Scotland's history of innovation over 50 years explored in new Kirsty Wark series

"There was the Scotland that was bracing itself for more industrial pain, but there was also a Scotland that was poised to embrace the glamour and gloss of a new decade.”

Kirsty Wark on the Burns Mall roof in Kilmarnock
Kirsty Wark on the Burns Mall roof in Kilmarnock

With those words Kirsty Wark sums up the first episode of her new four-part BBC Scotland documentary, The Years that Changed Modern Scotland, at the beginning of the 1980s. But she admits the same could be said of today.

“In the five decades we look at, Scotland has changed beyond all recognition and it is in the grip of more change now,” she says.

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“Scotland it still a hugely inventive and creative country, a country that is going places. I think it's easy to forget the changes it’s gone through and how people adapted, but I think we should all take strength and hope from that.”

Her new series is a look back at Scotland from the 1970s onwards, telling the story of the social, economic and political upheavals that came and went. The series attempts to balance the negative issues of the day, such as the closure of heavy industry which saw so many people become unemployed, with a surge towards modernity that saw Glasgow’s Govan tenements get inside toilets, American-style shopping malls open in towns across the country, and the launch of an ambitious tourism strategy – including a TV advert that featured Dallas star, Larry Hagman, selling tartan and tweed and declaring “Scotland's For Me”.

It examines the transformation of Scotland through the recollections of the ordinary families who experienced them, as well as speaking to more famous faces such as Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Bill Paterson and Alex Norton, who reminisce about their theatre tour of the Highlands with the ground-breaking play The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil.

The first episode takes Scotland through the ‘70s to the start of the ‘80s. For Wark, the biggest change was the launch of the Scottish Tourist Board (STB) and the move to start selling hospitality as an industry and a real economic force.

“That realisation that Scotland could be a world beater in tourism was massive,” she says. “There was so much ambition behind it all – they had Larry Hagman in an advert, which was bizarre, but showed the reach that the STB wanted … to get into the US market.

"At the time Highland hospitality didn't have much going for it, high teas and dining rooms closing at 9pm, but that was revolutionised by the STB and the Scots who bought into it and the whole country opened up and we all know how successful it has been.”

American influence can also be seen in the number of shopping centres which opened in the late ‘70s, Wark says, including in her home town of Kilmarnock, on old streets – including Waterloo Street where the first edition of Robert Burns’ poetry was published.

“Everyone was desperate to get rid of the old, everything was about the new, even if it meant demolishing the heart of a town," says Wark.

"I didn't want to make a series with all the usual assumptions about our past. For a lot of people their memories of those times are not all black and white and doom and gloom, but were filled with new possibilities, the thrill of shopping centres and escalators and multi-storey car parks, new homes with indoor loos and even the potential to buy your council house.

"Kilmarnock was a great place to grow up, but the place underwent a revolution as industries closed down. The last to go was Johnnie Walker’s and that really was a terrible cultural blow. But now there's a hub on the same site where regeneration is taking place and there's so much more thought going into replacing these industries now in a way that didn't happen in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

"But I do think one of the mistakes was building that shopping centre, which was seen to be innovative at the time, but which led to the death of the high street.

"It happened in so many Scottish towns. In one episode we go to Dumfries to see what's happening there, which is more change and really heartening change, as a social enterprise is buying the derelict high street buildings and bringing them back into use as shops and flats.

"Ironically I think the pandemic might rescue our high streets as people have realised the importance of shopping local and the power of communities.”

The programme reveals ambition at a local level too back in the ‘70s, particularly in the new town of Irvine, which was going to be totally transformed – though the plans ultimately never went ahead.

In Glasgow, tenements and communities vanished for the creation of the M8 and Kingston Bridge. Wark speaks to former Chancellor Alistair Darling about a similar scheme for Edinburgh, which was never approved.

In the first episode, Wark says: "The ‘70s were a time when Scotland began to see itself and sell itself as distinctly Scottish and there was greater debate about the kind of country it wanted to be.

"In the early ‘70s, one in four households didn't have inside toilets, and over 100,000 Scots lived without hot water, and parts of the Highlands didn't have TV.” And yet, she says, “we were building things like the huge shopping malls, and motorways and at Loch Kishorn we built the largest dry dock in the world at the time for the building of the Ninian Central Platform, because the oil boom was kicking off in the north east. It was an amazing feat of innovation.

"We’ve always been good at turning old industries into new ones and it’s something worth remembering as we go into a new decade and have the economic fallout of the pandemic to deal with.”

The Years That Changed Modern Scotland, airs at 10pm on BBC Scotland, Tuesday, January 5.

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