A Balancing Act Between Old and New


Posted by in July's Magazine

Another Gala day at Leith Festival disappears into the distance, adding more memories to the rich heritage. A heritage (and tradition) we need to keep alive. I recently chatted to Duncan Bremner of Citizen Curator, who is running a project tracing the roots of Leith Festival. He provided me with a potted history lesson:

“Gala Days, as we now recognise them, are first thought to have taken place in 1770 in Loanhead where miners were invited to celebrate the birthday of the landowner. From then onwards industry-based celebrations, sports days and children’s trips became increasingly popular across the country.

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Although active from the 1890s, Leith Gala was officially founded in 1907 in order to raise money for the local hospital – before the NHS, hospitals were run with funds from the community. By the 1960s several parades, including the Scottish Miner’s Gala had come to Leith, and over this period the local Gala expanded to become a week long arts festival. Despite suffering social and economic challenges the day has continued, engaging all ages and residents.”

Leith Gala day is an opportunity for locals to come together and celebrate the best things about our community; it showcases local talent and also gives small businesses a chance to punt their wares. It is unique as its background has a sea-faring aspect, with all the associated trades and crafts of a port town. In the past, Leith was a thriving commercial centre, the gateway from the sea into Edinburgh. The Gala was an important annual celebration of success and unity.

There was competition between the businesses and trades as to who would have the flashier float and presence. It was a day of catching up on gossip, creating gossip and bonding with neighbours.

Earlier this year I joined the Board of Directors of Leith Festival, having successfully helped set up the Edinburgh Festival of Cycling in 2012. The Leith Festival committee are as diverse demographically as Leith, we all have different strengths that we bring to our favourite community festival, and the community aspect is indeed what makes Leith Festival so special. It doesn’t have the pretensions of the Festival ‘up the road’ it’s more accessible than that! Anyone can get involved, from volunteering at the Parade, Gala or Leith Tattoo, to running your own event in next year’s festival.

This year volunteers helped with distributing programmes and posters, marking out The Links (where the stalls for Gala day were to be located), marshalling the parade, looking after the information tent, helping with litter-picking (always has to be done!), putting out the seats for the Tattoo plus generally helping out legend Tony Delicata who runs the office.

Each year the festival follows a familiar format – on the first day a community parade perambulates from Pilrig Park to the Links. The Parade used to be a grand affair, with local businesses and merchants all vying for the bigger floats. Sadly new health and safety regulations mean floats are no longer an option, however the enthusiasm of the marching parade makes up for the lack of wheels. There were cheerleaders, bagpipes, costumes and, of course, mock Lord Provost. This year the honour went to Jim Wilkie (of Wilkie’s Bar).

Where the parade finishes Gala day starts. This year local legends Boots for Dancing rocked the main stage along with ska group Supa and the Kryptonites. At the same time, there was inter school country dancing, a festival poster competition and a multicultural fashion show.

Over the festival week 40 or more performances are programmed including, exhibitions, pop-ups and cultural events stretching around the port, culminating in the wonderful Leith Tattoo. The whole is an exercise celebrating what it is to be a Leither. It remains a balancing act between the old and the new, tradition and progress, fighting the forces of gentrification and ‘blandification’, engaging with local schools and community groups who may not have a chance to get involved in the ‘professional’ festivals. All those involved at whatever level are volunteers and we meet once a month during the year to keep the wheels turning (this year we plan to hold a ceilidh on St Andrew’s Day and other ideas are percolating).

Info: If you want to get involved n any way, contact Leith Festival’s Facebook page or give Tracy a call
on 07743 741 088. Duncan from www. citizencurator.com will be presenting a talk on 11th September at City Art Centre as part of the Lost History of Leith Festival. Look out for Tracy’s anarchic ‘Punk Aerobic’ sessions at Leith Depot.

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