Series celebrating the forgotten world of the town. Nicholas Crane visits Perth, a royal burgh, gateway to the Scottish highlands and a town packed with history.
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I've seen towns explode into cities.
I've seen towns with their hearts ripped out.
Every town has its own tales of triumph and catastrophe.
All of them face challenges.
As a geographer, I believe that towns
are the communities of the future.
Towns will be the places we want to live.
By 2030, a staggering 92% of us will be living the urban life.
Congested cities sprawl across our map,
but cities don't have all the answers.
I believe we need to fall back in love with the places
that first quickened our pulses - towns.
Smaller than a city, more intimate, much greener, more surprising,
towns are where we learned to be urban.
They are the building blocks of our civilisation.
Coastal towns, market towns, river towns, industrial towns.
Collectively, they bind our land together.
This is the story of towns, but it's also OUR story -
where we came from, how we live and where we might be going.
This is Perth, right at the heart of Scotland.
With a population of 45,000,
it's a comfortable, largely well-heeled sort of place,
aloof from the industry and politics of Glasgow and Edinburgh,
surrounded by majestic countryside.
It's also a town that thinks it should be a city.
I'm going to find out why.
That is the mouth of the most powerful river in Britain.
The River Tay is a giant among waterways, Scotland's Amazon.
More than 15 million cubic metres of water
pours from the Tay into the sea every day.
That's as much water as the River Thames and the Severn combined.
Perth is here because of this river.
Perth's location is spectacular.
It sits right at the gateway to the Highlands.
Over there are the Grampian Mountains, soaring like a wall
from the River Tay's floodplain.
12,000 years ago, when the last of the Ice Age glaciers
were disappearing into those mountains,
meltwater flushed fantastic amounts of sand and gravel
down to the lowlands, where it laid down the thick bed of material
the Tay powers through today.
At Perth, you'd have to dig down something like 45m
before you hit solid rock.
800 years ago, this was the first point
where the river could be bridged.
It was also the upper limit of navigation.
Ships could sail up the river from the North Sea
and unload their cargo 25 miles inland.
They couldn't get any further.
Right here, where the river was narrow enough to be bridged,
yet deep enough to take ships, a town was born.
Perth is celebrating.
It's celebrating the 800th anniversary of a document.
This town was granted a Royal Burgh charter in 1210
by King William the Lion.
So for the last 800 years, it's been a royal town.
But Perth thinks it should be a city.
This is a place which survived being attacked by Robert the Bruce.
Its castle was swept away by catastrophic floods.
A king, King James I of Scotland, was murdered within Perth's walls.
Perth thinks it has the history to be a city,
and it has the fire in its belly to prove it.
So should it stay a town or become a city?
As part of these 800th anniversary celebrations,
images from its past are being projected onto the City Hall.
They're showing images of Perth from the past and the present.
They're images everybody's recognising,
so lots of folk are stopping to admire them on the way past.
They're images that make Perth feel proud of itself,
make it feel bigger, perhaps, than it really is.
Tonight marks the culmination of a year of events
designed to put Perth firmly back on the map -
but to put it back on the map as a city,
not as a town.
But what do the people think?
Do the local inhabitants think Perth is a town or a city?
-Is it a city?
-Well, officially not yet, but I think it should be,
and I think most other people think it should be.
I'd say it's a city more than a town.
Compare it to a place like Dundee, which is a city.
It's got a lot of history, it should be a city.
I think it's got a city feel to it.
-Perth is definitely a city.
-We have a cathedral, we're a city.
-Of course it's a city!
-Not a town.
What am I doing here making a series on towns, if Perth really is a city?
In 1975, Perth officially lost the right to call itself a city.
Nearby Dundee was chosen as the administrative centre of the region,
and Perth lost out. It became an ex-city.
It was relegated, left out in the cold.
Behind all the buildings,
behind all the civic furniture that makes up a town,
there are the inhabitants, the people.
And people know the status of their community,
they know where it fits on the map.
Perth's demotion from city status
removed it from the map of British cities, and for many,
putting Perth back on that map is a matter of honour.
The perception that cities are the urban elite is an old one.
To Aristotle, people congregated in cities to live the good life.
Cities share the same Latin root as "civilisation",
and to this day there's a lingering suggestion
that everything outside the orbit of the city is uncivilised.
The most recent Scottish town to win city status was Stirling in 2002.
That Stirling is Perth's neighbour and occasional rival
made Perth's official designation as a town
all the more difficult to bear.
To mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee,
Her Majesty will create one new city in the UK - but will it be Perth?
Other towns are queuing up to enter the contest,
from Luton, Colchester and Blackpool to Milton Keynes and Croydon.
They all want city status.
There are no special rights conferred by city status,
no financial benefits or cultural clout.
It's about acknowledgement of scale,
taking a seat at the urban high table.
It's all about image.
Perth was christened the Fair City by fans of Sir Walter Scott's novel
The Fair Maid Of Perth, written in the 1820s.
And this is the Fair Maid's house.
It's one of the oldest buildings in Perth,
and it's currently enjoying a major restoration.
But it's not the first time it's been given a makeover.
This tower was added to make the building conform more closely
with the Fair Maid's house in the book.
Every building tells a story,
and this story is all about making a city.
So as long ago as the 19th century,
this town's PR department was busy image-building.
Throughout history, Perth has used every trick in the book to prove its city status.
It started calling itself a city long before Scott put pen to paper.
The town found that the best way to become a city
was just to call itself that over and over again,
on the grounds that no-one was going to argue.
But it was never officially granted city status.
Perth may have been a royal burgh, it may have been described in print
as the Fair City, but it didn't get the documentation.
Perth was a monarch without a crown.
Historically in Britain, if you had a cathedral,
you were considered a city.
Today that's not the case.
Only the ruling monarch can grant city status,
and as yet, Her Majesty hasn't given Perth the nod.
In every town, if you look into the street names,
you can peel back layers of history. Old street names have meaning.
They reveal a town's first markets, tradesmen.
They take you back to a town's reason for being.
And in Perth, those street names reveal something extraordinary -
a town born from water.
Medieval Perth had two main streets - High Street,
which still exists, I'm standing on it now,
and South Street, which ran parallel.
It's just over there behind the shops.
There were also a number of crossway streets known as gates.
There were town walls pierced at a number of points by entrances, or ports.
And encircling the town walls there was the town Lade, a canal.
Unlike any other town in Britain, Perth had a medieval moat
that ran around it, which was part mill race, part-canal.
It defined the town.
Hemmed in between the Lade and the Tay, parts of Perth
would have once looked like a white-water version of Venice.
Fed through a sluice further up the River Almond,
the Lade waterway was a defensive measure,
and, vitally for Perth's survival,
it was also the source of power for the town's mills.
And I should be able to find the site of Perth's old mills
by tracing the route of the Lade today.
This is Canal Street - a clue, isn't it?
It still feels like the edge of town.
'And it's not the only clue to the town's history either.
'I'm starting to notice street names that recall leather-working,
'tanneries, waterways and farmers' markets,
'each name a window on a medieval street scene.'
These alleyways, or vennels, as they're known in Perth,
were originally wide enough to take a horse and cart.
They would have been lined with makeshift stalls and shops,
which were eventually replaced by more permanent stone structures,
narrowing the vennel.
This one, Fleshers' Vennel, was known for its butchers.
Tracing the route of the old town Lade,
I'm beginning to realise that it wasn't just a practical waterway.
It delimited the vital organs of the town.
The bits of the town which really mattered were all inside the Lade.
It's as if the entire course of the canal has been tarmacked over.
These street names show exactly where the Lade once ran.
And further along the road, it finally enters Mill Street.
Here in the centre of town, the Lade reached the City Mills.
This is where the people of Perth ground their grain,
using barley and wheat from the fertile farmland
that ran for miles beyond all these walls and streets.
For the God-fearing people of Perth, fishes may have come from the Tay,
but the loaves were courtesy of the Lade.
All towns have an identity.
The buildings and streets, the stone and brick,
cast iron, concrete and glass -
that's what you see when you look around.
But they're really just the clothes.
The soul of a town, its identity, the place it thinks it is,
is less obvious, less visible.
And Perth has an identity crisis.
It's grown used to thinking big.
It's been nurtured by the biggest river in the land.
It has a big history. No wonder it thinks it's a city.
Perth has a population of 45,000, so it's not enormous by any means.
But I think this town is definitely trying to get noticed.
It seems to me that Perth is in the midst of
an episode of extraordinary change.
It's the very evident way that the physical fabric
of the town is being re-invented.
There's this dramatic new concert hall, head-turning urban sculptures.
This town is working hard at making the grade.
But is there something missing?
Most cities have a defining central space.
Think of Trafalgar Square, Times Square in New York
or St Peter's Square in Rome,
somewhere where people can gather on important occasions.
