The historic City of Edinburgh seems to live and breathe. Music emits from every corner, as colorful fliers are plastered on each and any public surface imaginable; lampposts, fences, walls and phone booths are covered with rainbow-hued posters, from Edinburgh Castle at the top of the Royal Mile, all the way down to the Scottish Parliament, George Street and St. Andrew Square. Smiling, singing and screeching performers and their entourages parade on the streets, pitching shows to passing commuters and handing pamphlets to whoever will take them. Wherever you turn, you’ll find one of the 300-something venues in which you can enjoy a play, standup routine or a dance show that caters to your taste. On a low budget, you can just loiter and watch artists who make the street their stage.

Street artists made the city's street their personal stage. Courtesy of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society

Street artists made the city’s street their personal stage. Courtesy of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society

That was the scene throughout the month of August, when Edinburgh hosts its world renowned Fringe Festival – just one of six other festivals that are attended by local and international audiences throughout the summer, from a total of 12 annual events. In April, the City hosts the Edinburgh International Science Festival, which is followed by the Imaginate Festival between May and early June. In July, the City witnesses the International Film Festival and the Jazz and Blues Festival as well as the Edinburgh Art Festival, which lasts until the end of August. The beginning of August marks the start of the festival season proper, which includes the Fringe Festival along with the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the Edinburgh International Festival, the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the Edinburgh Mela. The Scottish International Storytelling Festival is held in October while Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, a traditional New Year’s festival, marks both the end of the year and festival season.

Together, the economic impact of the twelve festivals came to £208 million in 2015, increasing 19% from 2010. The festivals’ impact on Scotland as a whole reached £313 million in 2015 – a 24% increase from 2010. They also added around 6,000 jobs to the employment market, with the bulk of the impact benefiting the hospitality and food and beverage sectors.

With its crowd-sourced, bottom-up organization, The Fringe stands apart from most art festivals around the world. With no curators or censorship, anyone who wants to put on a show simply needs to find a space to do so. This open-source, co-creative atmosphere is no doubt one of many reasons the festival has grown to international notoriety. This year, it hosted 50,266 performances of 3,269 shows played in 294 different venues, leading to box office sales of £2.5 million, a 7.7% surge compared to the previous year.

But Edinburgh was considered an artistic and intellectual hub long before The Fringe, benefiting from close ties to both England and the rest of the UK, as well as continental Europe. Today, creative industries are an indispensable part of the city’s economy, as it stands as a stalwart for culture and creativity – and the transformative effects of both.

Cultural DNA: The Old & The New 

Fringe poster hung on the street overlooking the Edinburgh Castle.

Fringe poster hung on the street overlooking the Edinburgh Castle.

Recognized as the capital of Scotland since the 15th Century, Edinburgh couples the intimacy of the old medieval spirit with European-style urban planning. “Some of the finest public and commercial monuments of the New-classical revival in Europe survive in the city, reflecting its continuing status as the capital of Scotland since 1437, and a major center of thought and learning in the 18th century Age of Enlightenment,” the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) says of the City. Edinburgh’s Old Town contains 16th and 17th century historic buildings such as the restored mansion of Gladstone’s Land, St. Giles Cathedral and the Canongate Tolbooth, all of which provide a unique and memorable backdrop to the progressive, modern performance arts that characterize The Fringe.

In the Rise of Edinburgh, Senior Lecturer in Economic and Social History at the University of Edinburgh Stana Nenadic notes the City was home to the world’s largest planned city development between the 1760s and 1830s, when economic stagnation and political unrest led to the building of New Town. Building New Town called for cooperation from local industry leaders, such as the Carron Iron Company, now known as the Carron Phoenix, carriage-makers as well as furniture-makers, foreshadowing the collaborative nature of the city that exists today. Industrial manufacturers in the fields of cotton, coal, steel, engineering, and ship-building flourished, and the growing financial industry eventually led to Edinburgh becoming the second largest financial city in the UK after London. It is that complementary juxtaposition of the historic and modern, the artistic and the intellectual, that has allowed the city to pioneer its cultural contribution to the world, with the establishment of institutions such as the National Gallery of Art in 1859 and the National Portrait Gallery in 1889.

