James Robertson comments…


Scottish novelist James Robertson contacted the campaign recently and commented:


“I have spent many, many hours reading, researching and borrowing books from the Central Library over the years, and am appalled at the City Council’s low regard for what should be cherished, and cared for, as one of Edinburgh’s cultural jewels.”


James highlighted that he had contributed some essays to a book published by Historic Environment Scotland, entitled Who Built Scotland, where he wrote about “libraries civilising, enabling and democratising influence”.


James has given us permission to quote from these passages:


The Public Library Acts of the 1850s had given local burghs the right to raise taxes in order to establish libraries. The problem was, the relatively small number of ratepayers tended to be very reluctant to see their taxes rise for the dubious benefit of giving the working classes free access to knowledge. Who knew where that might lead? From the 1880s, however, this move towards a universal public library system was massively boosted by the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie: local government authorities could apply to Carnegie’s charitable foundation for funds to build libraries. What resulted was a network of working monuments dedicated to the printed word. They varied enormously in size and style, yet the tiny reading room added on to the village hall at Tarves, in Aberdeenshire, and the mighty edifice that is Dumbarton Library grew from the same seed – a recognition of the transformational power of books. In the end, well over 2,500 Carnegie libraries were built worldwide, 660 of them in the British Isles, at least seventy of these in Scotland.

The first of them all, the Central Library in Carnegie’s home town of Dunfermline, opened in 1883. From the French Beaux-Arts-influenced libraries of James R Rhind in many districts of Glasgow, to the equally splendid libraries in a range of architectural styles from Dumfries to Wick and from Dundee to Stornoway, the Carnegie libraries became places of self-education, sanctuary, peace and discovery for hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom lived in circumstances that closed down opportunities to change their lives for the better. As William McIlvanney put it in his poem, ‘In the Library’:

In the library the first time
I stood in a pool of awe.
Wonder for taking, acres of promises.

The experience of Dundee, the city nearest to where I now live, was not untypical. In the early years of the twentieth century Carnegie funded five libraries there – more than anywhere else in Scotland apart from Glasgow – but these were not Dundee’s first. A free public library had opened within the Albert Memorial Institute in 1869: subscribers who paid an annual fee had immediate access to new books, while those who could not afford to subscribe had to wait a year before they could borrow them. Then, in 1895, a library and public baths, paid for by a legacy from the mill owner Thomas Cox, opened at Lochee, but the popular demand for access to books continued to outstrip supply and the city corporation turned to Carnegie for help. The city architect, James Thomson, designed all five Carnegie-funded buildings, including Coldside, a single-storey beauty with a neo-classical curved frontage, and the imposingly pillared Blackness Library in the west of the city. Both are still in operation today. These are places that proudly announce through their architecture, ‘We value books, and we value the people who want to read them.’ When the Dundee songwriter Michael Marra composed his song ‘Hermless’ he impertinently (his own word) suggested it as an alternative, non-aggressive national anthem for Scotland. I like to imagine the meek, self-effacing hero of that song collecting his reading matter from one of these fine places:

Hermless, hermless
There’s never nae bather fae me
I ging to the lehbry, I tak oot a book And then I go hame for ma tea

Andrew Carnegie visited Dundee, for the third time, in 1911, to open St Roque’s Library in the Blackscroft area. On this occasion he commented that he thought future generations would say, ‘Well, well, there were men and there were cities in that day that did pretty well.’ That building is now a music venue which acknowledges its heritage by using the name etched in stone over the entrance, Reading Rooms. Its website carries the cheeky strapline ‘Authorised by the Dùn Dèagh Department of Counter Culture’ and notes that

the site was laid out as a landscaped garden in the Italian style, in an attempt to upgrade what was described at the time as a ‘sordid district’. Many Edwardians held the belief that by improving a district you could improve the people who lived there – they may even have been right!

