From There… To Here

The social history of Wester Hailes


 A couple of weeks ago we told you about a book of essays produced by students at Edinburgh University who had been carrying out research on aspects of Wester Hailes – past, present and future. We said that we hoped to publish individual pieces by some of them, and here’s the first.

Entitled “Creativity On the Fringe” by Kaitlyn Hay it traces the history of WHALE Arts, the effect on the local community and the relationship with the cultural hub of the city centre. We will be running the article in three parts and today’s section focuses on urban theory, cultural regeneration and the ethos and aspirations through which WHALE has developed over the years.

Creativity On the Fringe 

[as published in Gamma/ Jaamma Urban Fragments: Casablanca/ Edinburgh, June 2011]


A harlequin-faced boy on a unicycle is a recurring motif in the 1986 documentary Huts: A Film from Wester Hailes. The unicyclist, as well as flame-swallowers, a circus ringmaster, jugglers, and other costumed individuals, appear throughout the film. These characters are resonant of the culture of performance at Edinburgh’s summer festivals. Edinburgh has been the host of arts festivals since 1947 and in 2010, city organizations embarked on a collective scheme to brand Edinburgh the Festival City with a year-round schedule of events. Despite the proximity of the Wester Hailes residential estate to the city centre — a mere half-hour bus journey — the movement of creative experiences from city-centre to suburb (and vice versa) is less than free flowing.

How can we better grasp the nature of this relationship between city-centre and suburban arts production? What does it tell us of the contemporary creative city?  It has been through the scholarship and advocacy of Richard Florida, an American urban studies theorist, and other related urbanists, that the idea of the creative city has in recent years come to the fore of urban development agendas. According to Florida’s core argument, urban growth, and specifically regeneration of cities in economic and population decline, can be kick started by state-led investment in the creative industries such as architecture, design, fashion, music, film, software and publishing. In addition, local city authorities can actively work to attract certain industries and creative classes to their previously declining cities on a globally competitive stage (Florida 2004). Florida’s plan for urban growth via cultural industries expansion has been widely adopted by city councils and planners in the past decade — though not without skepticism. For example, academic critiques focus upon Florida’s weak economic grounding, subjective indices of growth, and glib repackaging of development trends that have been underway since the eighties. This idea of the creative city overlooks — and may even be a threat — to other kinds of urban creative expression such as non-touristic community arts. Moreover, Florida’s creative city also appears to have a very specific urban geography involving renovated heritage architecture in the inner city or revitalized waterfront areas. It is not usually linked to the suburbs, and certainly not to deeply stigmatized postwar neighborhoods like Wester Hailes.

The city of Edinburgh, host to the world’s largest summer arts festival (Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2010) and first UNESCO City of Literature (Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature 2006), is an example of a city that has ridden the creative tide long before Florida’s ideas became the zeitgeist. However, the international character and frantic profusion of festival events fail to transcend the geographic heart of the city despite the efforts of arts organizations and partnerships. How can an economically deprived and socially denigrated community such as Wester Hailes not only encourage a culture of talent, but also build its creative capital and ensure that its creativity is better integrated into Edinburgh’s festival activities? Aspects of this question were addressed by a consultation conducted by the UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in 2004, published under the title Culture at the Heart of Regeneration. The consultation solicited responses from 132 participants regarding the role of the DCMS in promoting culture in urban and other regeneration projects. The consultation was very much a product of Floridian views on city regeneration via mobilization of talent. Responses indicated that visionary individuals are essential in leading projects to completion and delivering results, cultural projects should be relevant to the community as well as of a high quality, and culture can be a force of community cohesion and improve quality of life by contributing to health and wellbeing. That said, it was also noted that hindrances to such development could result from poor infrastructure such as lack of venues, poverty, and a reliance on volunteers. A range of existing facilities  — libraries, churches and village halls — and events such as ‘fêtes, country shows and festivals’ all held value and potential in relation to state-led creative industries regeneration (Culture at the Heart of Regeneration: Summary of Responses 2004, 6).

 WHALE Arts Agency             

The challenges facing cultural production and participation have shaped the arts agency WHALE: Wester Hailes for Arts, Leisure and Education, founded in 1992. WHALE Arts initially operated as a community development initiative, based in the blue hut on the Greenway between Murrayburn Grove and Hailesland Gardens. The first events sponsored and organized by WHALE Arts were a summer carnival and Christmas show — geared towards entertainment and local participation. Programmes in the mid-nineties focused on providing training in marketable skills such as photography, video and computer applications. According to founder Jim Tough, the didactic approach and emphasis on learning that could lead to employment became a critical part of the organization’s ethos. Tough worked in community education before spearheading the foundation of an arts group in Wester Hailes — which was to have a ‘developmental structure’ from the outset. Activities and programs were designed based on the people’s needs, thus influencing the art produced (Interview of Jim Tough 2001). The programming at WHALE has evolved continuously as the feedback loop between arts agency and community grows more fluid with time and persistence. Classes that emphasize training and further education, such as Fireworks, which allowed individuals to shadow theatre professionals, and Access to Creative Arts, a partnership programme with Stevenson College, Telford College and Napier University, enable the creative agency of Wester Hailes residents. It is the content and delivery of these sorts of programmes that cast WHALE Arts as a community arts centre, distinct from a professional studio, theatre venue or gallery — the types of amenities Richard Florida hails as the seedbed of the creative class. Programming oriented towards training local enthusiasts and students, serving as a springboard to higher learning and careers, is a mode of cultivating talent quite separate from the programming and resources that Florida emphasises in his plan of the creative city.


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