Revival for Edinburgh’s festivals feels tentative and cautious, but also thrilling – Brian Ferguson
After more than three weeks, the sunlit streets of the Old Town were as thronged and buzzing with activity as they had been all month.
Yet as the festivals drew to a close there was an unmistakable sense that changes were on the cards for the enduring relationship between the festivals and the city.
South of Princes Street, where the Fringe in particular had become increasingly concentrated over the previous decade, there were pockets of the Old Town which were best avoided during peaks periods, due to the volume of festivalgoers and visitors.
Efforts to close off roads and reduce crowd congestion were badly received. Train services in and out of the city struggled to accommodate the numbers trying to travel, while bus services across the city centre seemed to take longer than ever for many commuters. The arrival of new hotels seemed to do nothing to bring down the cost of accommodation in August.
By last August, all this was a distant memory, when the city emerged from its first lockdown and experienced life without any festivals. Those historic streets, closes and courtyards which had been full of life and colour 12 months ago were eerily quiet in comparison.
Businesses which had perhaps bemoaned the impact of the festivals had to deal with the reality of their absence.
For much of this year, it looked as if something of a repeat was on the cards.
Scotland’s cautious easing of the second lockdown restrictions – particularly for live events – left many of those involved on the brink of despair.
Somehow, though, the city’s festivals are on the verge of a remarkable comeback, after the injection of additional funding from the Scottish Government and the city council, and frantic programming efforts across the board.
Of course, things are not going to be anything like they were in 2019. The main operators have been unable to programme anything like their normal number of shows, many venues will be missing completely and some of the biggest elements – such as the Tattoo and the concerts in Princes Street Gardens – will also be absent.
But given the total shutdown of Scottish cultural life since last March and the loss of so many other festivals this year, the focus surely has to be on the positive.
At my latest count, there are more than 1000 shows, events and exhibitions to choose from, across 150 different venues.
Crucially, many of the city’s most-treasured year-round venues will be welcoming audiences back, yet the geographical spread of events seems much wider than any other year I can recall.
There are opportunities to experience shows at a beach, a forest, a football stadium and a racecourse. Historic squares will host concerts and film screenings. The book festival has a new home at Edinburgh College of Art. A new culture quarter at Edinburgh Park will host the International Festival.
For most performers, it will be their first encounter with live audiences since last spring, in a city virtually starved of live entertainment.
It is a tentative and cautious time, but it is also pretty thrilling. Be part of it if you can.