When Five Become One: A Brief History of the Edinburgh Festival

Blog August 18th 2023

When Five Become One: A Brief History of the Edinburgh Festival

August in Edinburgh can only mean one thing. Festivals galore!

From vibrant and vertiginous circus acts to inspired literature, captivating visual arts, knee-slapping comedy and everything in between, there’s something for everyone. With over 4,000 events or exhibitions across all the major festivals happening around Edinburgh, including over 50 Canadian works, you might be wondering where to start.

Though sometimes colloquially called “The Edinburgh Festival” as an umbrella term, there are actually five major festivals (plus the ever-crucial Tattoo) that happen concurrently in August every year, each with their own fascinating history and context.

Baz Luhrmann’s staging of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed in 1994 by the Australian Opera

The Edinburgh International Festival – After the horrors of the Second World War, a need to turn toward art to reunite the world’s population was evident. Other centres in the UK had suffered greatly during the war, but Edinburgh, with its picturesque castle and old town, intact post-war infrastructure, numerous arts venues, and general walkability, became the ideal place. Since 1947, Edinburgh International Festival has hosted a curated programme of classical and contemporary music, dance, opera and theatre from all around the world – from the classical to the avant-garde.


The Edinburgh Festival Fringe – Often called the “Edinburgh Fringe Festival”, the actual name is such because the first iterations were defiantly set up on the “Fringe” of the International Festival, by artists rebelling against the curated nature of the main festival. As such, the Edinburgh Fringe was born, offering a platform for artists to perform whatever work they wanted, wherever in the city they wanted. From pubs, to lecture halls, city benches and temporary Spiegel tents, the Fringe swiftly overtook the size of the other festivals. In 2023, there are over 3500 shows from all over the world coming to present their work.


The Edinburgh International Film Festival – Edinburgh International Film Festival is the longest-running motion picture festival in the world. Starting off alongside the Edinburgh International Festival as the Edinburgh Festival of Documentary Films, the programme now boasts a comprehensive selection of local and international fiction, documentary, animation, short films, and everywhere in between.

People enjoy a performance taking place in the gardens of the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

The Edinburgh International Book Festival – The Edinburgh International Book Festival is one of the younger Edinburgh Festivals. Starting in the 80’s as “meet the author” events in Charlotte Square, the Book Festival is now the largest literary festival in the world! Hosting over 700 events covering the latest in literature and ideas, a massive bookshop selling all of the authors’ books, and a renowned children’s programme to inspire the next generation’s love of books.


The Edinburgh Art Festival  – The newest of the major festivals, founded in 2004, brings visual arts to the forefront of their programme, along with talks and other one-off events. Their programme is deeply connected to Scotland’s visual arts ecosystem but remains firmly linked to international connections and supporting artists at the beginning of their careers.


The first Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo to take place in front of the castle was in 1950.

The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo – Though not a festival itself, the Tattoo is an intrinsic part of the Edinburgh atmosphere every year. Each summer since 1950, the Tattoo builds a massive stadium on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle itself. Each night in August, military bands from all over the world perform for a massive audience, with projections over the walls of the castle and an incredible array of talent.


There are other festivals that occur even on the fringier-fringes of the larger Festivals – the new Edinburgh Deaf Festival, Islam Festival Edinburgh, the JUST Festival, and the Edinburgh TV Festival. Be sure to check out their fantastic work as well! And don’t miss our blog post on all the great Canadian content at Edinburgh this year.


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