As the annual Leith Festival returns for a ten-day run in June, one event that's not part of the official programme deserves particular attention. LeithLate, a one-night micro-festival, will bring the port town a concentrated line-up of gigs and gallery show openings over one evening, in a part of Edinburgh which has fast been losing its Trainspotting associations over the last decade.
Unlike the Leith Festival's broader range of community-organised events, LeithLate is very specifically concentrating its attention upon some of the strongly realised DIY ventures which have brought the area a defined underground sensibility in recent years. Spurred on by an accelerating influx of artists and musicians, a slew of pop-up galleries and gig venues are now giving Leith a reputation as Scotland's fastest-growing cultural quarter.
"LeithLate was an idea that didn't die," laughs the event's organiser Morvern Cunningham, originally from Glasgow but now a proud Leither, who used to work at the now defunct Roxy Art House. "It started off as just a conversation down the pub, and it grew wings. I realised it could actually happen if I got my arse in gear and did something about it."
The event will feature openings of exclusive exhibitions at new artist-run galleries Whitespace, Superclub, the Old Ambulance Depot and Such & Such, with high-quality local bands including Sara & the Snakes, Withered Hand, PET, Little Pebble and Wounded Knee appearing at Pilrig St Paul's Church and much-loved Leith Walk music and book shop Elvis Shakespeare. Bars and cafs such as Brass Monkey, Windsor Buffet, Tourmalet and Word of Mouth will also be hosting film screenings and exhibitions.
"I've been in Leith for three years," says Cunningham, "but it feels an awful lot longer. I feel a kinship to the place and I think a lot of creative people who have settled here do too. Leith's got a bad rep with a lot of people, but when they say, 'Isn't it a bit nuts?' I ask them, 'Have you been up at Tollcross on a Saturday night?' Leith's great, and I want people to know that."
"There were definitely no students or artists here when I was growing up," says Keith Farquhar, Leith "born and bred" and a contemporary artist of international reputation who will be showing his "flat-pack" paintings at Whitespace. "Now there's New Leith, the rejuvenation of the waterfront and so on, and rough, hard Old Leith, and these things are bang up against each other. Leith has more of the look of Glasgow or Manchester or other post-industrial cities, whereas the rest of Edinburgh's all about banking and insurance, and this gives it a certain edge that's attractive to people."
Community artist and Edinburgh College of Art graduate Rocca Gutteridge is originally from London, but she feels proudly at home in the area she's lived in for four years. "It was the Leith Festival which inspired me to move here," she says. "They had a kind of open doors day and I went to see a show in an artist couple's flat on Easter Road, it introduced me to the different character of the place. I worked for two years at the local radio station Leith FM as well, and that was probably the most successful community project I've ever done. It was completely chaotic but massive fun." Now Gutteridge runs an informal art discussion night at Word of Mouth called Artachat, and has initiated a breakdance-based project with kids in Newhaven called Shared Territories as part of her artistic residency with the Edinburgh Mela.
At a time when commercial rents are slipping beyond the grasp of start-up organisations, funding is at a low and Edinburgh's picky licensing laws foster an exclusive air, Leith is a blank canvas for talented young people with a desire to get their work seen. "Instead of waiting around for things to happen, I decided to go for it and get something together myself," says ECA graduate Ross Christie, founder and co-director of gallery space Superclub on Gayfield Square. "Leith had the best options in terms of price and size, and there's a good community spirit. Every week there seems to be a new gallery popping up."
The same can-do spirit has also brought Leith an emerging music scene populated by most of the city's finest musicians. Dan Willson, who performs alone and with his band as Withered Hand, runs occasional gigs at Pilrig St Paul's. "My first Withered Hand show was in a caf called the Clock Deli down on the Shore," he says. "I did a thing called Foodstock where I got paid in food. People were really interested.
"It was (local promoter] Tracer Trails that started putting shows on at Pilrig St Paul's, and I've always looked to them as a shining example of how to promote things well and ethically. It's a great space, it's bring your own bottle, you can put all-ages gigs on. I'm pretty sure there are lots of other untapped venues in Leith that would work just as well."
Drew Wright, who records as Wounded Knee, believes the live scene in Leith has plenty of growing to do. "There's still no established live music venue, most of that goes on in pubs and bars, although Sunbear Gallery's shop space on Lorne Street programmed some cracking exhibitions and music nights. It would be great to see Leith Theatre getting used more, and Leith Dockers Club."
The sense of community and self-sufficiency fostered by movement towards an area which was once less desirable is, says Cunningham, a sign of the times. "People are losing their jobs, people aren't happy, art's going through funding crises. But something really pure can grow out of that, because then what does happen is what has to happen.
There's a real feeling of necessity about this event, which means the art on show's a lot less elitist and more honest and democratic.
"Next year we might even look at the possibility of funding. The idea was to try to make LeithLate an annual event, but there could be something like this every few months or it could become a three-day event. The potential is there for Leith to be an area, like Brick Lane or Camden, known for holding artistic events all the time."
LeithLate, various venues around Leith Walk, 16 June, see Facebook. The Leith Festival, various venues, Edinburgh, from Friday until 19 June www.leithfestival.com
This article was originally published in Scotland on Sunday on June 5th 2011