Juliana Capes is a sculptor, painter, installation artist, writer and educator. In 2014 she founded Our Forth, a community campaign that, within a year, achieved its goal of persuading the Scottish Government to include Underground Coal Gasification Moratorium on Unconventional Gas Extraction
I found reading Breaking the Mould very inspiring, thinking of myself connected to the kind of people who were doing those sorts of things. I wondered how they’d been chosen; it didn’t feel like one person representing one aspect or strata of society. I knew some of them but hadn’t heard of the majority, so I found it really interesting reading their profiles and learning about these people. Margaret Sinclair, the only person who’d been considered to be a saint- I thought that was really quirky- it made me laugh, made me sort of smile. It’s an interesting project, thank you for asking me to participate.
Our Forth is a group that formed in October 2014, primarily to raise awareness of the threat of unconventional gas, particularly locally. Advice from people who had already walked the path, was to set up a local group, to get your community aware and active. So, I just called a meeting and made a flyer, did some photocopying and starting putting it around. A local architect noticed the flyer and paid for a thousand to be printed and some school run mum friends organised a sort of rota to distribute them so we managed to get a thousand flyers round all the doors and the meeting was really well attended. It was from that meeting that awareness started to spread and we formed a group of people interested in taking it forward. We scheduled another meeting on unconventional gas for January and packed out the town hall.
After the Scottish Government’s moratorium on fracking and coal bed methane failed to include underground coal gasification (UCG), we realised the focus of our campaign should be preventing UCG in the Forth. We had the period until the SNP’s Conference to put the pressure on, inside and outside of the party. We set up a petition and were promoting it online and at street stalls we set up every week and ultimately we got amazing engagement from the community. We also needed to re-imagine protesting and make something that would impact differently. I share a studio with a close friend of mine and filmmaker, Ruth Barrie, so we collaborated to make a film with The Wild Ones – wild swimmers that swim on Portobello Beach every week. It’s a very beautiful, evocative film about the coast and Portobello and the community, the swimming, what the water and the Forth mean to people.
I don’t actually know quite who decided to put our protest ‘Hands Over Our Forth’ on the road bridge into action, it just seemed like it needed to happen and all of a sudden we were doing it and everyone was really terrified because we initially didn’t have permission or any public liability insurance or anything. It was just ‘right ok, let’s call this protest’. It’s one of the proudest moments of my entire life, when I realised we’d done it and people linked hands across the whole bridge. There were over 2,000 people there and it was just such an incredible day. All of us were just completely knocked over by the whole thing. I couldn’t actually believe it had happened. But, amazingly the pressure that was building on the SNP before the protest actually took effect. Two days before the protest they put the moratorium on the UCG.
There was a lot of support for Our Forth, I wasn’t alone, as many others were involved but I did feel as though I was working too hard on it and needed to pull back and concentrate on my children and art. My mum and aunty, who was sort of my second parent, died within three months of each other so I think I just retreated into intense work as a ‘not think about life’ strategy. I backed off this year after realising, at the point of the moratorium and the Forth Road demo, that I’ve really got to concentrate on other aspects of my life. However, I’m hoping to have the time later on in the year to go back and campaign more, the government will launch the public consultations and moratoriums in the Autumn so I want to try and be involved in the campaign somehow.
It was challenging to deal with the face-to-face stuff; it’s quite a close knit community that we were trying to change. Within that I’m my children’s mum, an artist and an arts educator, as well as a campaigner – so I didn’t want to be identified as just one thing. I found it strange to constantly bump into people, knowing that everybody’s aware it was me doing it. While on the one hand I did feel like I had a lot of support, I also felt a bit self-conscious. So, that was a challenge, to get over my own natural paranoia and reticence. I guess that’s why I just called it Our Forth and tried to get lots of other people involved so it wasn’t just me. And it’s not just me, so many people have all worked incredibly hard on different elements of the campaign. But I was the driving force behind that particular campaign, which was new.
I’m very fortunate in that I’ve got a lot of good friends around me, a great husband and my community’s fantastic. I had a lot of support – it’s not just me, it’s a community’s worth of talents. I feel like it was as much about managing to connect people and elements as it was my own project. I couldn’t have made that film without Ruth, Oonagh O’Brien and Laura Cameron-Lewis. When we had completed our edit, the news broke that underground coal gasification in Australia had contaminated a massive area of Queensland. I wrote to ABC News over there, got permission to use their footage and then we edited that into our idyllic Portobello beach film and suddenly it became very powerful. Pushed forward by 38 Degrees and utilised by Frack Off, we used the film to promote the petition and it suddenly went viral. We got about 5,000 signatures in 24 hours.
I had incredible support the whole way and I was pushing for it to come together. There are so many other campaigns against these dangerous and undemocratic forces. Maria Montanaro from Falkirk Against Unconventional Gas ended up taking on a lot of the legal and organisational responsibility for the protest – she’s an utter hero that woman, amazing. Also we got a donation from Tommy Sheppard who was really helpful last year, giving us a lot of strategy ideas as well. With his money we printed 40,000 leaflets which we distributed very widely.
It was unbelievable but you know it’s not the end by any means. The moratoriums on fracking and on UCG and coal bed methane now need to be turned into bans. There’s still a lot of controversy about how the SNP are handling it, or not handling it and there’s a lot of campaigning still happening. I’ve kind of backed off from the campaign in the last 6 months because I needed to concentrate on my work and family but Our Forth is still going, there’s lots of dedicated and talented people locally working on it, linked up with all the organisations around the country and they’re still incredibly active and need public support.
Last year was an amazing year, it all came together accidentally, in a way, but then I went and built on it. I was so amazed to see how possible it actually is to change something. It made me realise that for the majority of my life I’ve looked at politics and felt powerless, when I’m not powerless, I can be active and make a difference. It felt amazing to be able to make a difference so, it was a truly wonderful thing to learn. I think when I look back on my life when I’m older, Our Forth will be something I am most proud to have done, but it was completely random and out of the blue.