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A History of Edinburgh’s August Festivals

Ballet dancers in modern attire en pointe with their arms raised.Edinburgh International Festival. Image supplied by edinburghfestivalcity.com, © Angela Sterling

As the world’s leading festival city, visitors travel to Edinburgh for its festivals throughout the year, but in August the city’s population doubles in size during its summer festival season. Let’s take a look back at the birth of the August festivals and how they’ve grown to be the phenomenon they are today.

Origins of the Edinburgh International Festival

A number of individuals were instrumental in getting the 1947 Edinburgh International Festival off the ground. The original idea came from Rudolf Bing, the General Manager of Glyndebourne Festival Opera, and an Austrian-born impresario who had fled Nazi Germany in 1934. Glyndebourne was in need of additional funding and Bing’s idea was for a music festival associated with Glyndebourne, utilising its resources.

Edinburgh was proposed as host by Henry Harvey Wood of the British Council, which had been set up to improve international relationships through the promotion of education and culture. For Edinburgh the Festival was a chance to create a new post-war identity as, in the words of Sir John Falconer, the Lord Provost at the time, ‘the cultural resort of Europe’ and reclaim its position as the ’Athens of the North’.

The founders believed that the Festival should enliven and enrich the cultural life of Europe, Britain and Scotland and ‘provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit’. This founding principle – that a world class cultural event, which brings together people and artists together from around the world, would also generate significant cultural, social and economic benefits for Edinburgh and Scotland – is as relevant today as it was over 60 years ago.

One of the highlights of the first year’s programme was the re-uniting of Jewish conductor Bruno Walter with the Vienna Philharmonic and Walter’s comments set the seal on the future – ‘What you have seen in Edinburgh is one of the most magnificent experiences since the war. Here human relations have been renewed’. A curated festival, it was, and still is, by invitation of the Artistic Director to take part in the International Festival – a truly global celebration of world-class music, opera, theatre and dance.

Birth of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Street Performer at Homecoming, Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2014Street Performers, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

‘There’s nothing else like them: there are no other festivals in the world that have this level of excitement, energy and intensity.’ Alan Cumming, Actor, Writer, Film Producer

In the International Festival’s first year, there were eight theatre companies that wished to perform at the festival but were not invited. So they came to Edinburgh to perform anyway on the ‘Fringe’ of the International festival and that is when the world’s largest arts festival first began.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe continued in its organic, pop-up form until 1958 when the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society was created. Its founding principles still remain – that it’s an open-access festival for any participant to bring their talent to the street and stages of the Edinburgh. However, the change in the late 50s ensured elected officers were in place to manage a box office, produce a programme and provide various services to performers coming to the festivals.

Over the years the festival has become a launchpad for many of the stars of today. Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Mike Myers, Robin Williams and Hugh Grant all flocked to Edinburgh to perform to audiences and hone their craft.

The Edinburgh Military Tattoo

A military band performing on the esplanade during The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo,The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Image © The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, all rights reserved.

Although the military performed in August during the late 1940s, it was in 1950 the first official Edinburgh Military Tattoo was formalised with just eight items in the programme. It drew some 6,000 spectators seated in simple bench and scaffold structures around the north, south and east sides of the Edinburgh Castle esplanade.

Present at this first Tattoo was the Hollywood movie producer Mike Todd, the fourth husband of film star Elizabeth Taylor, who made a documentary about the Tattoo that year thus bringing it to the attention of an international audience. Today the event is enjoyed by a live audience of some 220,000 and a television audience of over 100 million throughout the world.

Enter the Edinburgh International Book Festival

A woman sits on a deck chair reading a book.Edinburgh International Book Festival. Image supplied by Edinburgh Book Festival, © Alan McCredie Photography

‘By a “Royal Mile,” Edinburgh, Scotland is the motherlode of all festivals.’ Huffington Post

In the 80’s a festival came along that broke away from the traditional performing arts festival template, with a book festival deemed a brave venture in 1983, with just two others in the UK; now there are an astonishing 300. With the encouragement of the International Festival a committee was formed to organise a Book Fair with the first event classed as an instant success with “meet the author” events and the inspired decision to have a children’s fair.

That first skimpy programme boasted just 120 writers compared with today’s 800 writers from 40 different countries but it attracted 30,000 visitors, all of whom paid an entrance fee of £1 GBP. Over the last three decades, the Book Fair has evolved into the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

An Edinburgh festival for every interest

The MV Fingal, docked in Leith, is decorated in bright, blocky patterns and features morse code.‘Dazzle Ship’ by Ciara Phillips, part of the Edinburgh Art Festival 2016.

Since the early beginnings of the festival city, other festivals have emerged and join the peak August season. Founded by members of the city’s minority ethnic communities, the Edinburgh Mela was created in 1995 and has grown to become one of the most popular family-friendly festivals in Edinburgh.

And in 2004 Edinburgh’s galleries, artists and museums came together to create the Edinburgh Art Festival, now the UK’s largest celebration of visual art, the festival takes place in over 40 galleries, museums and pop up spaces. Edinburgh’s festival history has deep roots and they continues to develop and flourish.

As artists and visitors from throughout the globe flock to the city this August they will also look ahead to 2017 and the 70th anniversary of Edinburgh’s emergence as the world’s leading festival city.

To plan a trip in the coming days, months and years go to www.edinburghfestivalcity.com to find out more about Edinburgh’s 12 major festivals.

To find out more about Edinburgh’s Festival season and for hints and tips about what to see and do in Edinburgh this summer, download VisitScotland’s Edinburgh Festivals Survival Guide.

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