Since 1947, every summer except for 2020, Edinburgh puts on its finest sequinned frock and welcomes the world to the biggest buzzing arts and culture event. From music to literature across film and theatre – the Edinburgh Festivals span a spectrum of spectacles each August.

We dug into the archives and found our most fabulous, fantastic and favourite festival photos and fables from its history.

A post-war uplift

After the devastation of the Second World War had ripped through Europe, the festival was intended to bring people together. Rudolf Bing was the first director of the festival and one of the heads behind it. But do you know the story of how the idea for the festival came to be? It is said that English-Canadian soprano Audrey Mildmay first planted the seed for an arts festival in Edinburgh.

The story goes that Audrey Mildmay and Rudolf Bing enjoyed a stroll down Princes Street one night after watching a performance of ‘The Beggar’s Opera’. Swept up in the atmosphere of the capital and the scenic view of Edinburgh Castle, Audrey is said to have exclaimed that Edinburgh would be the perfect place for a festival!  The first ‘International Festival of Music and Drama’ took place in August 1947.

A black and white archive photo of a young woman wearing a patterned, collared silk dress and a bracelet and an older man with glasses wearing a tuxedo. They are smiling at each other.

© The Scotsman Publications Ltd. Licensor
Audrey Mildmay and her husband John Christie who founded the Glyndebourne Opera. Audrey is said to have first voiced the idea of a festival in Edinburgh in conversation with Rudolf Bing, the General Manager of Glyndebourne Opera and first director of the Edinburgh International Festival.

Fringe beginnings

The origin story of Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival could not be more “fringe”. When the first Edinburgh International Festival opened its doors to the world in 1947, eight theatre companies famously turned up uninvited to perform.

As the International Festival took up most of the city’s larger venues, the companies relocated to smaller, alternative spaces to perform.

Since then, every pub, park and pop-up venue bursts into song, dance and spectacle every year.

Performers and flyerers will find a way to grab your attention! Batman and Robin were from the ‘What Fringe’ show in Princes Street Gardens during the Edinburgh Festival in August 1970.

A black and white archive photo from the Edinburgh Festival. You can see two people standing on a statue in Princes Street Gardens dressed as Batman and Robin. Batman is pointing to a a man holding a sign saying "What Fringe"

© The Scotsman Publications Ltd. Licensor

Performers from ‘Pneumatic Art’ promoting their show at Holyrood Park in 1983. This was part of the Fringe Sunday which was held on the second Sunday of every Fringe. Performers would showcase some of their shows for free in public. It started on Edinburgh’s High Street in 1981 but moved to Holyrood Park in 1983. It moved again to the Meadows where it took place until 2008.

A black and white archive photo from the Fringe Sunday at Holyrood Park as part of the Edinburgh Festivals. You can see a person in a zorbing ball and a person in a blow-up suit in an odd shape.

© The Scotsman Publications Ltd. Licensor

A two-headed monkey waiting to catch a bus from Stockbridge is not the strangest sight in Edinburgh during August. The monkey was part of the Open Hand Tickling Machine theatre workshop from August 1988.

A person in a costume that makes it look like they are a two-headed monkey standing at the Stockbridge bus stop waiting for a bus. There is a boy at the bus stop who looks at the figure curiously but with a smile.

© The Scotsman Publications Ltd. Licensor

A festival for sale

The eccentric Japanese businessman Zenya Hamada was a devoted Fringer. One year, he offered to buy the Edinburgh Festival and turned up every year. He wrote and staged several productions at the festival and was a benefactor for the Fringe.

In 1991, he sacked the whole cast of his production of ‘The Atom Bomb’ because the actors were “too good”! It was not the first time he fired the whole cast of one of his productions.

Since 1993, he hasn’t returned to the festival and no one has seen or heard from him since.

A black and white photo of an older Zenya Hamada. He's wearing a white suit and has a pile of gambling chips in his arms. He's smiling at the camera.

© The Scotsman Publications Ltd. Licensor

A festival of all shapes and sizes

The world’s smallest cinema was at the Pleasance Courtyard in Edinburgh and offered space for two cinephiles. It was part of the Film Festival and opened with great pomp! Several celebrities arrived at the opening of the petite picture place in limousines.

A view overlooking the Pleasance courtyard during the Edinburgh Festival where the smallest theatre was located. There are crowds gathering in the courtyard and the small stands.

© Marius Alexander. Licensor

We also had the world’s smallest theatre! It was actually a theatre in a motorcycle side-car. The performers did not really give performances in the theatre, but in the street in Parliament Square where the bike was parked. In 1983, the theatre was stolen from the street! It was sadly never found again.

