Returning to Muirhouse: Martello Court by Paul S Smith

There is a lot of discussion at present about what our towns and cities will look and feel like in the post-COVID world.

A death spiral of economic activity and loss of both permanent and transient populations, could lastingly render the centres barren wastelands, redundant in many different senses. With tourist numbers in decline and employees choosing to work from home, the whole service infrastructure required is becoming obsolete. The flip side, is that people are fostering an interest in localism, in how peoples’ immediate environment can serve their daily and weekly needs by starting to re-imagine what life could be like without the imperative for travelling and commuting for entertainment, employment and enjoyment.

In a sense, much of this reconfiguration has already taken place. Many of the communities housed in the areas surrounding our big cities have changed dramatically in the last three decades. They are urecognisable from what they looked like, at least, in the past. Whilst many of these changes have been cosmetic, masking deep, underlying societal problems, there’s no doubt that by altering their physical appearance, many of our peripheral housing estates, for example, have been given an outward appearance of change and improvement.

One such place is Muirhouse, one of a collection of housing schemes in the north of Edinburgh developed in the 1950s as the original process of reconfiguring the city’s centre took place. This involved slum clearing – some would say slum cleansing – scattering the capital’s population to the edges of the city, dispersing communities and displacing many of the chronic problems largely out-of-sight on Edinburgh’s fringes.

To anyone growing up in that era, places such as Muirhouse were often labelled with descriptions such as ‘notorious’, ‘violent’ or ‘deprived’ and were seen, if they were ever looked at, as a blight on the city, best ignored and forgotten about. The architecture was grey and brutal, with the area being dominated by the Soviet-style Martello Court, a 200-foot, 23 story edifice which became the epicentre and synonym for all the area’s problems.

Almost 30 years ago, Network photographer John Sturrock chronicled the community as part of the Positive Lives – Responses to HIV photodocumentary project which graphically laid bare many of the challenges facing the people of Muirhouse at the time: crime, poverty, drugs, disease. Nevertheless, what was also communicated was a strong sense of resistence and community camaraderie. A feeling that people could, and would, survive. In recent years, Document Scotland has featured the work of two other photographers who have both made work on the estate: Yoshi Kametani’s often wry and colourful portrait of the place and Paul Duke’s No Ruined Stone, an insider’s view, which laced reality with positivity.

This year, as the privations of lockdown gripped the nation, photographer Paul S. Smith embarked on his own project to document and interpret life in Muirhouse. Born in England, Paul’s family moved to Edinburgh when he was a boy, and he grew up in one of the more leafy areas of the city which abut Muirhouse. His memories tally with those of so many of the place, negative stereotypes reinforced by hearsay, rumour and suspicion. It is to his credit that, three decades on, he has chosen to revisit his childhood and confront these memories and prejudices.

We caught up with Paul and asked him a bit about his work and the approach he is taking to making it.

DocScot: Can you tell us a bit about the project?

Paul S Smith: The work Martello Court is a five-year project which began in early-March 2020 during my studies at the RCA, London. With the project I hope to give an objective eye to the people that live and work in Muirhouse, giving myself an opportunity to understand a place that dominated the imaginations of my childhood. As stated by Document Scotland’s Stephen McLaren in 2018: “Places in which we grow up rarely leave us, they exert a pull across the decades and often force us in later life to re-examine how we have become the person we are today“.

DS: The inspiration to do the work goes much further back, to your family’s time in Edinburgh…

PSS: In the summer 1987 my father gained the position as the headmaster of the prestigious public school – Edinburgh Academy. As a family we all moved to city from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire and lived within the school grounds. My sister and I (aged eight) were fortunate enough to attend the school for free. With a Dutch mother, English father and little understanding of Scotland, we had to adjust to life in Edinburgh. I subsequently spent my adolescence there, although not always fitting in with the etiquette of public school life. It was not until the early-1990s that I first heard of Muirhouse.


It was the first class of the day at the senior school I overheard a class mate of mine describing how his brother had just been attacked whilst visiting Murihouse; a housing scheme toward the periphery of north Edinburgh (a scheme that would later be the setting for the book and film Trainspotting). He was angry, talking about his disgust of the place and the people who lived there. What I remember most is his portrayal of the poor state of the housing, describing the residents as “animals”. Rather than being appalled by his story I became instead fascinated in what I had heard. As already having the feeling of an outsider at the school, I wondered where this place was and what the residents really looked like. Way before the invention of Google Maps and, despite being just over a mile from where I lived, I never visited the scheme – instead cycling along, what I saw as the safety of, Ferry Road and occasionally looking over to where the scheme was, hopefully passing residents who were leaving and taking a bus to the city centre.

