Edinburgh’s Christmas market: Residents vote with their feet – John McLellan

Edinburgh’s Christmas market may not be everyone’s cup of gluhwein, but lots of locals want to go, despite the concerns of the Cockburn Association and World Heritage Trust, writes John McLellan.

Thursday, 21st November 2019, 6:00 am
Edinburgh's Christmas market in Princes Street Gardens

As 20 protestors gathered to oppose the takeover of East Princes Street Gardens by Edinburgh’s Christmas, thousands of local people voted with their feet by marching straight on in.

For all the concerns about what Edinburgh has become – how green spaces are being destroyed, how everything is geared towards ­tourists – those locals poured through the gates of Edinburgh’s Christmas when it eventually opened on Saturday.

It is, as I have written most years, not everyone’s cup of gluhwein, but generalisations about “what Edinburgh/Scotland wants” tend to transpose personal opinion on to all of us without evidence to support the assertion.

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No doubt plenty of people don’t like Edinburgh’s Christmas and would prefer East Princes Street Gardens to remain a quiet park, albeit between an inter-city railway line and a bus super-highway, but they don’t speak for every Edinburgh citizen.

According to official figures, last year 186,000 Edinburgh residents bought tickets for the attractions and event company Underbelly also gave away 28,000 free tickets to local charities and community organisations. On top of that were those who went to the market but didn’t use the paid-for attractions.

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This year’s controversy about the scale of Edinburgh’s Christmas and lack of planning permission was splendid publicity and as thousands more come in to see what all the fuss was about, this weekend will be the first big test of the labyrinth of steps, ramps and platforms on which the stalls display their wares.

What they’ll find is enough German booze to sink the Tirpitz, new ways to clog your arteries with vast quantities of processed meat and carbohydrate and the usual array of Christmas ­nick-nackery piled up on the terraced walkways. All to the inescapable tune of Santa Baby and all your other seasonal favourites blaring out at every corner. More than 2.5 million people came last year, so the Johnnie Walker bothy outside the National Gallery might be more crushed than cosy when the big crowds start arriving.

What do we want?

Perhaps the council administration hopes the whole furore about this year’s event will subside now it’s open, maybe planning permission will be granted whenever it makes it to a committee, and maybe the event’s future will be secured for a further two years, but it’s taken this row for the city to ask exactly what it wants from its Christmas and Hogmanay events, even if it wants them at all.

In keeping with recent fears about over-tourism, Old Town traders complained that the 12,000 people who came to see Santa’s sleigh glide from one end of the High Street to another on Sunday meant that no one could get into their shops.

Presumably a fair number went down to the market, which will be why Underbelly invested £168,000 in the spectacle involving two ­towers built from shipping containers, but as no one asked them to do this the question is whether it should be repeated.

Construction and scale has been raised by Underbelly with the city council for years and everything points to the company operating with full approval, official or otherwise. It has been exposed because the administration has failed to address major issues and there has never been a proper understanding of what was wanted or could be tolerated. In effect, the council has been making it up as it goes along while trying to outsource responsibility.

Underbelly could retreat after the contract expires so the city needs to decide whether it wants to stay on the global winter tourism map or rein in its ambitions. The Cockburn Association and the World Heritage Trust will say one thing and 180,000 locals something else, so who is right? The council gave every sign of hoping no one would ask.

John McLellan is a Conservative councillor for Craigentinny/Duddingston ward.