“I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . nothing beside remains…“ Ozymandias
I went on a hunt for Gulliver’s foot today – it is all that remains of a gigantic statue by the sculptor and former convict Jimmy Boyle, in a park near the housing schemes of Edinburgh’s Craigmillar and Niddrie.
Intended for children, it had tunnels and platforms to stand on – or jump off. A friend of mine used to be taken to play on it in its early days, after it was unveiled by Billy Connolly in 1976. It was largely demolished about ten years ago. Last week Historic Environment Scotland designated the remaining fragment as a monument.
The most famous alumnus of Barlinnie’s Special Unit, which offered prisoners the opportunity to express themselves through art, Boyle was a controversial figure. His ex-wife Sarah Trevelyan details in her book “Freedom Found” the drumbeat of tabloid hate that followed them as Boyle, who had been jailed for murder, tried to build a new life as an artist in Scotland (he now lives in France).
“Gulliver” had a mixed reception in Craigmillar – there were those that felt Boyle was getting unjustified special treatment. My friend and her family loved it at first – but over the years, the weeds grew up around it. Kids sat in it to smoke and take drugs. Personally, I never saw it intact. I went to pay homage to the foot mostly because it is a link to the great days of Craigmillar Festival Society and its leading light Helen Crummy, who commissioned the work. Helen truly believed in the redemptive power of art. She was a powerful woman who was a catalyst in her community.
There is only one named non-royal woman who has a statue in Edinburgh – Helen. This was brought into being by the women who worked alongside her. A feminist friend grumbles that the only statue we have of a named woman shows her crouching down as she hands a fiddle to a wee boy. I don’t get that personally – I am guessing Helen would want to be remembered that way.
The statue is a reference to the famous story of how Helen asked for the children at the local school to get music lessons and was brushed off – the heidie replied: “These kids? We have enough trouble teaching them the three Rs!” But Helen and her supporters worked to change this attitude and the children did get to learn music.
That’s the founding myth of the Festival which at its height had 1,000 children engaged in summer play schemes, an annual musical, parades where people dressed up, medieval banquets in Craigmillar Castle – which on at least one occasion ended in a brawl.
One moving story in Helen’s book ‘Let the People Sing’ is when the group decides to do day trips for disabled people. They get agreement from the authorities – who then say they can’t possibly divulge information as to who might benefit. The team goes onto the school buses to find the families. They end up taking disabled people who have never seen the sea before to the beach.
It is ironic because Craigmillar is about three miles from the beach. Too far to push a wheelchair – and most folk had no access to cars.
But then, as now, this is the very opposite of a 15-minute neighbourhood. There is hardly a shop or a pub or a restaurant in the place. You sometimes see hooded figures jinking across the busy traffic arteries nearby with full shopping bags before disappearing down an overgrown embankment.
When the families were first decanted into the scheme, men would go out to work but there was nothing for the women. The first group that Helen founded set up a support network of women who were provided with a phone in their homes and paid a small sum to offer support to their neighbours. It was no small feat in those days to get on to the gas or electric board if your supply was cut off – the alternative was standing in a pay phone feeding change into the slot. You couldn’t get anyone to call you back.
As the network grew, the women – and some men in a supporting role – became kind of barefoot social workers and therapists within the community. The Craigmillar Festival Society and related groups offered people the chance to make art and music and food, to nurture their confidence and bring them joy.
Helen lit a spark within the community, in a way that only someone who was a part of it could do. Social workers can’t create the spirit that leads to a community dressing up their children and dancing through the streets in an annual parade. The council can’t do that. The school can’t do that – it can only come from within.
Europe and out
Helen fought for many years to get funding – including a huge tranche of investment from the European Economic Community’s anti-poverty fund, after pulling together an application with her team over a weekend. The pitch – “by the poor for the poor” – was a line she came to regret because the community didn’t like being called poor. With this money though, they employed hundreds of local people and bought their own buses.
But that anti-poverty funding was one casualty of Margaret Thatcher’s famous hand-bagging of the European Commission at Fontainebleau in 1984, when she secured her rebate for Britain. The poverty fund was axed and the CFS lost a big part of its funding. It ended up having to make people redundant – a painful process.
After that, the writing was on the wall. One by one aspects of what the CFS did were closed down or were taken back under the aegis of the council. The times changed. Austerity, unemployment, and drugs bit hard here. The Festival Society gradually declined, and so did the sense of community.
Devolving power upwards
Some say that one element of the story was that people in positions of authority felt threatened by Helen and the CFS model. Here were untrained women – with the support of some key allies – doing a job that other people had to get qualifications to do. Professionalisation was more in the spirit of the times and the money and the power to make decisions were taken back to City Hall.
Craigmillar has changed in recent years. Many of the original blocks have been demolished. There is a lot more private housing and more cars. I arrived on a hot Sunday afternoon, parked up in one of the many cul de sacs when the satnav started to get confused, and began trailing through Hunter’s Hill Public Park near the closed Jack Kane Centre trying to find the Foot.
Despite the sunshine, the park was pretty empty. There was a small group around the skate park where rain had made a natural paddling pool that some wee boys were having a terrific time in. In contrast, the climbing frame in the designated exercise compound was deserted. I asked a woman if I could take a photo of the kids. One of them was hers but she didn’t know the others and suggested I ask them, which I did. They assented happily. One said: “This is what you call fun” as he skited into the puddle.
A man in his 50s at the edge of the skatepark remembered Gulliver and pointed me in the direction of the reedy burn that runs through the park. I wandered through the flowery meadowland that surrounds it for a while, disturbing some fox cubs. I came out of the wild area again and asked a few more people who had never heard of it. Eventually, I stopped a Spanish woman, elegantly dressed in an emerald green tie-waisted dress, who was walking her dog. She pointed to a clump of trees – a friend had told her about it.
A path led up from the burn through a patch of thistles, the not scratchy kind, busy with butterflies, to a shady patch under a tree where I found the cast-concrete remnant. The foot has pleasing round toes. You can sit inside the ankle and look out at the waving grasses and the sky. There are a couple of old beer cans in there and the remains of a fire – I don’t know if they too have been designated by Historic Scotland. Perhaps one day a brown sign will appear to tell us more about the sculpture and its meaning.
Watch ‘Into the Light – You Have to Look Sideways at History Sometimes to See the Women In It” by Susan Kemp on Vimeo
First published on the author’s Substack A letter from Scotland