Written by Helen Crummy in 1992, Let the People Sing! tells the story of the effective use of collective power in the Craigmillar neighbourhood in the south east of Edinburgh. First and foremost, the book recounts the work of Craigmillar Festival Society from its origins in the 1960s right up to its well-developed form in the 1980s and 1990s. Crummy, herself, was a founder of the festival and this allows for a refreshing insider’s insight into the tremendous, and mammoth, work of the Craigmillar Festival Society.
Craigmillar Festival Society was part of the Community Arts Movement and was in fact a catalyst for many other festival societies and other artistic projects such as the Easterhouse Festival Society and the Cranhill Arts Project. This movement highlighted how the use of art could offer a way to alleviate poverty and other social issues faced by many communities, including Craigmillar. Being the first group of its type, Craigmillar led the way in the use community art in order to turn the fortunes of an area around, ultimately influencing and inspiring many similar movements across the globe. It was not all about leading young people into creative lines of work, but rather showing them that they had the confidence and the skills for many different types of employment, uncovering their untapped potential through the arts. Nevertheless, many did pursue art professionally, including one of Helen’s own children, Andrew, who designed the Great Tapestry of Scotland.
Craigmillar Festival Society’s remit extended far beyond staging the annual festival as its work in the community took place year-round, creating several community projects as well as training community workers. The aim was to train members of the community itself as the people understood and cared deeply for the area. Indeed, the stories recalled from Crummy’s memory pull on many emotions. There are moments of joy but also of despair. A number of sections will make you laugh, others cry, and others simply angry at the attitudes of society and the government towards peripheral housing schemes like Craigmillar. In some ways, these negative attitudes still prevail even now, often fuelled by the media. The infuriating part is that the initial social issues that plagued areas like Craigmillar could have been avoided.
The area was part of the new housing schemes built in the twentieth century, which hoped to move big chunks of the city populations out of overcrowded and poorly kept housing. Craigmillar was one of the earliest new estates, built in the 1930s. Many others would follow, especially in the aftermath of the Second World War. These new estates were poorly planned, with little to no amenities or community facilities, which meant people were left isolated from the rest of the city and would have to travel into the centre to access cinemas, retail outlets, community centres and so on.
Additionally, the people who lived in Craigmillar at the time of its inception had been drawn from all over the city and, without these amenities, had little way to get to know other members of their new community. In the book, Crummy tells a harrowing tale of an elderly woman, who had spent her whole life in central Edinburgh and who now felt isolated and alone in Craigmillar. The Festival Society wanted to try and reach all of the members of these communities, including the isolated elderly people. Crummy illustrates this very well, tying it into the broader, colossal effects of deindustrialisation, which caused high unemployment during the 1980s, an issue that was rife in so many Edinburgh housing schemes.
As has been often discussed by historians and practitioners, the Community Arts Movement has not left a great deal of archival material behind. This is largely due to the nature of the work and the projects that took place as its main focus was on the process rather than an end product. Let the People Sing! provides a great deal of information to fill this gap in knowledge, with its rich first-hand accounts and recollections. Despite being written in 1992, Let the People Sing! is still a very worthwhile and relevant read, particularly to those interested in Craigmillar and the Community Arts Movement, or to those who simply just want to read about the strength and resilience of a community often demonised by the press. For those interested in learning even more about the Craigmillar Festival Society, Arts the Catalyst: The Craigmillar Story (2004), the award-winning documentary, is available to view online: http://www.plumfilms.co.uk/arts-the-catalyst-the-craigmillar-story/.
Helen Crummy died in 2011 and while the last Craigmillar Festival took place in 2002, its and Helen’s legacy lives on within the local community. The book is still available to buy and is also stocked in a number of Edinburgh’s libraries.
Written by Mhairi Ferrier