As August draws to a close, so does my first foray into taking part in the Edinburgh Fringe in a new capacity – after 17 years as audience and arts journalist, this year I took part as a participant with my Festival City Explorer Tours. Along with these daily public tours, I've also had my fair share of private tours and groups joining me for my weekly Whisky Walks, and so here's my public 'debrief' of what I've learned and discovered over the last month of festivities.
Firstly, hard though it may be to believe (for those of us mired in Edinburgh and its festivities) there are people in the city during August who don't have the faintest idea what is going on. “So, what is this Edinburgh Festival, then?” I was asked more than a handful of times by visitors, and I realise I was in danger of presenting a less than welcoming face of the city when I responded with faux-incredulity at their lack of knowledge.
I am still genuinely astonished that people can book accommodation, board a plane, and arrive in the city during the summer without (apparently) having typed 'Edinburgh' into an internet search engine. (I've just done it; the top five links returned by Google on my laptop are, in order: the Edinburgh Council website; the VisitScotland listing for Edinburgh; the University of Edinburgh home page; the Edinburgh Wikipedia page; and the homepage of the Edinburgh festival Fringe. One does not have to trawl the web too deeply to find out about 'this Edinburgh festival'.)
So, as proud as we may be of hosting the world's largest arts festival every. single. summer (#fact), we must not get complacent. There are still people who do not know of it, or the myriad other festivals hosted by the city throughout the year. And we/I must develop more appropriate responses than a plaintive, 'seriously? You don't know?' when faced with that dreaded question.
Secondly, the people who are doing some elementary research into the city before they arrive are coming from a wide range of backgrounds. I have had the pleasure of meeting a family from Mexico, a CERN research physicist, a group of Danish civil servants, two separate groups of Foo Fighters fans, two Texan priests, an Icelandic personal trainer, a Scottish ex-pat who has lived for the last 30 years in New Zealand, two families from India, a man and his shar pei, and a partridge in a pear tree. It has been a sheer privilege for me to show off the city I call home to such lovely and diverse groups of people, and has made all the miles of walking well worthwhile.
Thirdly, those miles truly add up. At a conservative estimate, I have covered approximately 137 miles ON FOOT since the start of July. Some days I have climbed Calton Hill twice in the space of a day, I've walked the Royal Mile uphill and downhill, crossed from the Old Town to the New Town and back again, strolled the banks of the Water of Leith and circumnavigated Arthur's Seat. I now have the legs of Achilles (and a heel to match) and a tan that only those who spend two weeks on the sunbed before they go for a fortnight to Ibiza can match.
Fourthly, I have learned that however familiar I am with the city, and however much knowledge I might have accumulated after 17 years of living and working in the city, there are still a thousand (slight exaggeration) details that I notice for the first time every time I tread the pavements. And there are always questions that the visitors ask, not unreasonably, to which I have no certain knowledge; learning to hold my hand up (metaphorically) and say 'actually, I don't know' has been one of the greatest feats of the last couple of months.
And so my summer is drawing slowly to a close, and I am going into the autumn feeling buoyed up by the overwhelmingly positive response that people have had to my tours. I may be a little wearied from the exertion (I'll be honest, I'm absolutely knackered) but I have enjoyed every minute of it, and am going forward with new ideas, new plans, new knowledge to build and develop and improve the services I offer.
Edinburgh, I am truly in ya for the long haul. Here's looking forward to the next season, and the mix of joys and challenges that it can offer.
This Edinburgh Festival thing might be finishing, but my tours continue all year round! Book your Up-Close and Personal private city tour with me today!
Edinburgh's urban landscape is to gain a new building, one which has already gained a degree of notoriety for its boldness of design.
The 'ribbon building', as it has already been dubbed, will be both a hotel and a shopping complex, replacing the Thistle Hotel and St James Shopping Centre buildings currently dominating the east end of Princes Street, in Edinburgh city centre.
Already swathes of people are coming out either in favour of this uber-contemporary planning project, or to deride and rail against the decision to build such a feature in the city centre. Understandably the building is not to everyone's taste, and such a major development was always going to ignite passions on both sides of the conservation-functionality debate.
