The Edinburgh Fringe

Rona Nealgrove watched the tattered campaign banners swaying in the breeze as she waited for the bus on a quiet Scottish residential street. She felt a strange sense of relief when she noticed the spray-painted “YES” on next-door’s letterbox was becoming chipped and unreadable. Only a week ago, the letterbox had featured gaudy posters supporting both sides of the raging debate on Scottish Independence. Now, Rona thankfully felt her memories of that anxious time fading away with the spray-painted letters on the letterbox.

Rona is my cousin and has lived Aberdeen, Scotland her whole life. Over the previous few months, she had watched a once united nation be divided by political ideologies and had listened to disputes between her work colleagues and friends over whether Scotland should cut ties with the United Kingdom. As fierce political disagreements on Scottish independence created a nation divided by irreconcilable ideologies, I became determined to find a Scottish tradition that had not been infiltrated by politics.

Since the independence referendum vote was first approved on November 14, 2013, intense campaign efforts raged over social and traditional media platforms. Efforts finally culminated on September 18, 2014, when the Scottish public voted on whether to end a 301-year social and economic union with the rest of the U.K. A record 84.6 percent of the population turned out for the ballot in contrast to the previous 1979 and 1997 constitutional referendums, which had averaged a turnout of 62 percent.

On the morning of September 18, Rona was at home watching Scotland’s future unfold on the morning news bulletin. As the officials counted the ballots, the mounting uncertainties for Rona’s gathered family reflected the emotions of families across the country. When it was announced that the bill had failed to pass and that Scotland was to remain part of the U.K., grown men across the country dissolved into tears. Scotland had invested its identity in a single vote. Each desolate campaign banner became a memory of thwarted optimism.

On August 1, 2014 however, seven weeks before the vote, that optimism was still very much alive. Scotland’s capital was due to host the world’s largest annual performing arts festival, and as theater companies, comedians, playwrights, singers and actors converged upon Edinburgh from around the globe, Scotland’s political parties were actively levying support for the vote on independence. In the weeks leading up to the referendum, citizens throughout the U.K. worried that politicians might monopolize the festival, making performances into a platform for partisan discussion or satirical jabs at their opponents.

What is now known as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, or more succinctly the “Fringe,” originated in 1947 when eight theatre companies showed up uninvited to the Inaugural Edinburgh Festival. The twenty-five-day-long eclectic display of the Fringe has since expanded to include acts from forty-seven countries and to stage over 2700 performances across 279 Edinburgh venues. According to Three Weeks magazine, the Fringe prides itself on the philosophy that “any performer or Theatre Company who can raise the money and find a performance space is welcome.” The festival does not have a director, a board or a lone company to impose limits on performances. Instead, performers have the liberty to incorporate any content they deem applicable to their act.

Several Scottish acts or performers at the festival did choose to address the political tensions in their performances; Vladimir McTavish and Keir McAllister provided poignant left-wing perspectives in their comedy, Aye right? How no?: The Comedy Countdown to the Referendum. Cast members in the Scottish Youth Theatre were voting for the first time in the referendum, and they used their production of Now’s the Hour to voice personal aspirations or concerns about the upcoming vote. Even the traditionally somber analysts from BBC’s Newsnight tried their hand at light entertainment and provided audiences with a taste of Scottish self-determination. Audiences, however, appreciated the performances for their entertainment value and overlooked the tensions that such dialogues would have exposed in a political arena. Overall the festival steered clear of political invectives.

One performer, who wished to remain anonymous due to contract endorsements, felt liberated by the lack of political pressures existing at the festival. “It was if a bubble had been formed to isolate the festival from the turmoil of everyday social and political burdens,” she said.

In keeping a stringent distance from the disputes in Westminster, the Fringe showcased the talent of the world’s finest performing artists unimpeded by ideological divides. On this occasion, politics did not “infringe” on the Fringe. The festival demonstrated the opportunity that the artistic community offers to withdraw from the encumbrances of everyday life. The international audience may have returned home bemused by the occasional political quibble, but the majority of performances adhered to the festival’s communal philosophy.

In time, Scottish nationalists will clear away frayed “YES” banners and rebuild a campaign to advocate independence. For 48 out of 52 weeks in the year, politics will continue to divide the Scottish people, but for a fleeting interval each summer, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival will show how art can unite a world. The performer in the festival described her experiences in Edinburgh as akin to “pan-fringism.”

“The festival has the same ideals as nationalism—to unite people who share the same beliefs—but it leaves behind the tensions and uncertainties nationalists conjure when their ideals conflict with the rest of the world.”

Megan Toon ‘16 is a Classics major in Trumbull College. Contact her at