Edinburgh Fringe festival
Sipping an Aperol as the Scottish rain lashed down was not an atypical experience. Photo ©

Moyan Brenn.

August 2019

At the end of another successful summer of culture in Edinburgh, Alistair MacDonald, Senior Policy Advisor and resident of the city, gives his personal reflections on a huge soft power success story for Scotland and the UK.

With Monday night’s fireworks spectacular at the Castle, another Edinburgh August of Festival celebrations drew to a close. The British Council was one of the founders of the Edinburgh International Festival back in 1947, and has ever since been an active partner to the Edinburgh Festivals, as August’s annual cultural fest snowballed into the world’s biggest arts festival. 

The British Council was one of the founders of the Edinburgh International Festival back in 1947, and has ever since been an active partner

This year was also an Edinburgh Showcase year, the Council’s biennial performance programme that provides the single biggest opportunity for UK theatre companies to introduce the very best of contemporary theatre and dance, reflecting the breadth and diversity of British performing arts, to international promoters. Since the British Council’s first Showcase in 1997, the event has given 400 theatre and dance companies the opportunity to tour overseas, building new relationships and opening up new markets for the UK’s performing arts

But this article isn’t about the Suzanne Andrade’s fantastic Roots  or BAC Beatbox Academy’s electric Frankenstein: How To Make A Monster . You can read the reviews for that (they were both great shows). Rather, this is a piece about the overall experience of Edinburgh in August.

For most of the year Edinburgh is a terribly nice place. Historic, cosmopolitan, beautiful, and fully deserving both its UNESCO World Heritage Site status and it’s ‘Athens of the North’ sobriquet. It is never really quiet as such - there’s always a buzz. Thousands of students will be descending on the city’s six universities next month and, drawn by the spell of J K Rowling, the queue outside the Elephant House coffee house will never actually end. The Festivals themselves have outgrown their traditional August window, with the Jazz and Film Festivals now happening in July, and a newish Christmas Festival filling December with mulled wine and gingerbread, before the traditional Hogmanay Party that is so good the Scots get an extra Bank Holiday on 2nd January just to recover. 

Sitting at one of the pop-up bars in Bristo Square sipping an Aperol spritz as the Scottish rain lashed down while a DJ in a booth played Calypso music is not an atypical experience

Yet once August comes around, the city certainly roars into noisy life. Hordes descend, filling the coffers of shop owners, hoteliers, and anyone with a spare room, while driving the locals into a lather as suddenly no one seems to understand how a pelican crossing works. This year saw the usual mix of sun and rain, cold and hot. Sitting at one of the pop-up bars in Bristo Square sipping an Aperol spritz as the Scottish rain lashed down while a DJ in a booth played Calypso music is not an atypical experience. The city is maddeningly busy, it is alive in a way that sends tingles down the spine and drives all caught in its bacchanalia to laugh and cry and sing along. 

Comedy, tragedy, beauty, trash: it’s all here in August. There was even Basil Brush: Unleashed – and surely the most po-faced snob would have found Basil’s finale dressed as Elton John circa 1975 utterly irresistible. As well as Basil there was Backbone, a breath-taking Australian circus show where spectacle, physicality, and moments of poignancy moved and astonished the audience to a long standing ovation. Late night and early morning comedy could be found by winding up and down the stairs in the Underbelly in the Cowgate. Harry Baker managed to make maths and slam poetry an unexpected delight, and he even talked wistfully about his year abroad in Germany (thanks presumably to Erasmus+). For an intellectual fix there were the delights of the International Book Festival. No Pussy Cat Riot this year though, so Julia Donaldson it is. Your reviewer drew the line at the Silent Disco despite urging from colleagues. Public humiliation ends at ‘A Massaoke Night at the Musicals’. 

The world’s largest arts festival: that means something. It shows Edinburgh, Scotland, and the UK at their most international, cultured and exciting

The world’s largest arts festival: that means something. It shows Edinburgh, Scotland, and the UK at their most international, cultured and exciting. And not just that everyone from the BalletBoy to John McDonnell, to that clever chap from Pointless, come to town. For those ever growing numbers that visit Edinburgh in August it is an awe-inspiring, uplifting, and exhausting experience. It is a one of a kind, despite Adelaide’s pretentions to the crown. It is the funniest place on the planet, whatever you make of Olaf Falafel’s award winning pun: “I keep randomly shouting out ‘broccoli’ and ‘cauliflower’ – I think I might have florets!”. [More personally affective was Adele Cliff’s, “I accidentally booked myself onto an escapology course; I’m really struggling to get out of it”, which brought home numerous editorial deadlines.] Such is the joy of Edinburgh in August that for a few short weeks even Brexit was funny.

Now that the carnival is past and the days are drawing shorter, the mood is reflective, sated, yet somehow bereft. And not a little relieved. You can have too much of a good thing. In these days where everything is a crisis and no one seems to know quite what will happen even a few weeks down the line, losing oneself in culture for a month has been a chance to escape the nonsense and get some (new) perspective(s). Sharing stories, giggles and marvels, learning, growing and understanding, being in Edinburgh in August is a privilege. And if you missed out this year, well, August 2020 really isn’t far away. 

Alistair MacDonald, Senior Policy Advisor, British Council

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