I’m occasionally asked why – having left Scotland for Japan – I chose to return. Many seem confused that, having “escaped” the clutches of Fife for a new life abroad, I’d want to make it back to somewhere so bland and “normal” as Kirkcaldy.
That question overlooks a few things. First; our perception of “normal” is relative. Japan may still seem quintessentially exotic to the eyes of a western tourist, but for the Japanese it’s their everyday existence. Even for this Scot, Japan now feels like a second home rather than a remote destination.
Another thing this question overlooks is the intrinsic worth of our hometowns: the culture and values that we’ve inherited, as well as the communities, family and friends that have shaped us. Perhaps that occasionally takes an outsider’s perspective to truly appreciate.
Don’t get me wrong: many of my teenage days were spent plotting an escape. My younger self dreamed of flying to Japan; what opportunities could there possibly be here on my doorstep? The fantasy worlds explored in fiction and gaming held so much more interest than anything Fife had to offer. I had little appreciation for Adam Smith or our mining heritage. Back then, Kirkcaldy was merely a starting point and a stepping stone: it was unthinkable that it could ever be anyone’s destination.
It would be fair to say that I’ve changed my mind.
For all its many faults, Scotland is – on the whole – a beautiful country with a warm, welcoming people. And within that beautiful country, every community has unique stories to tell. No two places are alike, and it can take time to discover and appreciate the value of what’s right in front of us, sometimes hidden in plain sight.
This is Scotland by Dan Gray and Alan McCredie ends with a suggestion that there is no one “Scotland”, but instead, many multiple “Scotlands” that vary drastically depending on the circumstances of of the individual. Geography, class and income will inevitably influence our perceptions. A crofting life in Shetland has little in common with, say, life as a supermarket worker living in Leith. That diversity of experience, I believe, goes beyond disparities between towns and cities, and leads to our different interpretations of those towns and cities that we call home.
Kirkcaldy fits well as a microcosm of this phenomenon. At its best, many see Kirkcaldy as a home: a peaceful place to raise a family with stunning coastline and parks. It’s close to Scotland’s major cities while offering a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of city life. Yet at its worst, Kirkcaldy is seen as a post-industrial “shell” whose best days have long since faded into memory. It is perceived as a town of wealth inequality, dilapidated buildings and restless youths desperate to flee. Both of those perceptions may be true at once.
The “lang toun” consists of many disparate lives that, somehow, like Scotland itself, create a whole. If we’re being honest, though, Kirkcaldy is a bit odd, even by those standards. It’s too big to be a small town, and too small to be a city. While the town once followed a “lang” strip running along the coast, it has expanded inland over the last century: turning its back on the Forth and hosting an increasing number of commuters who may well stay here, but whose working life is in the city and whose family lives are lived mostly in private.
There are many “Kirkcaldys” between the centre and the commuter belt, and the geographic spread makes it very easy for those different “Kirkcaldys” to never see, hear or interact with one another.
Despite the best efforts of local historians and heritage groups, much of Kirkcaldy’s history is not just lost but almost unknown to many of its new inhabitants. Much of our architectural heritage is now either decaying or outright demolished. Given the lack of importance Kirkcaldy’s planning committees have given to Kirkcaldy’s history, it’s hard to expect newcomers to the town to feel any lasting connection beyond their gardens when their only frames of reference are new-build homes.
In economic terms, Kirkcaldy’s challenges are not unique. Many towns across the UK are confronted with the same challenges. Once a thriving producer of linoleum and coal, the town has precious little manufacturing industry remaining. The town certainly hasn’t been as badly affected as, say, Kelty or Balingry, but there can be no doubt that the closure of these industries left a gaping hole in the town’s identity.
As an aside, I feel that even Kirkcaldy’s “boom” era should not exclusively be seen through the eyes of rose-tinted glasses. Fife has a proud history of mining strikes and a strong trade union tradition, and while the pits did offer employment, we should not over-romanticise conditions that for the workers were never easy and, at their worst, were undeniably exploitative.
As with all high streets in Britain, the advent of Amazon pulled footfall back into the living room. This was compounded by the development of a retail park at the “top of the toon”, just off the A92 that runs from Edinburgh to Dundee. Commuters and motorists can easily skip the town centre, where a Sainsbury’s and McDonald’s sit handily on the outskirts. The closure of the town centre support BID, Kirkcaldy4All, has been another source of understandable anxiety.
It’s also staggering that Kirkcaldy still doesn’t have a cinema since our last one closed in 2000 – thanks to it being bought and closed in quick succession, driving footfall to the new Odeon complex in Dunfermline. Yet as much as I love film, it’s probably time to accept that the oft-talked of dream of a new cinema isn’t happening. Or at least; not any time soon (though I’ll quite happily be wrong about this).
