History of the Festivals

Edinburgh's major festivals are Scotland's world-leading cultural brands with expertise, vision, impact and international recognition unmatched by any other cultural events on the globe - and here we take a look at some of the key moments in their history as we celebrate 70 years of the Festival City.

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1945 The seeds are sown

Rudolf Bing, an Austrian impresario who had fled Nazi Germany, wanted to create an international festival in the UK. After various searches Edinburgh was proposed by Henry Harvey Wood of the British Council, supported by both Sir John Falconer, the city's Lord Provost, and Lady Rosebery. In 1945 a festival committee was formed which decided that 1947 would be the earliest possible date - and that the Festival would be a chance for Edinburgh to create a new post-war identity as ‘the cultural resort of Europe'.

Bruno walter listing

1947 International Festival begins

The first Edinburgh International Festival began on 24 August 1947, with an aim to 'provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit' by bringing people and artists together from around the world. One of the highlights of the first year’s programme was the reuniting of conductor Bruno Walter with the Vienna Philharmonic [see picture] and Walter’s comments set the seal on the future – ‘What you have done in Edinburgh is one of the most magnificent experiences since the war. Here human relations have been renewed.’

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Edinburgh festival fringe   credit janeanne gilchrist original listing

1947 Festival Fringe emerges

The Festival Fringe began when eight companies - six Scottish and two English - appeared uninvited in Edinburgh and staged their own shows alongside the new International Festival. These were Glasgow Unity Theatre, Christine Orr Players of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Peoples’ Theatre, Edinburgh District Community Drama Association, Pilgrim Players, Edinburgh College of Art Theatre Group and Manchester Marionette Theatre. These groups operated totally independently of each other, with no support structure, and this remained the case for a number of years.

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First film festival listing png listing

1947 Longest running film festival begins

John Grierson, arguably the founder of documentary and UNESCO's then Director of Mass Communications [see left in picture with first Film Festival director Forsyth Hardy], remarked in 1947 on the daring gesture of establishing the UK’s first international film festival in Edinburgh - saying that he found it appropriate and natural that the interest in social realism on the screen should develop from the land that had produced Robert Burns. The first Festival saw 75 films presented from 18 countries, with the honour of first film shown going to Humphrey Jennings' The Cumberland Story.

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Three estates listing

1948 Theatre Revolution

1948 saw one of the world’s great theatrical innovations when theatre director Tyrone Guthrie resurrected in a modern fashion the 'thrust' or 'apron' stage for his production of Lyndsay's Satire of the Three Estates at Edinburgh's Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland, as part of the Edinburgh International Festival - an innovation that went on to revolutionise theatre building and theatre making across the world.

Kemp2 listing

1948 The term 'fringe' is coined

The groups putting on shows alongside the Edinburgh International Festival called themselves "Festival Adjuncts" and were also referred to as the "semi-official" festival. It was not until 1948 that Robert Kemp, a Scottish journalist and playwright, described the situation: "Round the fringe of official Festival drama, there seems to be more private enterprise than before ... I am afraid some of us are not going to be at home during the evenings!". The name 'fringe' stuck and from its origins in Edinburgh it became a universal term for a certain type of artistic experience.

First tattoo listing

1950 First Military Tattoo performance

The decade opened with the first Tattoo which drew some 6000 spectators seated in simple bench and scaffold structures around the Edinburgh Castle esplanade. Present was the Hollywood movie producer Mike Todd who made a documentary that brought the show to the attention of an international audience [he’s the man in the checked shirt standing at the bottom of the photo].

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1960 Cutural Turning Point

In 1960 a show took place in Edinburgh that prefigured the Satire Boom of the 1960s by breaking many of the conventions of the day and is seen as the forerunner to British television programmes That Was the Week That Was, At Last the 1948 Show and Monty Python's Flying Circus. The show was Beyond the Fringe at the Lyceum Theatre and starred Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller.

Lady macchatterley trial listing

1963 Lady MacChatterley Trial

The Festival’s first cause célèbres came when a naked arts student was wheeled in a trolley across the balcony of the McEwan Hall causing a moral scandal that ended in the courts. Anna Kesselaar’s fleeting appearance made headlines world-wide, saw the student charged with indecency in what became known as the “Lady MacChatterley Trial” and led journalist Bernard Levin, in reporting the trial, to see this incident as the beginning of the permissive society in Britain.

Rosencrantz listing

1966 The Fairytale

The opening performance of 29-year old Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in the Cranston Street Hall on the Royal Mile, had an audience of seven - six critics and one lone punter. But within a year it was at the National Theatre where critics called it "the most important event in the British professional theatre since Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party" - and the following year it became the National's first transfer to Broadway.

