Chris Wemyss

Chris is one of the founder members and the driving force of the Stowed Out music festival which takes place in Stow in August. He also works for Mac Arts in Galashiels as venue manager and events organizer. He moved to Stow in 1999 and lives in the School house.


My earliest memories of live music have stuck with me for the whole of my life. As a teenager, at the age of about 14, I was taken to St Andrews university by one of my friend's older sisters to see my first ever live band. We were there right at the front with our chests pressed up against the edge of the stage. The band were The Pirates, of Johnny Kidd and The Pirates fame. These guys came on like giants towering above us, with their feet on the monitors, pounding out this ferocious music and dripping sweat onto the audience. It totally changed my life, looking up at these guys thinking......this is amazing!

I came from a small fishing village and any music you heard was in the school hall.... fairly sedate stuff. This totally changed my life and gave me a life-long interest predominantly in live music which is where a lot of the work I've done in the village here comes from..... an interest in live music.

My dad was into things like Guy Mitchell. He did have an accordion which I never saw being used and we had a radiogram with a selection of LP records. I can remember there being a mix of classical and some of the top of the pops records of the time. They were easily available at Woolworths. On television when I was growing up I remember watching Top of the Pops and quite enjoying that and asking Mum what 'The Old Grey Whistle Test' was. I remember my mum saying, “It's just a lot of noise.” What you were exposed to as a youngster was at the school and the small amount that was on the television. Top of the Pops was all miming to pre-recorded music. It was only when I got to a real live performance that I really got what this was all about.

I have memories of the guitar group at school where we all sat in a semicircle and went through the standards. I do still play a little bit but at a very amateur level... but I enjoy playing. I remember the secondary school music teacher coming down to primary school and talking to us about going to high school. I don't think it was particularly music related but what does stick in my mind was that she was very angry and lost it and was shouting at the school children. So, I remember that before I even went to high school, I met the music teacher who was a very angry lady. At high school I got involved in the school opera and things like that. My singing voice wasn't very great. I liked to be in the chorus and stand beside someone who was a strong singer. I always had an enjoyment for that. We did put together some small concerts for maybe fundraisers for school and things like that.

My brother was fairly competent on fiddle and piano and he's gone on to write more than one musical which has been performed fairly recently. He's done fairly well on an amateur basis. Moving up through high school there were older boys who had formed bands and you would go and sit in on their rehearsals and you would be blown away by the quality of what you were hearing. So that was a big influence together with the mixture of the stuff we were seeing on television at the time and we'd find little gems on the television. The BBC introduced a small series of concerts. One was called Sight and Sound in Concert and then Rock Goes to College, which gave you a whole concert. I think it was probably Saturday evening teatime that they put on a real mix of stuff that you wouldn't be hearing on the daytime radio. There were lots of things going on round the country.

I grew up in Anstruther. When I became old enough to travel away to things it was Dundee we went to, Caird Hall in Dundee, to see some of the bigger touring bands. What we lost out on, living in a rural community, was the small touring bands. We never saw bands that were on their way up. It's currently difficult to see bands like that in the Borders as well. They tend to head for Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. There is a circuit just now. I have plans to make changes to that sad situation.

I'm fairly eclectic in my taste in music. I'm not that into classical. I do like things that are quite noisy, but I like to see something that I haven't seen before also. That's really the core to what I'm interested in. There are for me far too many performers that are no different. The quality of the music is very good, they are nice people, they are good at what they do but there is nothing special about them, nothing interesting. I like to see something that I haven't seen before. It could be maybe the rapport with the audience that is really interesting and stories and things like that, but for me I want to go to listen to something that's a bit different.

In 1999 we arrived in Stow. We arrived on Gala day in Galashiels and went down to pick up some cleaning materials and were absolutely horrified. There were drunks falling about in the street and we thought...... What on earth have we come to! Somebody explained it was Gala day. We've been here in Stow for quite a long time now. All 3 children were born here. As the kids were growing up, that took up so much time that we never really got involved in much. Both of our sets of parents live in Fife, so it wasn't so easy to just get a quick babysitter and go to see some music. We would now and again go to something in the village and think.... This is great. I'll stick with this even though it isn't a genre of music that I particularly understand.

Shortly after we arrived in the village we started going to the folk club. We didn't know any of the people who were performing, but it was fantastic to have something in the village every fortnight. Davy Herd was running it at this stage. At that point it was my only experience of music in the village. I didn't know many people until the kids started going to the school. Then we started speaking to people at the school gates and realized there was a bit of a something going on. What really kicked things off for me locally was when, in 2009, we got together at a ceilidh at Hogmanay which turned out to be a disco. We were quite disappointed there was no live music and we thought we should maybe take the bull by the horns and try and do something ourselves.

