CULTURAL DEMOCRACY – CRAIGMILLAR STYLE. 30 years of the arts in an Edinburgh housing esate

This essay was commissioned for the catalogue of the exhibition, ‘Arts: The Catalyst – Craigmillar’ at the City Arts Centre, Edinburgh. October 2004


There is an annual summer festival of music and drama with parades and a pageant at the castle. It takes place in Edinburgh but it’s not the one that is internationally famous though this one did create international interest. No, this one takes place in Craigmillar, a housing estate, often described as one of the worst areas of multiple deprivation in Scotland. This exhibition affords the opportunity to look back at an extraordinary story.

Looking back is important. Bertold Brecht advised, never go forward until you first go back to check the direction. The widespread tokenism of the government’s policy of social inclusion, coupled with an often cynical ‘tick the boxes’ attitude of some arts institutions and professionals, has discredited an already suspect notion. It was always an ameliorating ‘top down’ policy with not much ever percolating from the ‘bottom up’ and totally at odds with the notion that the socially excluded may have something worthwhile to express about culture. It was of course Paolo Friere who advised us long ago not to impose our culture on the socially excluded but to enter into a dialogue with them about their view AND ours. Governments never seem to learn. They only ever seem to be interested in the new big idea and its slogan. Scottish Ministers would have achieved more if they had ignored the New Labour policy of social inclusion and taken the two-mile trip east to Craigmillar. Here in the sixties and seventies evolved a model for using the arts as a catalyst for social inclusion and progress which gained international fame. It was to here that planners, sociologists, community workers, artists and politicians, along with the great and the good, beat a path from all over the world to witness this ‘miracle’, to learn from it and to apply it back home.

So how come we did not learn from it? How come that it is almost forgotten? There is not the space here to attempt to analyse and present the reasons for this dereliction but two points spring to mind. The biblical, ‘can anything good come out of Nazareth?’, would surely be one but the other is more dangerous and it is this. Politicians and civil servants at the centre of power actually fear it when people rise up and take power for themselves. For this is what happened in Craigmillar. With the help of the local MP and the local city councillors, Craigmillar Festival Society became a strong political force exerting some control over planning, building, social and cultural development decisions. In 1976 it bypassed the then Scottish Office and went straight to the EC and won poverty action funding of �750, 000. At its high point it was responsible for initiating and running fifty seven neighbourhood projects and employed 200 full-time and 500 part-time workers in works ranging from landscaping, play area development, theatre and art works, play groups, social work and community development, and support. What the Festival Society could not do however was to bring well paid, long-term employment to Craigmillar. It was not equipped, and did not have the power, to do so.

Craigmillar Festival Society became a model for other similarly deprived communities, particularly Easterhouse in Glasgow, which set up its own Festival Society and went on to win a Fringe First at the other Edinburgh Festival for a theatre production written and performed by people from the estate. It commissioned six artists to create, with local people , a 200 foot- long mosaic containing decorative as well as highly political imagery. When I was in Chicago in 1984 I was asked by some artists if I had seen the Easterhouse Mosaic and did I have slides of it? Easterhouse to many people in Scotland meant crime, vandalism and poverty while in Chicago they had only heard of its art. In 1982 it hosted the biggest ever community arts conference in the UK attended by over 400 people from the here and abroad.

At the beginning of her book on the Craigmillar Festival Society, ‘Let The People Sing’, Helen Crummy, organising secretary of the society since its inception, uses a quote from an unknown source which strikes the note for which the society stood; ‘We can either react in fear or anger to the state of our world thus becoming part of the problem, or respond creatively and become part of the solution’. What is astonishing about the Craigmillar story is that, while incisive, creative thinkers like Augusto Boal, Paolo Friere and Ivan Illich, among others, were publishing their ideas on approaches to the issues of the poor and excluded, intuitively the Festival Society was actually carrying them out. It had found its own route to the notions that given respect, opportunity and a platform for their own voices, the poor and excluded can achieve very special things. This was ‘cultural democracy’ in action and not the democratisation of the received, establishment culture that is at the very heart of the UK arts policies and the basis of New Labour ‘social inclusion’.

This is a story too about women in action for, as the founders and directors of the Festival Society, it was their long-term commitment and belief in the role that the arts could play in re-vitalising their housing estate that became one of its unique features. While the broad range of activities was carried on throughout the year, the annual summer festival was the focus and central cultural event. It was launched each year by the performance of a piece of political, musical theatre conceived and written by local people focussing on a major issue affecting the community. It was performed by a cast of local, non-professional musicians and actors accompanied by professionals. Some of the former went on to professional careers and some of the latter, including Bill Paterson, have become major figures in the acting world. Professional artists, in all the art forms, were employed to work alongside local people, crucially, on terms laid down by the Festival Society. This reversal of normal practice mirrors Augusto Boal’s injunction to artists, ‘never go into a community until it has articulated its need for you’. Many other opportunities were created for the arts to flourish. In 1978 the Festival Society produced a major report with 400 recommendations on how to improve life on the estate. The title of the report, The Gentle Giant, was named after a 100 foot long land sculpture of Gulliver conceived and designed by Jimmy Boyle while still a prisoner in the Special Unit in Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow. It was formally dedicated and unveiled by Billy Connolly in 1976. Environmental improvements were used to include murals and play sculptures. With a certain cocky, native flair the Community Art Team, under the direction of Rosie Gibson, invited New York artist Pedro Silva to design and execute, with local people, a 60 foot long and 20 foot high sculpture of a mermaid covered in mosaic. Its location was strategic and political. It was sited on the line of a proposed motorway which would have cut the area in two. Reg Bolton, Neil Cameron, Mike Greenlaw, Stephanie Knight, Chrissie Orr, Mike Rowan, Annie Stainer and Ken Wolverton were some of the arts professionals who worked for several years with the people of Craigmillar. All were affected by the very special conditions and ambience of the place and which, thereafter, informed their own work.

There seems to be a fundamental, primitive need in all of us to make a mark on and to shape the places where we live. Ivan Illich wrote, ‘People do not need only to obtain things, they need, above all, the freedom to make things – things among which they can live, to give shape to them according to their own feelings, their own tastes, their own imagination’. In towns and cities human occupation subverts the formal and, even within the formal, as in neo- classicism, rustication displays a need for the primitive. Roy Oxlade asserts that , ‘The primitive links all periods of art history as a profound source of human response. It is what is enduring in art.’ Craigmillar Festival Society tapped into this fundamental need.

David Harding

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