Rachael Cloughton works at the Thistle Foundation in Craigmillar, Edinburgh. She is also the visual art editor of The List and editor of Scottish Art News magazine.


There’s a story that’s often told in Craigmillar about the 1960s schoolboy who wanted to learn how to play the violin. Raised in the concrete jungle of one of east Edinburgh’s earliest housing schemes, private music tuition was beyond the means of most families in the area, including his own. So his mother, Helen Crummy, asked the headmaster of Peffermill School, Angus Lyall to teach her child to play the instrument. She was told in no uncertain terms that teachers had enough trouble getting Craigmillar children to learn the 3 Rs. Music was not going on the curriculum.

This is where the story of Craigmillar’s revolutionary Festival Society begins: Helen didn’t back down, instead she joined the school Mother’s Club and met the Dangerous Mothers that would become allies in a total shake up of the system, and who would completely transform the face of community arts across the world. 

When Helen joined the Mother’s group in the early 1960s, it was mostly a fundraising arm for the school, securing much needed equipment that the local authorities didn’t provide, and more – Peffermill School was the first in the district to have a TV and a projector. When Helen took over as Club Secretary two years later, she introduced a programme of workshops and talks for the mothers – they started getting an education too.

Around this time Comprehensive schools were being introduced and the mothers wanted one for the area. Peffermill School’s headmaster, Lyall, underestimating the gumption of these working class women, agreed to debate them on the issue, putting the fate of the school to a vote. The mothers fastidiously studied the subject and were well prepared. The Headmaster lost the case. After a 3-month hiatus, presumably spent licking his wounds, Lyall admitted he had not expected the mothers to take the matter so seriously and go to such lengths to present their case. They got their comprehensive school.

The more involved the Mothers became with life at the school, the more it became apparent that the teachers’ reticence to engage their children in the arts was because they didn’t think they would be interested. No teachers lived in Craigmillar – it was far from a mixed community – so they had no idea of the area’s burgeoning talent. The Mothers did. They decided to hold an arts festival that would showcase just how creative Craigmillar was – and change its image to the rest of Edinburgh to boot.

Without the support of the Craigmillar Association or Local Authority the Mothers relied on their own networks, particularly other local mothers who helped to spread the word. Together they knocked on doors and encouraged local people to sing, dance, act, create costumes and paint stage sets. The first Craigmillar Festival opened in 1964 with plays from nearly all the local schools, the Peffermill Ladies Choir and the Thistle Foundation – a local charity supporting disabled veterans.

In 1968, locals wrote and produced the ‘Emancipation of Women,’ cannily timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of women receiving the vote. What emerged was a feisty, political commentary told through the history of women throughout the ages – Elizabeth I, Grace Darling, Joan of Arc and Marie Curie.

The local women sang out:

‘Regretfully the fact remains

Working women with their brains

Have not developed as they could

Nor done as much as women should.’

But times were changing. And Craigmillar women left the performance with their head held high.

The Peffermill Mother’s Group had very quickly morphed into the Craigmillar Festival Society (CFS). New people joined and professionals were cautiously invited to support activities, such as Douglas Galbraith, who helped craft the many community musicals that were yet to come, and Steve Burgess, who trained and supported Neighbourhood Workers. However, local mothers remained the core driving force.

In 1970, the Society secured a small Urban Aid grant that was used to employ five ‘Neighbourhood Workers’. Four of the five were young mothers – Claire Elder, Alice Henderson, Cathie Grant and Muriel Wilkinson. They each took a different area of Craigmillar as their patch and a different activity as their focus. They planned trips away for young people and their families, lunch clubs for the elderly, they launched the area’s first community newspaper ‘CFS News’, and set up playgroups to alleviate the 300 child-strong waiting list for the only nursery in the area. ‘Playgroups are middle class, working class women don’t run playgroups!’ read a leaked memo from the council when word reached them about what was happening in the area.

By refusing to support the mothers through official channels or fund their work, the CFS enjoyed an independence that made them all the more dangerous. For example, when an issue of CFS News attacked the local authority’s Social Work Department, the Society were called into the Director’s office. The free newspaper had been circulated to every one of Craigmillar’s 7000 households and the Director was not happy. But he was reminded that ‘as his council did not pay the piper he could not call the tune.’

The Society could also react quickly and create unorthodox solutions to the problems they faced – and these solutions usually lay in the arts. When the council wanted to build a motorway through the heart of Craigmillar, the Society commissioned New York artist Pedro de Silva to create a huge mermaid sculpture in its path. They also wrote a community musical called ‘The Time Machine’, which playfully but powerfully harnessed the community’s fears and anger towards the plan:

One fine day

They’re gonna pull your house down…


Motor car

Everybody wants one

Don’t you let

Days gone by

Stand in the way

Way of the fight

Right of every man to drive from door to door

The CFS invited local politicians and planners to the musicals to hear their arguments played out in a unique, creative spectacle. The road was diverted.

