Music

This Scottish music venue changed a disabled teen's life – but may run out of money in months

Every week, as part of The Big Issue's Venue Watch campaign, we examine how grassroots music venues transform their communities - and the challenges they face to keep going. MacArts, in the Scottish town of Galashiels, was so important to one young fan her family chose the grassroots music venue for her funeral

woman playing a keyboard and singing, MacArts centre, man in a hat at a microphone

MacArts in Galashiels has staged shows by The Countess of Fife and Goodbye, Mr. McKenzie. Photos: MacArts / Patrick Rafferty / Ewan Davidson

The social and cultural value of grassroots music venues is increasingly understood, as academics and activists quantify how these creative spaces build vibrant communities and increase social cohesion. It’s vital ammunition in the battle to persuade governments, councils, and potential funders to support their work. And it’s important to The Big Issue’s Venue Watch campaign.

But if you want to get a real feel for what it means when a venue touches a community, look no further than what MacArts, in the Scottish Borders town of Galashiels, meant to teenage music fan Isabel Headon.

Like many aspiring journalists, Headon started her own music blog, Illumanist Mean. She’d write about new album releases, interview up-and-coming artists and review live events at her hometown venue. On Twitter, where she found a supportive community with famous followers including Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite and Pulp’s Nick Banks, she was known as Titanium Girl. It was a reference to the metal plates in her back, a result of the life-limiting condition that led her to use a wheelchair to get around.

“As a wheelchair user, attending live music events doesn’t come without challenges,” Headon said in Behind the Barriers, a short film she made to offer an insight into her gig-going experience.

“There shouldn’t be barriers to anyone being able to enjoy live music. It’s important to me and many disabled music fans.”

In MacArts she found a place on her doorstep where she could access the concerts she loved.

“Online, she was the same as anybody else. Nobody could see her disability,” says MacArts venue manager Chris Wemyss. “When she came the venue, it suddenly became clear who this person was that was blogging about the venue. So, after a couple of visits, we said to her, do you want to promote a show?”

The first ‘Titanium Girl presents’ show took over the venue in August, headlined by Megan Black – an exciting Scottish performer who mixes ‘70s blues rock with queer feminist pop. Headon was delighted.

“It gave her a real boost,” says Wemyss. Though her health was failing, she immediately started getting ready to organise her next gig. Sadly, she didn’t get to see those plans come to fruition.

Isabel Headon in a wheelchair with singer Megan Black in MacArts
Isabel Headon with singer Megan Black. Photo: MacArts

On 26 September, Isabel Headon died suddenly. She was just 19 years old. “It has been a big shock to everybody,” Wemyss says, obviously moved.

Her family knew where her short but remarkable life should be celebrated. So her funeral was the first to be held in the venue that meant so much to her. “That really hits home for the impact you’re having within the community.”

MacArts is impressively embedded in its town, home to 11,000 people. They have a network of volunteers, who show up to run the bar and work the door on gig nights. And they’re relied on by a wide range of organisations, from community choirs and addiction support groups to local youngsters who want to learn songwriting or play at the venue’s incubator sessions for bands aged 14-24, run on the first Friday of every month.

“It’s about getting them up on stage, talking them through sound checking, about registering with PRS, showing them what a tech spec is like. We’re building their confidence,” says Wemyss.

“Some bands have done their first or second gig here, then five gigs down the line, they’re supporting national touring acts. It’s just been phenomenal.”

It was a little over a decade ago when a group of Galashiels residents approached the local council with a proposal to turn the disused former site of the St Andrew’s Arts Centre – a listed former church building in the centre of the town – into a state-of-the-art venue. Frequently working 65-hour weeks to fit in all the normal duties you’d expect from a venue manager at a bigger venue, plus acting as lighting tech at their shows, Wemyss has been running the place for the last eight years.

“When I first started, the stage was there, but there was no lighting rig or anything,” he says. “Now we’re absolutely as good as anything else in central Scotland, even though we’re in a fairly rural location.”

