The uniquely Scottish charm of Edinburgh’s festivals
Since the middle of the 20th century, Edinburgh has been welcoming audiences from near and far to enjoy both the city itself and all that its festivals have to offer. Priding themselves on being both distinctly Scottish and profoundly international, the festivals bring the world to Scotland, and Scotland provides a unique and special stage for them to take place.
With the Fringe, Book Festival, International Festival, Art Festival and Tattoo all taking place in August, the month is a particular cultural peak moment (in a calendar full of festivals): every nook and cranny becomes a venue, bar or exhibition space and the city welcomes visitors from across the world and the arts.
The Edinburgh International Festival, the first of August’s five festivals to be established, didn’t begin in Scotland by accident: it was after an extensive search that Rudolf Bing settled on Edinburgh as the right location for a new international festival which first took place in 1947.
The Fringe began a few years later with Scottish artists initially making up a majority of the programme, and the Book and Art Festivals followed with similar aims of platforming local talent. Meanwhile, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo took place for the first time in 1950, celebrating Scotland’s military against the iconic backdrop of Edinburgh Castle.
August’s festivals have since grown and become even more internationally-facing but none have lost their distinctly Scottish roots. In fact, many even frame internationalism as a key aspect of Scottish identity, promising spaces and programmes in which local audiences can engage with the international community and vice versa.
Lots of events this year see this partnership explicitly celebrated in a number of ways: this year’s Tattoo, for example, sees schoolgirls from the Edinburgh Girls’ High School in Malawi perform alongside Edinburgh’s Mary Erskine School choir. At the Art Festival the programme includes Scotland-based collaborators Ross Birrell and David Harding displaying work on the themes of flight and dispossession, developed with Syrian composer and violinist Ali Moraly.
2018 has been a busy year for Scotland so far: lively political debate has abounded, the country has played host to events such as the European Championships, and we’ve even enjoyed - or endured - a heatwave or two this summer.
A particular highlight of 2018 has been Scotland’s Year of Young People, which aims to give a platform to the voices and ideas of Scotland’s 8-26 year olds and bring together different generations in a celebration of Scotland’s youth. Edinburgh’s Festivals have been amongst the many organisations and events to embrace the celebration.
For example, the Book Festival has worked alongside a team of Young Programmers from Craigmillar, Edinburgh, to develop their Codename F line-up, while the Fringe Society invited feedback from a specially formed Youth Panel on events for inclusion in the Fringe Central programme. At the International Festival, spectacular opening event Five Telegrams featured 250 young people in a performance which was also co-designed by young people and included costumes designed by students from Edinburgh College of Art.
For Scottish artists and performers, August’s festivals remain an invaluable platform to show the world what they can do. Audiences arrive in Edinburgh keen to find out about local talent, and the festivals provide many an opportunity to do so.
This year’s International Festival’s Light on the Shore programme, delivered in partnership with Edinburgh Gin, promises “a unique season celebrating the creativity, originality and international impact of Scottish popular music”. Amongst its lineup are artists as diverse as alt-rock bands The Vaselines and the Pastels, and Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis, highlighting the country’s rich musical contributions.
Similarly prolific is Scotland’s contribution to art, which is given a spotlight in Edinburgh Art Festival’s Platform 2018 line-up, a showcase of Scottish artists at the beginning of their careers. Exhibiting this year are Glasgow-based women Annie Crabtree, Isobel Lutz-Smith, Rae-Yen Song and Renèe Helèna Browne who explore themes ranging from cultural identity and bodily autonomy to the female voice and the filmmaking process, in a testament to Scotland’s rich culture of debate and diverse interests.
It’s not just artists and performers who are flying the flag for Scotland at this year’s festivals, but Edinburgh itself, with many festivals expanding into new venues and communities throughout the city.
The International Festival's Light on the Shore takes place at the newly reopened Leith Theatre, hosting acts such as Mogwai, King Creosote and Alan Cumming, while the Art Festival’s Commissions programme aims to “bring artists into conversation with the city” by using public space and new venues. This will see Marxist magician Ian Saville and artist Ruth Ewan’s Sympathetic Magick bring political magic tricks to streets around Edinburgh, and Adam Lewis Jacobs present experimental installation No Easy Answers at the Institut Français d’Écosse.
Of course, you don’t need to be in a festival venue to experience August’s unique atmosphere: iconic locations like the Royal Mile and Grassmarket are alive with street performers and festival buzz throughout the month, and in a different city you’d be unlikely to bump into your favourite comedian, actor or TV presenter in your local cafe or at the top of Arthur’s Seat.
August’s festivals are constantly growing and evolving, but their intrinsic link with the city and country in which they take place only seems to get stronger. Be it welcoming visitors, forging collaborations between Scotland and the world, or celebrating homegrown talent, the festivals embody many of the qualities that Scotland can be proudest of. Edinburgh’s Festivals also provide a unique opportunity for audiences and performers alike to experience Scotland itself, with onward trips to the the Highlands and other cities within easy reach.
Provided you pack for all weathers and prepare to squeeze into all the weird and wonderful rooms Edinburgh has to offer, audiences can expect a celebration of art, performance, debate and discussion - as well as of the unique setting in which they take place throughout August and beyond.
The Festivals are a huge part of what makes Edinburgh and Scotland so special - and the festivals themselves wouldn’t be quite the same anywhere else!
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