Walk around Perth, and you won't find that central space.
It's just not here.
'Or is it?'
This is the old City Hall,
built by the Edwardians in that long, sunny afternoon
between the glories of the Victorian Age
and the outbreak of the First World War.
Here, carved in stone, is the pride, the prosperity of an empire.
These Ionic columns, the cornices, the cherubs, the garlands
are cues from Ancient Greece.
Here's a temple of culture, an Acropolis on the Tay.
The hall opened in 1911, and throughout the 20th century
it was the venue for Perth's concerts, dances, rock bands.
Everyone played here, from The Who to Gerry and The Pacemakers.
For many in the town, it's a hall of memories, the place they saw
their first gig, where they met that boy or girl they went on to marry.
But there's a plan to knock it down.
Is it true that you're planning to knock down the City Hall?
Yes, the council's considering that very seriously.
The building has been empty for five years,
and we've failed to find a good use for the building,
and so we're now saying, "Should we demolish it?"
and instead of replacing it with another building,
actually create a civic square, a piazza in the heart of Perth.
Why do you want to knock it down? Are there not any other places to create this central square?
Perth, unusually for Scottish towns, has a gridiron street pattern,
and there's actually no area of open space apart from a graveyard.
Our thought was that we should look at creating a square
right in the heart of Perth, something it lacked.
One option that we did look at was partial demolition.
The front of it I call the Brandenburg Gate,
with the columns and quite severe architecture
and those dreadful gnomes, I think, on the top of it.
-Cherubs, aren't they?
-I think they're gnomes.
I think the architect got the scale wrong.
Far too big and ugly. But we did say, "Well, could you actually keep that bit of it and demolish the rest?"
and turn the front into a restaurant or tourist office or something,
but I think on balance we felt that it maybe better all go.
And the interesting thing was,
if you go back to the 1860 Ordnance Survey map, this was a public square.
There was a very small city hall,
but the area around the kirk was the flesh market, the meat market.
We then looked more broadly to say, "What is the value of that building
"to Perth as opposed to the value of the space to Perth?"
If you could use that as a centre for fairs, for exhibitions, open-air concerts.
It's big enough, for example, to have a curling rink in it.
You could have a genuine ice rink here in the winter.
-You could have one today, couldn't you?
And curling, have the Christmas tree there.
To have one place that was the focus of the city, I think,
would be very exciting.
I need a walk around to think this one through.
The idea of a modern city space is really attractive,
but at what expense to the character of Perth, the town?
Tight up against the back of City Hall
stands Perth's oldest building, St John's Kirk.
First mentioned in the royal documents of 1128,
the kirk used to be the most prominent landmark in town.
Before it was encroached upon by more modern buildings,
St John's was visible for miles around.
Rising from its high ground, it was the symbol of this town,
so much so that Perth was sometimes known as St John's Town.
The name may not have stuck for the town,
but it's still the name of Perth's football team, St Johnstone.
Walking around the kirk today,
it looks as if it's sinking into the ground,
as if it's shrunk with age, lost the stature of its youth.
Something rather odd has happened to the church's main west door.
It's shorter than it should be, like a lift stuck between two floors.
If St John's once stood proud on its high ground,
it doesn't command quite the same position now.
The answer lies beneath these paving stones.
Here in the centre of Perth,
there are thousands of bodies beneath my feet..
This was the church's graveyard for 500 years.
When the burials began to mount up, so did the ground.
When the congregation below the surface began to impede access
for those above, it was time to find another burial ground.
New urban landmarks appear through the centuries.
The church lost its prominence as a central meeting place to the City Hall.
And now it's the prominence of the City Hall
which hangs in the balance.
I'm sure the father of town planning, Patrick Geddes,
would have had an opinion on the subject.
Geddes was a Perthshire man with visionary ideas.
He wrote in 1910, "Civic architecture and Town Planning
"are expressions of local history, of civic and national changes
"and contrasts of mind.
"Each generation must make its own contribution
"in its own characteristic way."
So it's up to the people of Perth to decide what Perth should look like.
City Hall, or no City Hall?
That is the question.
To get a better view of the controversial piazza,
I'm going up the church tower.
As Perth's most historic building,
and as part of its bid for city status,
the kirk's interior is currently being renovated
at a cost of almost £3 million.
It was in this church in 1559 that John Knox,
the Scottish clergyman and Protestant reformer,
delivered a fiery sermon raging against the sin of idolatry.