Between Innerpeffray’s David Drummond and Andrew Carnegie there have been many other benefactors who left libraries to the Scottish people. Walter Stirling, a Glasgow merchant, left his own book collection as the basis for a free reference library in 1791: it occupied his former home in Miller Street, and was moved to other locations before settling in the Royal Exchange building, as one of the city’s branch libraries, in the 1950s. Stephen Mitchell, one of a dynasty of tobacco merchants, left a substantial bequest in 1874 which, with additional funds from others including Carnegie (who laid the foundation stone), enabled the construction in 1911 of Glasgow’s great Mitchell Library, designed by W B Whitie. James Dick, who with his brother Robert founded an enormously successful business making shoes and other items from gutta-percha, provided the funds for Kilmarnock’s Dick Institute, a museum, art gallery and library which was opened in 1901 and remains a vital cultural asset for East Ayrshire to this day.

On the other side of the country, the publishing firm of Thomas Nelson funded most of Edinburgh’s branch libraries – but the capital’s cathedral-like Central Library on George IV Bridge is one of Carnegie’s. When it was finished in 1890, he sent a telegram to be read out at the opening ceremony: ‘We trust that this library is to grow in usefulness year after year, and prove one of the most potent agencies for the good of the people for all time to come.’ Over the entrance was carved Carnegie’s favoured motto, ‘Let There Be Light’. Ironically, a recent decision by the city council to permit a new hotel at the Cowgatehead will have the effect, if the development goes ahead, of cutting out much of the light that the Central Library’s reading rooms have enjoyed for 130 years.

…There is…a close historical link between access to books and Scottish aspirations to self-improvement, egalitarianism and liberty, but at root this is no tale of Scottish exceptionalism. People the world over respect books and libraries because they represent freedom of thought. To read a book in a library, or to borrow one and take it away to read somewhere else, is to set up a private relationship between you and the book – its author, its ideas, its characters, its complete otherness. No other activity can create quite such a relationship: that really is exceptional. It is why oppressors and suppressors of all kinds, secular or religious, ban books or burn them. And, as Michael Marra wrote in another of his songs, ‘Houseroom’, it is why in some places people risk death or indeed are killed trying to have that experience:

If you ever hear me grumbling

Give me the old heave ho

If it’s I want my MTV
My prick shaped pool

And my interactive video

Don’t give me houseroom
But a scornful look
As some soul makes a midnight sprint

Through a sniper’s sights
For a library book

Weighing all this up, we might conclude that there must be a consensus in this land that libraries are a Good Thing. We would be wrong. There is a view, not infrequently expressed, that libraries are of the past, expensive spaces providing unnecessary services in the digital age. I have heard this opinion voiced by local councillors and council executives, the very custodians of the library as a public amenity. Perhaps it should not be a surprise that, in the face of ever tighter budgets from which to deliver education, social care, waste disposal and recycling, the idea grows that ‘culture and leisure’ are dispensable. This leads rapidly to the idea that a library, any library, is just a lot of books on shelves and that if volunteers can be found to manage the lending and returning of them then the books will look after themselves. It’s an even shorter step from there to saying that a library is just a free bookshop, and why should everybody pay taxes for a free bookshop when those who really want books can go and buy them themselves, in ‘real’ bookshops? That is, if you can find such a place – there are some local authority areas in twenty-first century Scotland which contain not a single shop dedicated to selling new books. Yet, go into almost any public library and you will find it being used by children, students, pensioners, visitors and homeless people – for all of whom it is still, as it was in the nineteenth century, a vital place of information, investigation, refuge, hope and renewal.

In the libraries of our cities, it is often difficult to find a free desk, so great is the demand for a place to sit and read. A city that does not have a great library is something less than a city – it is not really civilised. Perhaps more tellingly, when a socially deprived neighbourhood loses its local library – sometimes the last remaining community space after the closure of factories, shops, pubs and schools – it feels to the residents like an act of officially sanctioned vandalism. That’s because that’s what it is. Andrew Carnegie wrote: ‘There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library; this republic of letters, where neither rank, office nor wealth receives the slightest consideration. A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never-failing spring in the desert.’

One can argue with other aspects of Carnegie’s career as an industrialist and capitalist, but that is a noble statement of principle, one that he backed up with vast amounts of his own money. It is a principle that needs to be loudly restated and proudly upheld a century after his death.