Some of the people we had met had a folk music background, specifically Rory Campbell from Old Blind Dogs. He knew a lot of people in the music industry. We spoke about putting a ceilidh together. He pulled some musicians together that he knew, some from the village, some from outwith. We borrowed some equipment and put on a ceilidh, I think around about February. It was a huge success and people encouraged us to keep going and do something else. So we did a couple of events, but realized at that point that we needed to access some small mike funding and get some of our own equipment. For this we needed to form a constituted group. So we created the group SoundOut, which was to be a community music group with the aim of promoting live music in the area and encouraging young musicians to get involved and put on events.

We did a mixture of things where we tried to put on themed events, where there would be almost a house band, where maybe six of us would get together, learn just 6 songs and try to get in touch with people in the area who would like to also get involved. Some of us would drop out at points to allow young people to step in and maybe play a couple of songs on guitar.... and then the band would come back together. Then a different person would come in and sing. We had Gary Anderson from Manorhead. Belinda Glennon played fiddle. Sarah Naylor was playing flute. Anya Campbell also played flute, Rory Campbell and Colin Lyons were on guitar and I played a bit of bass. Lots of other people dropped in for a while. I remember Lorna Lyons singing for a while and Ben Glennon sang. That group was based around people who had kids at school.

It was quite apparent that there were a lot of other musicians in the village and that things were happening that we weren't actually tapping into. We also found that this structure of trying to run things did not always flow smoothly. We'd have situations where we'd get together to rehearse some stuff and a young person would say they wanted to perform this song, so we'd rehearse that song over the week then come back together. By the time we came back together the young person had changed their mind and it was a different song, so it was hard work but rewarding when it worked.

In a pub discussion or just in someone's house one night we'd said a number of times it would be great to have a festival. We said...... Let's just do it and see if we can make this happen. So, the same driving force behind the community music group pulled in favours. We got the tent from the Lauderdale Hunt, which is a very traditional canvas army tent, and lashed together some additional tent poles and pushed up the side of the tent, which almost looked like a covered stage area. We borrowed some stage from the primary school. We told any bands that we knew about in the area that we were trying to put something together. We weren't going to charge the public, but we'd run a bar and if we made profit from the bar, they would get all the profit from the bar. It was a roaring success and the bands were paid. We slumped down afterwards and thought...... Goodness that was hard work, but we can't let this stop...... This is so good!

The wind farm then came on board and gave us a phenomenal grant. So, we went from having no money to getting ten thousand pounds from the wind farm which I think in retrospect we weren't really ready to spend. We didn't yet have the background knowledge to put that money to work properly. We rented a very big tent and looked at some bands which were doing good things in central Scotland, but the event didn't really have much flow to it. People weren't really on their feet enjoying the music. It wasn't a bad event, but it could have been a lot better. We had thought that with the success of the first event and a ten thousand pound grant, that this would then make it self- sustaining. We'd have enough money in the bank at the end of the event. What became immediately apparent was that doing it on a more commercial basis hadn't worked for us. We'd spent twelve thousand pounds that year just bringing in toilets, security, first aid and a generator. It just soaked up the money almost straight away. Actually, we didn't have any money left in the bank at the end of it.

The wind farm were fantastic and gave us another two thousand pounds the following year which was a life saver for us. So we managed to do it, but on a much more structured basis. With that small amount of back up and a little bit of sponsorship we managed to break even which was fantastic. Then we were beginning to get a feel for how things should be run and what we were trying to do and what the public wanted. We realized that throughout the Borders there were music events running all the time. There was lots of stuff on the go. We were trying to think about what would make us different from other things that were happening. We looked at the line-up of some of the more mainstream festivals in the Borders and a lot of them had a lot of cover bands and a lot of local bands who played in the pubs and things like that.

So we made a decision that we would try to predominantly book bands who were on the Scottish touring circuit who the public in the Borders would not see on a week to week basis. You couldn't go to the pub in Galashiels and see the same bands that you were going to see in Stow. But we'd always make sure there were slots for local musicians too. The plan was to have people coming from out with the area going..... This is fantastic! I've never seen such an eclectic mix of music in the Borders before and I will come back again next year not knowing who is going to be in the line-up . That now, after a couple of years, is beginning to pay off. We were asked to go up to Edinburgh to speak on Black Diamond FM on the radio because they had heard that it was good, and they were wanting to tell their local communities what was happening. We got some coverage in the Dumbartonshire Reporter because word had got out that this was happening. It's now fairly well-placed on the Scottish festival circuit. People know about it which is fantastic.

