People make the
festival possible

In 1945 when plans for an International Festival were first announced, the idea to bring people together through art caught the public imagination across Scotland. People responded with profound generosity, donating coal rations to light up the castle, opening homes, cooking 2,500 meals a day in the Festival Club and festooning streets with flowers and flags. Later, volunteers manned the Festival Guild and to this day sing in the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. In turn, we suffused the city with thousands of inspiring cultural experiences, notably the Herald Young Critics and the Art of Listening community creative learning opportunities, and numerous free events such as the epic Standard Life Opening Event: Deep Time.

Read on

Festival-goers socialising at the Festival Club
Photo: Paul Shillabeer

Residents donate
coal ration

In 1947, rations were still in place and the Minister for Fuel and Power banned floodlighting the castle at the inaugural International Festival. But the people of Edinburgh felt differently. They wanted visitors to appreciate their magnificent castle, floodlit at night. Hundreds of letters and telegrams poured in with generous offers to donate coal rations. The Minister had no choice but to relent. The castle was lit up using Edinburgh's private coal rations for four nights from dusk to midnight during the International Festival, and visitors from all over the world felt warmly welcomed by the whole city.

Castle coal rations

Edinburgh Castle lit up for the inaugural International Festival in 1947
Photo: Paul Shillabeer

Standard Life
Opening Event:
Deep Time

In 2016 residents and visitors to the city flocked to the castle to witness the dramatic Standard Life Opening Event: Deep Time, a spectacular animated public artwork projected onto the castle ramparts. It delved deep into 350 million years of Edinburgh's history, blending trailblazing technology, narrative drama and emotional storytelling with a unique soundtrack by Scottish rock band Mogwai.

Deep Time
View gallery
Deep Time

Photo: Eoin Carey

play host

From the earliest days of the International Festival, the people of Edinburgh have been essential to its success and longevity. Their commitment could not be more practical. During preparations, many hotels had not yet been de-requisitioned from military use, while others still had blacked-out windows. Rudolf Bing, the inaugural Festival Director, negotiated to de-ration curtain material, while the Lord Provost appealed to local residents for accommodation. There was an overwhelming response of residents who, in true festival spirit, wanted to open their homes to festival guests. More than 6,000 beds were made available in flats and houses across the city. Many were enjoyed by visitors who arrived in the city in good faith, not having made prior arrangements: none were disappointed.

City of Edinburgh

Edinburgh Castle from the Cowgate
Photo: City of Edinburgh Council – Libraries

People and the
Festival Club

The people of Edinburgh have always been essential in ensuring the long-running success of the International Festival. In the early years, volunteers manned the Festival Club, which was housed in the Assembly Rooms and Music Hall on George Street. With post-war rations, Club members played a vital role, preparing and cooking 2,500 meals every day for visitors, while the Festival Society liaised with the Ministry of Food to ensure a sufficient supply of ingredients. The people of Edinburgh rallied enthusiastically to welcome the world. The atmosphere of austerity was banished as residents transformed the city with decorated shop fronts, magnificent floral displays, and flags and pennants flapping on every available spot. Topping it all, the sun shone gloriously for three continuous weeks.

Season membership of the Festival Club cost £1 and over 8,000 daily tickets were sold. Such was its popularity, locals pleaded for the Festival Club to continue year-round to encourage music and drama. The people of Edinburgh and Scotland had an insatiable appetite for the arts.

The Festival Club
View gallery
Club volunteers

International Festival visitors enjoy themselves at the Festival Club on George Street
Photo: David Kingston/Studio 16

The Annual
Fireworks Concert

Although fireworks were sometimes featured through the years, the tradition of the annual Virgin Money Fireworks Concert we know today only began formally in 1982. For visitors, it's a thrilling experience that highlights the artistry of the International Festival. For the people of Edinburgh, it's an unmissable community event. For all, it's a resplendent finale to the summer festival season.

Set against the iconic Edinburgh Castle, magnificent pyrotechnics are choreographed to stirring music performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Around 250,000 people gather in the city centre and at other viewing points across the city; the largest audience of the summer.

Virgin Money Fireworks Concert
2016 International Festival
Virgin Money Fireworks Concert

Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

A tradition born

Festival Director Ian Hunter was determined to close the 1950 International Festival with a bang. Arrangements were made for a spectacular theatrical fireworks display to fill the sky, while Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks would be performed on the castle esplanade. On the night, Sir Thomas Beecham caused a stir. He emerged from the castle to conduct the massed marching bands and battery of canons – he had donned an historic steel helmet, borrowed from the barracks. Suitably attired for the explosive backdrop, he commenced the first fireworks concert. While the pyrotechnic display inspired the tradition of the annual closing Fireworks concert, the whole event went on to become the spectacular Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

First fireworks

Fireworks close the 1950 International Festival
Photo: Paul Shillabeer

Standard Life
Opening Event:

A platform for the flowering of the human spirit

The Standard Life Opening Event: Bloom is an epic outdoor, public art event for 2017, celebrating our joyful 70-year journey, from the darkness and division of the post-war years to today's explosions of colour and spectacle.

