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Since its beginning 30 years ago, Out of the Blue has left an indelible mark on Edinburgh’s cultural scene, writes Charlie Ellis. As well as providing studio space to artists, the organisation has also been a significant host of cultural events and much else. 


This wide range of activities has given Out of The Blue a greater reach than many comparable art centres, and its importance is clear at a time when other bodies, such as the Filmhouse and Summerhall, have been under severe threat.


Out of the Blue shows how cultural organisations have often led the way in creative reuse of old buildings. This is most obvious in how they have reimagined the old drill hall on Dalmeny Street off Leith Walk. 


Drill Hall interior


Such projects provide a counter to ‘declinist’ narratives about architecture and town planning. As the architectural writer Serban Cantacuzino put it in 1972, we derive a sense of ‘continuity and stability’ from the process of adaptation and finding new uses, in how a place evolves in an organic way, connecting the past to the future.


Out of the Blue also has the Abbeymount Studios in Abbeyhill and has been involved in future uses for the old stable block at Powderhall as part of the area’s wider revitalisation. Its ambition was also evident in its ultimately failed attempt to take over the old Boroughmuir High School in Bruntsfield. Its hope was to add a cultural aspect to a largely residential area, instead of which the building has been turned into private flats.


Building chart


Similar efforts to ensure that residential areas have a cultural aspect include Edinburgh Printmakers in Fountainbridge. Like Out of the Blue, EP combines studio space for creatives with public access for exhibitions and a cafe etc. Its connections to the area’s industrial heritage are deep and significant.


The Dalmeny Drill Hall similarly has deep historical significance and has, through its new use, been given new energy. One interesting event hosted by Out of the Blue was the long-running and highly successful social ping-pong event: Wiff Waff Wednesday. This was an interesting detour for a cultural institution.




Wiff Waff Wednesday was characteristic of contemporary Leith, with a great mix of ages and nationalities. It was common for there to be up to 80 people attending. The event was always community-driven, with the sporting aspect very much secondary and the emphasis on ‘friendship before competition’. 


However, around the time of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Wiff Waff secured funding and put on regular coaching sessions for juniors. In the year prior to the games, they ran weekly classes at Leith Primary and Leith Academy. It was a great way to give youngsters a taste for what is, at the top level, a fast and exciting sport. In 2016, one of these youngsters took on all comers on a table set up at the east end of Princes Street. This was in line with the Out the Blue philosophy of Edinburgh becoming a ‘creative, participative city in which everyone is able to access the spaces and resources they require to pursue their own creativity, no matter who they are and what form it may take’.




Wiff Waff Wednesday was building on tradition, as a number of local league table-tennis matches and events have taken place in the hall over the years. In 2023 and 2024, the Edinburgh and Lothians Table Tennis League staged the Handicap Cup final and their Awards Night in the venue, drawing another new group to the building. Many of those attending had previously been unaware of Out of the Blue and all that it offers.


I vividly recall my first visit to Wiff Waff Wednesday, which was also my first visit to the Drill Hall. I really had no idea what to expect. Like many other first-timers, I was surprised by the scale of the place and the sheer variety of activities that went on there, over and above art and exhibitions: dance and music classes, flea markets, book fairs etc. What amazed me that evening was the sheer energy of the event.


stacked chairs


That Out of the Blue hosted such an activity demonstrated how it has attempted to attract those from beyond the typical cultural sphere. It has looked at ways of connecting to Leith as a community. This was clearly evident in the superb Gretna 100 project to commemorate the Quintinshill rail disaster. This drew hundreds of people to the Drill Hall and helped to give the disaster the attention it deserved. Ray Bird’s documentary film of the Gretna 100 project demonstrated how a participatory arts project can have long-lasting impact.


Out of the Blue has also had an impact on the cultural aesthetics of the city, through posters, zines, booklets etc. printed by Out of The Blueprint using the  traditional Japanese printing methods of RISO and GOCCO. Its products are seen throughout the city. 




The cafe at Out of the Blue is the most obvious public aspect of the place. It draws people by offering a fantastic space in which to eat and drink, meet and work. It serves tasty, affordable meals and snacks. Unlike many cafes across the city, the pace is unhurried; you don’t feel a pressure to finish up quickly. Such spaces are invaluable in such a densely populated area as Leith. We all need places to calm our minds. Being surrounded by artists and other cultural activity only adds to this sense of a haven from the bustle of Leith Walk. 


Since my first visit, the place has always felt welcoming. I often find myself wandering in there to chill in the cafe or explore. It’s also a good place to pick up various local publications.


Out of The Blue is a key cultural force in the capital city. Long may it remain so!


Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher who writes on culture, education and politics.


Speech in progress

At a celebratory evening in the Drill Hall on 30 May, Out of the Blue chair David Stevenson (pictured) gave a short introductory speech which we reproduce in full below.

Good evening everyone and welcome to the Drill Hall. My name is David Stevenson, and I am the chair of the Board of Directors at Out of The Blue. It is wonderful to see so many of you here this evening to celebrate the 30th anniversary of this brilliant, resilient, vital and creative organisation. 

This is a significant milestone, and it is a pleasure to be able to share it with so many supporters who share our commitment to ensuring Edinburgh remains a city where people, groups and communities have access to the spaces and places they need to create, imagine and explore. 

As you will hear more about later this evening, Out of the Blue, as with so many good ideas, began as a response to a simple need. Established in a small gallery space in the centre of Edinburgh in 1994, Out of the Blue has evolved, adapted and grown and now enlivens and animates six buildings in Edinburgh, including the beautiful, historic, listed space we are in this evening. 

Whether it is the iconic Bongo Club (now residing in the arches under the Central Library) or Abbeymount Studio (an ex-School turned artist’s studio space), our buildings are filled with passionate, creative people who recognise the value that art and culture, in all their forms, bring to their lives. 

Since 1994, over 2m people have come through our doors to work, create, exhibit, perform, eat, drink, dance, teach and learn. Our creative projects and social initiatives have benefited thousands of individuals, as well as many organisations and communities. I am sure that there are many of you here this evening whose creative lives haave featured an Out of the Blue space or project. 

We hope that tonight’s celebrations will give you a sense of how all our ventures - and adventures are making a significant contribution to people's quality of life and to the provision of opportunities in the creative industries for emerging, established and occasional artists.

In an increasingly challenging landscape for arts and cultural organisations, Out of the Blue is a 30-year success story. It’s one which we should all be proud of, as Out of the Blue is the product of collective commitment and shared endeavour. 

As a social enterprise, we have developed a sustainable business model, built on diverse revenue streams, but with creative and cultural activity at its core. We believe we offer a model for others seeking to establish sustainable creative spaces and places in their communities and we are always happy to share the knowledge we have built over three decades.

We are proud to be a part of the communities that make use of our spaces, and as we celebrate our anniversary we also celebrate the stories of every person who has passed through our doors to ‘do their thing’. I hope tonight is yet one more story of time well spent amongst friends.