My personal opinion about the new building is that it will be a much needed boost to the profile of Edinburgh as a city that can boast about its share of modern architectural heritage, alongside its historical heritage. Certainly the current iteration of hotel and shopping centre is an ugly eyesore, having been developed in the concrete jungle of the 1960s. The bland grey monolith - especially when viewed from atop the nearby Calton Hill - is an assault on our modern desire for grace and style in our public buildings, and to be losing these structures is in itself a victory for the city.
Recently the kinds of 'modern' development that have been constructed in the city - like the office blocks on Morrison Street and Earl Grey Street, or the G&V Hotel building on George IV Bridge - have been of similar design or inspiration; slivers of sandstone interspersed with glass and steel, often flat or square in shape, and with no great quality of character of style. This new building breaks away from that mould, with a daring flash of colour and style that will stand in stark contrast to much of the late-Georgian buildings of the New Town.
This stark contrast is probably the feature that many people will get stuck on. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, the city is obliged to maintain a quality and style of development that sits sympathetically alongside the existing buildings, and I think it is from adhering to this intention that we have been stuck with the glut of sandstone and steel structures of recent years.
The ribbon building still features aspects of the older cultural heritage of the city - it has to, in order to have been passed and approved by the authorities - but does so in a way which opens the city to a level of development which will help to keep it featured alongside other modern cities of the world.
Managing this balance between preservation and development hasn't crippled other cities - visit Paris, or Barcelona, and those cities present a multifaceted series of modern buildings which echo, reflect, confront, challenge, flatter and enhance the older structures of their respective urban areas. Doubtless these cities also experienced the bite of public opinion or backlash when some of the designs were proposed.
Or maybe they didn't. Maybe part of our issue here in Edinburgh, and Scotland in general, is that so much of our culture is enjoyed through a lens of retrospective and nostalgia; the very image of Scotland that is cultivated by many tourist groups hinges on couthy stereotypes of haggis and tartan, heather and whisky. We present our country as a historical curiosity, inviting visitors to indulge a chocolate box (or should that be a shortbread tin?) image of a country and culture that is rooted in outdated imagery and style.
The ribbon building resolutely rejects this backward-looking, parochial image of Scotland, and instead invites us to consider the city (or this small part of it) as a contemporary, modern, forward-facing functional, twenty-first century city, that can stand alongside the likes of Paris, Barcelona, New York, London, as a true city of the modern world.
That, I think, has to be celebrated. I like the ribbon building, and everything it represents, and I'm proud to say I live in a city where buildings like this get built.
Join me on an Up-Close and Personal Tour of the city to see other aspects of Edinburgh (ancient and modern) that I think are worth celebrating!
If you've tried walking the streets of Edinburgh over the last few days and had to negotiate the crowded streets (around the Old Town in particular) you may be experiencing what is known as fringeitis, a pathological disorder manifesting in anxiety, irritation or (for locals in particular) uncontrollable, almost homicidal rage.
They say (whoever 'they' are) that the population of Edinburgh doubles during the annual summer festival season, and sometimes it can feel like all those people are deliberately obstructing your path or queuing for your bus.
So here's my handy guide for rising above it all, featuring some of the city's best elevated positions from which to enjoy the views, or simply catch your breath before returning to the fray.
One of the city's oldest purpose-built visitor attractions, the Victorian era outlook tower and camera obscura is still a popular draw to visitors at the top of the Royal Mile. On wet days the tower's five floors of optical illusions and visual trickery will keep everyone entertained, and when the weather is good the views from the top - some long-distance outlooks aided by telescopes - are unbeatable. Entry fees apply, but tickets are valid all day for exit and re-entry and as such represent great value.
St Giles' Cathedral
Recently the iconic crown-shaped tower at the top of the Old Town's largest church building was opened to the public for the first time, allowing keen visitors to get unparalleled 360-degree views of the city from the very centre of the medieval town. A small fee applies for the 20-minuted guided tour to the top, and groups are limited to 4 people at a time, making this one of the most exclusive outlooks in the whole city.
National Museum of Scotland
Nestled at the top of the new wing of the National Museum of Scotland is an open roof terrace giving views across to the castle as well as out towards Arthur's Seat. Access is free, although it can be something of a challenge to find the staircase that will take you up and out - finding it is half the fun! This does also mean it is rarely crowded, so you'll truly feel like you're away from the hustle and bustle of the festival streets below.
