Saturday, 15 June 2013

Calton Hill Edinburgh's Faerie hill and the Fairy Boy of Leith

Edinburgh from Calton Hill

Like Rome Edinburgh, sometimes called “The Athens of the North” has seven hills, Arthur's seat is acknowledged as the first and Calton Hill spawned from Arthur's Seat by a geological fault is the second. A walk to the top of Calton Hill is less challenging than the walk up Arthur's seat but in some ways more rewarding with panoramic views of Edinburgh and Fife and then chance to visit the National Monument and Nelson's tower.

Calton Hill has always seemed to me like a place outside Edinburgh, and to some extent outside the universe. Walk up the hill and the city seems an eternity away. If you are on your own it may be best not to be there after sunset for human and non human strangeness can take over: it could have been a model for Mussorgyky's Night on Bare Mountain where good fun is had, by all who can stand it, till dawn.

The Name

Trying to find how a place got its name is a minefield for the unwary. In London the Saxons left clues even a layman can spot with a bit of training. In Scotland things are less clear. In 1456 James II gifted land to Edinburgh that included Calton Hill as “Cagingalt” the rock or Hill of the Hazel, pointing to “Calton” coming from “Cailtunn” the Gaelic for “Hazel Grove or copse”. Given the magical associations of the Hazel it is possible the hill was regarded as a place of mystery even then. Other possible derivations are from the Gaelic for “forested hill” or “Black Hill”. It accquired the modern spelling in 1804.

A short History

Some 350 Million years ago The volcano of Arthur's seat died and then a geological fault split it into two giving rise to what is now Calton Hill. Nothing much happened in this time, the pace of life being slower then. Finally in 1546 James II gave the hill and the land round it to Edinburgh for informal military training: in those days there were no standing armies and citizens had to know how to fight. The next year he banned Golf and football and ordered Archery practice every Sunday. In the eighteenth century philosopher Robert Hume lobbied for the creation of a public walkway for the citizens of Edinburgh and saw it come into being shortly before his death.

Modern development hid the ravine at the southern edge of the hill, which held the village of Low Calton and was bridged from 1816, with many of the old houses destroyed in the process (they were less sentimental about the past then) and the remaining old houses removed in the 1970s. I recall visiting the council offices at ground level from Regents Place, which bridged the ravine, and noting there were seven floors below that level, descending into the former ravine.

The National Monument and Nelson's Tower

The National Monument on the hill was intended to be a copy of the Parthenon and celebrate Scottish soldiers killed in the Napoleonic Wars. Unfortunately it was funded by donations not tax and the money ran out too soon. It has never been completed and that is now part of its charm. Nowadays people love to scramble up the eight foot high walls ( there are no steps), and enjoy the view. With a few bottles of beer. Warning: there are no toilets there either.

The Nelson Monument, at the highest point of the hill, commemorates Nelson's victory over the French and Spanish in 1805. A timeball is dropped from the monument every day as a time signal to shipping and is synchronised with the one o'clock gun fired from the Castle. The tower was funded by public subscription and this time the money almost lasted till the monument was completed. You can go up to the top for a fee but there are 143 spiral steps so be careful.

The Fairy Boy of Leith
Around 1648 a captain Burton met a ten year old boy of unusual intelligence who claimed that every Thursday night he would go to a hill, presumed to be Calton Hill, and, entering into underground rooms through a pair of gates invisible to all without fairy sight, play the drum for a large assembly of people [1] . His account is more like the accounts of a medieval Witches Sabbat without the diabolic element: and lacks, obviously, the time lapse element of Faerie encounters, where a night in Faerie can be decades in this world. However it is possible there are caverns under the hill, for there are caverns, now sealed off, under Arthur's seat, and in fact an entire Lothian cavern system [2]. I recall reading that the last sighting of the fairies in Edinburgh was on Calton Hill in 1930, the year the Calton Jail, formerly on the hill, was demolished. Perhaps they did not like the noise.

