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December 1, 2020

Enduring legacy

The Craigmillar Festival Society was a pioneer of community arts in the UK and became internationally renowned for its approach to tackling poverty and disadvantage. Formed in 1962, it ran for 40 years. This short film won best documentary at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. While the energy and passion of the organisation had understandably waned after forty years, its legacy and that of its founder, Helen Crummy has endured to this day.  Last month, a new grassroots arts project emerged. If not quite a phoenix from the ashes, certainly a rekindling.

Neil Cooper, Bella Caledonia

The launch this week of a major new grassroots arts initiative in Edinburgh comes at a very interesting moment. Craigmillar Now has announced a programme of local-based international arts that aims to rekindle the spirit of the old Craigmillar Festival Society. This has been brought to fruition as a labour of love by people living locally.

Craigmillar Now and Then

Away from all that, Craigmillar Now has begun operations in the former church that was previously the home of Craigmillar Community Arts. Drawing much of its inspiration from Craigmillar Festival Society, the organisation founded in 1962 by the late Helen Crummy and other local mothers after seeking some kind of arts provision for their children, Craigmillar Now aims to provide a year-round artistic programme as well as hosting an archive of its forebears.

Already announced is a six-month residency and exhibition by Craigmillar based Syrian artist, Nihad Al Turk, who will develop a new body of work set to be shown in Summer 2021. Al Turk’s work has been seen all over the world, from Damascus to Venice to New York, as well as at the 2003 Latakia Biennale, where he was awarded the Golden Prize.

Alongside Al Turk’s work, artist Shauna McMullen will be leading the creation of a new community artwork celebrating the women of Craigmillar. This is designed to replace a now missing Women of Achievement plaque dedicated to Crummy.

Craigmillar Now will also be developing a local archive of vital historical material about the area. This will see a team of trained volunteers collecting and preserving the Craigmillar Festival Society archives, featuring documentation of the organisation’s 40-year history up until its closure in 2002.

In keeping with this emphasis on living history being passed down through generations, a series of community mapping walks will be led by local 5-11-year-olds. These will be run in collaboration with The Venchie, the Niddrie based children’s activity centre run on the site of what is believed to be Scotland’s first adventure playground, which is currently under threat of closure.

With other major events set to be announced in 2021, Craigmillar Now has already made quite an opening statement. Despite this, those behind the new initiative are more than aware of the tough act they have to follow. Craigmillar Festival Society, after all, was a boundary-pushing organisation that revitalised a marginalised area of Edinburgh that suffered institutional neglect and a welter of social problems that came in the wake of ill thought out planning decisions.

Despite this, during the 1970s and 1980s, CFS and the work it enabled was championed and supported by forward thinking individuals within a well-resourced local authority. The influence of CFS saw it used as a model for community arts around the world.

The full background to Craigmillar Festival Society can be found in Crummy’s memoir, Let the People Sing! published in 1992. A short history of CFS appeared in 2017 in  Rachael Cloughton’s essay, Dangerous Mothers. This formed part of Dangerous Women, a project initiated by the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities.

Since then, as newly appointed Project Manager, Cloughton has become one of the driving forces behind Craigmillar Now. With support from City of Edinburgh Council and others, Cloughton has worked alongside community councillor Maureen Child, artist Andrew Crummy, who is also Helen Crummy’s son, veteran Craigmillar activist Johnni Stanton and others. Support has come too from Dr Sophia Marriage of Scottish Episcopal Church, owners of the building. With such a strong team in place, Craigmillar Now looks set to pick up from where CFS left off to create a brand new future for Craigmillar.