From There… To Here

The social history of Wester Hailes

Creativity On The Fringe

Over a six month period during 2010-2011,  a group of postgraduate students from Edinburgh University were engaged in a study of Wester Hailes – its past, present and the potential for future growth and development – as part of a joint urban geography and design programme. They produced a book which  collected together a series of carefully researched and extremely interesting essays on the subject, including this article “Creativity On The Fringe.”

Entitled “Gamma/Jaamaa: Urban Fragments: Casablanca/Edinburgh” the book explores the theme of marginality in relation to these two cities. In the case of Edinburgh, a considerable part of the focus is on Wester Hailes, drawing on the Sentinel archive as a major information resource.  Gamma/Jaamaa may be an academic publication but it is an altogether unstuffy and stimulating take on some of the key elements of Wester Hailes as a place and a community, from its inception to where it stands now – and where it might go. 

“Creativity On the Fringe” by Kaitlyn Hay traces the history of WHALE Arts, the effect on the local community and the relationship with the cultural hub of the city centre.

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.

Edinburgh’s other Fringe?

An established tradition of festival culture and the more illusory qualities of play and spontaneity produce identities and identification with this festival city. Festivals generate regulated and liminal spaces in the city’s cultural calendar and insinuate Edinburgh’s cultural ambience, sociability, and prestige in the global hierarchy of celebrated cultural cities (Jamieson 2004, 65).

By all means Edinburgh proves itself as a creative city year in and year out, yet the community arts organizations that ring the city centre fall beyond the cast of the downtown spotlights. Wester Hailes-Edinburgh partnerships have existed since the early nineties, but the struggle for sustained collaborations and steady funding is constant. Arts Development Officer for Youth programs Kate Griffin, explained that government programs such as Creative Scotland have funds to bestow upon cultural productions and arts groups, and much of its goes to city centre based organizations as they are the ones fueling the tourist economy that is so crucial to Edinburgh (Creative Scotland 2010). WHALE Arts’ role is to draw some of the money away from downtown venues and events to fund its own initiatives — often in conjunction with big Edinburgh groups but clearly targeting the residents of Wester Hailes (Interview with Kate Griffin 2011).

Griffin also commented on the creative culture in Wester Hailes, given its history of economic and social issues; ‘people usually socialize within parts they are familiar with and stick to what they know is on their doorstep.’ There is the perception of suburban versus downtown that is thrown into greater contrast over the summer months, as described by Jamieson (2004, 64): Festival time signals jostling crowds, overspilling bars, and cacophonies of multilingual conversations. The scale and chaotic feel of Edinburgh the Festival City comes alive at the end of July with The Edinburgh International Jazz and Blues Festival followed by The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, The Edinburgh International Book Festival, The Edinburgh International Film Festival, The Edinburgh Tattoo, The Edinburgh International Festival, and The Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival. For six weeks, a thriving street life brings tourists, performers, and residents into proximity where difference in appearance, language, and behavior becomes the norm of city center public life. In contrast, Griffin explains another view: ‘There is a feeling among the residents that city centre productions and events at festival are not for us.’

In a related vein, the 2004 DCMS consultation showed that some saw tourism as playing a key role in cultural provision to suburban and rural areas, while others cautioned that under such initiatives, these destinations could become theme parks. Responses identified two paths of the flow of culture services: city centre based services exported to suburban audiences, and residents of the suburb brought directly to the venues of the city centre. Regarding the first avenue of flow, enticing artists to come to Wester Hailes has been a challenge. A core goal of WHALE Arts is the collaboration between agency, artists and local school children. In 2000, sculptor Robert Coira conducted a series of sculpture workshops with Dumbryden primary school students and curated a display of pieces along the Union Canal (‘Canal Arts’ 2001). The internationally connected Moving Parts Theatre Company was formed in 1985 and operated out of the Clovenstone and Wester Hailes Education Centers until the early nineties. The theatre group works with young people from different backgrounds and after years of exporting performances to the Festival Fringe, moved downtown (Moving Parts Theatre Company 2010). Today, there are several programmes held at WHALE in which artists in residence, such as Edinburgh-bred band Idlewild, hold workshops and classes that culminate in city centre performances or displays.

Arts Development Officer for Adult Programmes Gavin Crichton, speculates on whether or not WHALE could become a festival venue, which would implicate the notion of WHALE Arts as a tourist attraction versus a community arts centre. ‘The real question is what does it mean to be an art centre in a low-income area? WHALE is really at the heart of a debate between big city arts, but it’s not in the big city […]’ Furthermore, Crichton identified an important distinction between arts production and arts consumption (Interview with Gavin Crichton 2011). WHALE Arts has been organizing trips and transportation to city centre venues since its founding. Arty Party, an adult group that meets regularly to attend performances and exhibitions, is WHALE Arts’ longest running programme. With respect to arts production and the exportation of Wester Hailes talent to the city, participation has waxed and waned over the past two decades. In 1993 the WHALE drama group had a venue at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and as reported in the Wester Hailes Sentinel community newspaper, all performances would be affordable to attend at no more than £3 per ticket. ‘Based in the Unemployed Worker’s Centre at 103 Broughton Street, the venue will provide a refreshing alternative to the overpolished and overpriced entertainment available elsewhere at this time of year’ (Whale at the Fringe 1993).

