Festival City Questions Remain

When we wrote last week about the state of the festival and the impact Over Tourism was having we got a huge response, but also a lot of criticism. It seemed to both tap into feeling of alienation and frustration with the failure of the management of the city – and evoke outrage amongst the arts journalists and cultural bodies that thrive on the current scene. The commentator and reviewer Joyce McMillan called it just an example of living in the “age of rage” and denounced anyone advocating “slamming up the shutters to international arts and tourism, would help no-one, either economically or spiritually.”

That certainly wasn’t something we were advocating. In fact like most people the article we published came from a space of loving the Festival and loving the city. We report regularly on the fringe and campaign on live music and arts throughout the year in Edinburgh and across Scotland.

But some of the responses felt like a circling of the wagons – ‘nothing to see here’ – the ‘Festival is wonderful and always will be’. But an Everything is Awesome reaction is a dangerous response to shoot the messenger or to glibly avoid criticism. If these criticisms aren’t addressed they will mount and the festival will become confirmed as an event that is wholly imported and subjected on people, rather than in any sense hosted.

Fences Galore

The issues that kicked-off the debate was the erection of boarding to line Princes Street Gardens and block anyones view of the Summer Sessions. While concerts had been going on for decades without this it seemed another step in the commodification of the city, with promoters commercial imperative over-riding civic space. The response from Adam McVey, Leader of Edinburgh City Council – seemed at first decisive, then wholly inadequate.

We went from:

“This is public space & these are public views. Ticketed events cannot put up barriers which are to the detriment of the city. I’ve asked officers to remove ASAP & for a guarantee that these won’t be erected for any future events”

to a triumphant:

“Beauty restored, barriers gone. Working to finalise solution to protect public during concerts but very grateful to Council officers, organisers & key partners for working so quickly to bring back our Capital’s stunning skyline to public view”

to a decidedly more plaintive:

“*Finalised public safety arrangements* Following Police input-Screens will be erected lower than previously ONLY for duration of concert & then removed. This keeps pedestrian access on South Princes st. & protects public views during day. Still need a better solution in future.”

Hopefully a solution can be found – but it does seem that this “safety” issue has only just emerged after many many years of live shows causing no such concerns.

Physical Changes

One of the accusations levelled against Bella was that we were engaging in hyperbole or clickbait by exaggerating the threat to the city.

But the questions we raised are just in line with the councils own dossier, entitled “Managing Our Festival City,” released in January it was sharply critical of the cities infrastructure problems and was accompanied by a separate report on the growth of Edinburgh’s tourism industry, which is claimed to support 34,800 jobs and be worth around £1.46 billion to the city’s economy.

That’s a lot of lolly.

But while the report highlighted real concerns for pedestrian safety with dangerously over-crowded areas it had little in the way of meaningful action. Instead the plan is for more and more growth.

Growth as an unquestionable good in a finite physical space can’t be defended in light of an already heaving mass of people.

The questions are not just physical – they are cultural – but that’s a far more difficult subject for people to engage in.

Were told that the city has seen visitor numbers soar by more than half a million in the past five years to 3.85 million. Growth of 18 per cent in visitor numbers and 30 per cent in what they are spending has outstripped the UK average over the same period.

However, the industry is pursuing a target of boosting visitor numbers by a further third by 2020 and generate an additional £485 million.

As the Scotsman reported: “A part element of the latest strategy being followed by the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group, the independent industry body, is to boost the number of visits to the city between October and March by around 50 per cent.”

So what’s the answer to a dangerously over-crowded city? Many many more people as part of the strategy of an unelected unaccountable group. And where will these hundreds of thousands of people stay? In the vast array of hotels and temporary accommodation that is sharply dividing the city and exacerbating its already disastrous housing crisis.

Hyperbole? Age of rage?

Not at all, what’s extraordinary is the level of quietism that infects the capital.

Key questions remain:

  1. Who runs the city, “independent industry bodys”, promoters or the elected council?
  2. Can we re-distribute the income back into the city and local artists and companies?
  3. Can we insist on a Fair Fringe membership?
  4. Can we shift the dates of the festival to match the Scottish school holidays?
  5. Can we host a debate which brings in arts journalists, artists, politicians and residents to find solutions?




Comments (37)

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald. says:

    Was this not why Hamish Henderson and others set up the Edinburgh People’s Festival the year after the actual ‘Festival’?

    Although I live at the western terminus of the railway and can use my senior railcard or get to Embra free with my bus pas, I have not been to the city during festival time for decades. It is an appalling experience.