This was one the CFS’ most effective strategies – use the arts’ incredible potency to create massive social change. When a local survey uncovered that there were 600 empty homes in the area, exacerbating some of the area’s social problems, they did the same, creating the musical ‘Castle, Cooncil and Curse’. The survey coincided with the Craigmillar Castle’s 600th birthday, which offered fertile creative ground. In the musical, one of the homeless families in Craigmillar took the keys to the Castle, only to be haunted by a former resident – Mary Queen of Scots. A few years later, when the National Children’s bureau published their ‘Born to Fail’ report, which disclosed that 1 in 10 of Scotland’s children were socially deprived the CFS staged the production ‘Willie Wynn’, a story loosely based on a Craigmillar lad who fit the description of the report (deprived, from a one parent family, few opportunities). Willie escaped into a fantasy land to avoid the problems in his reality, the CFS created fictions to tackle their reality head on.

By 1975 the CFS had grown bigger than any of the Peffermill mothers could have imagined. But it was about to grow bigger still. Helen Crummy’s memoir, ‘Let the People Sing’ starts with the recollection of standing in front of a room full of diplomats at the European Economic Community attempting to secure a grant from the Poverty Programme. ‘How was it that a working class mother from one of Europe’s 20th century concrete jungles of the underprivileged, came to be with that distinguished lot?’ she asks, looking out on to the room full of academics and MEPs.

The proposal the CFS put forward described ‘the poor looking at the problems of the poor, the remedies and changes needed.’ It was accepted and the CFS received an annual grant of £106,000 to employ more Neighbourhood Workers and pay professional consultants to support community activities. The CFS used part of the funds as ‘seed money’ to attract monies from other sources such as trusts and private sponsors, and most significantly, the Manpower Services Commission (MSC) job creation programme. At this time Craigmillar had a 14% unemployment figure (40% in some pockets). By the end of 1978 the MSC job creation scheme had employed 163 people.

Initially the MSC would not fund anything related to performing arts, ‘Art is not work!’ the bureaucrats dared to tell this thriving arts community. But in true CFS style, they bent the rules and found ways to encourage the MSC trainees to get involved with lighting, prop making, scene painting and maintaining music equipment. Later the MSC changed their mind and accepted training programmes in music, drama, visual arts and video.

Some of the MSC trainees did very well out of it indeed – Mickey McPherson and Rose Anderson joined the Scottish Youth Theatre, John Brown became a professional TV cameraman and Angie Catlin is an award winning press photographer. And while Craigmillar started exporting local talent, a wealth of high profile actors started filtering in. Victor Carin, Bill Paterson, Katie Gardiner, Eileen McCallum, John Murtagh, Sandy Neilson, Ian Woolright, Kenny Ireland and Billy Riddock all flocked over, attracted by the buzz of this artistic enclave on the periphery of Edinburgh. They volunteered their time and appeared in the musicals, significantly boosting the CFS’ profile. There were a few famous visitors too – the Queen, the British Prime Minister and the American Ambassador all visited Craigmillar, curious to see what was happening. Word spread all over the world. Organisers from the Notting Hill Carnival visited, just to see how it was done.

By 1976, half the local population were involved in the Festival, which had grown from a one-day event to a fortnight-long extravaganza. During the rest of the year there were 57 projects led by a formidable troop of Neighbourhood Workers and a whopping 500 volunteers.

In 1980, the green light was given for a 6th year of the EEC’s Poverty Programme, which was the crutch this flourishing community depended on. But it was axed. And it was axed thanks to an altogether different kind of dangerous woman: Margaret Thatcher. In pursuing a reduced British EEC Budget, Thatcher antagonized the Germans. Their reaction was to veto everything that came their way, including the Poverty Programme. By 1981 the CFS had created 600 jobs and had become the biggest employer in the Craigmillar area. But the rug was pulled from under them and they were forced to face painful reductions.

And just as the Dangerous Mothers had spear-headed this radical change, they were amongst those that felt the consequences of the Tories’ draconian measures most keenly. Without the EEC funding the posts held by locals were drastically cut. Job creation schemes ground to a halt. The work that was available was low paid, frequently part-time with no rights, insurance or paid holiday. Craigmillar had already faced the closure of almost all the male-dominated industries in the two decades prior (the pits, the distilleries, the creamery). Women were often the main breadwinners in families, and now, if after a year their husband had not found work he would no longer qualify for Social Security.

Craigmillar experienced a huge rise in the social problems the CFS were tackling – high unemployment, social isolation, drug abuse, suicide. According to SIMD statistics Craigmillar today is one of the most deprived areas in Scotland. It’s hard not to wonder what would have happened if the funding hadn’t been cut, and the momentum that was building for CFS has continued.

The story of the boy with the violin endures, but the story of these Dangerous Mothers is rarely spoken about. Many of the women have passed or moved elsewhere, but Muriel still lives in Craigmillar. She believes there’s no secret to the success of the Mothers; they just genuinely and passionately cared for their community. There was no room for egos and no time for personal agendas.

‘If it had been about an individual the project would never have succeeded in the way it did’, recalls Andrew Crummy, Helen Crummy’s son, when asked about why so little is known about these incredible women outside of Craigmillar. Helen would say that the people really doing stuff were the ones who weren’t craving the spotlight, but the ones quietly supporting them in the back of the room. That’s where you’ll find the most Dangerous Mothers.