The Beltane Fire Festival
Every year since 1988 on 30th of April a number of ritual dramas and participatory art events inspired by the Ancient festival of Beltane that marked the start of summer. It is also the date of Walpurgis night, a start of summer festival celebrated in Northern and Central Europe, often with dancing and bonfires.

The Festival draws on a number of influences but is not claimed to be anything other than a modern and evolving Beltane celebration, and was originally intended to be held on Arthur's seat the site of earlier Beltane celebrations but proved more practical on Calton Hill. Over the years it has grown and is now a ticketed event.

The Firth of Forth from Calton Hill

The wrap

Calton Hill is a must for the visitor, if only for the spectacular views of Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth, especially just before sunset. The buildings on the hill, the National Monument, Nelson's Tower, The governors house, the Dugald Stuart Monument are worth visiting, and children will love playing on the cannon and it is a good place to watch the fireworks at the end of the festival and at Hogmanay.

During the Edinburgh  Fringe some of the more bizarre acts tend to take place on Calton Hill. Please check the programme to see if they are suitable for children or nervous adults. This is in keeping with what I heard, that at one time the hill was used for the Lord of Misrule celebrations in Edinburgh.

The hill is one bus ride and a short walk from the Badjao B&B and a welcome rest after shopping in Princes St

[3] Beltane Fire Society website

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Edinburgh International Festival

Post Festival Fireworks
The  Edinburgh International Festival of Performing Arts takes place every year around the middle of August and lasts three weeks. Normally it starts with a parade and ends with a firework display from Edinburgh Castle. The festival director invites top class performers in music, theatre opera and dance from all over the world to perform at the festival, which is a must for the lover of High Culture.


The Festival was conceived after the Second World War as “a platform for the flowering of the human spirit”. In 1944 Rudolf Bing was convinced that none of the shattered cities in the UK could host a festival of the scale seen before the war and in 1946 looked for a suitable UK city, one that could handle one to one and a half million visitors over three weeks, it should be scenic and picturesque and attractive to tourists and foreign visitors. Edinburgh was approached and the first festival took place in 1947 focussing on classical music. The next year drama came to the festival and in 1950 the Edinburgh Military Tattoo became part of the Festival as a result of the British Army's desire to showcase itself during the festival.

The Fringe Festival  emerged at the same time as the International Festival and the two festivals had a hostile relationship for about 25 years, with advocates of the International Festival complaining about the low quality of the Fringe events and advocates of the Fringe saying that quality was a bonus, enjoyment being more important. Standards emerged for the Fringe and now the best Fringe shows are on a par with those of the International Festival but largely different.


The festival box office is currently on Castlehill just below the castle, in a converted church known as the Hub, formerly the Highland Tollbooth, that has a 240 foot spire visible throughout Edinburgh.

There are only a few venues all in the centre of town and up to ten other festivals take place at the same time, most notably the Fringe, which includes many street performers. During this time public transport is disrupted by the street artists but nobody minds.

The spectacular firework display at the end of the festival can be seen for free from Princes Street and for a fee it can be seen from Princes Street Gardens, with a more expensive ticket available for a seat in the Ross Theatre in the gardens. Some tickets are normally available for last minute sales purchased in person on the day of the display.

Accommodation can be very hard to find during the festival period, and early booking is essential.

The Badjao Bed and Breakfast offers excellent value to visitors (Including a cooked Breakfast) and every bus from here takes you near most festival venues. 

Wrapping up

The Edinburgh International Festival is a must for the lover of high culture. It offers Music, Opera, Drama and Dance. We prefer the Fringe Festival however, with its comedians and unpredictable performers. If you are a student or educator you may wish to take part in the festival's year long education program. If you are a performer a visit is almost essential if you hope to be invited to take part.   If you are attending performances our Bed and Breakfast is a short ride from most of the performances. 