It was in 1947, however, that the City of Edinburgh introduced the festival that would later shake up its economy. Chief Executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society Shona McCarthy points out that The Fringe was meant to give voice to the neglected, hence its name. She explains that the Edinburgh International Festival, which was established as a means of reunifying a divided Europe through culture in the aftermath of World War II, was originally a celebration of high-brow art, including opera, ballet and orchestra. When six Scottish companies and two British companies were deemed “not good enough” to participate in the festival, they decided to go ahead and perform anyway. “A journalist referred to it as ‘the festival on the fringe of the festival,’” she says, highlighting that, until this day, The Fringe remains an open-access festival for those who want to be seen or heard.

This year marked Edinburgh’s 69th edition of the Fringe, bringing artists and performers from all over the world to the Scottish city with a wave of international attendees. While 50% of the performances come from the UK, international artists represent the remaining half.

Festival Season: Cultural Discovery, Economic Benefits & More

Performance brochures decorate every street.

Performance brochures decorate every street.

The rise of festival culture in the 1970s and 1980s, when The Fringe became a staple of the festival scene, was closely accompanied by de-industrialization and the growth of the service economy, as noted by Peter Payne notes in his book The End of Steelmaking in Scotland. It was in 2007 that the City decided to make the most of the talent and expertise behind its festivals and group many of them together after the 2006 Thundering Hooves Report recommended that festival stakeholders, be it the government, the Council, tourism sector, Chamber of Commerce or the private sector should work closely together. The Report also advised that the different festivals capitalize on sharing resources and audiences to avoid the replication of efforts. It was then that Festivals Edinburgh was established as a private company with a board of directors that includes the twelve directors of all the festivals held in the City.

According to Head of Marketing and Innovation of Festival Edinburgh James McVeigh, Festivals Edinburgh aims “…to sustain and develop the cultural and financial health of the festivals…through collaborative projects and joint representations.” McVeigh adds that an ecosystem of collaboration has been developed that includes the residents, who believe that “each festival has got an organic root to the DNA of the city.” He explains that the residents of the City are represented through elected officials, who represent the link between the resident population and the festivals. “We also have three independent members who are not representing any one body, but rather a wider populous,” he adds.

McVeigh explains that around 65% of the festivals’ attendees are local residents, and, according to surveys conducted by the City, 89% feel pride in their city because of the festivals, which come in as number one in terms of cultural activity. The festivals also run programs to engage children, which helps 69% of students become creative, as noted by their teachers.

“At this point, The Fringe is a brand on its own,” Paul Bell, who works for the independent theater company Spotlites says. Each year, The Fringe will curate a special selection of shows themselves, while all other performances see no interference from the Edinburgh Fringe Society. Independent companies, such as Spotlites, work closely with venues and manage everything from production to marketing. Venues include traditional stages such as theaters and hotel conference rooms, as well as nontraditional spaces such as churches, buses and cars. The number of shows held at a single venue varies, and while some can have up to 70 acts throughout the month, others can have one each week.

While The Fringe began with humble, if not anti-establishment, beginnings, some worry that its size, scale and international prevalence have taken away from its indie appeal. However, McCarthy says that some have been “making that argument since 1957.”  “It is more a question of once you set up something on the principle of open access, you actually have to lose control over the size, because you have to respond to the number of people who want to be here and who want to perform,” the Chief Executive of the Fringe continues, arguing that it is not something that can be controlled.


Surely, a festival season of that size isn’t without its drawbacks. During the festival season, the city’s population can reach 4.5 million people, a figure that affects street population density, demand for transportation, and prices. According to a local taxi driver, off festival season, a hotel room can cost as little as GBP £29 per night, 11a figure that jumps to GBP £200 during August, when the average occupancy rate reaches 93%. “Markup forces get greedier and greedier and prices can hike up during the festival time,” McCarthy admits. The executive, who was involved in large city projects prior to joining The Fringe this year, says that common complaints include traffic jams and noise, but mentions that long term studies, such as the Impact Report, provide a clearer picture of the festival’s effect.

On whether or not Edinburgh residents have grown weary of The Fringe due to the crowds and inflation it brings to the City, Bell explains that: “[The Fringe] contributes 14% to 15% of the economy, so we would be naïve to dismiss it as too commercialized. It is a big part of the business of Scotland and [I don’t think] there are other nations that culture and arts give such a percentage of the GDP every year.”