It was the speech that launched the Reformation in Scotland,
revolutionising religious practice throughout the land -
another big, historical event that Perth can claim as its own.
Right outside today, another radical reformation
could be about to take place.
Now I'm up here, I can see what Roland means.
Take out the City Hall and you create a magnificent square.
The planner would have it lined with cafe tables,
couples strolling arm in arm,
but...but, but, but, there's always a but...
I do wonder whether the people of Perth
would see this new square
as a focal point, or as a gaping void.
It's freezing up here today, there's snow on the mountains,
and there's an icy wind cutting across the rooftops.
If you create a big open space here,
it's going to be like walking across a tract of the Siberian tundra on a very bad day.
Now, Perth is an intimate town.
The buildings huddle together for companionship and warmth.
The buildings are separated by narrow alleys,
vennels, crooked streets.
Everything's close-packed, very friendly.
You create a vast open space in the middle of a town like this,
and it just feels out of place.
I don't know, my feeling is that
to put an Italian piazza here in Perth
is rather like building a centrally heated shopping mall in the Sahara.
I don't really think it should be knocked down.
In the past, rivers were vital arteries of trade and communication.
They could be harnessed to power mills, they could be fished for food
and used for irrigation, drinking water
and a multitude of industrial purposes.
The bigger the river, the more it had to offer,
and the Tay is a big river - the biggest river in Britain.
There's something more fundamental, though,
something that goes right to the soul of this town.
Perth has always existed at the whim of this mighty river,
the river that brought it here in the first place.
The Tay is Perth's alter ego, the other half of its psyche,
the untamed lifeforce that brought it into being,
the monster that rises from its lair to wreak havoc.
It's like balancing on a gigantic muscle!
Very scary river.
Catastrophic floods have swept away bridges, castles,
property and people.
Perth has always been a flood town.
In January 1993, the river burst its flood banks
and poured through the town.
2,000 cubic metres per second of water
thundered under the bridges and over the streets.
It was one of the most severe floods in Perth's history.
The worst affected area was North Muirton,
a Perth housing scheme built on the flood plain.
NEWSREADER: More than 400 people were evacuated from houses
on Perth's North Muirton estate last night.
At one point, the Army and Navy were called in to help.
Like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina,
it was those who were less well off who were hit hardest.
1,500 houses in Perth were seriously affected by the floodwater.
900 of those were in North Muirton.
£40m worth of damage was caused in just one weekend.
It was a disastrous time for the town.
After the floods of 1993,
Perth's relationship with the Tay changed forever.
Never again would the river be allowed to terrorise this town.
£25m was poured into a hi-tech flood-defence system.
Now, an impressive 81 floodgates, seven pumping stations,
plus miles of embankments, holding ponds and strategic flood areas
are in place to protect the town.
It's a flood-defence system to match any in the world,
and this morning they're putting it to the test.
If a flood is on its way, the flood-defence team
get only a few hours' warning
to close the gates and protect the town.
This is one of Perth's best-kept secrets,
a feat of engineering and ingenuity.
-Like closing up all the bulkheads in a ship.
-Pretty much, yeah, yeah.
-A door-slamming exercise.
How high does the water have to rise before it goes over the top of your defences?
The whole design of the system is based on the 1814 flood,
which is the worst inundation that Perth has ever had.
We've got that, plus half a metre is built in for climate change,
and another 300 to 400mm for freeboard,
which is basically wave action etc.
So hopefully we would never actually be in a situation
where the defences would be overtopped.
It's Perth's unique location that makes it so vulnerable.
The volume of water pouring downstream
from a massive catchment area, swollen by snowmelt
and aggravated by tidal surge from the mouth of the Tay,
exposes Perth to sudden inundation.
At Smeaton's Bridge, the major crossing to the town,
the ravages of previous floods have been methodically recorded.
So, we have the big inundation of 1814,
that's the mark here.
The water level actually got up to this height.
-That was the big flood?
Yeah, that's the worst recorded episode.
We have some more recent ones.
For example, we have 14th December 2006,
and the 1993 flood that we had actually reached this level here.
It's a fair height when you see how high up this would be going
compared to these properties there.
-That would have flooded the road here and flooded those houses over there.
-So the '93 flood, the water's up to here.
and the water was pouring in...
All of these properties, the basement areas would have been absolutely inundated at that particular time.
-It doesn't look like a floodgate, does it?