Stratgey get arts listing

1970 Seminal Arts Exhibition

The seminal (not to mention palindromic) Edinburgh Festival exhibition 'Strategy:Get Arts' is consistently cited as the most important post-war development in Scotland’s visual arts. Organised by Richard Demarco in conjunction with the Kunsthalle Dusseldorf, Strategy:Get Arts brought a number of avant-garde artists to Edinburgh including Gerhard Richter and Joseph Beuys – the exhibition being the first time that the work of Beuys had been shown to the English speaking world.

Lynda miles listing

1973 World's first female film festival director

Lynda Myles became the first woman to run a film festival and under her stewardship Edinburgh was at the vanguard of the New American Cinema, championing the early careers of the likes of Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese and David Cronenberg. Scorsese visited Edinburgh at Lynda's request and was chauffered around by her driver that year, a young aspiring actor by the name of Robbie Coltrane.

First jazz programme listing

1978 Jazz Swings By

The Edinburgh Jazz Festival was set up in 1978 by drummer turned banjo-player and guitarist, Mike Hart. Hart, who had been inspired by the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee, encouraged enthusiastic local musicians and volunteers to take part in a small festival in the Adelphi Ballroom, Abbeyhill. With support from local brewers, a pub trail was created with jazz appearing in 10 pubs - a winning partnership that led to the festival becoming the biggest jazz event in the UK.

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First perrier2 listing

1981 Comedy gets serious

There must have been something in the air in 1981. Alternative comedy burst forth in the UK at the Comic Strip, William Burdett-Coutts founded Assembly Rooms at the Fringe and the Edinburgh Comedy Awards were born in the guise of the Perrier Award. The award was first presented to Cambridge Footlights with a line up that included Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Tony Slattery and Emma Thompson - and quickly became known as the 'Oscars of Comedy'.

1983 Another Chapter Begins

With the encouragement of the International Festival a committee was formed to organise a Book Festival, with delivery entrusted to Jenny Brown, then working in the Fringe Office. The tents that occupied Charlotte Square in that first year were more like a scout camp, with 120 writers and just one theatre for author events. But a memorable handshake in 1983 encapsulated the enduring generous international spirit of the festival: an encounter, over breakfast, between the two stars of that first 1983 programme. One proffered his hand: “Updike? Burgess – we have corresponded.”

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Sensory dining1 listing

1989 First public science festival

A senior member of Edinburgh City Council, Ian Wall, proposed that the city should highlight its new image by complementing its world-famous summer arts festivals with a new type of spring event. The city put resources behind the idea, appointing a director and project team, and in April 1989 Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, arrived to inaugurate the world's first science festival. The Festival programme front cover also had the distinction of being designed by the famous Leith sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi.

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Storyteller lawrence tulloch in the netherbow theatre listing

1989 The art of storytelling

Rooted around the work of the Scottish Storytelling Centre on Edinburgh’s historic Royal Mile, and a testament to the thriving storytelling scene in Scotland, the Scottish International Storytelling Festival stages storytellers from all over the world.

The first Festival welcomed 700 attendees, but by 2013 this had grown to over 23,000. Storytellers David Campbell and Seoras Macpherson have performed in every Storytelling Festival since it began.

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1990 Children's theatre

Founded to provide a programme of Scottish and international children’s theatre, the Edinburgh International Children's Festival has a full run in Edinburgh and also tours throughout the country. The festival showcases high quality, distinctive Scottish and international performances to an audience of around 10,000 children, their teachers, and their families each year.

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Eh2010   midnight moment credit lloyd smith listing

1994 Ring in the bells

For years Edinburgh’s revellers had been spontaneously gathering for the midnight bells in the historic Trongate to celebrate the arrival of Hogmanay (Scots for New Year). In 1994 the city formalised these get-togethers with the first official Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, now a three-day festival of entertainment and the world’s favourite New Year’s celebration.

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Nokiafringeappcrop listing

1999 World's first mobile app

Developed for Orange as a demonstration of their forthcoming media and commerce services, the first ever publicly demonstrated and commercially available mobile phone app allowed visitors to the Fringe to access the complete festivals show guide. The success of that project led to other firsts including a “queue busting” app and an embryonic mobile e-ticket. Vic Keegan of the Guardian commented at the time: “Even from a brief preview it is easy to see the huge potential of devices like this to change the way we communicate with each other.”

2004 Edinburgh Art Festival is founded

In 2004 the city’s galleries, artists and museums came together to start the Edinburgh Art Festival. The event took over more than 40 museums, galleries and pop-up spaces, showcasing established and emerging Scottish artists, and some of the most interesting and exciting names on the world circuit.

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Impact study   cover listing

2011 Impact of Festivals revealed

A groundbreaking study, commissioned from BOP Consulting and released in May 2011, embraced the ambitious challenge of understanding and benchmarking the impacts of
Edinburgh’s Festivals beyond the purely financial for the first time. Adopting a ‘360 degree’ approach to quantifying cultural, social and environmental effects, the study set new standards of best practice in the international events sector. A similar study was carried out in 2015 and published in July 2016, showing continued growth in the positive impacts of Edinburgh's Festivals.

Read our Impact Studies and other reports
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