Edinburgh - the festival city

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Scotland’s capital is home to the world’s largest arts festival – and much more besides. Arts journalist Paul F. Cockburn offers a personal guide to the city of his birth.


No matter when you arrive, Edinburgh’s starkly beautiful vistas and historic cityscapes are bound to mesmerise – but it’s fair to say that the Scottish capital is just that extra bit special each August, when the world’s performers come to town.

“It seemed to him a very Edinburgh thing. Welcoming, but not very.”

So wrote author Ian Rankin in one of his famous Inspector Rebus novels, which remain among the most accurate descriptions of present-day Edinburgh you can find. The city, it goes without saying, is very much a physical place: one defined as much by its ‘precipitous’ geology and ‘purgatorial’ climate (according to one of its 19th-century sons, Robert Louis Stevenson) as its history.

Yet Edinburgh is also an attitude: its inhabitants are invariably described as being somewhat reserved, respectable, and even a tad ‘old school tie’ – as might be expected from the city that is Scotland’s seat of government, learning, and law. It is, to quote Ian Rankin again, “a city the size of a town that feels like a village”.

However, there is another Edinburgh, one which can be experienced each and every August. This is an Edinburgh of surprise, pleasure, and entertainment, which just happens to be staged against one of the most beautiful cityscapes found anywhere in Europe.

It’s an Edinburgh where venues from the deepest Old Town sub-basement to the largest New Town public hall will suddenly burst with art, music, dance, theatre, comedy, and cabaret. It’s an Edinburgh where many a star has first found acclaim: the actor Sir Ian McKellen, for example, picked up his first great notices here while playing Richard II, back in 1969.

This Edinburgh – this ‘Edinburgh Festival’ to be more precise – holds on tightly to the accolade of being the largest arts celebration in the world. And yet, incredibly, most of its venues are located conveniently within just five kilometres of the iconic Edinburgh Castle in the heart of the city.


This Edinburgh Festival, though, is a genuinely curious phenomenon. For starters, it’s not technically ‘a festival’ at all; it actually consists of several overlapping and independently run festivals and events, most of which run during a three-week period in August.

The inaugural Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) ran in August 1947 with the aim of creating ‘a platform for the flowering of the human spirit’ by encouraging cultural connections between nations and peoples following the ravages of the Second World War. Nearly seven decades later, this proud tradition continues: the 2015 EIF includes performances by Germany’s acclaimed Ballett am Rhein, Ballet Zürich, and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as performances from Scotland’s most prestigious orchestras and theatre companies.

Yet something rather peculiar happened in 1947. Annoyed by the proposed festival’s deliberate dismissal of anything which wasn’t live theatre, classical music or ballet, the good people of the Edinburgh Film Guild – firmly believing cinema to be a legitimate 20th-century art form – decided to set up their own festival. The inaugural Edinburgh International Film Festival ran alongside the EIF. Nor were they alone in sensing an opportunity; eight theatre companies from across Britain also invited themselves to Edinburgh that August.

The Edinburgh International Film Festival is now the oldest continually running film festival in the world, although since 2008 it has run during late June. Meanwhile, those eight self-invited productions proved to be the foundation for what, as early as 1948, local journalist Robert Kemp was describing as “the fringe of official festival drama”. In 2015, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe consists of a massive 3,314 shows from 49 countries – a total of 50,459 performances during three-and-a-bit weeks!

The world-famous Edinburgh Military Tattoo, performed on the Castle Esplanade, has now run every August since 1950 – and has never once cancelled a performance, despite the occasionally ‘inclement’ Scottish weather – proving, if nothing else, that members of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, as well as guest militaries from around the world, make rather determined performers!

A festival focusing on jazz and the blues was launched in 1978, although this now runs primarily in late July. The Edinburgh International Book Festival set up home within the picturesque Charlotte Square Gardens – located in the city’s beautiful Georgian New Town – in 1983. Like the Fringe, the Book Festival has since grown significantly in size; today, it remains the largest event of its kind in the world, with more than 700 authors participating in its 2015 programmes – one for adults, the other designed specifically for children.

