Neu! Reekie! a festival sprawling across Scotland

Kevin Williamson and Michael Pedersen of Neu! Reekie! Picture: Contributed
Kevin Williamson and Michael Pedersen of Neu! Reekie! Picture: Contributed
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The team behind Neu! Reekie! are taking musicians, poets and artists around Scotland to build a cultural map of the country, says David Pollock

Scotland’s such a magical and diverse place, with a real erraticism to the landscape,” says Michael Pedersen of his forthcoming jaunt into the heart of that diversity, “so the comfort people in the performing world feel with being in the cities has to be f***ed with a little. Anywhere But the Cities is the perfect opportunity to do that, and also to edify ourselves. It’s a tour of the country and the landscape that we’re all a part of, which we’re claiming to represent from the capital in Edinburgh. It’s time to break that mould.”

He’s discussing the Anywhere But the Cities tour, a three-week-long tour around Scotland throughout July, which takes in places as unused to the touring circuit as Stonehaven, Dingwall, Helensburgh and Hawick, also visiting island locations on Mull, Orkney and Skye. Organised by Edinburgh-based literary, music and short film showcase Neu! Reekie! (which poet Pedersen runs with writer and sometime Rebel Inc publisher Kevin Williamson) alongside art-rock collective FOUND and sponsored by Dewar’s whisky, the intention is to offer the usual Neu! Reekie! menu with a flavour local to each stop.

“It was [brand ambassador] Stephen Marshall at Dewar’s who said to me he’d always wanted to put a kind of travelling revue show on,” says Ziggy Campbell of FOUND, who also plays music on his own under the name Lomond Campbell. “He’s kind of a philanthropic whisky guru, he’s really interested in music, especially local Scottish music, and he’s been quite supportive of the arts in general. It was just a vague idea at that point, but I mentioned it to Michael and we started to kick about the idea of doing it between us. We wanted to avoid the cities, because it’s quite easy to get a gig in a city, so it became more like a festival which sprawls all the way across Scotland.”

Pedersen points out that there’s a kind of collective feel around the regular contributors to and attendees at Neu! Reekie!, which is now entering its fifth year of programming. Having started as an Edinburgh-only event in the Scottish Poetry Library and then Summerhall, it recently graduated to the Central Hall on Lothian Road, a 1,000-capacity venue which saw Mercury Prize winners Young Fathers headline the launch of Neu! Reekie!’s first poetry anthology #UntitledOne. It’s also seen instalments in Glasgow, New York and most recently Japan.

That sense of a collective extends to the core line-up here, which sees Neu! Reekie! regulars including the Scottish makar Liz Lochhead, former Arab Strap frontman turned writer Aidan Moffat, writer Alan Bissett, and musicians including the Vaselines’ Eugene Kelly, Withered Hand, RM Hubbert, the Sexual Objects and TeenCanteen come on board for various legs of the tour. The first instalment is in Anstruther, with King Creosote and his Fence Collective holding court, a local touch which the organising team are hoping to repeat in each venue.

“We’ve been doing a bit of work with Location Scotland and Historic Scotland, who have put us in touch with people along the way who can tell us a little about the history of each area,” says Pedersen. “We want to encounter and engage with local residents and the stories of people throughout Scotland. We’ve got a film crew coming round and we’re making a documentary off the back of this, but we don’t just want it to be live footage of or interviews with our performers, we want to interview as many people on the road as possible. We’re trying to get in contact with fishermen on Orkney to get out on the boat and speak about how that industry’s changed over the past few years. On Skye there’s a preserved dinosaur footprint, we’d like to look at that with a local historian. They’ve just found one of the UK’s oldest instruments on Skye too, so we’re trying to get in touch with them.

“It’s just about capturing small snippets of people’s lives and putting them within our ken. When you’re sitting in Edinburgh, in an art studio in Summerhall, understanding people’s perspectives from all across Scotland, especially with the stuff that’s been thrown out by the referendum, is quite difficult to do. So to actually go out there and meet people and talk about their cultures across Scotland is hopefully going to connect things together in our head and give us a wider understanding of what we’re trying to do with Neu! Reekie! in terms of reflecting Scottish culture.”

All of which is a more essential service than it might sound, given that Neu! Reekie! is at the forefront of a renaissance in a culture of live literary events in the capital and part of a broad transformation of Scotland’s cultural confidence in recent years. Their events are timely and well-curated, fusing the personal with the political and a sense of humour with a keen understanding of what’s happening across the worlds of Scottish words and music at a time when these areas are hitting a peak of vibrancy.

“I’d agree with that wholeheartedly, it’s a rich and satisfying time,” says Pedersen of the suggestion that Scotland is a great place to be active in the arts at the moment, “although I wouldn’t call it a peak because that suggests a sense of foreboding, that we’ve reached our zenith and there’s going to be a crash to follow. Whereas I think we’re on an unwavering upward trajectory,” he laughs. “Audiences are getting bigger and more people than I can remember are attending arts events, then you have things like the SAY (Scottish Album of the Year) Awards, which more and more people are engaging with.”

Is this connected, does he feel, to the mass of energy which was felt during the referendum campaign, artistic or otherwise? “Oh, absolutely, yeah. I think we’ve had a younger audience because of it, I think with 16 to 18 year olds finding their political voice, and it being much more achievable to do so by being involved in social media, they want to feed and nourish that in a creative way. And so much coming out of literature at the moment has a political edge, it’s thrown into people’s heads within Scotland this question of identity on a greater level than ever before, and I think that sets off something within people. It’s been massively powerful in terms of catalysing people to engage with art in a way they haven’t done before.”

Campbell points out that there will be whisky tastings going on during each show, courtesy of Dewar’s, and that it’s hoped this “social lubricant” will inspire those who attend to perhaps engage with some of their own stories. They’re visiting his hometown of Hawick and Williamson’s in Thurso, as well as the latter’s birthplace on Orkney. Pedersen is excited about seeing Ullapool again, site of a personal “Withnail & I adventure” some time ago, and the chocolate factory they’ll be playing in Oban.

“This is the first part of a year-long event we’re doing with Creative Scotland called This is Scotland,” he says, “which is an attempt to try and sort of map Scotland by producing something at the end which demonstrates where Scotland is culturally at this time, to capture a kind of living negative of that. We’re very aware it’s a title that’s been used many times before, and to us that seemed perfect. It told us that a lot of people are taking ownership of those concerns, that they all want to know what Scotland is at this moment. This is a part of that discovery.”

Neu! Reekie’s Anywhere But the Cities tour begins at the Dreel Halls, Anstruther on 4 July, and continues to 16 regional venues around Scotland until 25 July, www.neureekie.tumblr.com