August rolls around again and for every Edinburgh resident (including myself), that means that the world's biggest arts festival comes to stay for a month. Don't think that means that everybody likes it, however. For every citizen of Auld Reekie who revels in the festival's cultural richness, there's at least one who curses it for disrupting their everyday life.
True, it's impossible to get anywhere in a hurry in August. Anybody who's going from north to south of the city centre laments the closure of the High Street for the Fringe street performers, and it's also a lot harder to get a drink in a city centre pub, not to mention a taxi.
In a sense, it has always been this way. Edinburgh's critics accuse it of being "all fur coat and nae drawers": in other words it mostly cares about appearances, so it's natural that people complain that their city has been taken over.
It has been warned that the city is more fragile than we think
This year, however, the annual complaints have been given an edge by a report from Edinburgh World Heritage which warns that the city is more fragile than we think and is in danger of becoming a "hollow shell museum", like Venice. As evidence, they cite the huge number of tourist shops and short-term holiday rents (such as Airbnb) in the Old Town, which are driving out the residents and tearing the heart out of communities on the Royal Mile and Grassmarket. The city, they warn is in danger of "losing its soul".
Yes: there are dangers; but don't believe the doom-mongers who'd have you believe the festival does more harm than good. For me, it's one of the best things about living in Edinburgh. For one month of the year world class theatre, music, comedy, opera and dance comes right to your doorstep. Even if there are inconvenient side effects, how can that be anything other than a cause for celebration?
The exuberance of the city centre is uniquely fresh in the month of August, and whole new amenities pop up to service it, such as the hugely popular outdoor bars in George Square, and others like the (very cool) Cocktail Festival off the Royal Mile, which is new this year.
For someone who lives here, it's one of the best things about living in Edinburgh
And the benefits of the festival last all year round. In terms of venues, Edinburgh punches well above its weight for a city of its size, and there is no way we'd have buildings like the Festival Theatre and Queen's Hall, or organisations like the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, were it not for the August festivals.
All this points to the fundamental fact that the festival has changed the city. Talk to anybody who was around for the first one in 1947 and they'll tell you that almost everybody thought it would never work, assuming that Edinburgh's chilly, northern Presbyterianism would triumph over any artistic exuberance. And yet, as was shown so powerfully at the heart of Bloom, the EIF's opening event, in 1947 the world showed up and loved what they saw. It began a unique cultural celebration that has hardly stopped to draw breath, and has had people coming back for more ever since.
So don't scare off the incomers and the festive joy-bringers with tales of overcrowded amenities and impossible-to-navigate streets. Let's open up our arms to them and welcome in the joyous ebullience they bring. Has Edinburgh lost its soul? No: it has found it. As the EIF's 2017 slogan says, "Welcome back".
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