Edinburgh Festival should start in July, says city leader

Street performer Able Mable draws the crowds on the Royal Mile Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Street performer Able Mable draws the crowds on the Royal Mile Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
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Edinburgh’s new culture chief has called for a major shake-up of the city’s main festivals to ensure they coincide fully with Scottish school holidays.

Donald Wilson, the capital’s former Lord Provost, has suggested the Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe be held earlier in the summer to ensure more families can take part.

In an exclusive interview, he said the overhaul would give the people of Edinburgh more of a “sense of ownership” of the festivals.

The former teacher said the switch should be seriously debated and explored as part of moves to “deepen and widen participation” in the festivals across the city.

He has called for a greater geographical spread of events to help ease the pressure on the city centre, spread the benefits of the festivals and involve parts of 
Edinburgh which are not involved with any of its major events.

There is understood to have been intense debate among Fringe promoters about moving its dates amid reports of a steep decline in ticket sales in the final week.

However, there is believed to be resistance in some quarters to avoid any more “upheaval” over the dates of the Fringe, which has traditionally ended on the English bank holiday weekend since the last shift was introduced in the late 1990s.

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There is also said to be reluctance to move it in case it hampers efforts to give schoolchildren access to festival events.

However, it is thought that the number of Fringe tickets sold to families far outweighs those who go on school visits.

The issue has been raised by Mr Wilson two years after former Fringe promoter Tommy Sheppard urged the event to change its dates shortly after he was elected as an Edinburgh MP.

Mr Wilson, the city council’s culture convener, said: “It is definitely worth having a serious look at. As a former teacher I can understand the arguments for it. If we’re talking about increasing participation in the festivals, to have the holidays coincide with them would actually increase that sense of ownership of them.

“It’s not just families who would find it easier. I think teachers and school staff would as well. I’ve had a lot of letters about this over the last few years saying it would be better for the Festival to be aligned with the school 
holidays.

“We have to look at widening things out geographically but it is also about deepening their appeal. We have events and festivals that are primarily of interest to visitors to the city but we have to make sure we’re paying enough attention to the citizens of Edinburgh.

“We need to make sure we have the breadth of appeal that takes into account participation as well as performance. We need to make sure festivals and events are something 
people feel proud of.”

The Edinburgh International Festival decided two years ago to align its dates with the Fringe for the first time in almost two decades. At the time, its director Fergus Linehan said he wanted to capitalise on the “electricity” in the city in August.

Key changes in the last decade have seen the film and jazz festivals move from August to earlier in the year. Other events in August include the book and
television festivals. The visual art festival starts the week before the Fringe.

Mr Wilson said: “I can understand why the Edinburgh International Festival realigned with the Fringe. It made sense as there was a confusing overlap at the end.

“The argument for containing all the festivals within August is a historic one. Is it as important as it used to be? There are a lot of people trying to take advantage of the fact the city is so busy.

“A lot of work has been done on spreading events throughout the year but there is a way to go. There are times of the year which could take a lot more activity. It’s certainly something we should talk about.”

One Fringe promoter, who asked not to be named, said: “There is no good reason why the dates could not be changed for next year.

“There has been a real change in ticket-buying trends over the last week or so.

“The Fringe used to start really quietly and gradually build up so that the last week is the busiest, but now it starts really busy because the Scottish school holidays are on and really tails off in the last week.”

However, Fringe chief executive Shona McCarthy said: “There is no compelling case to change the dates at the moment. The argument makes an assumption that young people either go to shows with their parents or with their school. The fact is they do both.

“However, it is open to any venue to start a show a week earlier or a week later if they wanted to.”

Mr Wilson’s call for a shake-up has come just weeks after Edinburgh World Heritage warned that the city’s historic heart was in danger of being overrun by tourists.

Mr Wilson said: “There are issues and challenges over how we manage large crowds. We have to look at how to speed up movement through the city. There are probably things we could do to make things flow more smoothly.”