a dead high street

Kirkcaldy High Street was once a thriving, bustling thoroughfare. now all i see is decline and decay. empty shop units, their windows smeared in white grease… or boarded up with panels of damp and dank chipboard. if you stop and peer into these vacant lots you will see the past. you will see remnants of better days. you will see broken mannequins, standing like ghosts in the empty space… piles of junk mail in disarray behind boarded up doors… dirty floors, littered with broken fittings and redundant fixtures… discarded signs and price tags… abandoned cans of coke, pens and perhaps the odd glove or mask… or shoe. feathers from the units’ new residents – pigeons, who have found a way in, seeking refuge from the bitter cold winds that funnel up the many vennels from the Esplanade. sadly, you may also see a dead bird. the unlucky bird that could not find its way out again, lying rotting upon the floor.

now pedestrianised, i remember a time when this High Street was once choking with cars and leaded petrol fumes. a time when parking places were as rare as hens’ teeth. now it is empty. occasionally, cars creep along its length – seeking a short cut, or to drop off hugely optimistic shoppers.

the Mercat indoor shopping arcade still exists. its doors are still open but it is a gloomy and artificially lit space. there are no plants to offer a hint of cheer. the only signs of life are the people who venture in there to peruse the remaining shops. they shuffle around, like zombies, unsmiling. or they congregate on the seats by the bin stores, chatting or solemnly, phone in hand, chomping on their sausage rolls from Greggs the bakery. the air smells stale. the people look stale… beaten and depressed.

outside, on the High Street, the homeless huddle beneath their threadbare blankets holding out their dirty paper cups (from their last cup of take out coffee) hoping someone will kindly drop a couple of quid in there so that they can buy another cuppa to warm their hands, their hearts and perhaps, for just a moment, have their faith restored in humanity and the system. or perhaps it will afford them their great escape… a baggie of tobacco, speed or heroin. there is one homeless boy that i talk to frequently. he’s a cheeky chappie with an infectious laugh and toothless grin. he almost always has a smile to give. sometimes i buy him a cup of tea – 3 sugars and lots of milk. i don’t know his name. i asked him once and he said “what does it matter?”. the system is broken.

soon, Fife Council will be decorating the High Street with Christmas lights. a lame, vain attempt to make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear. the reality of economic decline in Kirkcaldy is incredibly sad. heart-breaking. the High Street is lined with many beautiful old buildings, each with unique facades. angels and gryffons gaze down on the street below. beautiful ornate chimney pots that once flew flags of smoke from warm hearths are now home to nesting gulls.

the gulls have moved inland. they have evolved. undeniably, they are intrinsically beautiful birds but are perceived, by many, to be a nuisance as they swoop down and aggressively steal food from the hands of unsuspecting shoppers, often children. to some, this must be terrifying. but we have been instrumental in creating these ‘monsters’… these ‘winged terrorists’. they have no desire or need to scavenge the nearby beach for a morsel of crab, or worms, when they can artfully snag a sausage roll or bag of crisps from the hands of passersby. they have no need to fish in the sea when they can have what’s left of a late night reveller’s kebab or fish supper – dumped on the street – despite the numerous bins provided by the Council. with a smörgåsbord of greasy junk food readily available, why would they exert themselves finding food elsewhere?

and speaking of fish… you can smell a queer and pungent fishy smell as you walk past the fish merchants. the stench heralds your arrival at this store front. my grandparents had a fish shop and i was always told that fresh fish has no smell so, with that said, why oh why does the air outside, on this stretch of road past this shop, reek of rotting fish? rotting fish? it is nauseating, particularly in the hot summer months.

this stench is only challenged in its potency by the smell of blood emanating from the buffalo farm butchers outlet a little further down the road.

pawn shops, phone shops, gift card shops and charity shops are the main staple on Kirkcaldy High Street these days, peppered with take-out joints and the odd and seemingly ‘out of place’ boutique or ‘specialist’ retailer.

the High Street runs parallel to The Esplanade, which has had a surreal amount of money invested in its regeneration. a face-lift… a lamented attempt to prettify, or gentrify, to kick-start the failing heart of the ‘Lang Toun’. new ‘luxury’ waterfront apartments, over-priced and overlooking the grim cold sea, are bolted onto the seaside strip in a prime location next to crumbling and derelict multi-storey car parking facilities. i find this sad, considering less than 500 yards away from these over-priced glass cubes are some of Kirkcaldy’s most beautiful and architecturally interesting old buildings, lying empty and in various states of decay. these mansions, with all their quirks and characterful stonemasonry, that could be even more beautiful with investment of time, money and imagination. but they lie cold and vacant, neglected, sad and forlorn. much like the homeless people huddled in vennels and bus shelters. and yet, these buildings – with their thick stoic walls and gracious ballustrades – remain beautiful. a beautiful reminder of better days. angels and lions look down on the empty street below with a sense of unshakeable pride. oh if only these mansions could talk…

but it is the people that break my heart every day. even before the ‘pandemic’ hit like a tsunami, the people looked sad. i see it in their eyes. i see their sadness, their fear, their frustration. they look beaten… ill… pale, unsmiling and (to use a good old-fashioned Scottish word) totally ‘scunnered’.

a walk along Kirkcaldy High Street is now, for me, a depressing shopping experience despite recent efforts to try resusitate it with pop-up markets on Fridays and Saturdays where stall-holders sell everything from bagels to beard oil… from tray bakes to trout… from artisan candles and quirky jewellery to second-hand vinyl records, knitted goods, wood carvings and printed t-shirts… despite all of this, the dark aura remains.

all the Big Retailers have, one by one, moved out to the retail parks where shoppers can park for FREE and not have to pay the £1.10 for one hour, as they do in the car parks serving the dying High Street. Marks & Spencers, BHS, Tesco, NEXT and Debenhams have all gone.

all that’s left are ghosts. ghosts in empty shops, in empty spaces, in the faces of those i pass by. ghost cars drive right through me as i walk up the middle of the High Street of my memory lane. a High Street that was once very much alive.

(c) Kat McDonald 2021
image (c) Miaow McDonald Photography 2021

6 thoughts on “a dead high street

  1. Got here via Andy’s blog…thank for this insight into the nuances of how this dismantling of the humanness of life and needs and community etc etc is playing out within your local sphere. Almost a decade ago I came across a phrase (quoted by whom I don’t remember, sorry) that encapsulates an idea that’s relevant here:
    “Invest in communities rather than commodities”
    Of course to those who have the means to do such investments – communities aren’t even on their radar.

    Liked by 2 people

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