Saturday, 1 June 2013

The Fringe Festival Edinburgh

Chinese Drummer at the Fringe

TheRoyal Highland Show in June bills itself as the “Greatest Show on Earth” but the Edinburgh Fringe festival, which in 2013 will run from 2nd to 26th August is the greatest collection of performance shows on the planet.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is livelier, less formal and generally much more fun than the International Festival, the major difference being that anyone can perform, whereas the International Festival is for invited performers only. Street acts take over large parts of the city and are free unless you choose to drop some money in the performer's hat and there is a wide range of other acts from comedy through drama to music and dance. Some return year after year and others appear once and vanish.

The parade that started the festival before the tram works closed the city centre, and which may restart now Princes Street is open again, was dominated by Fringe acts, military bands from the EdinburghTattoo and community organisations. In 2013 some 3000 acts are scheduled in “Every nook and cranny of the city”. As with Hogmanay accommodation is scarce at this time and early booking is a good idea.

The Edinburgh Festival Parade

In 1947 eight theatre companies turned up uninvited at the first International Festival, seven of them playing in Edinburgh the other staging a morality play in Dunfermline. In 1948 a Scottish playwright and journalist gave the Fringe its name when he wrote:

Round the fringe of official Festival drama, there seems to be more private enterprise than before ... I am afraid some of us are not going to be at home during the evenings!

Some sections of the International festival did not like the Fringe and this led to a long lasting animosity between the two festivals, which eventually died away.

As the Fringe grew more organisation was needed. In 1951 students at the university set up a drop in centre for performers offering cheap food and a bed for the night. The first try at a central booking service was in 1955. The Festival Fringe Society was established in 1959 and enshrined the policy of not vetting or censoring shows in its constitution. In 1963 the Traverse Theatre was created and set a standard for other companies. In 1969 the society became a constituted body and hired its first administrator in 1970. The Fringe continued to grow and is the largest arts festival in the world with acts from many countries.

Spectacular Street Act at the Tron

In 2012 comedy dominated the Fringe, with drama close behind followed by Music, Dance & Physical Theatre, Musicals & Opera, and Children's Shows as well as assorted Events and Exhibitions. Highlights for us are comedy and the Japanese drummers and dancers who appeared each year. It is still possible (just) to sample some shows before paying to see the entire performance and everyday of the Fringe theatre companies use the area in the High Street outside St Giles Cathedral and the Fringe office to hand out flyers, perform scenes from their show and sell tickets. There are some special offers in the opening weekend of the festival.

As the number of acts grew the venues faced increasing costs and became more expensive so performers cut costs by sharing venues. Then venues were split into multiple performing spaces and now come in all shapes and sizes, including tents. Wikipedia cite performances in a public toilet, the back of a taxi or even the audience's own home. Some venue operators are non-profit organisations and some only exist for one festival but over time the professionalism of the venue operators has increased making the experience more enjoyable year by year.

Booking Tickets

Today you can buy tickets over the internet but have to collect and pay for them in person. Some venues have their own ticketing systems, partly as a result of issues to do with commission and sharing of ticket revenue, and partly as a reaction to failure of the main system in 2008 which took the Fringe close to disaster.

The Free Fringe and Free Edinburgh Fringe Festivals allow entry for free but take collections at the end of each performance. They perform for fun and the more money they get themore fun they have. The Forest Fringe has a “pay what you can” model. The Forest Fringe aims to increase experimentation by reducing costs and is a “Fringe of the Fringe”

Sample as many forms of performance as you can. There is a Half-Price-Hut with different tickets at half price throughout the day. Even in Summer you can experience at least four seasons in one day, sometimes one hour, so pack clothing accordingly. Every large crowd potentially attracts pickpockets and thieves so keep an eye on your things.

There is a wide range of accommodation, including of course the Badjao B&B which is some ten minutes bus ride from the city centre which hosts the main part of the Fringe and is on a local bus route from the Airport: allow an hour for the journey. Bus tickets are £1.50 each way or £3.50 for a one day pass ( as of June 2013).