    I was recently in Dublin and the area around Temple Bar and Trinity College were simply impossible to enjoy because of the sheer throng of people. There were plenty of other things we did in and around Dublin, but these are not the reason why so many people go to Dublin.

    The same thing is happening across the world. The ‘free market’ is simply destroying the thing in which it trades.

    1. Yes this is what Henderson was trying to do. I’m envisaging a deeper retrieval of the festival rather than one parallel to it.

    2. Darby O'Gill says:

      Yes Alistair, a group comprising inter alia Hamish Henderson, Joan Littlewood, and Hugh McDiarmid founded the Peoples Festival in 1951 as a ‘peoples’ alternative to the high brow culture of the EIF – ‘for the people and by the people’ – but were squeezed out by 1954. On the death of Hamish Henderson the Edinburgh Peoples Festival was formed/reformed in 2002. Funded only by donations and unable to compete for space with the EIF and Fringe, we put on events throughout the year, all of them free and a little ‘oddball’. From ‘Burns on the Beach’ at Portobello in January, which has introduced the works of Burns to many overseas students and visitors to the city along with a free supper, to the world’s first conference on the life and legacy of Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, an art exhibition of work by prisoners at Saughton to movie screenings and lectures, the People’s Festival tries hard to provide a free alternative to the EIF. Anyone is welcome to join and help out. Ideas are welcome.

      1. mince'n'tatties says:

        ‘From ‘Burns on the Beach at Portobello in January’, with the enticement of a free fish supper. Darby, are you having a Festival laugh?
        I was brought up at the tail end of Joppa where it meets the Milton Rd. People left Porty for the warmth of Siberia in January. Dogs refused to leave the hoose’ if they thought the walk was on Porty beach.
        Medics did their hypothermia training on the promenade.
        You catch my drift. What oor’ foreign neighbours thought of that experience is something you need to regale.
        Rabbie Burns on Porty beach in January… I love it Darby, I really do.

        1. Darby O'Gill says:

          It does sound a bit weird, but we were lucky with the weather: no rain. As chef I provided mulled wine, cockalekie soup and cooked tatties, neaps and haggis for 80 on three metal bins bought from B&Q and fuelled by timber off-cuts from Saughton Prison. Lighting was provided by lampost. Singers provided entertainment for 18 different nationalities with recitations and dancing in between. When I went to douse the embers in the sea I came across six foreign students skinny-dipping. The sight of these girls stayed with me for a long time.

          1. mince'n'tatties says:

            It sounds as if everyone involved had a ball. I am delighted for you and the events success. Talk about rising to the challenge.
            Thanks for posting a funny, informative reply and let me wish you the best of luck.

  2. Darby O'Gill says:

    Since the EH postal code area has expanded to include towns and villages well outside Edinburgh could the EIFF not do likewise? Regular train and bus services already exist between, for example, Linlithgow, Dunbar and Dalkeith, which would bring the three ‘Lothians’ into the equation. This might ease some of the stresses on the City by taking some Festival events to local people. Given that Edinburgh is at saturation point already and plans are afoot to enlarge the Festival even further, I feel something will need to be done.

    1. Graeme Purves says:

      There is already a Fringe by the Sea at North Berwick.

      1. Darby O'Gill says:

        Yes Graeme, and by all accounts very well run and very popular. It does suggest that expanding the EIF outwith the City could work

        1. That’s very true Darby – though reports of train services to Fife and Glasgow (for example) would suggest that would be difficult. It needs a genuine commitment, joined-up thinking, ambition and vision …

  3. Robert says:

    Re question 4. Why are the Scottish school holidays almost a whole month earlier than the English ones, anyway?

    1. Probably because it would originally be based on a harvest or something. Whatever the reason they are what they are. Can you imagine an arts festival in England timed around the Scottish schools holidays?

      1. Robert says:

        What would be the benefit of synchronising the festival with the school holidays, anyway? Is it that people from Edinburgh with children should be able to get away and avoid the festival, or that people from other parts of Scotland should be able to travel to Edinburgh to enjoy the festival? Or what?

        I’ve no idea why the organisers originally decided to hold the Festival during the whole month of August but it seems like a pretty shrewd idea, all else being equal — nobody will ever forget the dates, that’s for sure, and that’s not a small consideration when you’re dealing with the world’s biggest arts festival.

        1. Maybe have a wee think about why the holidays are out of sync?

          1. Robert says:

            I’ve no idea why the holiday dates are different, either — but given that the Scottish and English education systems are different in so many ways, I guess there’s no reason why the holidays should be the same.

            But I do think August is a good time to hold the festival, nonetheless, and I’m not sure why you think it ought to coincide with the Scottish school holidays. I mean, it is meant to be an _International_ Festival, after all, and always has been.

