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. Here we take a look at some of the key moments in the history of our incredible 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.’

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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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.

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.

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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.

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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. The young Princess Elizabeth was present when Sir Thomas Beecham conducted the massed bands during the finale. Also 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].

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.

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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.

1977 Film Festival gives birth

James MacTaggart was one of the leading producers, directors and writers of his time and following his early death, a two-day retrospective was held during the 1976 Edinburgh International Film Festival which culminated with a lecture delivered by John McGrath, founder of the radical Scottish theatre company 7:84. Gus Macdonald, executive producer of Granada's World in Action and deputy chair of the Film Festival, then secured funding for what he called a "wee gabfest" of programme-makers and in 1977 the first Edinburgh International Television Festival was convened.

First jazz programme listing

1979 Jazz Swings By

The first Edinburgh Jazz Festival took place in 1979, the brainchild of drummer turned banjo-player and guitarist, Mike Hart. Hart. He had been inspired by the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee and 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 independent jazz event in the UK.

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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.”

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.

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.

1990 Children's theatre

May 29th 1990: The first ever Scottish International Children’s Festival opened its doors (well, tent flaps) in Edinburgh’s Inverleith park! A village of white tents hosted a bounty of treasures, from world-class puppeteers to gritty, coming-of-age dramas. Records show that some 20,476 children and their accompanying adults watched 75 performances of 12 main-stage shows, with theatre companies travelling from Zimbabwe, Canada and the Netherlands.

Eh2010   midnight moment credit lloyd smith listing

1993 Ring in the bells

Following the successful delivery of an open air public event in Edinburgh to mark the European Summit of 1992, Unique Events was asked to offer a report, which proposed a properly managed event at the end of the year in Edinburgh. Unique recommended a three day festival which would allow Edinburgh to take ownership of the Scottish word for New Year Celebrations, ‘Hogmanay’. This template was realised in 1993 with Princes Street becoming the focus of the new year's eve celebrations.

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1997 Magical Book Festival

In this year the Book Festival changed from a biennial to an annual festival, reflecting the growing interest in live literary events for adults and children. And taking part in the children's programme was a young writer who read from her debut novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, to a small group of c20 children. Little did she or the Book Festival know that the spell cast that day would reverberate around the world.

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1999 World's first mobile media phone

One of the unexpected attractions of the Fringe in 1999 was a preview of the world's first mobile media phone - a Nokia 7110e using the Orange network to access the internet through WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) technology. Access was exclusively to the Fringe's website event listings, with production models in October having fuller internet access. 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 Festival was created to ensure that the visual arts had a prominent place alongside the other summer festivals. Produced as an insert in the Scotland on Sunday, the Festival Guide promoted 23 art spaces, galleries and museums across the city as well as articles introducing the festival, its ethos and features exploring the exhibitions making up its inaugural year.

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2006 Storytelling Centre Opens

The Scottish Storytelling Centre, the world's first purpose built modern centre for live storytelling, was formally opened on 1 June 2006, replacing the former Netherbow Arts Centre and incorporating the historic John Knox House. In the process of combining the 15th to 20th Century structures, areas of ancient walls and founds were uncovered, recorded, and in some cases presented as features of the new building.

Queen at tattoo 2002 listing

2010 Tattoo marked as Royal

2010 was the Edinburgh Military Tattoo's 60th anniversary year and it opened in momentous fashion with the announcement that it had been granted royal status by the Queen and would henceforth be known as the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, a wonderful endorsement for this unique national institution. The Tattoo's royal connections are long held, with the event chosen to mark the end of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2002 [see picture].

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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. Quantifying cultural, social and environmental effects, the study set new standards of best practice in the international events sector - and was updated in July 2016.

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And now some moments from the last decade

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Science   higgs listing

2012 An Elemental Conversation

The Edinburgh Medal is a prestigious award given each year during the Edinburgh Science Festival to men and women of science and technology whose professional achievements are judged to have made a significant contribution to the understanding and well-being of humanity. In 2012, for the first time in its 25 year history, the Medal was awarded at a ceremony in Edinburgh’s Signet Library jointly to an inspirational and world renowned scientist, Edinburgh’s own Professor Peter Higgs, and to the world-class organisation, CERN, in celebration of the spirit of collaboration in modern scientific endeavour.

Fleabag listing

2013 Where talent gets its big break

Many people get their big break at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, with lucky audiences often telling their envious friends for years to come that 'I was there' - as people are saying now about the time they saw the poster and were intrigued enough to attend the first performances of Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag in 2013. Written and performed by Waller-Bridge, and directed by Vicky Jones, Fleabag is an account of “some sort of woman living her sort of life”. Waller-Bridge received a Fringe First award in Edinburgh for the play, whose scenarios and characters formed the basis for its first series on TV.

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2016 Watch Time Fly

Opening the Edinburgh International Festival in 2016, Deep Time was an epic, outdoor, public artwork, bringing together spectacular animation, lighting and music, and delving deep into 350 million years of Edinburgh’s history. Blending trailblazing technology, narrative drama and emotional storytelling, Deep Time celebrated the wonders and beauties of the natural, the geological and the man-made, exploring the very foundations of Edinburgh itself.

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2017 From Cannes to Craigmillar

In May 2017 Claes Bang, lead actor in that year's Festival de Cannes Palm d'Or winning film The Square, arrived fresh from the awards ceremony to perform in Craigmillar, a suburb of Edinburgh, as part of the Edinburgh International Children's Festival [pictured taking time off to talk to BBC's Pauline McLean]. Bang appeared in the solo show Evil, by Danish company Folketeatret, giving an intense and heartfelt performance in the play about a teenage boy [Erik] trying to fight off abuse and bullying.

Tattoo   royals listing

2017 A Royal Night Out

The Prince of Wales and the Prince William attended the Tattoo together for the first time. A cast of more than 1,200 people from across the globe performed at Edinburgh Castle in front of the royal duo. The line-up included more than 250 pipers and drummers, five UK military bands and the event's first Japanese act, as well as major contingents from France, India and the United States. In front of the sellout show, the royal duo joined a toast to good health, given in Gaelic, with a dram of 10-year-old Glenkinchie whisky, which comes from the nearest distillery to Edinburgh.

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