Cowgate Occupy Camp


In response to the threat of the loss of associated public assets, including the NHS Cowgatehead Church homeless clinic, individuals from the homeless community valiantly took up occupation of the Cowgate gap site for 5 months, before being evicted in October 2016, following court action.


With the Old Town long associated as a refuge for those fallen on hard times, this lovable motley crew of dedicated individuals endured some degree of scorn and even serious abuse, with seemingly numerous deliberate arson attacks of tents on site. Yet in defiance, and in spite of very unpleasant living conditions, camped next to such a noisy, polluted arterial road, frequented by flocks of passing tourists and hordes of drunken revellers by night, The Occupiers were very genuinely committed to raising public awareness of the plight of the Library in defence of the Cowgate gap site, so that it might realise its long intended purpose of enriching Carnegie’s cultural jewel, and thereby honour those who had toiled to create such a legacy for the benefit of future generations.


With the threatened closure and disposal of the adjoining Cowgatehead Church homeless clinic, the camp was also taking a stand against the loss of this vital, long standing service, so wickedly under threat from the predatory, heartless forces precipitated by the chicanery of the so called ‘banking crisis’, which had led to the imposition of austerity, exacerbated by the dire financial predicament of Edinburgh Council through its maladministration.




In response to the camp one local resident commented that he would rather the presence of a few humble so called ‘down and outs’ than the insidious gentrified corporate creep of soulless speculative hotels and student accommodation blocks, conspiring with the Air B&B phenomenon to destroy community, bleed the local economy and further trash the area by encouraging late night anti-social ‘end of the world’ party culture, so otherwise unbecoming of a City of Literature, World Heritage and Enlightenment.

While some passers by may have been quick to dismiss the ‘illegal’ occupation, taking offence at the unsightly paraphernalia so typically associated with the plight of homeless individuals, the presence of the camp served to disturb the sensibilities of minds sanitised by the influence of litigious health and safety and to prick the conscience of a deluded civilised society needing to get its house in order.


For a Council that promised to be “willing to listen to local people and work together with local communities… A council where cooperation, fairness, accountability and responsibility really matter…” to then, behind closed doors without any public consultation to discuss alternative options, sell off the prized gap site in the heart of the Old Town, together with the Cowgatehead Church and the tenement on Victoria Street, all for a knock down price of £3.5 million, is a disgraceful affront to this City of Literature, World Heritage and Enlightenment.


In defence of Public Land for The Enlightenment!


While politicians spin the lie that in such times of austerity “we’re all in this together”, to those who have become even wealthier ingratiating themselves with such predatory speculative bargains, these sums are but lose change. Even the famous children’s writer, who has crafted a livelihood imbibed by Auld Reekie’s aura, such a figure is evidently sweetie money when according to the tabloid press twice the sum went up in a puff of smoke involving the depreciation of a luxury yacht:




Auld Reekie, wale o’ilka toon…

Section 65 of the Town & Country Planning Act

Following the very disappointing outcome of the Judicial Review, which in spite of the so called ‘independence’ of the judiciary found in favour of the hotel development (due to the limitations of the process), deferring repeatedly to the fundamentally flawed planning judgement of the Council (which had been seemingly wholly informed by the developer’s assessment), as a final action supporters are encouraged to lobby all representatives to pursue Section 65 of the Town & Country Planning Act (1997) Scotland, which though seldom used has the power to revoke planning permission if deemed ‘expedient’. 

To contact representatives at the Council and the Parliament click here:

For a template letter see:



Let There Be Light!

The Anatomy of a Council Scam


The proposal to built yet another large hotel in Edinburgh alongside the Central Library is more than a local tragedy. It is an international disgrace.

Andrew Carnegie, son of an unemployed radical weaver, was a philanthropic American for much longer than he was a proud Scot. His family was so poor they spent their first night in the USA sleeping in the open because they couldn’t afford a lodging house. Andrew was eleven years old, and throughout his life was always keenly aware that education had been the key to his success.

Carnegie’s rags to riches story was the classic fulfilment of the American dream. What’s more, he helped countless others from underprivileged backgrounds on that same journey by endowing thousands of libraries across the world as ‘universities of the people’ – some were free public libraries, others academic, and there were a few specialist ones, like the one in a Tennessee Veterans’ Hospital.

