I spent yesterday in Edinburgh in the warm July sun. With uncharacteristic foresight I took my camera and got this view of the mighty castle which sits on a rock above Princes Street. In fact the rock has given the city its name. Even today some guidebooks perpetuate the misconception that the name comes from the Northumbrian king Edwin. “Edwin`s Burgh” is a neat and tempting derivation but it is wrong. The clue is in the older name of “Dun Eidinn” which means “the town or fort of the rock face”. So, Edin simply refers to the rock face, by far the most noticeable thing about the city, especially in former times when there wasn`t much else. Along with the sun, the city was beginning to show the influx of visitors which will increase rapidly towards the opening of the Edinburgh International Arts Festival at the beginning of August. This is the largest arts festival in the world and the temporary effect on the city`s population is immense and very noticeable. Already we are seeing some of the street performances which attract crowds of young and old. Soon the city`s streets, parks and squares will be full of them.
It may seem odd that such a festival should be held in a northern city so far from the formerly more celebrated centres of music, art and theatre. Why not Paris, Vienna or Milan? In fact, Edinburgh held numerous festivals in the 19th century. They were popular and raised lots of money for charity. However, the modern festival began in 1947. It was the idea of Sir Rudolf Bing, at that time Director of the Glyndebourne Opera in Sussex. Horrified at what the Nazis were doing to his Austrian homeland and to civilised life throughout Europe, he wanted to see a major arts festival to reclaim culture, celebration and enjoyment from the darkness. Mainland Europe was preoccupied with resisting Hitler and then with trying to rediscover normal life, a task that would hardly have been possible without the immense generosity of America`s Marshall Plan.
Sir Rudolf`s first choice of location was Oxford, but that idea came to nothing. Henry Harvey Wood was working with The British Council in Edinburgh at that time in the 1940s and he suggested Scotland`s capital. The City Council and influential locals supported the scheme and in 1947 it got under way as a modest event. However, it grew. In the early 1950s The New York Philharmonic gave a performance and were soon followed by an increasing stream of major orchestras and performers. Alongside the main festival grew up a variety of less formal events,some of high quality, some not, which became “The Fringe”. Nowadays the festival is a huge events ,attracting the most prestigious names in music,opera and theatre from around the world. The Fringe has become immense with almost 2,700 events expected this year. A few years ago I heard the great Russian baritone Dmitry Hvorostovsky perform. The following year I heard the equally celebrated English singer Simon Keenlyside. One Saturday afternoon I and my companion sat in Princes Street Gardens and heard the wonderful Bryn Terfel rehearse his entire concert. That cost us nothing but the price of an ice cream.
Along with great musical and dramatic performances the galleries have exhibitions of traditional and modern art. The book festival attracts famous writers and the film festival gets the best of world cinema. However, even if you never visit an event the atmosphere of the city is uplifting in itself. You cannot be unaware of the many street performances and cafes and restaurants are full of visitors from far and wide. Just sitting watching this amazing transformation from what was once an austere Presbyterian city is a major treat in itself.