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Farewell Bristo Square, the Home of Edinburgh Street Skating

We went to the final skate jam at what's been the epicentre of the city's skate scene since the 1980s.

Hope Whitmore

Bristo Square in 2000 (Photo by Scott Walker)

Bristo Square has been the epicentre of Edinburgh's street skating scene since the 1980s. There weren't any purpose-built spots to skate back then, of course, which probably explains why so many people descended on the square's ledges and stair-sets. There is now a proper skate park relatively close by, but just like South Bank in London and Lloyds in Bristol, the organic element of Bristo Square – the reclamation of a public space by skaters – means it's still as popular as it ever was.

Well, it was, until Sunday, which sadly saw the square's last skate jam. The site, which is owned by Edinburgh University, will soon be levelled to make way for a new glass entrance to the uni's McEwan Hall building. I went along to speak to people there about what the square means to them.

"No time to chat," said the first guy I bumped into, who – at this point – was the only person there. "My wife's waiting for me; it's ten minutes to skate, then goodbye Bristo Square."

After he'd left more skaters began to arrive in their drips and drabs, and soon the square was rattling with the sound of tails being popped off the ground and boards scraping along ledges. I got talking to Andy, who'd travelled up from Glasgow for one last skate in the square.

"Skateboarding is the best thing in the world, isn't it?" he said. "And, I mean, this is a really special place for skateboarders – they love skating here."

He held out a palm: "I came through from Glasgow for this and now it's raining."

On Andy's cue, it started pissing it down. "Oh fuck off," one guy shouted at the sky.

"We're going to the underpass," said Andy.

Ronnie (Photo by Daniel James)

Before we left we met Ronnie, a guy in his early forties who organised the get together.

"A few years ago I was hit by a car while riding my bike," he told me. "Knocked flat on my back, injured my spine, told I'd never skate again. But I got a new board, hid it in my shed and got my wife drunk to tell her that I'd bought it so I'd be allowed to skate."

Walking to the underpass next to Edinburgh University's visitors centre, the smell of weed wafting over us, Andy piped up again: "This is where skateboarders always end up – in little shitty places like this because of the weather."

"It's not just skating," said one guy who wouldn't give us his name or let us photograph him. "This place has been like a tolerance zone, somewhere you can buy and sell drugs, come together and chill out. Have a drink. An alcoholic Hibs fan can come here and have a chat and a drink with an alcoholic Hearts fan, and it's just nice, you know?"

Andy (Photo by Daniel James)

We were interrupted by Andy bouncing back off a glass window and landing back on his board, halfway through a game of DONKEY (like HORSE, just with the word donkey). As he glided off, Ronnie started to tell me about himself.

"I learned to skate on a really shit skateboard," he said. "I saw a Police Academy movie that had skaters from the Bones Brigade in it, and I asked my mum that year for a skateboard, but because I was from a socially deprived background I got a £10 board from a shop called What Every Woman Wants. It wasn't really worth the money, but it did give me an in – it brought me here.

"It was only when I found this square that I realised there were better skateboards and nicer people to hang about with, and that's why I came here every single Saturday from about the age of nine, if I had the money for the bus. Even if I didn't I'd sometimes walk here from Saughton Mains and then skate home, just to make it happen. It was much better than hanging out where I was.

"Most of the people I lived with died. If they're not dead, they're now on heroin or methadone or alcoholics. Three or four folk made it out of there, and skating was what helped me – it was the cornerstone of my evolution."

Bristo Square in 2000 (Photo by Scott Walker)

Ronnie stopped to look up as everyone whooped and smashed their decks into the ground. We'd missed whatever they were applauding.

"It's about that bond you have from being on a skateboard. Doesn't matter who you are – you're in the gang, that's it, and people will cheer you on," said Ronnie.

He pointed out a kid in a Spiderman costume being encouraged onto his board by his dad.

"Look at that kid over there – he's what, five? But he's treated as an equal. Yeah, he's a kid, and he's an eighth of my size, and he's got a Spiderman costume, but I'm just jealous of that. Look at him – he's cool as all fuck, and he's having his photo taken. In the 80s it was an underground kind of scene; we didn't get much coverage from skate mags, so when one appeared we were practicing the best stunts for like a week or so, you know? But that young lad there, he's turned up and he's well-chuffed he's having his photo taken."

Bristo Square in 2000 (Photo by Scott Walker)

He sighed. "For some of us this is the last chance we'll have to skate. We have other lives now."

When it stopped raining we headed back to where we'd started. It was chilly, but the sun was out over Bristo Square, and what looked half of the city's skate community were there to give it a send-off.

A family and their friends were gathered at the side, one of them holding an urn of ashes belonging to a guy called Gordy who used to love skating the square. As the ashes were spread the place fell silent, bar the sound of a couple of people crying. Gordy felt at home in the square and will remain there even after all the other skaters are forced to leave.

The loss of the square and the loss of a friend began to conflate, and suddenly it seemed far sadder that the square is being redeveloped – we got a real sense of what is being lost.

Watching everyone skate the square for the final time, I wondered where they'll congregate next – what potential they'll find hidden throughout the city, and how many friendships will be built in and around those spots.

Before we left, Andy took my dictaphone: "So, Bristo Square: it's been an important place for the skaters of Scotland, because people come here and express themselves according to their feelings. There's a lot of special places around the world, and Bristo Square is one of them. It's shutting down now, but don't worry – there'll be another place."

@HopeWhitmore

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