-No, the design is such
that it's supposed to blend in nicely with the sandstone walls,
and it's as aesthetically pleasing as a floodgate could be
under the circumstances.
Would you like to have a go at closing one of these gates?
The small boy in me would love to close a floodgate.
There's a fair weight in it,
and once we close them, as you can see,
the rubber seals would make contact with the metal plinth along here.
You wouldn't want to shut your fingers in it, would you?
No, I think you might lose a few.
-Here we are.
London has the Thames Barrier.
Perth has 81 barriers to protect its land and its people
and perhaps its future ambitions as a city.
You can walk through Perth and miss every one of those floodgates.
They're disguised, they're discreet.
If one of them does catch your eye, it's a reassuring reminder.
"Don't worry about the river", it says, "we've contained the beast".
Towns habitually go with the flow,
adapt to their changing environment and times.
The way they work and look is shaped, in part,
by that continuous engine of change, progress,
the never-ending demand for a better standard of living
and a more resilient economy.
But progress can be brutal.
Perth had a medieval wall,
until the Georgians pulled it down in the 18th century.
Now the City Hall is under threat.
Towns evolve in fits and starts, and sometimes the fits can be explosive.
Throughout the 18th century,
an influential group of families were controlling affairs in Perth.
They were known as the Beautiful Order,
because, as one Edinburgh wit put it,
they'd got everything here so beautifully stitched up.
Wealthy, powerful, they took it on themselves to change the public face
of this somewhat architecturally chaotic town by the Tay.
The look they were after had already transformed Edinburgh and Bath.
Now Georgian architecture reclothed Perth.
Influenced by classical ideas, it was elegant, understated, ordered.
Here, it was the vision of one man above all - Thomas Anderson.
Anderson meticulously planned the expansion of the town,
acquiring land and developing the sites.
This remarkable document is the MacFarlane map of 1792,
and it shows everything that Thomas Anderson had planned.
Here to the north of medieval Perth is a mathematical grid of streets,
lines on this map. He says what they mean in the key.
"The black and dotted lines are the new intended streets
"which, when finished,
"will make Perth one of the most delightful towns in Europe".
It's a big urban dream, and so is the scale of it.
Anderson's new town was going to more than double the size of Perth.
The man he chose to realise his vision
was his son-in-law, Thomas Marshall,
and one of the first streets Marshall built was Rose Terrace,
named after his young wife, Anderson's daughter, Rose.
Anderson imposed strict conditions for Rose Terrace,
which set the tone for the whole of Georgian Perth.
If you bought a plot of land on Rose Terrace,
you had to build on it within two years.
The house you constructed had to be of stone
with an ashlar, a squared stone front.
It had to have a roof of blue slate.
It also had to be the same colour as all the other houses in the street.
It was also compulsory that it should consist of a vault,
a ground floor, two upper stories and garrets.
Each householder on Rose Terrace
was also given land behind their property.
But there were strings attached to this too.
Gardens were not to be used for,
"The making of soap, candles, glass or vitriol,
"nor for boiling yarn, slaughtering or coppersmithing,
"nor for a chemistry's laboratory."
Basically, nothing that would upset the neighbours.
Anderson was prescribing a new urban order.
His Georgian development wasn't going to look like anything
Perth had ever seen before.
The higgledy-piggledy buildings
that had contributed to the shape of the town for centuries were old.
Anderson's was a new town,
disciplined, clean, a model of urban civilisation.
Yet behind these civilised streets,
a less honourable saga was unfolding.
Thomas Anderson may have been able to impose his authority
on the character of Georgian Perth,
but he had less control over his daughter.
Rose Terrace isn't exactly a monument to domestic bliss.
By the time the street was completed,
Thomas Marshall and Rose were divorced.
While Thomas had been away in London and Edinburgh,
organising the building of Perth's new town,
raising a Perth regiment, advancing his position within the council,
Rose had been a-wandering.
She became involved with the Earl of Elgin, he of the Marbles,
and later met a young military doctor
whom she showered with letters and gifts.
As scandal whispered along the new stone pavements, Rose left Perth.
So, she and her husband, Thomas Marshall,
never did live together here in Marshall House,
the grand residence Thomas had planned for them.
Marshall did become Lord Provost of Perth,
but he died a lonely man aged just 38.
The moral of the tale, perhaps -
don't neglect your wife for civic glory.
Perth's status as a Royal Burgh was well deserved.
Just across the River Tay sits Scone Palace,
the original home of the Stone of Destiny
on which Scotland's kings and queens
have been crowned for centuries.
