Cancelled Festival is an Opportunity for Edinburgh

After much prevarication Edinburgh’s five August festivals have been cancelled. A statement read:

“For the first time in over 70 years, the five festivals that transform Edinburgh into the world’s leading cultural destination every August are not going ahead this year due to concerns around the Covid-19 pandemic. Edinburgh Art Festival, The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Edinburgh International Festival and The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo are not happening as planned in 2020.”

Fergus Linehan, Festival Director, Edinburgh International Festival,

“We are hugely disappointed to announce this cancellation but given the current outlook we believe it is the correct decision. We recognise that Edinburgh’s festivals play a very important role in the cultural, social and economic lives of our city and country, and this decision has not been taken lightly. Our thoughts are with all the country’s key workers and we hope that we can celebrate your heroic efforts when this awful pandemic has passed.

“The Edinburgh International Festival was born out of adversity – an urgent need to reconnect and rebuild. The current crisis presents all at the Festival with a similar sense of urgency. Work begins straight away on a 2021 Festival season that will boost both our spirits and our economy.

“As we observe our essential social distancing we can, I hope, look forward to being back together soon: sharing brilliant music, theatre, dance, literature and art from the greatest creative minds of our time. Until then, thank you for all your good wishes and keep safe in the coming months.” 

Shona McCarthy, Chief Executive, Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society said:

“It’s heart-breaking that the Fringe and our sister August festivals will not take place as planned this summer. However, having taken advice and considered all the options, we collectively believe this is the only appropriate response. 

“The safety of participants, audiences, local residents and indeed everyone connected to our festivals will always come first. Our thoughts today are with the doctors, nurses, health and social care professionals on the front line, as well as all those affected by this dreadful pandemic. Our sympathies too are with the thousands of artists and participants directly affected by today’s decision – we will do everything we can to support you over the coming months.” 

This is obviously the right decision and provides a great opportunity for a major re-think of the event. But it also raises questions about what can and can’t ‘go online’.

Author readings and Q&As maybe could, and potentially have bigger audiences. Margaret Atwood even famously pioneered a remote book signing called. LongPen. It could mean a welcome return for written poetry as a welcome re-balance away from the obsession with performance.

Theatre is essentially a live experience. Much of what is good about the festival (any festival) is that you are in a space experiencing something live and un-mediated. It is a shared crowd experience. This is what is good about it.  When we talk about how to innovate and adapt to this crisis we should be careful not to lose that. What no-body in the world needs is more screen time.

Resisting Normalcy

Like almost everything we are experiencing the virus is making us appreciate what we can’t have, whether that’s proximity, intimacy or fusilli. But in this appreciation what we should avoid at all costs is the urge to bounce back to ‘normal’.

This is the opportunity not just to appreciate art and culture, live music and performance but also ask who the festival is for and how it is organised.

Other opportunities and questions emerge in this crisis too. To what extent is Edinburgh a rentier economy and who benefits from this? How can you diversify the economy away from the over-reliance on tourism?

With the Air BnB sector collapsing and air travel limited this is the opportunity to re-think how and why we travel and how we structure and provide housing in this city and others.

For large parts of the city ‘Normal’ wasn’t working.  This is a unique opportunity to change.

Comments (24)

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  1. AK says:

    This is NOT any sort of opportunity for us. We run a small Bed and Breakfast outside the city centre. This post reads to me like Toby Young’s articel saying that older people should die.

    Well, if we lose our home because of this I am sure you will be rejoicing about the benefits to Edinburgh.

    1. I wont be rejoicing anything AK but the idea that a) there was any other choice than to do this is clearly wrong as is the idea that the festival wasnt deeply flawed

  2. Squiggly says:

    Go for it Edinburgh! You might catch up with us!
    A well wishing Weegie….not that we’re jealous o’ yer castle or onythin’ else..

  3. Graeme Purves says:

    Spot on Mike!

  4. Stroller says:

    I find it hard to agree with your upbeat take on this Bella…

    The Festival needed rethinking, the housing crisis needed addressing, but this is going to mean lots of business go bust and lots of people lose their jobs…

    Rents will drop, housing will become more affordable, but affordable for people with money in the bank, not those who live from month to month, who will be facing a very challenging next few months… the people who can’t afford to rent in Edinburgh will hardly be any better placed to rent after this… people at the bottom will be punished more than at the top, as is always the case.

    Everybody will be poorer, nobody stands to gain from this, except maybe the residents of the Old Town who can enjoy a summer without the overcrowding… Who else?

    Maybe there is an opportunity in here too, but what exactly is it?

    1. There’s nothing upbeat about any of this. But given the reality that it cant go ahead it would be a good opportunity to the completely re-think it.