Another paid entry attraction, with 287 steps up and the same number back down, this is the world's tallest monument to a writer (Walter Scott, obvs.) with four separate landings including the crows' nest viewpoint at the very top. Reaching the pinnacle takes nerves of steels as the stairs are incredibly tight, narrow and enclosed, even for someone without much fear of tight spaces. The views are well worth it, though, and seeing the monument up-close is a pleasure too.
And of course the volcanic summits of Arthur's Seat and Calton Hill can give you some iconic views for your photo albums, but they can also get crowded during the festival, especially on the days when the weather is good.
Whether you stay an hour or just a few minutes, the detachment from the busy streets can be invaluable to let you recharge your mental batteries before taking the plunge back into festival heaven.
My Up-Close and Personal Tours can show you the city at your own pace, and can avoid the most crowded areas (or try to, at least!).
I first came to Edinburgh in the summer of 1998.
Aged 18, and as a would-be student in the city, I had the use of a car and the kind hospitality of a friend-of-a-friend outside the city for a week, and I was coming to 'do' the Edinburgh Fringe for the very first time.
That year I vividly remember sitting on the benches outside St Giles' Cathedral, passively avoiding the street artists (who have freaked me out, ever since I was picked on to take part as a 12 year old on a family holiday to York), and seeing an extraordinary number of shows for my budget of £50, a figure that seems pathetically paltry by the ticket costs of today's shows.
I saw nothing at any of the main venues - C on Chambers Street was the only large venue I entered, and instead I saw shows in many of the small venues that today's audiences (and would-be audiences) might still be astonished to discover. I sat next to a man at an Alice in Wonderland themed show at St Columba's by the Castle - in an auditorium that seated probably 150 people - only to discover that, unlike some of the previous shows which had been packed out, he and I comprised precisely half the total audience, and the others had had the good sense not to sit directly adjacent to each other. If #awkward (or even social media) had existed back then, I would have been using it vociferously that day.
This will now be my seventeenth summer in the city, and it's fair to say my engagement with the Edinburgh Fringe has been varied and extensive. As a resident of the city I have experienced years when, because of over-familiarity and other elements of personal circumstance, the tidal wave of summer festivities has felt less of blessing and more of a battle - for locals, trying to maintain a non-festival based existence in a world seemingly detached from the realities of everyday life is a draining experience, a bit like living in the flat above where a party is being held, 24/7 for an entire month. And no matter how politely you ask, the guests simply won't stop smoking in the stairwell, or turn the music down....
But in other years the Fringe has been an integral part of my life. As a drama student the month-long festival was a celebration of the kind of ideas and values that I was learning to adopt. As a graduate I worked as a reviewer for publications such as the List magazine and the Herald newspaper (and was award-nominated for my efforts in journalism, too!). Subsequently I've worked in the tourism sector, training as a tour guide with Edinburgh Bus Tours, and working at the country's busiest paid-entry visitor attraction, Edinburgh Castle.
As a reviewer I had the pleasure of being able to see many great shows, and share my passion and enthusiasm for them afterwards. I have also had the pleasure of being one of only two people in the audience at one particular show (with the other person being the reviewer for the Evening News), and, indeed, of being the sole audience member in a production at Cabaret Voltaire. A show which was heavy on audience interaction. To which I gave a (charitable) two stars.
This year I have been privileged enough to experience the Edinburgh Fringe for the first time in two different capacities. I spent four months working within the programme production office, helping to compile entries for this year's programme, and seeing how the Fringe vehicle operates from within. Comparatively few people who engage with the Fringe get to see the festival from this angle, and although my perspective on 'the world's largest arts festival' has been positively impacted, my faith in creative people to produce compelling sales pitches for their productions has, decidedly, decreased....
And so, with my engagement with the Fringe having truly run the gamut of experiences from relishing a free ticket handed out to a Hoipolloi production in 1998, to now, in 2015, participating in the Fringe as a performer for the very first time, I'm going from Fringe veteran to Fringe virgin literally (and metaphorically) overnight.
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Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth Davies, an adopted native of Edinburgh since 1998...