In the 1420s, after his release from exile in England,
James I of Scotland chose Perth as his main residence.
Of the 16 Scottish parliaments he convened, 13 were held in Perth.
During his reign, Perth became regarded not just as any city
but as Scotland's first city.
But it was not to last.
SINISTER MUSIC PLAYS
Perth has a dark stain on its name,
something that is probably more responsible for its loss of city status
than this town would care to admit.
In 1437, with the King often in residence,
Perth was effectively the Scottish capital.
But then there was a murder.
This is where the King was killed.
-Probably not actually in here, but on the site.
-Regicide in Perth?
Absolutely, yes, James I was killed here.
That's a pretty black stain.
I guess it is, yes.
I mean, James seems to have really liked Perth,
but he got his comeuppance.
Now, tell me why James I mattered, which king was he?
Well, he is the grandson of the first Stuart king,
so the great-grandson of Robert the Bruce,
and he had actually spent his formative years in England,
and this very much affected him
because he was very impressed by the English kings Henry IV and Henry V.
When he came back to Scotland, he wanted to upgrade Scottish kingship
to be a lot more like England,
which meant he also has to acquire a lot of wealth to do that.
Scotland didn't like taxation,
and so he actually also acquired land by slightly dubious means,
pressurised people into giving up their lands
and generally made people feel very, very insecure.
-So, he wasn't very popular.
-He was absolutely not popular,
to the extent that some people were calling him a tyrant.
Who had it in for him in particular?
Apart from just about everybody?
Walter, Earl of Atholl's grandson, Robert Stewart,
was one of the King's closest... well, companion,
and he arranged, on the night of 20th February 1437...
So, this is a betrayal?
Absolutely, from the heart, from the family,
it is a sort of nest of vipers.
He's just totally vulnerable,
because it's a man from within his own household
who has let the conspirators in.
Not only is this, you know, a Kennedy moment
in the sense that you are killing the King,
-but it's an inside job as well.
-Absolutely. It had to be.
This is all starting to get slightly creepy,
because you're talking about something that...
The cellars are under this building?
Pretty much, yes. This is the site.
-Shall we have a look?
-Oh, come on, then!
James was warned that armed Atholl men were after his blood.
In desperation, he prised up the floorboards of his bedchamber
and dropped into the sewers.
So, sewers have outflows, so why didn't the King just run down the tunnel and escape?
Ah, very good question!
And if he'd had to do it three days earlier, he'd have been fine,
but the King was a lover of the game of tennis, the royal game of tennis,
and he used to play just outside.
Unfortunately, his tennis balls used to roll down
into the gubbins in the bottom of the sewer, so he had it boarded up!
So, when he found himself down here,
hearing the men above, up above his head, there was no way out.
And that's it. I mean, he really is like a rat, stuck in a sewer.
They're hacking at him and, you know,
this is an absolutely appalling, horrific end
to an anointed King of Scots.
Game, set and match to the House of Atholl.
After the murder of James I,
the seat of royal power moved swiftly to Edinburgh.
His son's coronation was held in Holyrood, not Scone,
which was never again to accommodate a parliament.
Perth had lost its city crown,
and it's still trying to get it back.
All towns have a regional magnetism,
drawing people and goods inward to markets, shops and businesses.
Towns are economic and cultural hubs, places where people mingle.
And in the centre of this magnetic town,
people seem drawn to one meeting place in particular.
This is the Harrods of Perth - McEwens.
This is the shop that brought French couture to Perth in the 1860s
and put on some very stylish window displays.
You came here for the latest fashion, the latest gossip.
It was a meeting place, a hub.
McEwens brought the country crowd to town.
Although the heyday of town department stores is long past,
the clientele here still seem to come from far and wide.
-Can I ask where you've both come from?
I've come from Dunfermline.
So, how far away is that from Perth?
23, and I'll be about 30.
Where do you come from?
Tillicoultry. It's nine miles from Stirling.
-That's a long way!
You look as if you're having a family gathering here.
Where have you all come from?
-Well, we're from Perth, and Mark's from down south.
-How often do you come to McEwens?
Probably once a month, once every two months, for lunch or coffees.
How often do you come to McEwens?
Three times, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
And how many years have you been doing that for?
Oh, about 17 years.
Of course I've got a free bus pass.
Well, I used to work here 20 years ago as a waitress when I was at school, so,
and Anne was my boss 20 years ago.