My personal biggest bugbear is how Kirkcaldy’s greatest assets are so frequently overlooked. Sitting on the Fife Coastal Path, the views from Seafield to Kinghorn or Pathhead Sands to Dysart are strikingly beautiful on a clear day, looking over to Edinburgh and the Bass Rock with seals and ancient castle ruins. Kirkcaldy’s spacious green parks are frequented by dog walkers and joggers but rarely see any major events, all of which seemed to dry up in the late 2000s. While I’m a big fan of the marquee events in the town centre, so much more could be done to make the most of Kirkcaldy’s outdoor space that just isn’t. And that is frustrating.
And yet, the supposed demise of Kirkcaldy remains greatly overstated.
There have been some very welcome steps in the right direction in recent years. The 2019 Kirkcaldy Parks Half Marathon was a remarkable success and inspired me to get into jogging myself. Greener Kirkcaldy in particular are relentless to get more residents outdoors by running cycle workshops and walking festivals to promote just how good Kirkcaldy’s natural assets are. The Beach Highland Games have been a fun (if wet) fixture of the annual calendar, and the decision to extend the pedestrian areas of the waterfront – while controversial – is a long overdue step to make the most of our natural assets.
I recently participated in an online event hosted by Greener Kirkcaldy and Love Oor Lang Toun called Kirkcaldy After Lockdown. It was an interesting evening which highlighted the example set by the Midsteeple Quarter in Dumfries in regenerating their town centre. I’d encourage anyone unfamiliar with that project to take a look, as there are a lot of lessons to be drawn there.
Greener Kirkcaldy and Love Oor Lang Toun are both pushing hard to improve Kirkcaldy’s fortunes and make the most of our potential, and I’m optimistic of what can come from of those efforts. There’s a momentum, and an energy, and a growing consensus that we can step it up and meet our challenges. Local newspaper, The Fife Free Press, has been promoting the need for a “civic conversation” and there are increasingly loud calls encouraging residents to support the local businesses who have been particularly affected by the lockdown.
One of my core beliefs is that we should never to wait for an authority figure to arrive and fix all of our problems, but rather, we should set about making the most of the opportunities where we can affect change ourselves. There’s a great phrase, often attributed to Ghandi, which asks us to “be the change that you want to see”. This has always been Kirkcaldy’s strength, as this attitude has been demonstrated time and time again by its people.
The most inspiring initiatives in Kirkcaldy have always come from the community itself, where there is an endless source of goodwill and grassroots community leadership. One recent example is Ally Caldicott, who has taken the initiative to lead a growing number of volunteers in his Litter Picker Brigade down to Dysart to clean the beach every Tuesday evening. Louise Canny’s Artisan Fridays have been a huge success in encouraging footfall and promoting local traders (not to mention doing a great job disguising the empty unit left by Marks & Spencers).
Dave Gillespie also deserves a shout out: through the Auld Kirk Collective, he’s raised funds through live gigs at the Wheatsheaf for countless charities in the town, all while giving local artists an outlet and boosting the local music scene. And, of course, there’s the Kings Theatre Kirkcaldy. What the Kings team has achieved in just a few short years is nothing short of miraculous, and the Live Lounge venue is bringing much needed footfall to the oft-neglected waterfront (as well as giving us a great venue for the Cold premiere!).
So, short of an economic revolution and the closure of Amazon, what would my ideal future for Kirkcaldy look like?
My own view is that Kirkcaldy will be at its best when we succeed in bringing the disparate, isolated bubbles that exist here together, and encourage more people to appreciate the make the most of Kirkcaldy’s incredible, unique assets that they may have overlooked. We also need to recognise – and be inspired by – the remarkable achievements of the many unsung heroes who walk our streets.
For my own part: I buy my Fife Free Press every week. I listen to Kingdom FM and K107 while I’m driving, and I enjoy nothing more than a coffee in Kangus or the Cupcake Coffee Box with a good book. I enjoy long strolls through Ravenscraig and always get a kick out of grabbing a few beers with my friends in Betty Nicols.
I particularly love a wander along Kirkcaldy High Street and seeing the growing number of truly independent shops that are genuinely thriving. For a number of years now, I’ve been on first name terms with many of the traders, and you can’t get that level of human connection when shopping online. Besides, there will always be a need for barbers and coffee shops.
No one is denying the challenges Kirkcaldy faces, but our story doesn’t end there.
Kirkcaldy is somewhere that you get as much out of as you’re willing to put in. If you want to engage with the community, you’ll be welcomed with open arms. And if you want to see Kirkcaldy at its best, you’ll find much to love and explore. Sure, it might not be as glamorous as Tokyo, but everything you need for contentment is here.
I believe most of us could live happily anywhere, so long as we have a meaningful life, surrounded by the people we love. Yet wherever I end up in the future, I’m content living in Kirkcaldy right now. Rather than asking ourselves why people would want to escape, perhaps we should spend a bit more time reminding ourselves of why people would want to stay.