DS: The urban landscape there is dominated by Martello Court. This then became the inspiration for the project…

PSS: Within Muirhouse is the tower block Martello Court which during the 1970s became known because as Terror Tower. Standing twenty-three stories high, the block can be seen from a distance. I remember using excuses to visit Edinburgh Castle, Carlton Hill and Arthur’s Seat just to see the tower block from that distance – never telling anybody of my intention. What I liked was that despite the towers marginal location it still had a narrative within the city’s consciousness.

DS: It’s quite a leap from you as a boy to working on a photography project in the area all these years later. How did it come about?

PSS: The project Martello Court began whilst I was studying on the Masters of Research (MRes) at the Royal College of Art, RCA (finishing October 2020). As a class we were asked to respond to a page from any book that had particular significance to us. Wondering what to do I opted for Trainspotting. I decided to select a page where the name ‘Muirhouse’ was first used; then marked all the other words out. This activity helped to highlight the housing scheme away from the framework of the text. I presented the work to my class the next week. Unbeknown to me this was to be the starting point for the project; as during my first tutorial – and lengthy conversations about Scotland, outsider identity and the various housing schemes of North Edinburgh – my tutor finished by saying: “Well, I guess you’re going back to Edinburgh then!”.

DS: How did you start the photography in Muirhouse?

PSS: My first point of contact was the concierge at Martello Court, Gabriella, who put me through to the head of Martello Court Residence Association – Etta McInnes. Etta is an 88-year-old third floor resident and she gave me access to the garden, offices and stairwell in the building. She is my future point of contact for the next few years. Etta has lived on the estate for 30 years and ‘runs the show’; in fact after spending time with her I did once refer to the block as Mar-Etta Court. I had the pleasure of meeting Etta’s son Ian, on my last visit in August, who about of mother: “You didn’t have to even watch the news, you just need to go and talk to my mother and she’ll tell you everything, you know what I mean. She is better than Sky News. Ironically, Ian went to school with both Irvine Welsh and Gordon Strachan, both former residents of the scheme.

DS: Did you have any doubts or anxieties about making the work?

PSS: I found the experience of the architecture of Martello Court at first daunting, but after meeting the various characters and nationalities that inhabit the space, I discovered a warm and welcoming environment – not at all as its reputation or nickname, Terror Tower, would suggest. For my photographic work I mapped out several areas that would best suit portraits around the tower block and, on the day of my shoot, I found the residents to be particularly involved with my project and understood my interest in the area and its present population. Despite of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic I found the residents still happy to be photographed and interviewed on their views of isolation and their hopes for the future.

DS: Thank you Paul for sharing this work with us. We look forward to finding out how the project develops over the coming years. Good luck!

Paul S Smith is a lecturer in photography at Buckinghamshire College Group with a focus on alternative landscapes and communities within the United Kingdom, Europe and America. More information about his work can be found on his website.

Etta McInnes, Martello Court. © Paul S Smith, 2020 all rights reserved.
Martello Court © Paul S Smith, 2020, all rights reserved
Martello Court © Paul S Smith, 2020, all rights reserved
Martello Court © Paul S Smith, 2020, all rights reserved
Martello Court © Paul S Smith, 2020, all rights reserved
Martello Court © Paul S Smith, 2020, all rights reserved
Martello Court © Paul S Smith, 2020, all rights reserved
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“No Ruined Stone” by Paul Duke

(c) Paul Duke

Paul Duke’s new book of photography, No Ruined Stone, reminds us that the places in which we grow up rarely leave us, they exert a pull across the decades and often force us in later life to re-examine how we have become the person we are today.

Muirhouse, built in the 1950s as a council estate to the west of Edinburgh has had a troubled recent history with substandard high-rise housing, chronic unemployment and endemic drug use among many of its younger residents creating seemingly intractable social problems. It has also had a reputation for strong community spirit and looking after its own as Scottish legends and former Muirhouse residents, Gordon Strachan and Irvine Welsh, can attest to. Photographer, Paul Duke, also grew-up in Muirhouse, and although he left to study and then work in London, family roots have repeatedly drawn him back and recently he decided that photography was the ideal way to re-connect with the community that dominated his childhood years.

