two men on stage performing, image by Aly Wight

As a playwright living in Leith, with a couple of plays under my belt, I was trying to dream up my next big project. When I heard about a commission from LGBT History Month to create a piece of art for History Month 2016, I began a search for a story that could breathe life back into Edinburgh’s LGBT past.

As with many good stories, it all began in the pub. Dean, the landlord of The Village where I co-run the Village Pub Theatre, told me all about the gay nightclub that began its life in what is now Edinburgh’s flagship Waterstones.

An island that links New York and Edinburgh

In the 1980s Fire Island, a small barrier island near Long Island in New York, was a playground for New Yorkers. It was particularly popular with the gay community, attracting artists, hipsters and LGBT+ party people.

At the same time, Scotland’s first gay nightclub ‘Fire Island’ had just appeared on the scene in the B-listed building now home to Waterstones on Princes Street. At that point however, it was semi-derelict.

‘Fire Island’ holds a place in many people’s hearts and I have loved collecting stories about the cherished nightclub, that gave many people their first chance to be themselves.

black and white image of four story high shop front with car parked in front

View of 128 Princes Street in 1933, before becoming Fire Island and Waterstones

A whistle-stop tour of the past

Dean the pub landlord put me in touch with Bob Orr and Raymond Rose, who had owned a bookshop in Edinburgh called West and Wilde on Dundas Street. I met up with them to find out more about gay Edinburgh of that time and in particular ‘Fire Island’. After all, they had met there!

Bob and Raymond took me on a whistle-stop tour of the city’s gay past and it was on one of the stops, that I first encountered Lavender Menace, Edinburgh’s one-time feminist, lesbian and gay Bookshop, which opened on Forth Street in 1982.

A play that unlocked a portal to the past

Armed with a scrapbook of ideas, and a short video I made on my phone, with a very windy soundtrack, I put together an application for the play commission. It was a long-shot, but fortunately the panel all really liked the idea, and I was awarded the funds to write the play. I had about 9 months to do that, so the clock was ticking…

Lunch with the Lavender Menace founders

Bob hadn’t started Lavender Menace alone. An American lady called Sigrid Nielsen, was co-founder and I met up with them to find out more about the bookshop, which was now eclipsing the nightclub for me and pulling the focus of the story towards it.

How did they end up opening such a ground-breaking venture in Scotland in 1982? After all, homosexuality had been illegal in Scotland until 1980. It was amazing to find out about this time of rapid change, and the part that Bob and Sigrid played in it.

I was delighted to learn that an early incarnation of the shop, had been a bookstall in the cloakroom of Fire Island nightclub. It was that discovery that planted a seed for the play.

man with closed eyes holds book close to his face

Pierce Reid in Love Song to Lavender Menace. Photo by Aly Wight

Digging through history

Over the next 9 months I carried out all sorts of research, including:

Opening an archive at the National Library of Scotland. I stepped into the world I’d been hearing about, seeing the bookmarks, posters and leaflets advertising the shop and reading through early correspondence and papers.

Meeting the menaces. I interviewed many of the people working in and connected to the shop, including Bill Grainger who founded ‘Fire Island’.

Development readings, including one at Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Love Song to Lavender Menace

By the end of all my research, I knew that I wanted to focus on Lavender Menace and to tell the story of its origins in ‘Fire Island’, and the love and passion that had taken to start it. My play ‘Love Song to Lavender Menace’ premiered at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in October 2017.

Having Bob, Raymond, Sigrid and many of the other menaces in the audience was just incredible. It was amazing to be part of bringing their history back to life.

It has also been amazing to hear other people’s personal stories of the shop as they continue to share them in response.

two men sit on stage talking to each other, smiling

Pierce Reid and Matthew McVarish in Love Song to Lavender Menace. Photo by Aly Wight

Commemorating LGBT History

So, now you have a few tips on how to research LGBT History, but you don’t have to write a play to commemorate the past. We’re currently seeking LGBT nominations for our Commemorative Plaque Scheme – so why not nominate someone?

James Ley is a playwright living in Edinburgh. His plays are published by Oberon Books, and include Love Song to Lavender Menace for Royal Lyceum Theatre, I Heart Maths for A Play, A Pie and A Pint and Spain for Glasgay!


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