          2. It might want to coincide with the Scottish holidays cos its in Scotland … just a wild controversial idea …

      2. Alasdair Macdonald. says:

        Mr Small,

        You are right about the harvest determining the school holidays – for example, we Glaswegians, never had the ‘tattie holidays’ in October.

        However, with regard to the Edinburgh Festival, did the original director not announce rather pompously and haughtily and, probably, to the approval of the New Town denizens, that there would be nothing as common as Scottish things in the festival? Also, since most of the supporters of the original festival were educated privately, at that time, the Edinburgh fee-paying schools, actually had the English holidays and many presented their students for English based exams.

        1. I hadn’t heard that quote and would like a reference?

          It’s true that the origins of the festival – which I have loved and do love – was in a very high art end of things – and this legacy has never really been transcended. This is part of a problem that lies at the heart of the festival, which is not to say that it should include the very best international quality culture, art, drama and music. The problem is the view that this ambition is thought to be impossible without it being situated culturally and socially within Edinburgh and Scotland. This is of course a nonsense and one which wouldn’t really be given the time of day in any other country. There is no reason whatsoever why the festival cant be updated and re-imagined as run by and for the people of Edinburgh and Scotland, but with a substantial change of cultural ownership and democracy which better reflects the thriving arts scene of today.

          1. Graeme Purves says:

            I think the elitist legacy was finally transcended this year with the very successful Le Vent du Nord & Julie Fowlis and Karine Polwart’s Scottish Songbook concerts at the splendid Leith Theatre. These were top quality musical events which resonated strongly with a Scottish and international audience. The link established between Glasgow’s Celtic Connections and the Edinburgh International Festival is also very welcome. Fergus Linehan is doing a great job.

          2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

            I will try to see what I can find.

            As I read a couple of the postings, something stirred in the recesses of my memory of an interview on one of the BBC Radio Scotland arts programmes many years ago. I did not hear the actual quote – it was the person being interviewed who reported it as an example of the denigration of Scottish culture amongst various influential groups. Now, that you have asked me, I am also beginning to wonder if it had been said by someone associated with the early days of the SNO, or the Scottish Galleries.

            Something has popped into my head saying “Timothy Clifford”, but I might well be calumniating the man!

          3. Alasdair Macdonald says:

            I did a bit of checking about the (approximation to a) quote and I found something in Neal Aschetson’s book ‘Stone Voices’ where he speaks about the attitude of several of those who were recruited from down south to lead various arts bodies in Scotland. He mentions Timothy Clifford amongst them and his proposal to close the Scottish Portrait Gallery.

            If you are in contact with him, Mr Ascherson might know.

            Paul Henderson Scott or Richard Holloway might ‘spill the beans’!

          4. Graeme Purves says:

            Timothy Clifford was the Director of the National Galleries of Scotland from 1984 to 2006. He was one year old when the Edinburgh International Festival was launched in 1947.

          5. Alasdair Macdonald says:


            Thanks for the correction. Unlike Mr Clifford, I was still in the womb at the first festival.

            In my defence, I did say that, I was uncertain about the identity and that, for some reason, Mr Clifford’s name had come to mind.

          6. Graeme Purves says:

            There have been Directors of the Edinburgh International Festival who have treated Scottish culture with disdain. The present Director is not one of them. Timothy Clifford’s name (he was known affectionately as ‘Tiger Tim’) has certainly featured prominently in discussions about individuals who were felt to have brought a metropolitan perspective to our cultural institutions. He did, however, write a guide book on the art treasures of Duff House in Banff.

    2. Scott Derek says:

      Why are the English holidays a whole month after Scotland’s?

      1. Dunno. But they are. Whatever the reason they are what they are. Can you imagine an arts festival in England timed around the Scottish schools holidays?

        1. Robert says:

          Sorry if I’m being dense, but I’m still not understanding why you think it’s important to time the festival with the school holidays at all. To me it seems like a distraction from the other vital issues about overcrowding, overpricing, profiteering and fair access that you raise in this and the previous article.

          I’ve been a Festival goer for more than 20 years and I think it’s a tragedy how the whole thing has been turned into a big money making machine, but then again, what hasn’t. I don’t see what it’s got to do with the timing of the event.

          1. It’s one from ten proposals and not really the most important.

            However it does feed-in to the perception that the festival is not grounded/in tune/ or curated for the residents of the city and their children.

            The issues are inter-related and part of a multilayer crisis.

          2. Wul says:

            I think the point being made Robert is that Edinburgh’s festival was timed to coincide with the traditional August holidays of England ( and wealthy Scots) rather than the country where the festival takes place, Scotland.