His Edinburgh building, designed by architect George Washington Browne in French Renaissance style, was one of his proudest achievements. He laid the foundation stone on Friday July 8 1887 in the presence of 1000 people, many of them workers he’d delivered a lecture to on the rights of labour and the need for world peace. After the ceremony the band struck up ‘Auld Lang Syne’.



As well as purchasing ground for the building itself the committee responsible bought – with Carnegie endowment money – an area of land so that the rear facade ‘could be guaranteed plenty of light and air without the threat of interference from other buildings.’ This was vital, since the entrance, with its famous ‘let there be light’ motto over the door, was alongside the 1837 viaduct built over the Cowgate valley and most floors on that side were subterranean. The west facade was essentially a secondary principal elevation with a high ratio of glazed windows to solid to allow natural light to flood into the reading rooms, as well as to retain the view of Edinburgh’s ancient castle on its rock.

Thanks to the philistinism of Edinburgh Council all of this could now be lost.

The additional land was earmarked for future expansion by the library. A 2002 conservation plan drawn up in anticipation of UNESCO’s 2004 designation of Edinburgh as the world’s first ‘city of literature’ was developed in 2008 into a proposed refurbishment, with appropriate extensions on the site. The Childrens’ and Music Annexes were culled, their collections crammed into the main building on a short term basis. It was claimed there would be much improved facilities in the new development.



Having now sold the land which, since the beginning, has always been a library asset – and having previously disposed of the premises which housed the Childrens’ and Music libraries, our politicians have decided to betray the original intentions of Andrew Carnegie and his trustees.

Even by the standards of our inept city council this is a scandal of the worst order. Statistically, Edinburgh has less central library provision than any of Scotland’s major cities, calling into question its ‘City of Literature’ status. Glasgow, for example, offers almost fifteen times as much space per head of population.


‘There is nothing so terrible’ said Johann Goethe ‘as ignorance in action.’ How very true.


The Cowgate Sycamore…another victim of heartless corporate vandalism.

With the political process having failed, and the Save Edinburgh Central Library campaign now left with no other option than to undertake legal proceedings against Edinburgh Council’s decision to award planning permission for this highly controversial proposed hotel, it would seem reasonable to assume, with the authority of the planning consent being challenged, that development could NOT proceed until this matter was settled in court; particularly so since the sale of associated public assets was on condition of planning consent.


However, the developer, Dreamvale Properties Limited (Jansons Property), disregarding the overwhelming opinion of local residents and political representatives, as well as the thousands who support the campaign through the on line 38 Degree petition ‘Let here Be Light in Edinburgh’s Old Town‘, has effectively ignored the legal challenge, commencing work on the contested gap site, adjoining the Central Library, formerly public property.


After a tip off, in which it was revealed that the Sycamore fronting the Cowgate on the gap site was in imminent threat of felling, direct action was taken to safeguard this precious tree; the only tree in the Cowgate, in one of Edinburgh’s most polluted streets, in breach of regulations.


This self seeded Sycamore, which miraculously had established itself right next to the pavement, growing around the railings and in defiance of all the pollution generated by the passing hustle and bustle, has dutifully kept watch for 40+ years, since the land was cleared as a gap site, thereby maximising natural light into the Library in accord with the Library’s intentional design, awaiting patiently for the Council to honour the legacy and aspirations of Carnegie regarding the future development of this, his finest gift to the nation, the Edinburgh Central Library.


Given this witness, it is as if the spirit of Carnegie himself resided in the limbs of this remarkable tree, which as it turned out were perfectly poised to house a platform in order to willingly support a tree occupation!

After an initial threat of eviction from the developer, the Sycamore seemed to offer a solution by allowing the opportunity to relocate the platform to another position higher up the tree, overlooking the public pavement and road, thereby naturally challenging the claim by the developer of being on so called ‘private property’.


In response to this spirited action, in spite of all the previous efforts in attempting to raise awareness of the campaign, the media at last took up the story, shining some light on the matter, yet drawing little attention to the insult to the Central Library and the legacy and aspirations of its founder.

