Dr Diane Watters is an expert on New Towns. She is a research fellow at Edinburgh University and has written books and articles on Cumbernauld. She was born and bred in the town and if anyone could kick off our Concrete Dreams project by showing us around some of the residential areas, it was her.

We met her off the train at Cumbernauld Station on a cold yet sunny day in March, the wintry weather still demanding woolly hats and big coats. Patches of snow and ice lay on rooftops and shaded paths. There was a good wind but the sky was bright blue. Diane had much to say, knowing Cumbernauld on so many levels – personal and academic – and we had much to learn.

Most people will know if they’ve lived in or been to Cumbernauld that the Town Centre sits at the top of a hill and all around it – north, south, east and west – are residential zones, built in different architectural styles. Main roads circle the town and one bisects the centre. Elsewhere there are footbridges, underpasses and pedestrian-only paths designed and built to make it safe and easy for people to get around without a car. The residential areas are distinct, designed by different architects. Some housing is privately owned – once referred to as the ‘bought houses’ – and some is owned by Sanctuary Housing Association.


Recollective On Tour with Diane Watters

Diane took us to Kildrum and showed us housing and landscaping, schools, churches, houses with sloping roofs and flat roofs, cobbles brought from Glasgow and used to decorate the pavements and wooded areas that separate the residential zones.

In Kildrum we parked by houses with streets and parking at the ‘back’ which seemed like the ‘front’ but then walked down footpaths which revealed paths on which stood the real front doors and main entrances of the houses, away from cars and traffic. As we walked along these carless paths, it was easy to imagine children playing. ‘One of the ideas was that the kitchen would look out to the front so that the women could look out for the weans,’ Diane said.

She knows the rules of these residential streets but I wonder if everyone is still as law-abiding as she is. She pointed out a gentleman walking down a road meant for cars: ‘That man shouldn’t be walking along this road when there’s a footpath over there,’ she said. When we’d jumped back in the car and were off to the Y-flats we saw a woman with shopping bags standing at the edge of a grass verge.She should be using the underpass not trying to cross here. She’s scared of using the underpass, though.’ The cars shot by her. Was that a small example of how the town and its infrastructure and pathways no longer works for its residents? Or am I making too big a leap and trying to find greater meaning in a woman simply attempting to cross a road? I’m looking forward to finding out what people think of their town.

On our tour Diane showed us flats built for just one or two people as well as big houses with plenty of room inside – four bedrooms – if you had a large family. Through the gaps between buildings we saw the hills and countryside beyond. ‘Isn’t that beautiful?’ Diane said frequently, pointing out how the design of the houses and the way they were set in front of their bucolic backdrop was pleasing on the eye. She showed me a photograph of an extraordinary-looking playpark and roundabout in woodland beside Macelhose and said she spent a good part of her childhood playing there. As we peered through the door of Kildrum Parish Church she told us that families who were Catholic and families who were Protestant lived side by side and it was only when the children went to school that they realised there were any ‘differences’ between them.

We looked up the spiral stairwells of the Y-blocks and Diane told us about the now-demolished tower blocks. She told us about Anne Duff, the female architect who designed some of Cumbernauld’s housing and explained the theory behind Cumbernauld’s layout and road systems.

‘Neighbourhood planning was something that came up in the early 20th century through into the interwar years. The architects of the post-war years wanted to expunge the kind of picturesque, spaced out ideas of the neighbourhood unit and the garden city. So, you would have one shop and maybe one chemist beside it and then everything you needed to get, you were to go to the Town Centre. So, the only local buildings were schools and nurseries. It would be about twenty minutes from here to the Town Centre. You’d have lots of underpasses to go through. All roads lead to the Town Centre.’

And so, after our tour – we’ll need to go back with her to see more – to the Town Centre we went for a cup of coffee and a bowl of soup. Before that we got a glimpse of Seafar from the car. It was a good, bright start to the project. And one of my many takeaways was that the architects of the Town Centre were not the architects of the residential areas, and that the colossal, brutalist look of the Town Centre architecture is in contrast to the nuanced, sometimes delicate, linear and almost tessellated designs of its residential areas. We are keen to get residents’ thoughts on where they live or lived and of course, what they think of their Town Centre and all the roads to it.


Dr Diane M Watters is Research Fellow, Building A Modern Scotland: The New Towns, c.1947-2017 at the University of Edinburgh. Her chapter, ‘Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire’, in which she writes about Cumbernauld, appears in The Buildings of Scotland, Yale University Press.