The Binman’s Hatred of the Bin

Edinburgh is full of rubbish, and, apparently, is shortly going to be full of rats. And it’s The Festival: mime artists are drowning in garbage, this time not of their own making; the shine of a free circus act, performing in the grey shadow of St Giles, is rather lost when they are slipping on the packaging of last night’s KFC. Two days ago, on Forrest Road, a grumpy man, failing to get his apple core into a bin, turned on me: ‘It’s a disgrace’ he snarled. Well, yes, it is. But what is the disgrace?

A month or so ago, before the mountains of our discarded crap appeared, I was at a bus stop in Joppa, awaiting the 26. The binmen were at work on the main road; this day it was food bins and green bins. The former had already been done and lay like broken things on the pavement. An old man was shoving the green bins onto the lorry to be lifted up and banged clean. As I watched he took one, now empty, bin and shoved it with great force against the wall it had come from. It fell over. He did not right it. Half the bins he had dealt with lay like dead soldiers along Joppa Road. He did not like these bins. He may have emptied 100,000 of them over the decades and he possibly hated every one.

My great-uncle, Jimmy Brodie was a binman. His story, which will be told in my next book, was not exactly a happy one. In these days, the men who emptied the bins and swept the streets were called ‘scavengers’ – or, more popularly, ‘scaffies’. He was a scaffy. When, after a long courtship, he married my great-aunt, Lizzie Dickson, my grandmother, her younger sister, was entirely disapproving. A scaffy. My grandmother was a domestic servant, and both of her own husbands were coal-miners, the first one, before his death, a milkman. But she felt dishonoured that Lizzie – who was always so good to her – should stoop so low. It has always made me, from the lofty perch of the privately educated professional classes, feel an affinity for binmen. I vaguely remember Jimmy Brodie, dead by the time I was 7, keeping his peace some distance from my grandmother’s fireplace.

The piles of refuse are disgusting; the vermin will be worse. In Portobello, the ‘Porty Pride’ people are redoubling their efforts, and it’s not so bad here though, of course, the bins are overflowing. It makes you think how vital it is that our rubbish is collected timeously and our streets swept. It might even make you think that refuse collection is a really important job. During these strange and increasingly remote times not very long ago when we stepped outside on a Thursday at 8 to clap for the NHS I did always think that – while of course NHS workers were being amazing – maybe we should have also been clapping for the checkout assistants, the bus drivers, the postmen and women and all the other people who worked on through the unvaccinated early days of the pandemic, some of them getting Covid and some of them dying. They too were doing their jobs, including, of course, the binmen. 

But, you know, who wants to be a binman? We live in a world where half the population thinks it’s failed because it hasn’t got a degree, even if so many graduates are ill-equipped to do anything at all. This bin strike is part of a much larger malaise which is slowly widening gaps in our society: who is it that we respect? Well, let me state this: I try very hard to respect those who serve me in the retail and hospitality industries, and not just because of my continued failing, this desperate need for everyone to like me! There might even, dare I say it, be a bit of me that respects a bus driver or a binman more than a hedge fund manager, if only because I do not, in truth, understand what a hedge fund manager does, or why he or she deserves to be just quite so well remunerated for their work funding hedges, or…hedging funds or wtf. We need to work this all out before independence – are we going to be a nation where everyone is respected for what they do, or will we continue to allow so many people to feel no esteem whatsoever about what they do, and bang those bins off these walls till, inevitably, they fall apart or simply disappear?

I write this on the day that the TUC has called for a minimum wage of £15 an hour. Hear hear, I say. Let’s pay the lowest paid people in our society that, and let’s pay the binmen, doing their horrible, necessary, decent work, a lot more than that. RIP Jimmy Brodie. 



  1. Whilst it’s not always the case my good lady and I wholeheartedly agree with your views in this post.


  2. Well Cameron
    – I have just read your entertaining
    binmen article – and serious thoughts too.
    In part it follows on well from your thoughts on the attainment gap.
    And mind you, too many of us feel that a Binman in the family would not be as much talked of as, say, an accountant, teacher, social worker or whatever. I’m aware that there may be binmen reading this so….
    Given the deeply entrenched inclination in people’s minds to connect the ‘job operator’ with the unpleasantness of the actual work,
    why not agree to provide the operators with more handsome salaries?
    Make it the current equivalent of £30k per annum? Then such individuals would likely receive much more respect.
    You touched on Scottish Independence. A very tricky topic. There’s another huge gap between the emotional response and financial reality. Better back off from the topic for now.


  3. We wouldn’t have survived the pandemic without millions of key workers in low paid jobs but now it’s over we are back to normal rewarding the likes of hedge fund managers richly and forcing the low paid into poverty, food bank usage and the need to choose between food and fuel. The strike was totally avoidable. The workers should have had their pay rise in April and it’s now the end of August with double digit inflation. If the scottish government was able to double the offer immediately the strike started why didn’t they make a sensible offer months earlier? No matter how bad the mess gets in Edinburgh it won’t be as big as the mess that cosla/scot gov have made of this issue. And I’m personally fed up with scot gov/westminster/cosla/councils all finger pointing and would be happier if they all got back on with the job they are supposed to be doing better than they are currently doing it.

    On a separate note if I could be bothered I’d sit and work out how many bins the average binman who works from .18-67 empties in a lifetime. I’d imagine Cameron’s binman at his age probably dreams about bins and has a proper psychopathic hate of them indeed!


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