At festival time Scotland always seems a crowded place. The population of Edinburgh itself almost doubles. But this week we have official confirmation that the Scottish population is continuing to increase and there are now 5.3 million of us.
It’s also becoming a pretty hot place, with the month of July being the second warmest since records began. Temperatures were reaching over 30 degrees, enough to melt the hardest hearts.Edinburgh folk do not always warm to the festivals, until they realise that they bring in £250 million of extra business. There are six festivals, all crammed into the city in the month of August.
The main international festival, the even more famous “fringe”, the book festival, the arts festival, the Tattoo and the Mela. As I stood in the queue for a Jane Austin show, I was showered with flyers for operas, musicals, dramas, and as many comedy shows as any man’s sense and sensibilities could stand.
At this time of year, the Royal Mile becomes a medieval market place, selling talent, ambition, hope, energy, humour and funny costumes. The Fringe alone this year has 2,871 shows, involving 24,000 artists from 41 different countries. The book festival, in its tented village in Charlotte Square, has 700 readings scheduled and is expecting 200,000 visitors. I remember going to first book festival 30 years ago, still tented but tentative.The official international festival has cost an estimated £10m to stage and has the unlikely theme this year of “art and technology”…..ranging from the anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci to Beethoven’s Fidelio set in a spaceship. The Russian National Orchestra is coming to play Rachmaninov. Meredith Monk will sing a meditation on the environment and the well-named Benjamin Millepied will bring his dance troop from Los Angeles.
Towards the end of the month, just before the closing fireworks, the Scottish Parliament will be staging its own “festival of politics.” It promises an earnest discussion on “Scotland’s place in the world.” This is dangerous talk. It could include such delicate subjects as independence, nationalism, the Union ( both UK and EU) and perhaps a nostalgic look over our shoulders at the glory days of the Enlightenment, our role in the industrial revolution, in the Empire, in science and invention.
It would be easy to conclude that we have lost the place. Our big metal industries have gone. Our education system is no longer the best in the world (though there has been a 2 per cent rise this year in the number of Scottish pupils gaining places at university.) The health service is creaking. Wages are falling. A third of all workers, we learned this week, are now in part-time or temporary work. Things are falling apart. Even the Vikings are back – this year’s Viking Congress is being held in Shetland for the first time in 20 years.But I like to think we are still a nation of enterprise and discovery. It’s just a pity it’s all happening in virtual subjects I don’t understand…particle physics, the bio-sciences and computer games. Give me steam engines, sailing ships, and rock science any day.
I was in Perthshire a few days ago and was lucky enough to stumble on the Earthquake House in Comrie. This little stone building was erected in 1874 to record the minor earthquakes which occasionally shake the village because it stands on an ancient fault line between the Highlands and the Lowlands. It was the inspiration of the so-called “Comrie pioneers” – two ministers and, later, the village post-master and shoe-maker who carefully recorded the vibrations of a pendulum as it traced the slightest earth tremor. (There are hundreds each year in the UK.)
They were tweedy citizen scientists, trying to work out what was happening deep in the centre of the Earth. I hope we have a similar spirit of inquiry today. And I like to think that amidst the fireworks and the entertainment of the Edinburgh festivals, there are also the sparks of human inquisitiveness, energy and imagination.