            Can you imagine any other country organising it’s biggest festival to suit a neighbouring country rather than its own citizens?

            It’s a question of priorities.

          3. milgram says:

            To take the Book festival — who is the Children’s’ Programme for? About 3/4 of the events are inaccessible to Edinburgh schoolkids. And if we’re not moving the dates why not they send some of the authors out to do a turn in the primary schools? You’ve got world class authors and a golden opportunity to get kids excited about books & reading but it’s only for kids up here on their holidays.

  4. Wul says:

    “…and evoke outrage amongst the arts journalists and cultural bodies that thrive on the current scene.”

    As Upton Sinclair said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

    The original article raises a totally valid argument.

    I took my family of four to the festival two years ago. We had to find accommodation in North Queensferry because everywhere in the city was full and/or charging unaffordable (to us) rates. The train into Waverly station from Queensferry was standing room only in two packed, overheated coaches. The festival must have taken Scotrail by surprise.
    The streets were mental. I’m used to Glasgow’s busy city centre in rush hour, but this was of a different order. Impossible move more than a couple of meters forward without sidestepping, often off the pavement onto the busy road. Getting around the festival area was a chore, so we “hid” in the Underbelly area, drinking over priced beer from plastic cups. Very little change from £200 for a day’s outing, eating from vans and seeing unknown artists.

    Tourism is worth £1.46bn to the local economy? Wow! I bet they have the best public services and infrastructure in the world with that annual windfall.

    1. Graeme Purves says:

      Spot on! There is little sign of any of the money the Festivals bring into the city being spent on civic infrastructure. For example, Edinburgh’s public toilets have never been in worse condition in my lifetime.

  5. Ewen McLachlan says:

    Ahem, the 1830’s Factories stopped children from working in factories and agriculture as both industry and farming became mechanised, so the ‘all hands to the deck kids, thar’s spuds needing a howked’ has long been redundant.

    Alternative to the harvest child labour requirements, it’s more likely that the later summer vacation in English schools mirrors that of English universities, and dates back to the period when long summer holidays were taken across all governmental, justiciary and religious institutions, when the middle and upper class society chose to abandon disease ridden urban areas during the hot summer months and head off to enjoy Spas, messing about on rivers, sailing, mountaineering, grand tours and blasting grouse alongside many other gentlemanly country pursuits in their Northern enclaves…

    Re the Festival, it’s time for a genuine fringe to the Fringe. What value is there in having an uncurated glut of performances culminating in some poor American kids spending a fortune in putting on an adaptation of Mother Courage by the University of Honolulu’s am dram department?

    1. Legerwood says:

      The introduction of school holidays in Scotland happened around the 16th -17th centuries and were introduced because children were needed, and expected, to work in the field. The original intention was for a school year uninterrupted by holidays but the truancy rate during the summer months was off the scale therefore the powers that be bowed to reality and introduced the summer holidays.

      The factories act in the 19th century may have put a stop to child labour but the school holidays remained untouched.

  6. florian albert says:

    Mike Small asks if the elected council runs Edinburgh.

    The simple answer would be that it does not. I have commented before that it lacks the power to impose a ‘bedroom tax’ on hotels. However, the failure goes far beyond this. The twin scandals of the trams and of the building repairs department appear to have led to a complete loss of nerve. For several years, they appeared to cede control to Sue Bruce, the Chief Executive.

    With regard to the growth in tourism, the die has been cast. Ibis, and the rest, will not be content with their hotels full in the three months centred on the festivals.
    They want every month to be as close to this August as possible.

    Two other points come to mind.
    First; Following the collapse of HBOS and RBS, has there been a deliberate policy to use tourism as a replacement for the jobs and revenue lost in financial services since 2008 ?
    Second; What happens if Edinburgh ceases to be a ‘cool’ destination as it is today ?

    1. Wul says:

      “What happens if Edinburgh ceases to be cool?”

      It probably wont, it really is an incredibly beautiful and (hate to use this word) iconic destination. The castle, the stonework and wee lanes and crazy topography of the New Town. It really is a great looking place and its the capital of a wonderfully diverse and resource stuffed country. Very, very easy to market. (It’s probably too good for the likes of us anyway.)

      Reading your post about tourism replacing financial services, it gave me a vision of Scots as the “poor natives” in one of a string of glittering, World- Class tourist destinations; Dubai, London, New York, Hong Kong, Singapore etc etc.

      It seems to me that more and more places are becoming part of a separate country called “Money”; annexed from their host nations to become mere stop-offs on an endless, golden world tour by the wealthy and sucking resources from their host populations rather than enriching them.

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