Edinburgh social enterprise puts tourists in the hands of guides who have experienced homelessness


In 1998, Angus Stirling became homeless for the first time.

It was a passage through the streets that lasted several years. In 2009, a relationship breakdown left him sleeping on the streets again.

The 65-year-old is originally from Aberdeen but now lives in Edinburgh where he has spent years wandering the city and living on its streets, studying its old buildings.

Today, he puts his knowledge to good use by working as a tour guide for Invisible Cities. It is a social enterprise that trains people affected by homelessness to become hiking guides in their own city.

There are many walking tours in Edinburgh because it is the best way to see the nooks and crannies of the city: ghost tours, black history tours and mystery tours, murders and legends.

“It won’t be a Harry Potter tour of the city,” Angus said firmly, clarifying that there will be no speculation about the location of Hogwarts.

The guided tour by the former builder focuses on his passions: architecture and history.

Edinburgh is a city built of sandstone and, like the Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, it is “a dream of masonry and living rock” for Angus.

“I’m really interested in building materials and techniques,” he tells me as we squeeze through the fences of the old town. “Old stones are my passion.

Guide to invisible cities in a rainy Edinburgh (Photo: provided)

Angus is lyrical about his favorite buildings and laments what he calls the “risky” decisions of town planners.

“I like the old, rough stone walls,” he breathes, “but under the Victorians everything was a bit neater because they wanted it to look less Scottish and more English.”

He points to evidence of this along the Royal Mile, where some of the older buildings (such as the preserved 17th-century Gladstone’s Land building) have rougher stone façades than others that have been covered with smooth sandstone.

“The Victorians did it because they wanted it to look grander and less Scottish,” Angus jokes.

We are in the medieval part of Edinburgh which has been designated a World Heritage Site.

Its street motif is often described as resembling the skeleton of a fish: the Royal Mile is the backbone and the fences – steep, narrow, pedestrianized lanes – extend from it.

At the end of the alleys, you will find other historic buildings out of sight. Angus enthusiastically leads me over to them, showing me the low covered doors and his favorite: the reddish orange hued walls.

“People think Edinburgh is a big gray stone,” he says, “but there was a tradition of using something called Copperas plaster which is basically iron sulfate to create this ocher-colored wash. “Not seeing as much of it these days as you should. It was not only used to inject color, but to add a layer of weather protection to the rough stone.

“Nothing is worse than a poorly constructed structure,” jokes Angus. As we move around the city he points out buildings he considers poorly constructed or restored and shares his love for Mary Queen of Scots. He then explains that health problems put an end to his career as a builder. After that he worked as a gravedigger and a kitchen porter before ending up on the streets.

The famous Royal Mile in the Scottish capital

Invisible Cities has been a lifeline for Angus. He discovered it a few years ago from the staff at Big Issue and, working for them as a guide, was able to change his life.

As his tour concludes at St Giles Cathedral – one of Scotland’s most important medieval parish buildings – I ask Angus what’s next for him.

“I’m trying to get back to Aberdeen, where my family is,” he explains. He plans to continue working for Invisible Cities as a guide after the move.

“I think Aberdeen is much simpler than Edinburgh. It might not be that grand, but it also has incredible architecture.

Invisible Cities founder Zakia Moulaoui meets me after my tour with Angus at the Kimpton Charlotte Square Hotel.

Historically, Scotland has been the most forward-thinking part of the UK when it comes to tackling homelessness. It remains the first part of Britain to adopt a formal government-backed “Housing First” strategy.

The principle is simple: you immediately house homeless people, whatever their needs. It is a philosophy that influenced Zakia when she created Invisible Cities.

She works closely with other organizations that provide accommodation, food and other support services. More than that, she has partnered with local businesses, including the Kimpton.

“The Kimpton is a five star hotel,” she explains. “The staff have kindly agreed to train our guides in customer service, which gives them new skills that help them re-enter the world of work.”

It’s the kind of 360-degree approach that makes so much sense that you wonder why it’s not being rolled out nationally.

Travel essentials

Getting There: Lumo train service launched from London Kings Cross to Edinburgh today, lumo.co.uk.

stay there: Kimpton Charlotte Square has doubles from £ 189, kimptoncharlottesquare.com

On tour there: Invisible Cities organizes tours to Edinburgh, Manchester, Glasgow, York, Cardiff and Liverpool. From £ 12 per person, invisible-cities.org.

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