One local business owner, a heritage whiskey shop that organizes whiskey and cigar tastings for potential customers in Edinburgh, seconds Bell’s opinion, explaining that Christmas is the biggest season for sales followed by festival season. “We love it,” he explains simply, and, as we walk the streets of Edinburgh, we hear similar praise from local businesses, some of which make up to 30% of their annual revenue in August alone.

Artistic Gaps: Where Do Festivals Fall Short?

One of the Aquatic Murals in Leith

One of the Aquatic Murals in Leith by Kirsty Whiten

As a hub for creative industries, Edinburgh has more to offer than just its festivals. Leith, a district to the north of Edinburgh, is one of the most popular areas for creative businesses and has successfully merged the creative and tech-based industries together with co-working space The Creative Exchange. Locals believe that Leith is still largely independent due to the fact that the medieval settlements of Leith grew into a burgh that was merged with Edinburgh in 1920. “Leith has a different vibe,” says Morvern Cunningham, Director of LeithLate Festival, highlighting that locals in Edinburgh and Leith still remember them as different places.

One of the district’s most notable features are its murals, which date back to 1984. The murals include Leith History Mural, created in 1985/1986 by artist Tim Chalk and Swanfield Mill Mural, created in 1986 by David Wilkinson. The Mural Project, an ongoing public art project that began with The Leith Aquatic mural in 2013.

“There is a certain civic pride…and there is a rich history,” Cunningham adds, stressing that creative professionals and artists prefer Leith because, even though it is close to the city, it is still cheaper. Cunningham, who is also a creative practitioner operating in Leith, argues that, although the festivals open up spaces that are not necessarily accessible to the public, that mentality does not exist year-round. In 2014, LeithLate collaborated with the Leith Walkers to create the photography project Leith Walkers Outdoor Exhibition as part of the LeithLate14 festival.

“There are gaps that the festivals are not filling in terms of the community and the locality [of the art],” Cunningham says, noting that local practitioners are not always represented in the much-publicized festivals.

Rob Hoon, who manages Out of the Blue Art and Education Trust (OOTB), explains that a lot of the challenges facing the City of Edinburgh in terms of access to art have to do with the price of property and land; that those who reside in social housing have no connection to the festival and some artists struggle to find spaces all year long. “The majority of the cultural grants go to the festivals. And there is talk about reorganizing the [City] Council’s grants and one of the suggestions is to give all the money earmarked for arts to the Fringe,” Hoon says, with visible frustration.

Despite the challenges, the creative industry in the City is fighting for its rightful share of the pot – that fight being OOTB’s raison d’être. One of the projects OOTB was recently involved in was experimental theater festival Forest Fringe, a 10-year-old festival that started out with no money at all. The Forest Fringe started in 2007 in a large dusty room in Edinburgh’s Forest Café, and with local contributing artists, has evolved into a successful touring festival in the UK and beyond.

Janine Matheson, Director of Creative Edinburgh, an organization that bring its creative and cultural professionals together with available support, events, business networks, and investment opportunities, has been encouraged by the city’s council and the Department of Economic Development in her efforts to help creative industries flourish “despite the squeezing of budgets and the economic situation.” Creative Edinburgh was inactive for several years due to lack of funding, but was revived once again in the summer of 2010 after the council realized how indie hubs like Leith can thrive, both culturally and socially. Today, the company holds monthly get-togethers for creative industry professionals who work in art, tech and food.

Despite the unequal economic impact of the festivals, and the feeling that some art forms are getting preferential treatment over others, Edinburgh is still the world’s number one festival city, attracting 4.5 million people annually – the same number of people that attend the FIFA World Cup. Focusing on festivals, the city-commissioned report Thundering Hooves 2.0 suggests the City Council “consider increasing its current cultural spend from 2.8% to 4% in the first instance and work in tandem with other public stakeholders to develop an investment plan for the festivals over the next five to seven years.” Though this traditional, top-down approach to cultural policy and creative economies still persists, the work of organizations such as Creative Edinburgh, OOTB and The Creative Exchange are making sure those on the fringe of The Fringe get their fair share of support and that the indie scene continues to flourish. After all, open access and open minds are what got Edinburgh to where it is in the first place.

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