WE all know the deal for Edinburgh during August: it’s impossible to get anywhere quickly, everything is twice as expensive, and you can’t be outside for more than a minute without a chorus of Oxbridge accents going on about how wonderful everything is. Indeed, according to Scottish Twitter, you’d think the festival was the worst thing ever to happen to Edinburgh.
But don’t believe the hype or the viral tweets. I’m Edinburgh born and bred – and I love it. How can you not?
Walking around the buzzing streets of the Old Town, I still get a kick out of watching tourists hold up the traffic as they rub Greyfriars Bobby’s nose or take shedloads of selfies in front of the cafe where JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter novel. I’m more than happy to politely point them in the direction of the castle or down the mound, watching their bemused faces as I explain what seems obvious to me but confusing to them, that Edinburgh is built on two levels.
Even when the weather is a bit miserable, I’ve found myself halfway down the Royal Mile, standing as part of a huge circle of people from all over the world, captivated by an Australian street performer. It may be pouring with rain and we’ve all got wet feet but together we’re laughing and clapping as a small, unsuspecting child is roped in to the finale.
It’s fun to walk where I spent my school days mucking about with my pals with the advantage of knowing where to duck and dive, find the stillness among the madness, or take the short cut that is technically a long cut, but takes less time because no-one else knows to go that way. As I eavesdrop on the conversations of tourists gushing in 100 languages over how beautiful the ancient spires are, I smile to myself with a sense of pride, almost as if I built the Old Town with my own hands.
Edinburgh is magical all the time but the transformation it undertakes to become the world’s biggest arts playground really is something else, and I get a kick out of seeing how the city comes together as old buildings change into unrecognisable pop-up theatres and bars.
The financials are pretty transformative too, of course. Attracting an audience of more that 4.5 million, the Edinburgh Festivals bring in £313 million to the Scottish economy each year, a substantial proportion of the tourist revenue for Scotland. It also accounts for more than 6,000 jobs in the ever-competitive creative industries.
That’s not to say everything is hunky dory, of course, and more voices than ever before are highlighting the other side of the city’s success. I have personal experience, too. During my time at the University of Edinburgh, it was the standard to be forced out of your student flat during August, replaced by festival visitors willing to pay two month’s rent and more for just one week.
Two years after graduating I am still living at home with my mother because Edinburgh rents remain so incredibly expensive, with long-term residents and renters priced out in favour of short-term holiday lets. There are reported to be a staggering 12,000 short-term lets in the city, more than half of Scotland’s total in a city of under 500,000. One in 10 homes in the city centre are thought to be holiday lets.
I understand a proposed tourist tax is controversial, but it already exists in many European cities and would provide a welcome financial boost to infrastructure. It would perhaps also encourage visitors to treat the city with a bit more care, perhaps refraining from urinating in public and leaving their rubbish on our streets and on public transport.
During these times of political and social uncertainty, the arts remain a vital way to entertain, bring people together and celebrate the world around us. As someone who grew up and went to school in the north of Edinburgh, next to some of the most deprived areas in Scotland, the Festival can leave some residents feeling a bit like visitors in their own home.
Year on year the Festival has grown, and it has been nice to see it spill out from the Royal Mile and southside areas towards the New Town and Leith. This allows the small, local and independent business outside the central area to profit from the city’s extra footfall.
For local communities, even with a venue now on your doorstep, ticket prices average at about £10-£12, which would set a family of four back at least £40, a disposable income that is only available to those in more affluent areas.
I would feel less annoyed if the performers and artists themselves were profiting from the ticket prices. The Festival, particularly the Fringe, is seen as a rite of passage for those who want to pursue a long-term career in the arts. Many arrive in Edinburgh, excited and energised, hopeful for a career-defining review, often self-funded or with some financial support in the form of a grant or bursary. They do not expect to make a profit. They often make a loss, with the venues and promoters raking it in.
Many, many people make this festival happen. Most are young and keen, and get little financial reward for their graft. It’s not unusual to sign a contract that means it is legal for them to only have one day off a week during the month of August, with others putting in 12-hour days at venues in return for a pass that allows them to see shows for free.
When you consider the legacy of what the Festival was meant to achieve when it was set up more than 70 years ago, it leaves a bittersweet taste in your mouth. That’s not to say there aren’t positive developments, of course, especially on the diversity front.
This year, an initiative called Fringe of Colour, established by Edinburgh University student Jess Brough, has partnered with venues to provide tickets to local people of colour under 30 to see shows that feature performers of colour, an attempt to fight back against the lack of racial diversity in both performers and audiences.
The Edinburgh International Book Festival, meanwhile, is offering a “pay what you can” option for some of its events and free alternatives can also be found in the Book Fringe and Free Fringe.
Despite my frustrations, I love the Festival for the culture, fun and good energy it brings to my city in August. I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. After all, where else would you experience such amazing things?
Just the other night I watched a trans, non-binary person of colour, Travis Alabanza, take up space on the stage of the Traverse Theatre, with the spectacular Burgerz. The night before, I sat in the front row at Edinburgh Universtiy’s Bedlam Theatre to watch Splintered, a cabaret about being queer and Caribbean.
I felt proud of both of these performances for challenging an audience that tends to be white, middle-class and incredibly privileged.
Last year, I saw a group of Australian men performing burlesque cabaret in a building that was originally built as a college for the Free Church of Scotland.
You can’t get that in Glasgow, can you? Not yet.
Keep your sanity and avoid the crowds this Festival
1 If you’re in among the madness, grab a coffee from Thomas J Walls on Forrest Road. From the street it may look busy but the café goes quite far back and there is a good chance you’ll be able to snag one of the sofas, close your eyes and pretend you’re anywhere but Edinburgh.
2 Wander down Leith Walk for a drink at one of the many pubs or bars without an Oxbridge accent in range. Smoke & Mirrors on Constitution Street is a favourite.
3 Get some fresh air by climbing Arthur’s seat or Calton Hill, the latter being a much easier walk and offering a better view. You’ll be able to see how busy and beautiful the city is without being right in it.
4 If it all really gets too much, leave the city and go west. Trains to Glasgow run frequently and take less than an hour from Waverly station. But no, I’m not telling you where you can get a pint for £2.50 – that’s a secret for Edinburgh locals only!