Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Put a Bench in Edinburgh


When you're walking around Edinburgh and decide to sit down on a bench for a rest, it's very likely that you'll find a commemorative plaque attached to it. Personal, like In Memory of René Laurener, who liked sitting down, or from a society, such as the Contemplative Pensioners' Association - In memory of our comrades, street seating tends to come with an inscription. It's a custom that the city council uses to finance these urban furnishings, indispensable in an ageing city such as the Scottish capital.

Depending on whether they're made of wood or steel, and in view of the seat's location, the cost of putting a bench in the city varies. In Princess Street Gardens, although it's impossible to find an empty spot, the estimated price would be around £3,000, while in other areas you could have a commemorative bench for just £850. For this amount, the generous donor pays for the object in itself, a plaque and engraving, transport and installation, as well as administrative fees. The city council is responsible for maintenance and the agreement lasts 20 years, unless the bench suffers terribly serious damage. When this time frame expires, the family or organisation that financed the bench are contacted and offered the chance to repeat the deal. This tradition is defined by journalist Stephen Emms in the Scottish newspaper, The Herald, as "a British institution." In his article, Emms argues that it's difficult to trace the origins of this custom as the city has no records of benches erected prior to the mid-twentieth century. His father, the historian Richard Emms, believes that the practice may date back to the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London or the open-air movement led by the National Trust in the late 19th century, with "Darwin, Huxley or Bernard Shaw adopting the outer memorial as a secular retreat from churches."

The stories behind some of these benches are moving, to say the least. In his article, Emms narrates that of Malcolm and Jessie. In the much sought-after Princes Street Gardens, there's a bench commemorating the love between this couple, who first met in Edinburgh at the turn of the 20th century. Shortly after marrying, they emigrated to the United States where they made a new life for themselves. When the couple died, their children brought their ashes to Scotland to be scattered in their hometown. On arriving to the city, they discovered this initiative and decided to create a permeant memorial to their parents in the shape of two wooden benches.

Surprisingly, this system doesn't only serve to fund park benches. Working through council departments, the funds can be used, for example, to finance a nursery school garden, furnish a new building, or provide a notice board. In Spain, when you achieve the impossible, you're said to have "put a pike in Flanders." The Scottish equivalent, then, must be to have a bench in Edinburgh.
Ling Magazine, July 2015

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