The immersive, spectacular opening event embodies the ambition voiced by our first Chair, Sir John Falconer, Lord Provost of Edinburgh. In 1947 he spoke of the International Festival providing a platform for the flowering of the human spirit.

Edinburgh has bloomed magnificently as the world's Festival City, transformed beyond recognition by its abundant festivals. Its impact has pollinated cities across the globe, propagating new festivals throughout Europe, America and Asia. It has celebrated our highest artistic achievements, our imagination and creativity, our generosity and diversity.

Standard Life Opening Event: Bloom brings together light and sound installations, large-scale illuminations and 3D-mapped projections onto iconic buildings in one entire precinct of Edinburgh.

Created by 59 Productions. Sponsored by Standard Life. Supported by EventScotland, and the Scottish Government's Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund. In Association with The University of Edinburgh. Technology Partner Blue-i Theatre Technology and in partnership with mclcreate.

The Harmonium

To open the 2015 International Festival and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, a series of spectacular animations was projected onto the outside of the Usher Hall, choreographed with John Adams's mesmerising choral work Harmonium. The soundtrack was performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, conducted by Peter Oundjian.

Working with the University of Edinburgh's Centre for Design Informatics, the spectacular project examined the effects singing has on both the performer and the listener. The event was created by 59 Productions and provided free for visitors and the people of Edinburgh.

The Harmonium Project
View gallery
The Harmonium Project

Photo: Eoin Carey

Founding the
Edinburgh Festival

The most notable achievement of the 1965 Festival, and Festival Director Lord Harewood's most enduring legacy, was the founding of the Scottish Festival Chorus, later renamed the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. Weekly rehearsals took place in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen; the 240-strong chorus only came together fully for the final rehearsal. They made a sensational debut with the Scottish National Orchestra for the Opening Concert, performing Mahler's monumental Symphony No. 8.

One of the singers was 11-year old schoolboy Donald Runnicles. "The whole experience was one of wonder to me, that so many people could come together and could be of one purpose. On so many levels for me that night - including the chance to perform on the same stage as the likes of Janet Baker and Heather Harper - the seeds were sown."

Decades later in 1994, Runnicles made his conducting debut with the Chorus, performing the very same score. When Festival Director Brian MacMaster approached him to conduct Mahler's Eighth, the decision was, Runnicles said, a no-brainer.

Edinburgh Festival Chorus
View gallery
The Edinburgh Festival Chorus

The newly formed Scottish Festival Chorus (now Edinburgh Festival Chorus) performing with the Scottish National Orchestra in the Usher Hall at the 1965 International Festival
Photo: Courtesy of Royal Scottish National Orchestra archive

Friends of the
Festival formed

By 1982, with changing technology and organisational developments, the Festival Guild became the Friends of the Edinburgh International Festival. The first Honorary President was Yehudi Menuhin. New benefits were offered with priority booking for members, while traditional hospitality continued, such as inviting overseas ticket buyers to morning coffees and evening drinks in Friends' houses. In this way, the firm founding intention of the International Festival was enacted, promoting understanding and goodwill through the arts to the world.

Over subsequent decades, the Friends office moved from the Assembly Rooms to the University Staff Club in Chambers Street, and on to the Head Office at Market Street. It symbolised the reality of our Friends becoming part of our organisation. Our Friends' support continues to be vital, remaining at the heart of the International Festival.

Friends of the Festival

Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

Festival Guild

In 1961, faithful supporters of the International Festival at home and in far-flung places were invited to join a new initiative: the Festival Guild. The inauguration marked an important step in our development. The new scheme strengthened bonds between the supporters, formalised support for the International Festival, marshalled practical help and offered unique cultural experiences to devotees.

The Guild built on the success of the glamorous and popular Festival Club, which had swarmed with fans, supporters, performers and stars at the Assembly Rooms in George Street every year since 1947. 100,000 people on the global Club mailing list were invited to join the Festival Guild. In the city centre, booths were erected to enrol members from the general public; the Lord Provost and Sir Compton MacKenzie led the queue of joiners. £1 or 3 would buy you a Souvenir Programme and an invitation to the Garden Party, and use of the special Guild Room at the Festival Club.

A call for practical help was enthusiastically met. In the decades to come, thousands of envelopes were stuffed with newsletters and programmes. Numerous sandwiches were served. Fundraising garden parties were organised. Press cuttings were filed and organised. Lectures were hosted. Doors were manned. Extra-tall piano stools were sourced. International performers were entertained. Visitors were guided and assisted in every way.

