From Lone Nut to Provost

Posted by in June's Magazine

Sandy Campbell On the Loose

This year’s Leith Festival Board have chosen me as their ‘Lord Provost of Leith’ for Gala Day on the 8th June a stupendous honour on this, our 99th year since annexation by the city at the top of the Walk. But forgive me a wee pedantic quibble. Leith, in the days before our forced annexation, never had a Lord Provost. A simple Provost sufficed, on account of us being a Burgh. 

One needs to be a city to have a ‘Lord’ Provost, and while I’m in favour of Leith expansionist ambitions, we’d be hard pressed to achieve city status – at the very least, one needs to have a Cathedral to be a city. Mind you, many an Edinburger acts as if Leith starts at the top of Leith Street; were we to embrace that notion, the positioning of St Mary’s RC Cathedral on York Place would indeed, at a squeeze, allow us to qualify as a city.


Sandy Campbell is revisiting his role as Leith Provost more than 80 issues since his last turn

Gala Day on 8th June will be 112 years old this year. It was launched to raise funds for the old Leith Hospital, at a time when Leith really was a different place – ‘Edinburgh’s Glasgow’ – still now, as it was then, albeit more Byers Road than Gallowgate in these times of increased gentrification. 

The Pageant was always the highlight in times gone by, with floats fiercely competing to outdo each other in their grandeur. The lorries are defunct now in this era of reduced emissions, but still, for a day, Lothian buses take second place to the Leith Community on the march; until the dreaded sequel – Trams2  – that will literally hit the streets and Leith Walk’s businesses, again!

Leith has a grand tradition of honouring those who have given to our community. The prize of honour, announced each year on Gala Day, is of course the Elizabeth Wardlaw Memorial Award, named after the woman who saved Leith Festival from oblivion. Leith Liberal councillor for 20 years, minister of the Hermitage United Free Church and long-standing friend of Leith Academy, it was Elizabeth who was personally responsible for the explosion of crocuses on Leith Links that we are still delighted to see every Spring. 

Last year the committee chose a fine exemplar of creative and thoughtful community largesse – young Joseph Cox who started Socks For The Streets – collecting over 3,000 socks and underwear and distributing them to homeless people in Leith. (Check him out on Facebook – truly an inspiration.)

Then of course there is the illustrious honour to have been Chair of the Leith Festival Board. I followed Mary Moriarty in 2004 and was in turn followed by Gordon Munro; after sweetening him up to take on the reins over a champagne lunch in Rogano’s in Glasgow on the way to a Hibs v Rangers match at Ibrox one sunny Saturday in 2007. He was followed by the likes of Dave Carson, Phil Attridge and now, Nick Gardner. 

Which brings me to the role that the Leith Festival itself plays in being a catalyst for all the vibrancy and activism that is alive and growing all the time in Leith. Being on the board of Leith Festival is hard work – it doesn’t just happen. It’s the culmination of months of hard graft behind the scenes, not least the festival co-ordinator organising 60 plus events (currently Tracy Griffen – see her piece in this issue) plus all the other volunteers. 

Leith Festival is, in my view, the bedrock of all the other new forms of Leith activism we see springing up all the time. Having our own Festival reminds us that we are a community that can create a ‘Leith time of the year’ – before the city kicks off in the inevitable rain of August. 

“The summer starts here.” So says Calum MacKay, landlord of the Malt and Hops pub and the organiser of the other June festival in Leith – the Leith Jazz and Blues Festival, which runs over the first weekend of June every year – this year starting on Friday 7th June until Sunday 9th June. All events are free and spread over nearly 30 venues with over 70 gigs. 

The Jazz and Blues festival had a renaissance after a gap of 13 years. Calum tells me how he re-started it in his pub with just one gig and tried to cajole other pubs to join in, but to no avail. Then David Barnes, formerly of the old Iso Bar, said he would follow. Followers are the key to movements that make real change. 

Type in ‘First follower: Leadership lessons from dancing guy’ into YouTube and watch how one crazy dancer at a pop concert led to a field full of crazy dancers, because one guy joined him and made it easier for others to follow. The lesson says the video, is: “It was the first follower who turned a lone nut into a leader.”

Two other Leith (lone nut) leaders come to mind in this context, the first being the ‘non-leader’ of the Save Leith Walk campaign. I say ‘non-leader’ because she refuses to be the figurehead. Linda Somerville has nurtured a truly democratic grass roots campaign. But it was Linda who walked out of the community council meeting in March 2018, saying “anyone who wants to do something about these plans – join me outside.” And the ‘followers’ indeed trouped out after her in their scores, eventually thousands, and a momentum was created that 12 months later defeated the combined forces of the Council’s planning department, Drum Property developers and Edinburgh University.  

Leith Festival is, in my view, the bedrock of all the other new forms of Leith activism we see springing up all the time

Another, who I believe is on the way up, is Morvern Cunningham of LeithLate. You will see her running the stage on Gala Day. LeithLate is a multi-arts phenomenon in Leith: murals and crazy art happenings – like marriage ceremonies over broccoli in the laundrette on Leith Walk (yes broccoli). Unused Leith venues transformed, street murals and pavement painting, old Leith films rediscovered. In her own words – “show-casing the Leith grassroots community that is emerging.” She too had early followers who believed in her. Mates in a pub (Joseph Pearce’s), when the idea was first mooted and Dave from Elvis Shakespeare, who Morvern describes as her “constant encourager.”  

And finally: I am informed that it is not my Leith Festival years that has earned me the honour of being Leith’s Provost for Gala Day, but my Leith charity, Working Rite, that helps young Leithers into jobs and apprenticeships. Please visit our stall on Gala Day and visit our ‘beat the Goalie’ event on the Links, with our partner Leith charity, Street Soccer. I too had my follower in my early days, Dennis Murphy, who transformed me from being a lone nut. So, are you a Leith lone nut – or the follower who makes good ideas become a reality?


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