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Comment: The Town Without a Purpose

Imagine you are a newcomer to the town, a traveller heading for the city. You have travelled up from the South leaving the A74(M) and are travelling through historic Moffat, the “Outstanding Conservation Town” or so the sign says. After miles of rolling hills and leafy surroundings you reach a small village called Broughton. They’re Scotland’s Floral Gateway Winner, you know, or so the sign says. You turn off, having heard good things about a burgh called Biggar. Five miles later you are on a well maintained high street with historical features, you can tell that is a loved town which dates back to the fiftennth century, or so the sign says.

Leaving the burgh you continue the slog ever closer to Edinburgh, you pass through the remainder of the Scottish Borders and eventually reach a quaint village named Carlops. Upon exiting, a small white, faded, sign with an oak leaf on it welcomes you to Midlothian. You continue onwards, pondering whether your car really does have enough fuel to reach your city centre hotel. To be on the safe side, you reprogram the sat nav looking for a petrol station. It tells you that in around five miles there is a petrol station in a town named “Penicuik”. You turn off the smooth tarmac of the A702 and immediately notice a deterioration in the road surface. Pot holes laden both the sides, pushing you into the middle. Already, you have sense of regret; the car could have made it to the next station where you wouldn’t have had to risk the car’s suspension or tyres.

“Welcome to historic Penicuik – Gateway to Midlothian” a sign says at the end of the rickety road. How odd you think, didn’t I pass a ‘Welcome to Midlothian’ sign about five miles ago? Surely there is more to this town than just forming an entrance point? The thought dissipates as you enter the petrol station.

For this traveller, that would be enough to cement their view on the town. Penicuik would appear to be a town with no purpose. A town where one merely stops for a gallon or two of fuel before heading onwards to bigger and better things.

However Penicuik did have a purpose. It was the papermaking town, the local iron and coal mining town and the crystal making town. Though all this is forgotten. It is over. One must never reminisce or think fondly upon the times of purposement. All that can be said now, is that the town is a mere “gateway” to a county which started five miles ago.

This isn’t right. Why are we saddled with a council who can only muster up a selfpromoting tagline which advocates no positive thoughts over the town’s heritage? What about Moffat, or Broughton or Biggar? Should they be forbidden from celebrating their past? Of course not, but they are all still admired by their ruling administration. Penicuik on the other hand is not.

We can deduce this alone from the tagline, “Gateway to Midlothian”.  The statement has no place. It could carry equal weight whether it was in a field off the A68 or by the county sign at Fairmilehead. The place, in which the sign is situated, is merely giving access to another place. Penicuik is therefore just a place giving way to another place. It doesn’t matter that it has a population of around 20,000 or that it was founded in 1770 before going on to produce paper which would be exported throughout the world, it is just there. It is a problem to be dealt with.

In the mind of the sign makers, ‘Midlothian’ is the subject of great importance, it is the place travellers must look forward to. Not Penicuik, no, it’s just an entrance way to something better. But why should the tourists look forward to Midlothian. Would it be for the town centre destroying retail park at Straiton? Would it be for the road network which can’t handle a single lane closure? Would it be for the countryside riddled with discarded waste? Midlothian would be nothing if it wasn’t for the historical towns in it and it would be wise of the council not to forget it.

Of course, they don’t forget it though. Take Dalkeith for example. Despite being only two miles from the county border, the council believes that it is historical enough to warrant the tagline of “The Historic Town”. Why is it not also a “Gateway to Midlothian”? Surely being three miles closer to the border would make it more of an entranceway than Penicuik? It would, but Dalkeith is the home of Midlothian Council and first impressions matter. Their headquarters must be in an area worthy of the administration’s great power and so it is necessary to remind one of the town’s age, for age carries great importance.

But let’s not turn this into the Dalkeith vs Penicuik battle, for that would be unfair on those in Dalkeith who are equally dismayed with the administration, or should I say the system. They too, have a rich diverse past with historical events worth publicising above an beyond the generalist statement of “historical town”.

But to get to the heart of the matter, this really isn’t about a sign, or a sentence on a sign, or a word in a sentence on a sign. The problem is about power. Townsfolk recognise their town for what it is, past, present and future. They should have the ability to choose what is on that sign and how their town is recognised, but that is not how our delocalised system of power works. Never mind the Scottish Government or the Westminster Government, we have a problem down here, where the day to day decisions are made. The system is broken, our own council is just a front for an establishment even further away, an establishment which has the power to overrule decisions made by the people at the bottom. Take planning for example. Scotmid’s application for a takeaway in the saturated town centre was refused by Midlothian Council’s planning committee, a rare good decision which was overturned by a government reporter with no experience of the town, or what it wants.

Penicuik needs its independence. No, not from the United Kingdom, that is not what we’re discussing, but from Midlothian, from the Scottish Government, from the system. We should be free to make decisions as a town, whether it is about a sign, a shop or a road. It is what we deserve. It is what we need.

The next time you drive through Penicuik’s welcome signs, don’t think of it just being a ‘gateway’. It is our former papermaking, historical house hosting, Hunter and Lass loving, home. We’ll never forget it, and if everything was right in this world, neither would those only travelling through it briefly. One day, we may have the power to make decisions for our own town to change that sign, but in the meantime, the history dictating what Penicuik deserves must be conserved where we can, in our head, heart and soul.

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