And also, before that my grandparents used to come,
so I've been coming here since I was a small child, so 30-odd years ago.
-So you're the third generation in your family to be coming to McEwen's for lunch?
-Well, I'll let you get on with your lunch.
-OK, thank you.
-Sorry to interrupt.
'How long have you been manager here, Anne?
'Em, I've worked in McEwens for 35 years.'
So, for most of that time I have been the manager
on and off up in the restaurant, yes.
You seem to know everybody by their first names.
Yes, it's fantastic. We have... it's quite a core for the store this.
We know the customers that come in on Saturdays and Mondays and their families.
We have a few generations that, you know, use the restaurant,
so, yes, we know them quite well.
McEwens proves that Perth is really a town not a city.
Knowing all your customers by name, seeing families grow up,
as generations pass through your store...
That's warm-hearted town life...
the opposite of city anonymity.
As a town, Perth can enjoy the best of both worlds,
being as intimate as a village and as cosmopolitan as a city.
But there is another side to being a thriving hub.
Successful towns are consumer hotspots.
Along with all of that buying, selling and satisfying consumption, there's a lot of waste creation,
and in Perth, that means Grampians of garbage.
45,000 inhabitants are putting stuff in their bins every day.
The only way a town can handle so much waste is by investing in systems -
systems which export the rubbish elsewhere.
But this town has always been clever with its rubbish.
In the Middle Ages, waste was organic.
People in towns gathered their muck and their rubbish
outside their houses in private middens, like compost heaps.
Once it rotted down a bit,
they carted it away to use as manure on their share of the towns fields.
By the 1450s, with more people in the town
and fewer people growing their own food, you begin to find references
to the middens becoming a nuisance and an obstacle in the streets.
Middens that were not being regularly cleared were auctioned off.
Farmers from outside town competed to buy the rich waste.
They used it as fertiliser on their crops and come market day
the produce it helped to grow was brought back into town.
So town and country fed each other.
It was perfect recycling, and that legacy continues today.
What rubbish is we're collecting this morning?
Basically, it's bottles...
a lot have the tops on them.
Papers. Tin cans.
So that's all the stuff that goes up to be turned in to other things?
-That's it. 42%.
-What, of Perth's rubbish?
-That's a lot!
That is a lot.
'It is impressive that Perth recycles 42% of its waste.
'That's a lot more than Glasgow, Birmingham or London.
'The success of a recycling scheme depends on
'the attitudes of households council support and a competent infrastructure.
'Perth seems to tick all the boxes.'
And are people quite disciplined about putting...
Oh, they're very disciplined. Very. I mean, you just need to look in...
There we go, there's nothing wrong with that.
Papers... There we go, newspapers...
That's it, as long as the tops aren't on it...
-That's a really diligent householder.
-Oh, it is that.
Spot on with that one.
'Perhaps a town is better placed to deal more effectively
'with our rubbish than a city.
'There seems to be a great pride
'in keeping the place clean and efficient
'and everything is on a much more manageable scale.'
The waste we've spent the morning collecting - the bottles, the cans,
the paper and the cardboard - is taken to a processing site just outside the town.
Now this is the, eh, materials reclamation facility that we use.
You can see the digger dropping stuff into the hopper,
and it gets sent to this machine here where it all gets separated out.
The cans are separated using magnets,
you can see the pile of steel cans here.
All the different materials, you know, that we separate,
each get sent off to different re-processors throughout the UK,
who'll each recycle these things back into new materials.
Steel cans for example, can be recycled over and over again.
And a recycled steel can is just as good quality as a virgin one,
so, a great thing to do.
And all the other bits and pieces the men sort it out by hand.
They physically sort out the paper from the cardboard,
and the bottles from the other bits and pieces.
-It's not a dump so much as a factory.
I really enjoyed my morning with the bin crew, but it turns out
that picking through the rubbish is not as straightforward as it looks.
Up on the picking line, there are two fast-moving conveyor belts.
The first pickers grab the biggest chunks of paper and card,
the next team of pickers have to separate the tins and plastic.
But concentrating on all the rubbish passing by is like looking out of a car's side window,
trying to focus on every passing verge-side detail
while travelling at 70mph.
So, Graham, how long do you spend on the picking line before you go mad?
Ha! That is a hard one!
Doesn't it do your head in? Watching this stuff come by makes your eyes go peculiar.
You actually get used to it after a while.
The first two or three days it's more like motion sickness,
you know, sea sickness.