      This needs to happen as the whole economy is re-oriented to one that is survivable.

      1. Stroller says:

        There is only one thing worse than having the biggest international arts festival in your home city every single summer for 70 years, and that is not having it…

  5. Stewart Bremner says:

    I totally agree that it’s a great time for a rethink. The festivals have been growing out of control for years, especially in the knock-on effects of the disastrous boom in short term lets and the take over of public spaces. It’s time the city/citizens dictated their needs, not the corporations who profit the most out of the festivals.

    Something that must be considered along with this is the exorbitant expense of living in Edinburgh, in part due to the festivals. Rents are fierce, similarly as out of control as the festivals.

    Like many, my ludicrous rent and living costs are partly covered by the higher income of the festival period. Last year it accounted for about 20% of my income. If every level of business in Edinburgh sees that level of drop in income from the closure of the festivals, it needs to be shared with the landlords. In that way, it would also benefit a lot of people who don’t see any direct material gain from the festivals.

    Rent controls across both public and private sectors must be considered and not just for new rents but in ongoing rents too. There’s probably also a case to be made for some form of re-evaluation of mortgages, if such a thing is possible.

    1. Stroller says:

      It seems at least someone has got PPE after all, you’re in a bubble here Stewart…

      This isn’t something calm and orderly like a “rethink”, it’s a 500 blackhole in the Edinburgh economy… it’s not a decision motivated from the wish to strike a balance between citizens’ rights and the local economy, it’s just a big gaping whole in the balance sheet for half of the Edinburgh service industry…

      Thousands of people who will be signing on for universal credit, hundreds of businesses going under…

      The reflection it brings on as to the benefits the Festival in balance with its inconveniences I think will come down heavily in favour of it being a boon for Edinburgh and not something to be disparaged so lightly.

      What good can come out of it? If progress is made against the implacable virus, then perhaps we might get a small scale Scottish arts festival in its stead which would give more of a profile to young Scottish artists and showcase their undoubted talent… maybe Mark Cousins could get to run an open air film festival at the castle instead of the awful tattooo… thank kind of thing…

      We live in hope…

      1. Stewart Bremner says:

        From the personal insult onwards, you’ve got me entirely wrong. Your dark pessimism is soul crushing. There would be no point in living if everything was that awful and a better life couldn’t at least be imagined and discussed.

        1. Stroller says:

          What personal insult? None intended on my part Stewart.

    2. Stroller says:

      As for the housing expense, well, I guess you have to go and live outside the city, that is the reality of it for many of us.
      That’s the way it is in every capital city in Europe basically.
      Why would Edinburgh be any dfferent?
      We’re lucky, you can commute in to Edinburgh fairly easily compared to other much bigger capital cities.
      The idea of an affordable capital city is I think a bit of a an illusion…it’s never going to happen.
      The interesting thing would be for arts people in Edinburgh to decamp more or less en masse to some nearby town and create new venues and build closer, deeper networks…
      That’s right, leave Edinburgh city centre to the tourists who, after all, only get to see it once or twice in their lives…

      For those planning the socialist revolution in the midst of the biggest health crisis in a century, a) do you have enough personal protection equipment for ” we the people” and b) will there be lockdown come the great day too? and c) do we need to bring pitchforks and flaming torches or will they be provided?

      1. It sounds like a bit of a deafeat. Why should people put up with unafforadable housing?

        1. Stroller says:

          There is clearly a need for affordable housing, the question is where.
          In Edinburgh city centre? I don’t see why that is necessary to be honest.
          I mean, this is how historic cities grow is it not? Prices go up, people move out of town, and so on and so forth..
          These people then go and change a relatively obscure place which is cheaper and transform it too in turn.
          In terms of the arts community, all I can say is that Edinburgh city centre is hardly inspiring these days, is it? It’s a tourist city.
          And it´s not just housing that’s expensive, everything is expensive… a cup of coffee is expensive…
          So, why bother? It’s not just the housing.
          You go somewhere else…
          The key is that there is enough social housing in the city overall…
          But that is something else, and something which ought to have been addressed years ago…
          Personally, i find Edinburgh city centre a hassle, uninspiring, commercialized to death…no place for someone looking for a sense of artistic community…
          But it’s no different to any other European capital in that sense…

          1. James Mills says:

            Why not go the whole hog and re-name it ”Disneyland -Edinburgh ” ?

          2. Stroller says:

            MacDisneyland surely?