The only standalone music venue in the region, MacArts has recently hosted Scouting for Girls (the pop-rockers known for their number one hit This Ain’t a Love Song), comedian Jack Dee and, as part of National Lottery’s United by Music tour, English band The Big Moon. Scottish indie rock heroes Arab Strap are set to play the venue in December.

Jim Jones and the Righteous Mind holding their guitars about their heads at MacArts
Jim Jones and the Righteous Mind at MacArts. Photo: Patrick Rafferty 

With a “25-year peppercorn lease” from the council and a rates exemption due to their charitable status, Wemyss acknowledges they are fortunate in some ways. “The downside is, we’re in an old church, which needs hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of work and we are fully responsible for repairs and maintenance.”

During Covid, MacArts was “very well looked after by Creative Scotland, Scottish government and government nationally”. But now those funds are running out. And with tickets sales hit hard by the cost-of-living crisis, Wemyss fears MacArts may run out of money as soon as January. It can be frustrating, he says, to read about the huge grants going to national companies when a relatively small amount of money would go so far for local venues.

“If there’s money to be split up, I think it’s probably more important to go into a lot of the small venues than maybe go to Scottish Opera or someplace like that. You see the grants some of these big organisations get, in the millions. Whereas if somebody gave us £20,000 that would be Christmas Day. Maybe redistribution of some of the funds that are available would be very useful and probably fairer.”

Wemyss remains hopeful, however. “We have got to do something about the income. And I’m sure we will do something.” They’ve started discussions with the local authority, and he’s adding more hours onto his already busy week to fill in grant applications, with support from Music Venue Trust.

“It’s worth it,” he says. “I’m really proud of what we’ve put together. We brought something really different to Galashiels. When people leave the building shouting to the lighting guys, ‘that was great’, that’s a real buzz. When you get a stream of people leaving the building giving you a thumbs up.”

Just 10-15 extra tickets sold for each gig would make a huge difference to MacArts. Find details of their upcoming shows here.

Join The Big Issue’s Venue Watch campaign here.

a black and white photo of the inside of MacArts

Venue Watch analysis: MacArts, Galashiels

By Phil Ryan – musician, writer and entrepreneur

For those of you new to Venue Watch, The Big Issue campaign to save and champion grassroots music venues across the UK, we have a very simple premise to offer. We’re going to take you into the heart of music itself. The people and the places and the real heroes of our communities. The little guys, you might say.

You’ve just read about MacArts, the gorgeous pearl of a venue way up in Galashiels run by Chris Wemyss, that gives a community a performance space beyond compare. The volunteers and team who make it what is, and the touching story of a true force of nature, the beautiful soul that was the late and missed Isabel Headon. Despite her disability she lived and breathed music, imbuing her writing with a passion and fire that puts my words to shame. But her obvious love for this venue is reflected in the joy such places give so many other Isabels up and down the land, in countless similarly wonderful community-led spaces.

Maybe they’re not in the centre of huge town. Maybe they don’t have a massive place. The locals often numbering just in their few thousands. The audience numbering in the hundreds. However, they are so vitally important. Sure, they’re not an 02 or Milton Keynes Bowl and don’t feature Taylor Swift or Ed Sheeran. But these places offer so much more in many cases. Local artists and bands take their first steps here, with many later becoming household names.

Yup, folks, that’s how this works. Where do you think your favourite artist probably started? Yes, you’ve guessed it, in a tiny grassroots venue, them cramming into a van and whizzing around the country. Honing their craft and becoming the artists they can because of people like Chris and the MacArts team. Over the next months we’re going to break down exactly why and how this now under-threat ecosystem actually works, just why it’s in need of your help and best of all just what you can do about joining us.

Maybe you’ve got a local venue you want us to write about and you love. Great, just grab hold of us. I’ve run such a venue, and can honestly tell you this. Take a small venue, a great new band or artist full of energy and talent, a couple of drinks, an enthusiastic crowd and essentially, you’ve just created magic in a heartbeat. Think of some of your favourite nights and I bet they were in a grassroots music venue.

So, if you love music remember where everything starts. Come join us.

Musician Phil Ryan has toured with The Animals and is co-founder of The Big Issue and The 12 Bar Club.

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