I'm starting to feel dizzy already!
Is it difficult to find people to work on the picking line?
Most of them last two or three weeks. Some have lasted as short as a day.
-Because of the motion in it all the time, you know.
Trying to get your eyes to focus on different things coming down.
This is really, really horrible.
I'm feeling quite sick.
It's the, eh, continual readjustment of your eyes,
trying to refocus the whole time on new rubbish coming through.
It's not a nice job.
Recycling glass, paper, steel, aluminium...
uses a lot less energy than it takes to create these products from scratch.
Making new paper...
everything from felling trees, to pulping and pressing the wood...
that uses 65% more energy than recycling paper.
Manufacturing new aluminium goods produces 95% more carbon dioxide
than recycling old aluminium objects.
Everything recycled in Perth
goes on to be made into new materials within the UK.
The glass goes to Alloa in Scotland, the paper to North Wales,
cardboard to Glasgow, steel and aluminium to the Midlands.
Perth is a champion of recycling.
The drive to regain city status has given this town a tangible energy.
And that energy is attractive.
People want to move here.
But the town, like the old banks of the Tay, has its limits...
What happens when a town runs out of space?
There's only so far Perth itself can expand.
The town has grown up on the west side of the river.
On the east side, development is blocked by Scone Palace and its land,
by the steep slopes of Kinnoull Hill, and by some very exclusive private estates.
Not much room for affordable housing there.
If the town keeps expanding to the west then it risks becoming
severed from its centre...
Its historic, riverside heart will end up on the edge of town.
But Perth might just become a city by stealth.
The Council proposes that the rising population should spill into the nearby small villages.
There are plans to build four entirely new communities
within a 5-mile radius of the town.
At Bridge of Earn, Almondbank,
Bertha Park and just west of Perth.
Of course, this level of development would have a knock-on effect.
You can't build 2,000 new homes without planning for the extra traffic.
To ease that pressure, a new bypass is proposed,
together with a new bridge over the Tay.
As a town, Perth can only grow so far.
As a city, it would absorb its hinterland.
It would begin to eat further into its surrounding countryside.
Tonight Perth has taken to the streets to celebrate
the 800th anniversary of the document that confirmed its status as a Royal Burgh.
It's the closest thing to a city charter that Perth's ever had.
It's below zero, a freezing November night
but the people of Perth have turned out in their thousands.
This is the kind of civic exuberance you see on the Thames,
or above the roofs of Edinburgh.
Talk about sky-high ambition!
Perth wants to be seen as a city.
But the only person who can officially grant Perth her desperately desired city status
is Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth.
And Perth is doing its best to be noticed.
There's no royalty here tonight but I'm sure Her Majesty will hear about it.
What a night!
So should Perth become a city?
It's certainly building a solid case for itself.
We've seen this town cope with flood, with regicide,
with radical replanning.
Perth is no stranger to challenges.
It's had its fair share of ups and downs, of triumphs and disasters.
Perth has a history of recovery.
But, with the construction of its 81 flood barriers,
the people of Perth have taken control.
The Tay was both a real threat, and a metaphor for the way history
inflicts sudden reversals on communities.
Now that the river's no longer the physical threat it was,
it's as if Perth has taken possession of her own destiny.
This is a pivotal moment.
Perth has tamed its monster - the river.
But the big question I have to ask is...
in its obsession with city status is Perth creating another demon?
Cities by nature are over-whelming, voracious.
And Perth's not like that.
For my money, I'd rather be a close-knit town than an over-stretched city.
Perth is at a crossroads.
For a free booklet about what makes our towns work
call 0845 366 8024 or go to:
And follow the links to the Open University.
Next time I'll be in Totnes in South Devon,
a town that has become a safe haven for new ideas.
A rickshaw running on cooking oil this model's a chip fat GTX...
And whose visionaries change the face of our towns forever.
The changes are coming - let's do it now before the problems start.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
We live in one of the most urbanised countries on earth. By 2030 a staggering 92 percent of us will be living the urban life. Congested cities sprawl across our map, but they are not the only way to live. Smaller than a city, more intimate, more surprising: this series celebrates the forgotten world of the town.
Perth, the gateway to the Scottish highlands, is a town packed with history. It has been a royal burgh since 1124, has survived a regicide within its walls and rebuilt itself after devastating floods. It is also a town that wants to be a city, and geographer and adventurer Nicholas Crane is on a journey to find out why, what benefits that brings, and what the town has to do to achieve its ambition.