The Edinburgh Mela, an annual multicultural celebration hosted in one of the city’s largest public parks, Leith Links, launched in 1995. Instigated by the city’s own ethnic minority communities – in particular, those originating in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan – the Mela now offers an alluring mix of Eastern and Scottish culture during the last weekend of August.


Edinburgh in August is, for lack of a better word, buzzing, though it’s fair to point out that if you’re not keen on crowds, it might be best to give the city a miss at this time, as it can get extremely busy. (It’s generally agreed that Edinburgh’s population more than doubles during August.) Yet, arguably, this busyness is an integral part of the whole ‘Edinburgh in August’ experience – even if us natives can get particularly touchy about the time it suddenly takes to get from point A to point B because the streets are full of crowds watching busking acrobats, while aspiring actors attempt to thrust flyers for their shows into the hands of anyone willing to take them.

Some things don’t change about Edinburgh, though; plenty of famous people have been amazed by how they can wander the city’s streets during August without being accosted. “Edinburgh is a fantastic city to live (in) if you’re well known,” according to globally famous author J. K. Rowling. “There is an innate respect for privacy in Edinburgh people.”

That’s very ‘Edinburgh’ at any time of the year; but the thing about the city in August is how it can also inspire memories that will stay with you for years to come, and help bond you with anyone else who has experienced the city in August. That’s an Edinburgh that can stay with us all.


Holyrood Park

Edinburgh has many special features, but I think the best must be having a little bit of wilderness barely 1.6km from Edinburgh Castle at Holyrood Park.

Holyrood Park (also known as King’s Park or Queen’s Park, depending on the gender of the reigning monarch) consists of 263 hectares of varied landscape, including crags, moorland, and several small lochs. Public access to this Royal Park is via numerous paths, although it can be circumnavigated by road.

The park’s highest point is Arthur’s Seat (pictured here), a dormant volcano which rises 251m above sea level; the summit offers excellent views northwards across the Firth of Forth towards Fife, and the Lothians to the east, west, and south.

Notable points of interest include the ruins of the 15th-century St Anthony’s Chapel, and Duddingston Loch. Thanks to its diverse range of flora, fauna, and geology, the park is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest.


My Edinburgh

National Museum of Scotland

A favourite haunt of mine since childhood, full of fascinating exhibits within a glorious Victorian building. Recently upgraded, with additional new galleries currently in development. Free public access to all permanent exhibitions.


RZSS Edinburgh Zoo

Home to the UK’s only giant pandas, and more than 1,000 other animals. A particularly popular attraction remains the daily Penguin Parade, when the birds pop out of their enclosure for a wander before returning home.


The Witchery by the Castle

An Edinburgh fixture for more than 30 years, this restaurant and boutique hotel showcases the best food Scotland can offer in a uniquely private dining experience in a magical old-world setting.


Family Entertainment

Edinburgh Castle

No visit to Edinburgh is complete without a visit to the castle, which offers spectacular views around the city and some amazing history. See the Stone of Destiny and Scotland’s crown jewels – the oldest in Europe – or alternatively explore the battlements or the stone vaults where prisoners of war were kept. Plus, if you time it just right, you can experience the firing of the iconic One O’Clock Gun!

Royal Commonwealth Pool

Recently refurbished in time for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, the ‘Commie Pool’ facilities include an excellent 50m main pool with eight lanes set aside, plus a slightly warmer 25m teaching pool for smaller children, and a 25m diving pool too! For particularly energetic children, there’s also the Clambers children’s play area and a café.


Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Five per cent of Fringe shows are aimed specifically at children, ranging from music and theatre to singsongs and comedy. While all listings in the Fringe programme include age-appropriateness symbols similar to UK cinema classifications, designated children’s shows come with additional age suggestions. You can specifically select child-designated shows through the Fringe website.



Edinburgh, UK
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