Running since 1947, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the biggest event of its kind in the world. The Fringe was set up as an alternative to the more formal and elitist Edinburgh International Festival, and prides itself on its openness to performers of all calibres and genres. The festival is held annually through the month of August, and has grown tremendously over the years: today it offers over 3,000 shows held in over 300 venues, bringing all nooks and crannies of the city to life.
I can’t help but tread on heels as I squeeze out of Waverley Station with a flow of festival-goers. We emerge into Edinburgh to the rare sight of sunshine, and the scent of tulips off Princes Street Gardens. A Big Issue seller with a coarse accent holds up a magazine, trying his luck with newcomers – but most pass him by. Double-decker buses rush past shuttling visitors from the airport to the city, while hurried locals weave in and out of tourists gazing up at the towering soot-black Scott Monument.
During August, Edinburgh transforms: the population doubles, flats are overcrowded, and the streets, wynds and closes crawl with people with a passion for the arts. Performance spaces are squeezed into every pore of the city: pubs, churches, university halls, cellars and abandoned buildings repurposed for entertainment.
Propelled by the crowd I head for Cockburn Street, a sloping street lined with quaint cafés, musty bookshops and record stores housed in grey-yellow Victorian sandstone buildings. Beautiful balconies and turrets jut out overhead, typical of Scottish Baronial architecture. Ancient alleyways with crooked stairways dart off the main street like streams off a river, remnants of the city’s medieval Old Town. I hike up the cool and narrow Anchor close, taking the uneven stone staircase two steps at a time: the noise seeping down off the road up ahead of me is an alluring medley of music and chatter and laughter.
The streets are sweet with the promise of unexpected experiences and potential encounters. I think back to the times I played card games in the street to win for tickets for a show, was lured into a muggy cellar for a hypnosis session, danced in the streets with a drag queen or sat front-row at a bad comedy set, having my hairstyle and specs made fun of. It’s a glorious gamble.
I emerge from the close out onto the bustle of the Royal Mile, the mile-long thoroughfare of the city’s Old Town and the main artery of the festival. Shop-fronts are decked in knick-knacks: tartan hats sprouting tufts of false red hair, tins of shortbread and fudge tied with ribbons, yellow rain ponchos ready for the next downpour of rain. Acrobats and street performers jostle for space on the cobbles with buskers, a capella groups and actors. I smile as a family of four crowds around the Heart of Midlothian and hesitantly spit: the heart-shaped granite mosaic marks the former site of public executions – and spattering the spot with saliva, where blood once spilled, is said to bring good fortune.
I follow the bleat of a bagpipe up the Mile towards the city’s fortress. It emerges majestically from a massive volcanic mound as though carved straight from the rock. The hike has paid off: standing before the castle, I take in an impressive view over the city that stretches right out to the coast. The plump, stern-faced bagpiper has marked this spot as his own. His hairy knees poke out between a tartan kilt and high white spats over black brogues. The blowpipe firmly tucked between his lips, he pulls his chin backwards. As he blows, his cheeks swell like crabapples and a vein bulges at his temple. Onlookers smile and snap pictures while children muffle giggles at the man in a skirt.
The beat from a band of parading African drummers mingles with the traditional instrument magnificently, then divides attentions as the beat and tune fall into incoherency. I follow the drummers back down the Mile a few steps, then veer off onto George IV Bridge – the 19th century elevated street home to the National Library and National Museum of Scotland. Instead of water, this bridge runs over one of the oldest parts of Edinburgh.
I peer over the edge of the bridge down at Cowgate – the cobbled street cows were herded down on market days in medieval times. An overcrowded slum area from the mid-18th to the mid-20th centuries, it was nicknamed ‘Little Ireland’ for its population of Irish immigrants. Though somewhat gentrified today, I relish the gritty, smoky quality that the street has retained. It oozes a decadent charm that lures curious crowds to its traditional pubs in imposing stone buildings by night.
Continuing my wander south, I dodge tourists stalled on the narrow slice of pavement by the Greyfriars Bobby statue: a tribute to the Skye Terrier who, legend has it, spent 14 years devotedly guarding his owner’s grave. When I reach the Bedlam Theatre housed in an old neo-gothic Church, I laugh as a bearded student in a long-flowing white dress theatrically spews passages from Romeo & Juliet to great effect.
I marvel at how the city becomes a microcosm for the arts during the festival: a world where success is at arm’s reach. Small-time actors become stars for the month, aspiring comedians sell out shows, student productions win awards, and aspiring arts critics hone their pens, watching back-to-back shows and dishing out endless reviews. For most, the experience is untarnished with failure, and free of the pressures of long term commitment: a space where ambitious artistic endeavours can be tried and tested.
Down Middle Meadow Walk, posters for shows compete for space on billboards. Many have been pasted over with strips of paper brandishing star-ratings and carefully chosen review snippets. Haphazardly, I grab flyers off performers who pitch me their shows with clever one-liners, luring me into brief banter. I promise to attend shows well aware that I’ll no doubt never get around to them.
Finally, I hit The Meadows park and seek out the fast friends made at last year’s Fringe. We crowd around a makeshift barbecue, adding another dark spot to the pockmarked spread of bright grass. I smile as I take in the summery scene: scruffy, freckling youths with reddening necklines high on the first confident rays of sun the summer has allowed them. We kick a ball around before throwing half-cooked burgers and slices of cheddar between buns. We wash them down with can after can of Tennents and Strongbow, exchanging stories of the festival so far.
Evening approaches and a breeze reaches us. We shiver a little in our sandals and shorts. The mood mellows and we sit waiting for the question that we all know is coming. Finally, Jack puts it to us: “Arthur’s Seat anyone?” Every year, we would make the hike up the 822ft hill that rises up from the city. Eagerly gathering our things, we head for the foot of the hill. Wind cuts at our bare throats as we make the climb past the dramatic Salisbury Crags and up the Seat, warm from the movement and dizzy with the dregs of drink. We disregard the pathway snaking its way up to the top, and head straight for the peak, caking our shoes and knees with sticky soil.
Tonight we are not alone at the peak: a troupe of actors beat us to the top. They sit singing and laughing and wave as we approach, making room for us on their blankets. We move towards them with that easiness that emerges between strangers in empty places. Together we sit for hours on end, through sunset and into the night. It’s daylight before we pile into the one-bedroom flat we’ve made a home for the six of us – delightful for the duration of the festival.
In 2016, the festival runs from the 5th to the 29th of August.