Edinburgh Festival: Shining a new light on a city of ghosts and hosts

Breabach – one of the stars of  EIF’s digital programme My Light Shines OnBreabach – one of the stars of  EIF’s digital programme My Light Shines On
Breabach – one of the stars of EIF’s digital programme My Light Shines On
The title of the Edinburgh International Festival’s new light installation created some confusion ahead of its launch this weekend. It was to be called The Ghost Lights but has been renamed My Light Shines On, a line from a Primal Scream lyric.

I can see why they changed it – My Light Shines On suggests resilience and hope rather than, well, absence and death – but I liked the old name more. I’m glad it’s been partly preserved in Ghost Light, a new National Theatre of Scotland film also premiering this weekend as part of the EIF’s digital programme, which is also called My Light Shines On. I feel a bit sorry for the EIF press office, constantly having to explain what all these different things with the word “light” in the title are, and which is which.

I like The Ghost Lights/Ghost Light for lots of reasons. Long before coronavirus brought an eerie silence to the streets, Edinburgh was a city of ghost stories. If you haven’t heard of the Wizard of West Bow, the Castle bagpiper, or the Mackenzie Poltergeist, you’ll surely have come across at least one ghost story about executed witches, plague victims left to die, or grim goings on in the city’s famous subterranean spaces. These tales are part of the storytelling culture of the city – one of the festival’s biggest venues, the Playhouse, is said to have its own ghost called Albert – and for lots of people a ghost tour is an essential part of the tourist experience.

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The idea of ghostly festival events also has a personal resonance for me. In my other life as an events programmer, I was the co-creator of (g)Host City, a “virtual festival” that launched at the Edinburgh Fringe back in 2011 and is still online. Our title played with the idea of Edinburgh as a “host city”, bringing artists from all over the world to Scotland. We thought it would be interesting to use the internet to create an Edinburgh festival where neither the performers nor the audiences were present in the “real” world at all, even if they passed each other unknowingly in the street.

It didn’t occur to us for a moment that, nine years on, all of the Edinburgh festivals would look like ours, not as a creative experiment but out of necessity. Looking back, it all seems weirdly prescient, right down to the writers who took part and the stories they were telling. One of my favourite (g)Host City pieces was The Dancing by Kirstin Innes, a beautiful short story designed to be listened to while walking through Fountainbridge, following in the footsteps of its two characters. The Dancing is a tragedy told by a dead woman walking; Kirstin is now getting rave reviews for her just-published second novel Scabby Queen, also the life story of a misunderstood dead woman. Another (g)Host City highlight was St Anthony’s by Kieran Hurley, now the only Scottish theatre writer featured in this August’s EIF online programme thanks to Declan, a “digital reimagining” of his play Mouthpiece.

A lot of (g)Host City pieces, including St Anthony’s, were about death or absence. Alan Bissett wrote a story set in St Cuthbert’s graveyard. Jenny Lindsay contributed a poem about suicide. Kirsty Logan’s piece was an actual ghost story, set in the Roxburghe Crown Plaza Hotel. It was an obvious way to respond to the brief, but these stories now have a whole new resonance, in our empty city where every festival is a virtual festival and every story feels like a ghost story.

Host City is online at ghostcityfestival.wordpress.com

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