From the ashes of World War II , the Edinburgh International Festival arose. It was an attempt to unite nations through the arts. It brought the world together, and many more festivals sprung up around it.
But last year, the pandemic killed festivals and with that live music, comedy, book readings and drama. Even the massed bands of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo were silenced. The haunting sound of the bagpipes no longer spilled down from the castle overlooking the city.
But Freedom Day has arrived in Edinburgh, and most of the festivals are running again throughout this month. They have been a pilgrimage for my husband and I for the past 15 years, so the loss of our joyous annual month-long binge on culture, high and very low, from concerts to gallery visits, comedy, drama and street performances, and dinners with old friends, was a huge blow.
Attending my first show at the Edinburgh Festival 2021 was more exhilarating for me than a papal canonisation or a presidential inauguration. I queued for a Free Fringe show in the deep, dark and dingy bowels of Cowgate, an area full of small underground caverns, once the home to livestock and little changed since 1700, apart from the now sanatised aroma. The Free Fringe allows anybody to attend on a first come, first served basis. A donation, if affordable, is all that is asked.
The performance was by Leo Kearse, a comedian and free speech champion who railed against cancel culture and wokeism. He had been called a Nazi, but he was very funny despite his scatological jokes.
The Free Fringe was started in 1996 by comedian Peter Buckley. He had lost thousands in his Fringe performances, and he and other financial casualties came up with the idea of Free Fringe. Its predecessor, the Fringe, had a less focused start.
As the International Festival of Classical Music, started by Rudolf Bing in 1947, got under way, opera, theatre and high culture became its metier. It also became apparent to the locals that there were some other riveting performances of lighter and less expensive material being performed in the outskirts of the city.
This was the beginning of the Fringe, with more diverse, less serious performances and much cheaper tickets. The Fringe moved into the centre of Edinburgh to grow on the coat-tails of the International.
Meanwhile, the Edinburgh Tattoo of massed bands began in 1950 and has riveted the world ever since.
I recall as a child watching it on a Saturday night on RTÉ, and it is still televised. Truly a spectacle, it is the one festival absent this year. Gone with it are the fireworks display that fills the night sky over the city at 11pm.
After Cowgate, I next made my way to St Giles’ Cathedral, now Presbyterian church, for an organ concert. The cathedral hosts a fabulous sculpture of John Knox, the founder of that faith. The performance was masked and socially distanced. The music was utterly uplifting and inspirational. As ever, the Fringe is continuing its tradition of high and low culture, from poo jokes to music honouring God, a few buildings apart.
Many of the shows are held outdoors, so our first experience of this was a little scary – how would comedy work from an outdoor stage?
The railing entrance was supervised by a young man in a mask who simply took my mobile number and told me I could take off my mask once seated. Aye Elvis, a spoof tribute to Presley, was performed by a woman singing in Doric with coiffed hair, dressed in white sparkly Elvis gear, in a car park under the castle. Seats were booked by “bubble” numbers, depending on how many were in your group.
I needn’t have worried about the atmosphere. The show was hilarious and everybody was uplifted. As in other years, people chatted with each other about the shows and it was like old times again.
Except that it is not old times. The festival this year is a shadow of its former self.
Gone are the 20-foot boards listing shows at the various venues and the display of the reviews clipped to railings. The Fringe Shows, almost 4,000 in 2019, are reduced to about 600 in-person and 200-plus remotely. But who’s bothering with remote shows?
The Edinburgh Festival is about being with the teeming masses, although they are noticeably absent from the Royal Mile, the hub of the festival. Ordinarily, more than a million souls would crowd into the city for the month; it will likely be a few hundred thousand this year.
The International is also trimmed, but the big names are there, including Sir Simon Rattle and our own Liam Gleeson. But what is noticeable, despite the reduced size, is that the spirit which drove the early festivals after a devastating period in European history is still present.
It proves the human spirit can rise above adversity and make great things happen again. This year marks another beginning.
Patricia Casey is Consultant Psychiatrist in the Hermitage Medical Clinic. She will be presenting a show at the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas at the Edinburgh Fringe on August 26