TO HARDENED Edinburgh Festival Fringe-goers, it is known as week zero. When it begins, you can count the number of shows happening on one hand, stroll down the Royal Mile without getting “flyered” and still find a seat in your favourite pub.
But by the time Friday night comes around, it is as if Edinburgh has shaken itself out of a long slumber, invited anyone and everyone around for a big party – and told them to bring along sackfuls of fireworks.
Temporary venues that appear only for the Fringe seem to materialise in a matter of days, immediately thronged with merry festival-goers and festooned with posters, flyers and branding.
With well over 3,100 shows now part of the world’s biggest arts festival and the final tally up 11 per cent on the 2013 figure, one might assume every nook and cranny of the city centre would be deployed for the event.
Yet one of the more remarkable features of Edinburgh’s festivals season is how many quiet corners can be found in the heart of the city.
Not for the first time, it was actually the Edinburgh Art Festival, rather than the Fringe, I have to thank for introducing me to one of the city’s finest, yet woefully underused, landmarks.
Amid what already feels like a vintage year for visual art at the Festival, it is worth acknowledging the achievement of getting the old Royal High School on Calton Hill open to the public again.
The art festival has an impressive track record of breathing new life into unused spaces and forgotten buildings – including the long-notorious Scotsman Steps, the woefully neglected Canongate Venture building in New Street and the remarkable Trinity Apse, tucked off the Royal Mile.
But to get the keys to the iconic Calton Hill building, which for so long was earmarked as the home of the proposed Scottish Parliament, is a remarkable coup – particularly for an event that was launched only a decade ago.
Two Indian artists have been given the honour of working with the building – Shilpa Gupta’s light sculpture can be seen from the Old Town, while Amar Kanwar has deployed three different spaces, including the amazingly preserved debating chamber, where the feeling of what could have been still lingers in the dusty air.
It is hard to believe that the A-listed building, an undisputed jewel in the crown of Edinburgh’s world heritage site, has lain virtually unused since the 1960s.
The last time the old Royal High School was part of the city’s summer festivals season – or even just opened to the public – was an astonishing 16 years ago. Don’t miss the chance to see it in all its glory over the next few weeks.