, repeating the phrase, ‘We’re on the ham!’, like a mantra, simply beaming with joy.

Despite the tram project’s controversy, I felt a bit like that myself.