Please send me SCA's fortnightly briefing:

July 27, 2011

Let the people sing! – A story of Craigmillar

Over 50 years ago a young mother living in Craigmillar approached her eldest son’s primary school and asked if he could have violin lessons.  The head teacher’s negative response to this simple request was the spark that ignited the drive and passion that has fuelled one of the country’s most enduring community arts organisations.  Helen Crummy, founder of Craigmillar Festival Society died recently at the age of 90. Her obituary tells some of the story

HELEN Crummy was one of those rare individuals whose innate modesty concealed an iron determination to change the world for the better, above all for the poor and marginalised. Where some might see the victims of poverty as part of an endemic social problem, she saw the unfulfilled potential of people who, given the opportunity, could overcome disadvantage and find self-esteem.

For her, every child, no matter how poor, was a precious gift; every adult, regardless of circumstances, was worthy of respect, and deserved to be listened to.

Young Helen Prentice knew of such problems at first hand. Her father, a watchmaker trained by Royal Warrant holders Brooks & Co, set up in business first in Haddington, and shortly afterwards opened a shop in Edinburgh. Helen, the oldest of six children, attended James Clark’s School in St Leonard’s, where she was dux. 

With the 1930s crash the family became, she said, part of the “sunken middle class”, though thanks to a resourceful mother, Joanna (née Blaikie) they were rarely hungry. They were also encouraged to read – The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist was a particular favourite – but they saw the sharp end of social deprivation when they moved to Niddrie, a vast corporation housing scheme of such unremitting bleakness that even government minister, Herbert Morrison, condemned it as a “barrack block” ghetto. 

Among the childhood friends she made there were her neighbours, the Kanes, one of whom, Jack, would one day become Edinburgh’s Lord Provost.

An ambition to become a teacher was thwarted when she left school, aged 14, to work in a shop. After war was declared she was conscripted into the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), serving as an administrative Corporal under Air Chief Marshal “Bomber” Harris. Some nights she lay awake, counting the bombers out as they headed for their night sorties over Germany. The following morning she would count them back – and the arithmetic was always grim. 

In 1942 she married Larry Crummy of the Durham Light Infantry, and they moved into a prefab home in Greendykes, where three sons were born. Her first foray into social activism was to help establish a mothers’ club so that local women could come together as a self-help group. This became the germ of an idea which, almost by accident, was to have an effect across the world.

The story about this daughter of an accomplished Scotch fiddler who asked a headmaster if her son could be taught to play the violin has become something of a legend. The answer was no, but she wasn’t having it. 

In the WAAF she had been responsible for 32 trainee administrative assistants, and had learnt how to organise. Craigmillar’s mothers were soon demanding more than music lessons. That same headmaster would become one of her strongest allies

It would be accurate, no doubt, to say that Helen Crummy was instituting Robert Owenite principles of community reform, or engaging with the self-help philosophy of Samuel Smiles. She’d certainly read the books, but her passion was rooted, above all, in common sense. She knew what she wanted for her own children, and simply believed that every child in Craigmillar had as much right to flourish and prosper as they did. 

History and the arts became the means to her end, connecting the local people with the area’s surprisingly rich past, and encouraging talent and creativity on every level. A Craigmillar Pageant, with its focus on the castle where Mary, Queen of Scots, had been a frequent guest, was an outstanding success, and in 1962 the annual Craigmillar Festival was born. 

Formally constituted in 1969 as The Craigmillar Festival Society, the grass-roots philosophy behind it was soon attracting international attention, and in 1976 its principles were set out in a Comprehensive Plan for Action, which became a standard text among social scientists. In the same year she was awarded an MBE which, typically, she insisted was not hers, but an award for the community as a whole.

In seeking to connect ordinary people with the arts, she had no hesitation in approaching those who had become successful. Her infectious enthusiasm attracted input from across the Scottish creative community. Billy Connolly, Bill Paterson, Richard Demarco, Sean Connery and others were soon contributing their time and energies.

Helen Crummy’s own talents as an author of several books, most notably Let the People Sing, was never in doubt. She wrote fluently, and with feeling, and any disappointment she had felt at her failure to become a teacher was more than offset when Heriot-Watt University awarded her an honorary LLD, and the film director, Bill Douglas, cast her as his old schoolteacher in his classic biographical film, My Childhood. Her efforts were also gaining attention further afield. Academics and students from the United States, Germany, Italy, Spain and even countries then behind the Iron Curtain made their way to Craigmillar to see for themselves what had been accomplished. 

The “Craigmillar Formula” had a universal application, and through the writings of such academics as the behavioural psychologist Eric Trist became the subject of much study, being cited in books like Small is Possible, George McRobie’s continuation of E.F Schumacher’s classic series. 

I recall Helen holding court, on one occasion, with a group from New York University. Some 20 years later, in the 1990s, the Scottish Government backed an initiative to invite a group of American academics over to advise on the “confidence deficit” among Scottish schoolchildren. More than a few of us took the view that we were merely re-importing a version of the “Craigmillar Formula” which had been shipped over to America a generation earlier!

Helen Crummy enjoyed a good story, and recollected how, after she had managed to persuade Yehudi Menuhin to give a recital to a local audience, it had been so astonished by the brilliance of his performance that there had been a moment’s stunned hesitation between the final note, and the applause – a moment in which one voice was heard to say: “That wis no bad, eh?”

It is a tribute which this modest, yet determined, woman would probably have chosen for herself, and the very least that could be said of her life, with all its quiet virtuosity. That it was no bad, eh?