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The Pollok Free State Story Connecting with Young People Decades On


In a recent blog post I highlighted material from our archive collection on the No M77 and Pollok Free State protests. I have since been in conversation with artists Hannah Brackston and Dan Sambo, currrent artists in residence in the ward of Pollok.


Here they describe how they have been drawing upon the story of Pollok Free State in workshops with young people, and I share some more clippings from our archive to help illustrate the activism of the young people involved in this piece of local history.


(If you are unfamiliar with the story of the protests and the camp you can read our previous posts here and here.)


SGHET archive item: newspaper clipping 'M77 parents stay away', Daily Mail, 1995.
Figure 1 – SGHET.A2020.01.01. Daily Mail, 1995. Details one of the last protests as police attempt to evict the Pollok Free State Protest camp. 50 school children attempting to protest against concerns of their future health and environment.



Group walking with art in Pollok Park, Happenstance, 2018. Photo by Dan Sambo
Figure 2 – Happenstance, 2018. Credit – Dan Sambo.


Can you give us an overview of the workshops and activities you have been doing in Pollok? What do you think it is about the story of Pollok Free State that interests young people?


There are aspects of the Pollok Free State story that instantly capture the imagination of young people, in particular details of the camp itself, tree houses and living together in the woods. These echo many of the ideas of how they would like to use the woods themselves and make their own spaces within it today.


In 2018 we had the opportunity to be part of Scotland’s contribution to the Venice Biennale of Architecture. The curator Peter Mcaughey commissioned different Scottish artists to engage with young people to explore the Biennale theme of ‘Free space’.


We were introduced to some local stakeholders in Pollok and a synergy emerged between the history of Pollok Free State and a piece of woodland, Damshot Woods, which was being occupied by St. Paul’s High School as an outdoor classroom. This became the focus of our project taking workshops in this space with local young people.


We collaborated with teachers John Harper and Kirsty Webster to engage a group of pupils in a 3 day long workshop in the woods. Together we went on a journey that involved learning about the PFS directly from Gehan McLeod, a central figure in the camp and co-founder of charity GalGael, and creating temporary structures to occupy an outdoor classroom in the woods.


We wanted the kids to be inspired as we were by the Pollok Free State history. Did they know that the woods beside their school had this powerful story to tell? We found it interesting to engage young people with aspects of the PFS story; What is a peaceful occupation? What does it mean to create ‘free space’, where they feel safe, governed by their rules and their ideas and values? Making a flag; making a passport; making a shelter; marking the boundaries of something; discussing what is individual and what is collective while learning about nature by being immersed in it.


Pollok Park gathering, part of Happenstance, 2018. Photo by Dan Sambo.
Figure 3 – Happenstance, 2018. Credit- Dan Sambo.



SGHET archive item: newspaper clipping, The Herald, 1995.
Figure 4 – SGHET.A2020.01.01. Herald, 1995. This small article from The Herald, Feb 1995, recounts the pupils of Bellarmine High school striking. It describes their request for 2 hours off a day to support the camp, and how the school kids spoke to a crowd at George Square before 1500 protestors marched to Pollok.


Following this project we went on to use these same woodlands with different groups of pupils at St. Pauls and local families through Phase one of the Glasgow Life Artists in Residence for the Creative Communities Project. These workshops included map-making and sign-making projects with the pupils – during which we took time as part of our workshop plan to discuss and inform the pupils about the important local history of the Pollok Free State.


We invited local families into the woods on another occasion to walk, explore and make a fire together. We brought photos and old maps to discuss the area’s heritage and several of the parents shared their memories of visiting the camp as children themselves.


SGHET archive item - Pollok Free State University Enrollment Form, 1994-96.
Figure 5 – SGHET.A2020.01.03. Pollok Free State University Enrollment Form, 1994-96. An original document from the camp outlining the aims of the grass roots Pollok Free State University. Any student may recruit another, entry requirements include taking responsibility for your learning, and speaking out for others with a basis in Gender, ethnic and social justice. The curriculum includes living skills like cooking, childcare and literacy, as well as creativity through music, art and writing.