Festival Guild

The Festival Guild garden party at the 1969 International Festival
Photo: Paul Shillabeer

Creative Learning
with young Scots

Ten years into the International Festival and Yehudi Menuhin led the way in taking the International Festival to new venues around the city to reach out to new audiences, including young people. It was seen as a very important task. It was the first of numerous performances, workshops and programmes designed to engage local young people. Explore a handful here.

Castlebrae Community High School pupils

Castlebrae Community High School pupils assist in the planning and running of the 2017 International Festival venue at their school gym
Photo: Aly Wight

One Standard Lamp

In 1958, Menuhin and fellow musicians, Cassado and Kentner were delighted to give, without fee, a concert at the Embassy Cinema in Pilton, one of the city's largest housing schemes. 600 schoolchildren came along, together with 900 other residents, each charged just one shilling. Just before the spontaneously arranged concert began, it was realised that the lighting was insufficient on the music stands. The Lord Provost and Councillor McLaughlin went knocking on neighbouring doors, and returned with a standard lamp to light up the score. Menuhin wrote to the Scotsman after the concert, declaring, "The concert was a success beyond our wildest hopes... the fact that 2,000 remained unable to enter the hall proves there is vast support, independent of any visitors, for great Festivals and great art in Edinburgh."

Menuhin Cassado Kentner trio

The Menuhin, Cassado, Kentner Trio at the 1958 International Festival
Photo: Paul Shillabeer

The Wonderful World
of Dissocia

A broad community programme was devised to encourage understanding of the issues explored in Anthony Neilson's play, The Wonderful World of Dissocia. Over 200 pupils attended 17 workshops in schools in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and watched the play at the Tron Theatre or at International Festival performances at the Lyceum Theatre.

The Tron

Photo: Douglas Robertson

The Roxy Cinema

Gerald Moore, widely regarded as the finest recital accompanist of the 20th century, and Swedish mezzo-soprano, Kerstin Meyer initiated the second free International Festival concert for the community in Gorgie at the Roxy Cinema in 1959. Moor gave a talk on the art of the accompanist, followed by a concert of songs by Brahms, Schubert and Wolf to 1,500 excited schoolchildren. The enthusiastic audience demanded an encore. The two artists later confessed they found it more nerve-wracking than appearing before adults. "Children are much more difficult to fool!" confessed the world-famous pianist.

Roxy Cinema

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore at the Usher Hall
Photo: Paul Shillabeer

Castlebrae Community
High School

A special three-year residency commenced at Castlebrae Community High School. A rich blend of workshops, mentoring, programmes, transition events, vocational evenings and projects ensued, such as the Guerrilla Knitting project at The Hub, and the film, From Castlebrae with Love, screened at The Hub. In 2017 students are putting their experience into practice by assisting the International Festival team in planning and running a venue at the school for the premiere of Project R.E.B.E.L. by Boy Blue Entertainment. The artists have also run workshops, introducing pupils to their dynamic style of dance.

Creative learning workshops
View gallery
The International Festival's workshop at Castlebrae Community High School

The International Festival's workshop at Castlebrae Community High School
Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

Herald Young
Critics Scheme

Launched 2003

In 2003, The Herald newspaper initiated a new project to spot and nurture young journalistic talent in Edinburgh. Three of their arts critics led workshops for 30 selected pupils from Broughton High, Westerhailes Education Centre and the Royal High School. The critics, Keith Bruce, Mary Brennan and Michael Tumelty, prepared the young people to review and critically analyse several International Festival performances: Picasso and Dance, Strictly Dandia and the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester. Reviews were selected and printed in The Herald on 23 and 29 August 2003.

The Young Critics pilot became a fixture, still running today with a variety of secondary schools, exploring all art forms represented by the International Festival programme.

25th anniversary

In 1971, on the eve of the 25th International Festival, a replica of the Opening Concert was offered free of charge by the Festival Society to express their thanks to the community of Edinburgh. The night featured the Scottish National Orchestra, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and violinist Yehudi Menuhin, conducted by Alexander Gibson. Tickets were issued by ballot.

Anniversary concert

Royalty at the

We're proud to have received the patronage of The Queen Mother from 1952 to 2002, and Her Majesty The Queen from 1952 to 2016, both of whom endorsed the founding ideals of the Edinburgh International Festival. Their presence undoubtedly helped us welcome the world to Edinburgh.

As part of the many preparations for Royal visits, standard seats at the Usher Hall, Assembly Hall and King's Theatre were always removed and replaced with a more salubrious alternative.

In 2017, HRH The Earl of Wessex became the Royal Patron of the International Festival.

Royalty at the Festival
View gallery
Royalty at the Festival
Continue to Chapter III