Media Articles:







Seven days into the tree occupation, following a court summons and the threat of criminal prosecution, within moments of Sheriff Kenneth McGowan’s decision concluding the hearing in favour of the developer, the tree was tragically torn down in spite of an emotional appeal to the Sheriff to spare the tree until such time as the matter of the legal case challenging the Council’s decision to award planning permission was settled.


More tragically still, the wood from the tree had originally been offered to the Grassmarket Community Project to be used for craft purposes. However, the tree was so crudely hacked down its use was diminished.


In an email to the local Grassmarket Residents’ Association one notable onlooker wrote:


“I know that this is a minor point, but the level of vandalism meted out on the tree was outrageous, disproportionate and showed a level of violence and vindictiveness that I have rarely witnessed before. It was a crime against Nature, notwithstanding everything else. With the Police colluding it all felt deeply unsettling”.



When the last tree is cut… and the last stream poisoned, you will realise, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.

                                                       – Native American saying


For the sake of the miraculous tree, the remarkable legacy of Carnegie, and the community of this ancient neighbourhood at the heart of the nation, the campaign continues…


Here’s to a 2nd Age of Enlightenment in which the four guiding words of the Enlightenment inscribed on the Scottish Parliament mace are at last honoured by all: The People, politicians, and most particularly of all, corporations, developers and financial speculators.


Wisdom – Justice – Compassion – Integrity

Future generations may then be spared of the ultimate shame of felling the last tree to satiate the madness of a morally bankrupt system in which endless economic growth on a finite planet plots a course towards ecological Armageddon…


Let There Be Light: A detailed assessment of the proposed India Buildings hotel.



For those with time and inclination, the Old Town Community Council has produced a detailed assessment of the hotel application and the corresponding planning process (see link below), revealing that the Council’s planning report in favour of the hotel was ”significantly flawed’, presenting insufficient, misleading, contradictory information, representing a clear conflict of interests due to the proposed disposal of valuable public assets implicated with the application.




Council commissioned Conservation and Strategic studies of the Library, obtained through Freedom of Information requests, significantly informed the OTCC assessment. Had these key documents been available to the community when Councillors were deciding on whether to grant planning permission for the proposed hotel the vote would have almost certainly been influenced and may well have resulted in the hotel being REFUSED, given that consent was only narrowly granted by 8 votes to 6.


The Library assessments are available to download here:




For anyone intrigued enough with time to spare, you may like to view the Council’s web cam of the committee proceedings that resulted in the highly contentious hotel being awarded planning permission:


Let There Be Light: A short critique of the proposed India Buildings hotel.




As with most major planning applications, developers typically prevail through a process of attrition; initially overwhelming the public with hundreds of pages of documentation, then submitting revised plans in response to initial objections, and then finally invoking a right of appeal (which communities are DENIED), if planning consent is refused.

With ‘a presumption in favour of sustainable economic development’, to those with experience, it seems as if the planning process is a ‘done deal’, in spite of so called ‘democracy’, and that society has only taken baby steps from feudal times, such is the favour still shown to those who have land and wealth.

In the case of the proposed India Buildings hotel, for ease of understanding, a one page critique is available to download here:




The text reads:

 Let There Be Light In Edinburgh’s Old Town!

In recognition of the support of all ward Councillors, MSP’s, the local MP, the Old Town Community Council & surrounding Community Council’s, and the many thousands of Citizens who have signed the 38 Degrees petitions:

Let There Be Light In Edinburgh’s Old Town

No Confidence In Edinburgh Council Planning Department

This campaign opposes the decision of Edinburgh Council to approve a massive 11 storey, 225 bed hotel in the heart of the Old Town at India Buildings on Victoria St, extending down to the Cowgate.  Application: 15/04445/FUL

The local community considers this proposed development will have very serious long term implications for the Old Town and the reputation of the City, and regard the Council’s planning report in favour of the hotel to have been significantly flawed; presenting insufficient, misleading, contradictory information, revealing a serious conflict of interest (see below). In awarding planning permission, key evidence, obtained through Freedom of Information requests, was withheld from Councillors, which would otherwise have almost certainly resulted in REFUSAL.

Read more