Allan Farmer, the current director at WHALE Arts, offers a long-term vision for the centre which continues to operate on Jim Tough’s original philosophy of a developmental structure. WHALE Arts will forge a more cooperative relationship amongst the Five Art Partners: Craigmillar Art Centre, North Edinburgh Art Centre, Art South Edinburgh and Out of the Blue in Leith, in order to coordinate and diversify their audience as well establish a traveling programme of performances and workshops. Participation diversification for WHALE Arts is a complex matter of targeted publicity and outreach projects. Farmer cited the Edinburgh-based organization The Audience Business (TAB) as potentially playing a key role in the organization’s future. According to TAB’s website, their goal is to ‘find out what makes audiences tick, what will make them try something new, and what will keep them coming back year on year’ (The Audience Business 2011). Farmer explains the approach to maximizing audience participation as a binary between hosting a series of fun and enticing one-off events to get people comfortable with coming to the building as well as long-term and committed engagement projects shaped by the residents. Ideally, the latter structure would be the norm but facilitating such a sustained dialogue with the community does not happen without substantial legwork. Ultimately, the goal is for the programming at WHALE to be a reflection of the collective voice of the community (Interview with Allan Farmer 2011).

“Who’s Culture is it Anyway?” A creative city for everyone.

The issue of involvement with the Edinburgh festival scene illustrates the complex identity-shaping process WHALE Arts has undergone since its founding. In 2002, the Edinburgh People’s Festival was created by a small group of activists and artists as a one-off event under the motto a festival by the people and for the people (Edinburgh People’s Festival 2011). The project was largely a reaction to cost-prohibitive productions of the International Festival and Festival Fringe, and sentiment that those festivals were for everyone else but the local residents. In a debate sponsored by WHALE Arts in 2003, a panel of speakers representing the People’s Festival, Stand Comedy club, Theatre Impressario, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and other artists, historians and writers, debated the necessity and potential of the People’s Festival as an annual event in contrast and competition with the Festival Fringe. Several speakers argued against the notion of the Festival Fringe as a ‘cash cow’ and ‘celebration for an arts establishment or Edinbourgeoisie.’ Another claimed that the people of Wester Hailes have as much access to festival events as anyone else — it is simply a matter of choosing to go. Conversely, speakers argued that ‘Wester Hailes was a section of our city not invited to the party’, and that the Edinburgh People’s Festival would address the issues of isolation and a sort of cultural ‘apartheid’ (‘Whose culture is it anyway’ 2003). Clearly the issue of audience and access has always been a difficult one for Wester Hailes, with WHALE Arts serving as a linchpin in the debate. The reflex of spawning new festivals to reach new audiences finds its latest manifestation in the Big West Fest: ‘a platform for local artwork and to connect local people with the cultural festivals taking place in the city centre’ (Big West Fest 2011).

Richard Florida’s development agenda, preoccupation with city branding and commoditization of creativity, is undercut by the example of Wester Hailes within the wider context of community arts (Malanga 2004). There is not one type of urban creativity; rather, the development of creativity in the way of cultural capital varies according to location. Distilling creativity into a prescription proffered by consultants is not a cure-all formula for turning latent creativity into growth for each and every urban population. Wester Hailes arts culture is distinct from that of the city centre where talent is more apt to be molded by trendy creativity schemes. WHALE Arts, on the other hand, negotiates the neighbourhood’s relationship to Edinburgh as a local entity, learning centre, and entertainment venue in pro-active dialogue with the city centre. The example of WHALE Arts demonstrates that the role of an arts resource is relative to the public it serves and that a programme of ‘cultural amenities’ for the city centre is not necessarily suited for the suburb on its cusp.”


Big West Fest (2010) [online] Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature. Available from: [Accessed 25/2/2011].

Canal Arts (2001) The Wester Hailes Sentinel, Issue No. 400, 15 December – 19 January.

Crichton, G. (2003) An investigation into how far a Freirean based community theatre company can stay true to its roots in a western urban society with specific reference to Wester Hailes Arts for leisure and education (WHALE). Unpublished BA (Hons) Thesis, Queen Margaret University College.

Crichton, G. Interview 17 February 2011. WHALE Arts Agency, adult programscoordinator.

Culture at the Heart of Regeneration: Summary of Responses (2004) Department for Culture, Media and Sport, United Kingdom.

Edinburgh People’s Festival [online] Available from: [Accessed 22/2/2011].

Farmer, A. Interview 23 February 2011. WHALE Arts Agency, interim director.

Festival Fringe (n.d.) [online] Edinburgh Fringe. Available from: [Accessed 17/3/2011].

Florida, R. (2004) Cities and the creative class, Routledge: New York.

Griffin, K. Interview 23 February 2011. WHALE Arts Agency, youth programs coordinator.

Jamieson, K. (2004) The festival gaze and its boundaries. Space and Culture. (7)1 pp. 64- 75.

Malanga, S. (2004) The curse of the creative class [online] City Journal. Available from: [Accessed 9/2/2011].

Moving Parts Theatre Company. Available from: [Accessed 21/2/2011].

The Audience Business. Available from: [Accessed 24/2/2011].

UNESCO City of Literature [online] UNESCO. Available from: [Accessed 21/2/2011].

WHALE at the Fringe (1993) The Wester Hailes Sentinel, Issue No. 242, 13-27August.

 Whose culture is it anyway? (2003) Wester Hailes Education Center – Debate Transcript.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.