Group gathering in Pollok Park during the AIR Programme 2019-2021. Photo by Hannah Brackston.
Figure 6 – AIR Programme 2019-2021. Credit- Hannah Brackston.


Over the summer of 2021 as part of Glasgow Life’s Phase 2 of the Artist in Residency Programme we ran a series of events for families in Damshot Woods – ‘weekends in the woods’. These were Sunday afternoons where we brought local people and their kids together to do creative activities and learn about specific aspects of the woodlands nature and heritage.


Each week we made small interventions that were aimed at improving accessibility and habitats, from bespoke bird box to making trails and signage. The culmination of this was bringing these families together to explore ideas for their own self-organisation and continued occupation of the woods. We hope this work may be able to continue in the spring.


During August and November in 2021 together with Sarah Diver-Lang (SGHET Board member) and with support from the Wheatley Foundation, we developed a project called ‘If Tree’s Could Talk’. Working directly with two groups of young people, The Village Storytelling Centre, and Turf Youth Project we delivered a series of workshops for the groups that explored the stories of Pollok’s significant trees and why they matter. We shared the story of the PFS as one of the starting points and watched parts of the BBC documentary ‘Bird Man of Pollok’ with the groups. We went on to use this as inspiration for making large textile banners for COP26.


The banners were made and designed by the young people – from dying and printing the fabric with natural pigments to cutting out closing words and slogans that reflected their responses. The banners were kindly displayed at GalGael in Govan during part of COP26 alongside their Govan Free State Programme. This project will continue January – March 2022 – working alongside tree planting initiatives in Greater Pollok as part of COP26 legacy in Glasgow.


Youth working with materials in Happenstance, 2018. Photo by Dan Sambo.
Figure 7 – Happenstance, 2018. Credit- Dan Sambo.



Children making art work in the AIR Programme 2019-2021. Photo by Hannah Brackston.
Figure 8 – AIR Programme 2019-2021. Credit- Hannah Brackston.



Still from video Damshot Woods by Dan Sambo, Hannah Brackston & Callum Rice
Figure 9 – Still from video Damshot Woods by Dan Sambo, Hannah Brackston & Callum Rice.


How do you think people’s relationship with green spaces has changed in the last few years? What is the relationship like with Pollok Park and its local communities, and how have things changed now compared to the time of Pollok Free State?


There is an increasing amount of local activity taking place (COVID aside) by groups and schools to engage people more in their green spaces in Greater Pollok. Most of the schools are running lots more outdoor learning programmes, the area has seen new community gardens developed by local people in the last years and walking groups set up to meet local health and wellbeing needs.


Locally in Greater Pollok, among those who were involved in PFS at the time, there is a great deal of collective pride given in sharing memories. The area has changed dramatically since the occupation, with the construction of both the M77 and Silverburn shopping centre. Partly for this reason it feels as important as ever to hold onto that piece of local history and the strength that resounded around it.


Not so many young people have heard about it – so there is potential for finding new ways to creatively retell the story – especially today when many of the same social and environmental issues raised by people through the PFS camp feel as relevant as ever.


We would love to do some further work with local people to develop a plan for how this story could be commemorated through a permanent piece of public art, an installation or even through some form of strategic planting/event in the ward itself.


Kids in Pollok Park during the AIR Programme, 2019-2021
Figure 10. AIR Programme, 2019-2021. Credit- Hannah Brackston.


Thank you to Hannah Brackston and Dan Sambo for sharing their exciting work with us. In the story of Pollok Free State, it is inspiring to see that the space created, the activities that were undertaken there, and the makeshift schools of learning that so resonated with the local school children in the 90s, can continue to do so today.


It is also powerful to see how the act of remembering this piece of local heritage and the motivations behind the gathering of these communities in that public space, still resonates in new generations and can be used to help open up conversations to better construct our environment and our relationship with it.


We look forward to Hannah and Dan’s future workshops and can’t wait to see how people continue to engage with this piece of local heritage.


You can have a look through other elements of our Pollok Free State collection in the SGHET Archive here:  Pollok Free State: Archive Selections and Reflections


By Romy Galloway

Published: 24th March 2022


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