A colour archive photo of the bike with the smallest theatre in the world on a street in Edinburgh. There is a man standing behind the theatre looking over it. Another man is standing next to it.

© Marius Alexander. Licensor

From the smallest spaces to the portliest prop. The largest prop to be used at the Fringe was a 20-foot wash tub!

It was part of the Theatre de la Basoche’s production ‘Le Lavoir’ in 1987. The production was staged in the 19th century washhouse at Abbeymount. The prop was so big that a hole had to be knocked through the wall of the washhouse to fit the tub in.

A photo of the inside of the washhosue with the wash tub inside. Six women are talking to each other while washing clothes.

© Marius Alexander. Licensor

Famous faces at the Festivals

Of course, the Edinburgh Festival is the place to be for aspiring and established performers alike. So it’s not uncommon that you spot a familiar face walking past you on George IV Bridge or having a pint next to you at the Pleasance.

Since 1973, the Scotsman newspaper has been awarding new talent at the Fringe with the Fringe Firsts Awards. In 1979, DJ Pete Murray presented the Scotsman Fringe Firsts Awards. One of the winners was Rowan Atkinson with his first own show at the festival.

A black and white archive photo of the recipients of the Fringe First awards. A young Rowan Atkinson is in the middle smiling at the camera.

© The Scotsman Publications Ltd. Licensor

“There are two seasons in Scotland: June and Winter,” Billy Connolly said once. Avid Festival visitors will have experienced that first hand. In 1972,  Billy Connolly brought The Great Northern Welly Boot Show to the Edinburgh Festival. Not only did he co-write the show, he also starred in it. Who would have thought that a musical that satirised the ship-building industry would be so popular? The show was such a success that it moved to the Young Vic in London.

A black and white archive photo from the stage performance of the The Great Northern Welly Boot Show. Billy Connolly is singing into a microphone, kneeling on the floor and pointing up. Four male actors in costumes are standing behind him singing as well.

© The Scotsman Publications Ltd. Licensor The Offshore Theatre Company presented The Great Northern Welly Boot Show at the Waverley Market during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 1972.

In the mid-late 1980s, Jo Brand left her job as a psychiatric nurse to turn to comedy. She initially started making waves in the alternative comedy scene under the name The Sea Monster. Here she is in 1988, during one of her earliest Fringe visits, posing with a model of the Opah or Moon Fish at the Royal Museum of Scotland, today known as the National Museum of Scotland.

A black and white archive photo of Jo Brand touching a large model of a fish at a museum while smiling at the camera.

© The Scotsman Publications Ltd. Licensor

A festival of fireworks

When you think of the Edinburgh Festivals, you’ll undoubtedly also think about fireworks. And not just because of the crackers you hear when you go and see your favourite comedian.

Ian Hunter started out as assistant to the director of Rudolf Bing. He then became the second director of the festival in 1950. “Mr Festival” pushed to end his first festival with a grand fireworks arrangement that went down as the festival’s first fireworks concert.

Traditionally, the fireworks spectacle marked the closing of the Edinburgh Festivals.

A black and white archive photo of the Edinburgh night sky lit up by fireworks over Edinburgh Castle and Princes Street.

© The Scotsman Publications Ltd. Licensor Festival fireworks open the 18th Edinburgh International Festival of Music and Drama

For the first time in 40 years, the festival won’t end with a BANG this year. But fireworks are still a big part of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

 black and white archive photo showing a performance of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. You can see the stands are very busy with spectators looking at a scene of the military parade against the backdrop of Edinburgh Castle.

© Newsquest (Herald & Times). Licensor A scene from the Edinburgh Festival Military Tattoo, 1957

A performance of ‘Something About a Soldier’, held at the Ross Bandstand at Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens inspired the Edinburgh Tattoo. It was part of the festival of 1949. In 1950, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo had its first production at Edinburgh Castle and presented 20 performances to 100,000 spectators. Since its inception, fireworks have been part of the military parade.

Explore our archives

From a history of cycling in Scotland to looking back through the lens of the 1983 Scottish film Local Hero, there are many more stories to uncover on our blog. Or delve into our archives directly and start exploring. We dug into our Scran archive for this blog. Scran hosts over 400,000 images and media from museums, galleries, and archives across the UK online.

Header image: A Fire-Eater Performing At Fringe Sunday. The Holyrood sign in the background was commissioned for the Festival Fringe and designed by the artist George Wyllie. © Marius Alexander. Licensor


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Alea Ibrahim

Alea works as a Digital Content Officer as part of the Digital Team. She's pretty sure she has lucked out on the dream job front! Who wouldn't love sharing the stories of Scotland's fascinating past on social media every day?