Tattoo chief accuses heritage body of wanting to turn Edinburgh into 'empty medieval theme park'

The new boss of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo has accused the city's long-running heritage body of wanting to turn the city centre into an "empty medieval theme park" over its campaigns against overtourism and festivalisation.

A virtually-deserted Royal Mile last summer.
A virtually-deserted Royal Mile last summer.

Major General Buster Howes who is due to take charge of the Tattoo this year, suggested the Cockburn Association was pursuing an agenda that “the best city is an empty city".

And he suggested the Tattoo, which has been selling tickets for this year’s event since October, and the other festivals would be the “underpinning fabric” of Edinburgh’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

The former Royal Marine commander was speaking in the wake of a blog post by Cockburn Association chair Cliff Hague in which he suggested the festival and tourism sectors, the city council and the Scottish Government were in an "echo chamber insulated from real engagement with civil society”.

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    He suggested they were obsessed with growth and were plagued by “the mindset that drove RBS to disaster in 2008”.

    Last month Festivals Edinburgh, the umbrella body for the city’s flagship events, including the Tattoo, called for a “joint city and national effort” to ensure they returned this year and raised fears they could lose their “world-leading” status.

    Mr Hague wrote in his blog: "We need our festivals, but they should contribute to today’s needs – the carbon neutral targets, reducing exclusion, and boosting health and well-being through quality public spaces accessible to all.”

    Major General Howes hopes to stage a full-capacity event at Edinburgh Castle esplanade in August if restrictions are lifted in time.

    Speaking at an Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce event, Major General Howes said: “In my experience in life, misery is easy. It’s happiness you have to work at.

    "The nub of what we do is that we’re dealers in hope, glee, celebration, energy and the human spirit.

    “The genesis of the Edinburgh Festival was after the Second World War. The circumstances that prevail now are very equivalent.

    “I feel really strongly that we need to keep the sparks of opportunity and optimism alive in order to galvanise everybody else.

    Tickets have been on sale for this year's Tattoo since October.

    “In many respects, we are the underpinning fabric of what recovery will look like.

    “The naysayers of the Cockburn Association persist in thinking that an empty city is the best city – an empty medieval theme park.

    "That’s not what Edinburgh is about. It’s about glee and dynamism and dancing and singing and live events."

    Responding to the comments, Mr Hague said: “It is nonsense to allege that the Cockburn Association wants to turn Edinburgh into a theme park.

    Major General Buster Howes was appointed chief executive of the Tattoo last year.

    "The drive to extract income from every square metre of the city centre is what has brought in the paraphernalia of amusement park rides on the back of cultural events, the very essence of a theme park.

    "It was the city council which reported in 2018 that public perception of the festivals had deteriorated so much that it should be regarded as a ‘strategic risk’ to their future.

    “A separate council report in 2018 warned that the city was struggling to cope with the major influx of visitors to the city during peak periods, resulting in the inability of residents to ‘get on with normal life’. This has contributed to the emptying out of population from the Old Town.”


    Major General Buster Howes took over the running of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo last year after being appointed to succeed Brigadier David Allfrey.

    His last military appointment was head of the British Defence Staff, the UK's most senior military diplomat, in the United States, when he worked with Barack Obama's administration.

    Cliff Hague has been chair of the Cockburn Association since 2016.

    He was subsequently chief executive of Here be Dragons, an eco-tourism project on the island of Principe, in the Gulf of Guinea.

    Born in Newcastle, he studied chemistry at York University and a strategic studies at the University of London before being commissioned into the Royal Marines in 1982.

    He became a became a troop commander in the 42 Commander unit and had his first posting to Northern Ireland. He rose to become commandant general of the Royal Marines in 2010 after serving in the Balkans, Afghanistan and in the two Gulf Wars.

    An official biography as a military speaker lists some of his subject areas as courage, authenticity, imagination, failure, charm, resilience, recovering from physical and mental injury, humanity, “wicked” problem solving, suffering, vivid communication and influence.

    His interests include collecting tribal rugs and fabrics, painting, restoring Victorian watercolours and renovating old buildings.

    Professor Cliff Hague was the first non-lawyer to be appointed chair of the Cockburn Association since it was formed in 1875.

    A freelance consultant, researcher, author and trainer, he was awarded the OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours in 2016.

    Professor Hague, who has a master’s degree in geography from University of Cambridge and a post graduate diploma in town planning from Manchester University, began his career as a planner for Glasgow Corporation before teaching planning and housing at Heriot-Watt University, as well as working as a part-time tutor on social sciences for the Open University.

    He was subsequently president of the Royal Town Planning Institute, president of the Commonwealth Association of Planners and chair of Built Environment Forum Scotland.

    Throughout the 1970s he provided voluntary assistance on planning and housing to the Craigmillar Festival Society.

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