            Also worth distinguishing on dealing with over-tourism in Edinurgh between, say, the Festival, which puts the city on the map and brings some truly great musicians and actors and writers to Scotland once a year, and the wintergarden crap at Christmas. I mean, from an economic point of view they both bring in coin, but one clearly offers something of real cultural value while the other offers a purely kitschified ersatz Edinburgh…

            Or the fiasco of Princes Street Gardens say. The use of that space and other spaces is not the fault of the arts festival and I think some people have a tendency to bundle all these issues up into one.

            But ultimately it is a local governance issue. I would be for reforming the whole way local government is organized in Scotland. I much prefer the European system of more powerful mayors, people who actually have to respond to their citizens and who are as scrutinized by the media like the highest level politicians are. So. you know, you could get somebody standing as mayor of Edinburgh elected on a platform to address certain issues and be judged on that in elections which are just as high profile as national elections in other European countries…

          3. The issues are related because an economy predicated on over-tourism and a rentier economy is one that distorts the entire housing market and is run for the benefit of people who are visitors not residents. Air BnB is an official sponsor of the Fringe. Much as the corporate cultural players cant stand it being pointed out, these phenomenon are intimately connected. There is a growth strategy for the city so this hasnt happened by mistake, and its a growth strategy that now lies in tatters.

            The alternative of a diversified economy and affordable housing is not some utopian dream its a practical achievable reality.

          4. Stroller says:

            Bella, AirB&B is the explanation for soaring rents in Edinburgh and cities all over Europe, not the Edinburgh Festival.
            This is exactly the same live issue in Scotland (also in places like Skye, so not just Edinburgh) as it is in cities like Barcelona and Madrid in Spain, or in several cities in Italy.
            The left-wing mayor of Madrid, Manuela Carmena, passed a law which stipulated that to rent out your premises on AirB&B it had to have a direct access to the street, thereby ruling out all flats from that scheme, limiting AirB&B to houses, of which there are very few in Madrid.
            Unfortunately, despite winning most votes, she lost the last election on seats and the right wing then abolished that law.
            AirB&B is a huge problem and its the surge in short term rents they offer which explains 80% or 90% of the housing crisis…

          5. I know. Ive been campaigning on this for years (?)

  6. John Docherty says:

    Stroller has a point. It’s the business as usual for those more fluid. Let those who can turn historic cities into tourism centres do so for their gain . The countryside can be their playground. With certain areas assigned as residential zones for the majority.
    I wish the residents of Edinburgh well.

    1. Stroller says:


      Look, all I am saying is that Edinburgh is no different to London, Paris, Dublin, Madrid, Barcelona and just about any capital except Budapest these days, maybe Lisbon to an extent too….
      …by which I mean overcrowded, kitchified, expensive and unbearable at times. But the tourists love it and we are all a wee bit hypocritical when it comes to tourism, that is to say, when we go for a weekend to Barcelona that is okay, but when the tourists come here then that’s not so good….

      Maybe there are certain things which can be done to redress the tourism- citizen imbalance but I can’t see why it is such a big issue for so many people on Bella, big enough to see the cancellation of the festival as an opportunity no less…

  7. David Allan says:

    You wealthy Edinburgh folks will have to rely on Ian Murray and his like – the big strong shoulders that he maintains is a benefit of being part of our great caring and sharing Union. Financial Aid will pour in!

    Those in Edinburgh who are of a unionist persuasion (there might be some that read Bella) – prepare to have your faith in Westminster shaken!

    Perhaps the short-term shock and downturn will illustrate what we in the central belt and West have been experiencing for years.

  8. David McGill says:

    Sad though it will be for all the aspiring young performers, as a life-long citizen of Edinburgh I think the cancellation of this year’s Festivals could prove to be a blessing in disguise. Who could ever have imagined that the Edinburgh Festival/Fringe would become the third highest attended event in the world? Given that the two higher: the World Cup and Olympics are held once ever four years, last for several weeks and are usually centred in large cities and spread throughout the host country, can you imagine what it’s like to have 4.5 million visitors in just three weeks in a city of 500,000? Chaos.
    Given that Edinburgh has the best local bus service in the UK the Festival could have expanded as Edinburgh itself has expanded geographically, and thus eased the pressure on the city centre. This might have allowed more ‘locals’ to engage and fulfilled the ethos of the original ‘Peoples Festival’ which morphed into the Fringe. Pressing the reset button might just get it back on track.

  9. Wul says:

    If the cancellation of this event is going to leave a “gaping hole” in Edinburgh’s economy, that must mean that it’s decades-old annual appearance has created a huge surplus?

    Where is this surplus now? Where is the “boom-time” money kept? Someone, somewhere must have it.

    If all this windfall cash is not available now, to help ameliorate the effects of a one-off cancellation, one has to wonder if the event has any actual, local benefit overall.

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