With six festivals over a month, Edinburgh in August is caught up in a party atmosphere of tents, crowds, plays and music.
I spent four hectic days in Edinburgh in the midst of the madness that grips the city in August every year. This is when Edinburgh is host to six Festivals, including the world’s biggest Arts Festival, The Fringe.
A last-minute decision to go and we are lucky to find accommodation in Edinburgh’s New Town as the Festival nears its end. We drive up from Manchester and park at a friend’s house in the idyllic village of Leith Links outside the city. In no time at all we’re out of our hotel and onto the breezy central area of Princes Street, caught up in the party atmosphere of tents and decorations and noisy crowds.
The Book Festival has just concluded but the Festival Fringe is still on. The Fringe is so named because of the way it started — with eight theatre companies who came to the first Festival uninvited and performed anyway, at alternate venues. Ironically, the Fringe has pushed the Edinburgh International Festival itself to the margins and all but taken over the city.
Fringe posters are everywhere as we make our way on foot up to the Old Town from the Princes Street Gardens. The panoramic view of the Old Town from the Gardens is spectacular, from the iconic Scott Monument at the top of the Gardens to St. John's Church where the umbrellas, decorations of the previous day's show, are billowing noisily in the wind, at the other end. Turning the corner from St. John’s, we gape at the Castle on the hill, which is actually an ancient volcanic plug, and I brace myself for the climb.
It’s all mostly uphill here — from shuttling between the Old and the New Towns to getting tickets for the best shows. So as it happens, we find ourselves both on the fringe of the Fringe and in the thick of it, with a diversity of impressions — from residents, celebrity invitees and visitors like ourselves — to fall back on.
Irked as they are with the tram lines under construction everywhere in the New Town and the eyesore of a Parliament Building coming up in the Old one, residents can’t wait to get their lives back. They’re all quite depressed, actually, says a well-known Scottish writer. For her, this year’s best show has been The Trench, a powerfully moving experience of theatrical storytelling set in the trenches of the Great War.
On everyone’s mind is the imminent possible break-up of Britain after the Scottish Independence Vote, which will be taken in September 2014. To express their sentiments, artists from both sides of the border join with voices from the audience every night to create The Bloody Great Border Ballad, a work in progress on the subject.
To my chagrin, I discover that Nirbhaya, a theatre performance on the Delhi gang-rape, is sending shock waves through packed audiences at the Assembly mound. The play’s South African director has also arranged for five Indian women, who have suffered various forms of abuse, to tell their stories on stage. There is a lot of debate in the mainstream newspapers and outside the theatre about the way women are treated in India. I am lucky to be let off with a nervous question about whether the South is safer for women than the North.
We may have missed the shows but the side-shows are all still there. To get to where the action is, we climb up once more to the Castle, where we brave the endless queues to buy tickets to join the crowds inside, waiting patiently for the One O’clock Gun to be fired. It does and we break into cheers. I’m starting to feel a bit overwhelmed already as we get out of the Castle and on to the High Street, more famously known as The Royal Mile, presumably because it starts at the Castle and ends at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, one of the Queen’s official residences in Scotland.
Street performers are everywhere and we settle down to sandwiches and tea on a bench in the square behind St. Giles Cathedral, where a Jazz concert has just ended and a magician is setting up his act. One of the many green statues along The Royal Mile, as the High Street is more famously known, broods over us; not all the vibrancy of the present can obscure the dark history of hangings and witches burnt at the stake here.
At night, the skyline is a breath-taking mix of greys and pinks as Scotland’s regiments march across the castle drawbridge with their massed pipes and drums. This is the Festival’s showpiece, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and it’s the Year of Natural Scotland, so the theme has been worked into the Army’s offerings this year.
A day-tour to the Highlands to see the lochs and the Munros (the tallest mountains, over 4,000 feet high), and we are back in Edinburgh at St. Mary’s Cathedral to see the magnificent 14th century Bannockburn Heraldic Banners before we leave Edinburgh with the thought that it would be nice to return to bag one last Munro, metaphorically of course, next August.