A second tour of Cumbernauld with Dr Diane Watters. 

I probably shouldn’t admit this, but Diane, Mitch and I went in search of the school from Gregory’s Girl only to be told by a man with a paper, when we reached the fenced-off site of the demolished building, ‘Never go back, pet. Your mum must have told you never to go back.’ We also went in search of a road in Greenfaulds that Diane remembered from her youth: a long straight road with buildings on one side and a sloping prairie-like slice of grass on the other. We never found it and we almost lost Diane.

About the school from Gregory’s Girl, Abronhill High, we did know it was long gone, surely? Our colleague, Chris Leslie, would have known.

To be fair to Mitch, he sketches and follows along. When he’s doing fieldwork he walks with his sketchpad resting on his belly, looking up and down, up and down, but he’s not looking where he’s going, he’s looking at houses – really looking at the angles and elevations and proportions – and he’s happy to go around with us and tune in and out of Diane’s conversation.

And Diane, she takes you along raised access walkways and down steps and says ‘Come and look at this original sign’ or ‘See the harl on this building’ or ‘Look at that view’ and I follow her holding my Dictaphone in front of me, chasing her footsteps, hauling my bag over my shoulder, filtering the chat about her sister’s dogs and reupholstered chairs from her architectural expertise. Diane is a research fellow at Edinburgh University. She’s an expert on new towns, especially Cumbernauld.

So we jump in the car, first to Millcroft Road in Carbrain where a man, holding an official piece of paper with his name and flat number on it, tells us his house is going to be demolished. All the flats on Millcroft Road will go. The street is run-down. Brick walls are caved in, entrances have their glass panels smashed and a trolley sits on the deck access. A couple of basement gardens are well kept with summer flowers and features for birds. The original buildings have been added to, says Diane. ‘The roughcast is original but the brickwork is new. The door is new. It’s all postmodern.’ Seagulls squawk overhead. Two men carry a fridge down some steps and into the back of a van.

‘We’re looking at what it’s become,’ Diane says, ‘But you’ve got to remember that when it was first designed it was of major international significance. The idea that you would have a new town with an urban area almost squashed in. Low rise high density to give an urban feel. It’s called urbanism.’ We say goodbye to the man with the official papers. I try to track him down later because I want to speak to him some more – I foolishly didn’t take a phone number or email from him – but I never find him. I show a photo of him to staff in Cumbernauld Library and someone recognises him. If he comes in, they’ll say we were asking after him. So far, I’ve not found him again; he’s lost in our research.

 

Abronhill Character Sketch – Mitch Miller

We go to Abronhill and look at the patio houses with their flat roofs and L-shaped design. ‘They’re absolutely fantastic, aren’t they?’ says Diane. And they are. ‘They can be freestanding. Sometimes they can be linked. This looks like it’s linked.’

 

We see single aspect houses with their main windows overlooking areas where children would have played. We walk to an underpass and Diane points out the bus stop to Glasgow. There’s a mini town centre in Abronhill and as we walk to it Diane explains that the plan was for Abronhill to represent a mini Cumbernauld, with a town centre and areas of housing around it.

Six months into our Concrete Dreams project and the scale and ambition of the original Cumbernauld New Town project drops: ‘Did they have the whole of Cumbernauld in mind, the way they were going to build it, when they built Abronhill?’ I ask Diane. She says, ‘Yes! Yes! This was the plan. So they’d have a team that would do North Kildrum and another team would do South Kildrum. One team would do North Carbrain, one would do South Carbrain. Abronhill was built later, but it wasn’t an addition, it was part of the plan if I’m correct in remembering. They wanted to build up here. Thay was the plan.’ A plan for Abronhill that included a mini town centre, a covered arcade with pharmacy, newsagent and restaurant, a church and a pub that Diane went to when she was a teenager.

The Cumbernauld New Town project was immense. Groundbreaking. I look at the buildings around me and think of the vision needed to take a piece of land and create a whole town from scratch.

And so to the school from Gregory’s Girl. It doesn’t take Diane long to realise that it’s demolished and gone. A metal fence separates where we stand from the land. The man with the one-liners and a great face, according to Mitch, who sketches him as he talks to Diane, says: ‘Never go back. That’s where the trauma starts.’ He’s joking. Or is he? ‘You don’t see faces like that nowadays,’ says Mitch.

 

Alison and Mitch in search of Lost Geography…

‘I need to take a photograph of you two to say that I’d got you to see the high school and it’s been demolished,’ Diane says and she tells us that she went out with a boy whose mother was headmistress of the school, that there was a lot of movement between the young people of Kildrum and Abronhill, that the Maltings was one of the pubs that served her when she was underage, and new towns were often named after the farms that occupied the land. That’s something that isn’t often written about, she says. The farms that were cleared to make way for the new town. ‘You’d have been compensated. But we know these farms were generations old. And that must have been really quite traumatic.’

We stop for lunch. We explore Seafar. We talk about the design of Cumbernauld, its greenery and landscaping and pockets of housing, including twelve tower blocks that have now been demolished, and the planners’ vision for an Italian hilltop style town that could be seen in the distance from any direction. Cumbernauld set the model for new towns in Scotland, Diane says.

We walk westwards with an eye on finding Diane’s row of houses. Marmion Road? she wonders. ‘I don’t think they exist, these bloody houses.’ We pass a boarded-up pub and ask a woman with a dog if she knows of the road with tall houses on one side and grass on the other. She thinks she knows the road Diane is remembering. Mitch and I pat her dog, a Cockerpoo, whose hair is as sleek and shiny as a spaniel’s: ‘Both parents were genuine cockerpoos but she’s a throwback,’ the woman says. ‘The rest of the litter that she was in, they’re all wee teddy bears, and she’s like that.’ She points to her golden, straight-haired dog.

Abronhill and Seafar – sketches by Mitch Miller

And then we realise we’ve lost Diane. We walk around the octagonal shaped pub, we go along the cobblestone path but we can’t find her. She’s looking for a row of houses, I tell Mitch who has returned to his sketchbook.

We find Diane but she can’t find the houses. ‘Just like the blooming high school,’ she says and we head back to the car, Diane talking about the impact of the right to buy policy on Cumbernauld and the carry-outs that she used to get from the octagonal shaped pub, called, she tells us, The Mallard. Her memory of Cumbernauld is patterned and eclectic; layers of New Town knowledge put onto her lived experience of growing up in the town. It’s no wonder roads get lost, or whole schools are demolished while she’s thinking about roughcasting and roofs, single aspect houses, boyfriends and carry-outs. We’ll keep looking.

Dr Diane M Watters is Research Fellow, Building A Modern Scotland: The New Towns, c.1947-2017 at the University of Edinburgh.