In, No Ruined Stone, Paul’s black and white landscapes and portrait photographs are enigmatic and loaded with the kind of symbolism that only someone with a deep and complex knowledge of Muirhouse could achieve. Long-overdue re-development of the housing stock is re-shaping the estates and the clash between undergoing construction and the natural world that tenaciously clings on around these zones provides many of the strongest images in the book. Locals, who Paul encounters in and around the neighborhood, are photographed as they are found, the exchange seems natural and there is little attempt made to heroise.

To find out more about this new body of work, Document Scotland asked Paul to elaborate on the impetus for returning to Muirhouse to shoot the photographs which make up No Ruined Stone.

(c) Paul Duke

DocScot: Tell us about your history with Muirhouse? How has it changed since your early days there?

PD: I was raised in Muirhouse and lived there for the first eighteen-years of my life. Despite the fact that poor social conditions made it a very tough place to grow up, I had a very happy and loving childhood there. My formative years were greatly shaped by a strong maternal influence and two inspiring and very brilliant young art teachers at school, Richard White and Maldwyn Stride. My mother brought up two boys on her own, it wasn’t easy for her emotionally nor financially, but she was determined to keep us out of trouble and instilled in us both, strong moral values. My brother, like me, went onto study at the Royal College of Art in London – that meant everything to her, to break the mould of expectation for young men from a deprived Scottish housing estate.

My father moved back close to the area some time after my mother left, so I returned fairly frequently to visit him. I still have relatives who live in the area to this day.

The physical change has been significant – my house, school and a big chunk of the original Muirhouse estate have been razed to the ground as part of an urban regeneration scheme. However, many of the social ills that dogged the area back in my early days are still unfortunately prevalent.

DocScot: When and how did the idea come to you to take a series of photos? Were you focussed on what you wanted to achieve or were you just seeing what you saw?

PD: I knew during the making of the ‘At Sea’ project that I wanted to return to Scotland to make more work. Both my parents passed away around that period of time therefore it felt timely to continue to explore my own Scottish identity as well as this notion of national identity, which interests me greatly.

There was a strong pull to go back to my roots and I knew from the beginning that I wanted to make a body of work that celebrated the fighting spirit, dignity and hope of the residents living there today – I was very focused on that but always kept my eyes open. I made the project over two years so it was a very organic and intuitive experience. Working with a large format camera slowed down the process of making photographs – this was intentional. I also wanted to play with the visual language, to create a narrative that struck the balance between objective documentary and a subjective project.

(c) Paul Duke

DocScot: How did you explain to interested observers what you were upto?

PD: Muirhouse is a small close-knit community and word gets around quickly. I made early visits to walk around and meet people before I started making any photographs. After that, I made regular monthly visits and never missed a trip over the whole period of making the project – it was really important to be consistent. Residents therefore got used to seeing me around, trust and familiarity followed. The warmth, kindness and support I experienced when I explained what I was doing, was humbling.

DocScot: Was it important to shoot in overcast or non-summer weather?

PD: The most important thing was to always keep things free. I never allowed myself to get caught-up in lighting preference as I had no control over that – everything was shot with natural light. I made the most of the light I had to work with on any given day and enjoyed the challenge.

DocScot: How did the book come about?

Last year, I approached German photo book publisher, Hartmann Books. Markus Hartmann was previously director of photography at Hatje-Cantz before setting up his own publishing company. Markus was raised in Berlin and I think the photographs and subsequent social message I had created struck a personal chord with him. Markus and his team were therefore very keen to publish the series.

DocScot: What kind of future do you think Muirhouse has and are you likely to have any role in that?

PD: In terms of the residents, yes, Muirhouse has a good future. I had the great privilege to make friends with a handful of dynamic, committed and inspiring community activists. If developers and politicians consult these individuals and others like them over the course of time, then I am confident that Muirhouse will successfully deal with the pressing social inequities that exist, but only with their consultation.

I have no immediate plans to take on any active role but I have expressed some future involvement. However, I do hope in the interim that the content of the book highlights social inequity, challenges deep-rooted class prejudice and offers a far-reaching insight into a deprived and disenfranchised community.

(c) Paul Duke

DocScot: What you are up to in the short-medium term and how is your photographic practice developing.

PD: I am currently developing a new project, again based in Scotland. It’s still in the germination period so not a lot to expand on at this stage, but I do hope to start shooting in earnest this coming September. This project will form the third and final part of a trilogy of works exploring modern day Scotland.

Many thanks to Paul for the interview and for sharing his work. The book, No Ruined Stone, is published by Hartmann Projects and can be bought here…http://www.hartmannprojects.com/publications/paul-duke-publication

(c) Paul Duke

(c) Paul Duke

(c) Paul Duke

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