Edinburgh book festival to quit New Town for art school

Severin Carrell Scotland editor
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: John Peter Photography/Alamy</span>
Photograph: John Peter Photography/Alamy

For nearly 40 years, the Edinburgh book festival has been held in a small tented city in Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town, its audiences sweltering in the summer sun or drenched by sudden downpours.

But in yet another casualty of the coronavirus crisis, the festival has quit Charlotte Square’s garden, citing the significant costs and long-term uncertainties of staging an event heavily dependent on live audiences.

For the first time in its history, the event – the world’s largest book festival – will be staged instead at Edinburgh’s art school, on the south side of the city.

Nick Barley, the director of the Edinburgh international book festival, said it was a wrench but necessary. Erecting the marquees and tents each year, and returfing and maintaining the garden every winter, costs close to £1m.

The festival fears it may take several years for audiences to return in large numbers, and its successful experiment last year with online events had shown that hybrid events, part-broadcast and part-live, were now long-term fixtures.

“The virus may be temporary but the effects will be long term,” he said. “The hybrid festival is the new story which has emerged out of the pandemic, and that isn’t temporary. So we need a space from which the festival can be broadcast and reintroduce live audiences over time.

“No festival is able to predict how many tickets it will sell this year, next year or any after that. The economic projections are impossible.”

Over recent years, about 265,000 people visited Charlotte Square every August. Events marquees, food stalls, tented bookshops, open air cafes, yurts for visiting authors and the media are closely packed together.

For many Edinburgh residents and habitual festival-goers, the tents, used from the first book festival in 1983 onwards, were a fixture of the August festivals.

Recent festivals have been hit by unpredictable weather, with violent thunder storms and heavy rain causing power outages and flooding, sometimes leading to large areas of foul-smelling mud in the open air area.

Barley said moving to Edinburgh college of art’s complex of studios and exhibition spaces, which includes a tree-lined and grassed courtyard, gave the festival much greater flexibility and protection from bad weather. It also meant the festival could evolve.

“This gives us the possibility of reinventing the festival and address some of the undeniable issues which have grown up in previous years,” he said. “As a byproduct, it means we can be a bit more environmentally friendly, being based in the art college.”

Due to the difficulties of forecasting what the festival can stage this August, it has also delayed announcing which events will take place this year until June.

Barley said it had signed a long-term agreement with the University of Edinburgh to use the art school. The university, which has also lost tens of millions of pounds during the pandemic from lost rental and events earnings, will provide the catering for live events, adding to its income.