This year almost all were on the Scottish touring circuit and The Headliners, on the Saturday night, had just played in Glasgow at the new big festival that replaced T in the Park. They'd been doing Belladrum. It's all great stuff that's coming to Stow. People are quite surprised by the quality when they come on site. We had, for the first time this year, classical Indian dance from Dance Ihayami, who at the weekend were entertaining the first minister down at Traquair house. So we really had some very interesting choices this year. If somebody had said you are going to see a classical Indian dance show I might have turned the other way and gone to see something else but having seen them myself twice in the past I knew that if the public took the bother to actually take a look in the tent and see what was going on they'd be hooked...... and they were. We ran Indian dance workshops afterwards and again they were really popular. The vibrant colours, the music, everyone moving in perfect unison, it was a fantastic sight to look at. Although it wasn't music, bringing that element in created something different again. It was a huge success. They danced to Indian music mingled with Celtic music, so the crowd were all clapping along and stamping their feet. It was great, really good.

We've already had first contact with bands for 2018. We've spent our first batch of money as we had to invest in some storage. We'd got to the point where people in the village could no longer keep the whole workings of a festival in garages and things like that, so we've got storage now. It's a simple thing but it means if somebody says to us during the year.... We have a fridge freezer for keeping your beer cold.... we have got a place to keep it. That has always been an issue. We used Born in the Borders this year. We try to stick to local food and drink providers. They gave us a fantastic deal. They gave us all their beer at cost price, which was fantastic. They knew we were in a bit of a hole. We'll be using them again. We got really good feedback from the public about the quality of their food and drink.

It's a bit of a blur when you're running a festival because your head is in 'Health and Safety' mode, making sure that everybody is having a good time, making sure that everything is working properly. Afterwards I try to think back, and I have to look at the photographs to remember what was going on. I do it because I want to give something to the people who are attending so they go away saying.... that was fantastic. If that happens then it has been a major success for me.

As to my own musical memories, they are often some of the things that come along with an event..... I remember when we lived in Edinburgh we had been through to Glasgow to see one of the stadium gigs by U2. We came back and found a couple from Czechoslovakia, standing outside our flat at 1 am in the morning, totally lost in Edinburgh. We spent hours driving around Edinburgh trying to find where they were staying. I always relate that to that gig. Peter Gabriel in Glasgow, who at the time I was never a fan of.... his theatrical part of the show was totally fantastic. Every song had something that went along with it. He was singing some song inside a phone box and he opened the door and started coming out of the phone box down a walkway with an old fashioned curly phone cord which extended and extended and extended and he was struggling to pull this thing out. I remember at the very end of the gig when the whole band walked up this long walkway and Peter Gabriel got to the end of the walkway, opened this big suitcase and there must have been a hidden trapdoor because the band stepped inside the suitcase and disappeared out of sight. He closed the suitcase up, the music stopped, and he walked off the stage with the band in the suitcase, heading off to the next gig. It was genius. You knew it was the end. We all just looked at each other and said... That was fantastic!

I have been handed a poster of a very early festival in Stow run by Bill Brotherstone and friends so I'm going to add that to all the current Stowed Out posters that have been kept and hand that into the archive. I keep a T shirt from each year as well. For the last three years we've turned the posters into a T shirt. We've had some previous T shirts as well, so these are all kept. Obviously with the digital age now the video and photographs are all kept online. Last year Danny Bonnar, a previous resident of Stow, who runs a video production company, agreed to do a video for us which was absolutely stunning, so we've got that. This year a girl from Selkirk offered to do it.

The equipment that we've got through the grant system, if at all possible, we lend out. Some of it is quite delicate. It's nice to give something back to the community. We tried helping the choir out with some lighting, but it wasn't really powerful enough for their needs. We have used the equipment on many occasions to help out Stow school with their concerts.

I have a little anecdote about the power of music. Because of my work with the festival I've secured a job with Mac Arts which is a venue where there is a mixture of theatre, music and dance. It's fairly rundown but we've got big plans for it. A couple of months ago we had a group in doing a small piece of dance music which was to be used as an opening slot before the Mark Brew band who were touring around Scotland. They are a dance troupe. Mark Brew is currently in a wheel chair following a major car accident. But he still does his ballet from the wheelchair. This group were a mixed ability group. Some were musicians and some youngsters were from troubled backgrounds. I could tell that they really weren't engaged at all. You can imagine the scene with hoodies pulled over their heads, popping outside for cigarettes every 20 minutes. Early on during the first day they asked round the table if anyone had written any songs? One of the girls who still really wasn't engaging, looking down at the floor, put her hand up. The person running the course said, “Do you have any of your stuff with you?” She didn't answer but she shook her head. She was asked to go up to the mezzanine area and write the stuff down. She said quietly under her breath, “I can't read or write,” which was quite a surprise to us.
So they said, “Why don't you go with your friend and your friend can write the stuff down.” So she did that and wrote the stuff down. The musicians in the group put her song to music. She heard this, and she became a totally changed person. It was amazing. She went from this girl who never showed her face because her hair was down, her hood was up, to someone saying...I can do more. I can write more... I've got other stuff..... Can we do this with it...... Can we do that with it? It was phenomenal. Two minutes changed her. Maybe it didn't change her for ever. Hopefully it did. But it was fantastic. That's the thing that sticks with me as a fantastic example of the power of music.