As the Edinburgh International Magic Festival prepares to cast its spell on the city, artistic director Kevin Quantum looks at the spooky legacy of the capital.
With the entirety of human knowledge now available after just a couple of swipes and a click, the emotion of wonder is becoming a rare experience. Live magic offers audiences an instant hit – a glimpse of an impossible world, a seldom experienced but delightful sensation. It’s no surprise then that interest in live magic shows is currently so high and the crop of performers deliver real amazement. There’s no better place to see that trend in action, than here in Edinburgh – the home of the Fringe, Harry Potter and Scotland’s only Magic Festival, taking place from 11-19 May.
The National Library of Scotland houses The Discoverie of Witchcraft – the first magic book ever written. Reginald Scott’s 1584 exposé of the common techniques of charlatans and witches likely had limited readership, as Edinburgh was still burning people at the stake years after publication for magic and witchcraft offences.
Up until the 18th century polite society would dish out capital punishment to those who exhibited supernatural powers, or, it often appears, were considered very annoying. And Edinburgh was one of the worst places for it. Agnes Finnie was burnt at the stake for more than 20 counts of witchcraft ranging from causing blindness, passing on a ‘fearful disease’ to causing death to an unfortunate chap who offended her. Whilst all afflictions were probably the result of bad luck, low life expectancy and bad hygiene practices of the time, Agnes certainly found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time and was more than likely just an unpopular, grumpy, auld wifey who’d antagonised the wrong person.
The Wizard of West Bow, Major Thomas Weir was different. A devout Presbyterian, he was said to have had a magic walking stick and was one of the few who confessed in public. Whilst his highbrow friends tried to dismiss his profession as a kind of sarcastic joke, Major Weir persisted in his confessions that included witchcraft and all sorts of other nefarious activities. Not long after he and his sister were executed. Weir’s walking stick was said to have writhed and twisted in the flames as it was burnt.
Against this backdrop it’s no wonder that authors such as Scott and Stevenson created such colourful and creative work, much of it on display in The Writers’ Museum. As science and magic collided during the Enlightenment famous Edinburgh son John Napier dabbled in alchemy and had a secret laboratory installed into his Lauriston Castle property. Being caught messing with this kind of ‘science’ had severe consequences, so he kept it to himself. During the Edinburgh International Magic Festival Lauriston Castle will play host to The Secret Room, where performances are intricately linked to a magician’s interpretation of the colourful history of Edinburgh’s hidden gems.
Fast forward to the late 1800s and to a more civilised society where magic is now recognised as art and entertainment, in the dawning of the age of the music hall. A circuit of incredible circus and variety acts developed and toured around the UK and further afield. Stars were made and magic was always a big hit. Some of the greatest magic shows and illusions the world has ever seen were made during this period, with many still used to this day.
The Great Lafayette was arguably the greatest of them all. More famous than Houdini in his day, Lafayette was a perfectionist with a flair for the flamboyant. His most ambitious routine was called The Lion’s Bride. This act occupied the entire second half of the show. It was a story with illusion, special effects and lions, with Lafayette right at the centre.
He was due to perform a two-week run at the Empire Theatre of Varieties in spring 1911, which was on the spot of the current Festival Theatre. A show of this scale and scope requires meticulous planning, a huge travelling team, enough animals to fill a zoo (Lafayette used horses, dogs and lions in his shows) and a train to get them around the country.
The Empire Theatre was packed to its 3,000 capacity when, in the second part of the show, a stage lamp fell and ignited a drape. At first the audience thought this was all part of the show. Lafayette was known for his realistic theatrical effects. However, this was no trick. The fire spread and shortly after the theatre was an inferno. Astonishingly the entire audience and Lafayette escaped the theatre unharmed, however Lafayette returned into the inferno to rescue his horses. Sadly he perished along with most of his animals and members of his cast.
When Lafayette’s body was uncovered from the rubble and ashes, it was surprising for the coroner to find that all of his jewellery was fake. Lafayette was earning £3 million a year in today’s money, so he had no need to scrimp.
Such was Lafayette’s fame, it must have felt like the entire city came out onto the streets to view his funeral procession down Piershill Cemetery near Portobello. It was likely quite a shock to the city residents that they would repeat this sign of respect just a few days later… Another body was uncovered in the theatre rubble, identical to the first in every way, but this time the jewellery was real. It turned out Lafayette’s body double, who he used to create various illusions in his show, had been discovered in the first instance. The real Lafayette was now laid to rest, with many commenting that he’d left his biggest trick till after his death.
On the 100-year anniversary of his death, the Edinburgh International Magic Festival began handing out the Lafayette Award in his memory. Past winners have included Paul Daniels and Jamie Harrison, the illusionist who designed the magic in the West End production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. This year the award will be presented at the Lyceum Theatre on 19 May at the Gala show. The recipient? Well we magicians are good at keeping secrets, so you’ll need to come to find out!
Outside of Scotland the world admires our heritage and history. This often becomes channelled into Scottish inspired fantasy. When Disney created Brave a few years ago, our country was depicted as a land of mist and magic, witches and will o’ the wisps. Many historical Edinburgh landmarks are intricately intertwined into JK Rowling’s magical world of Harry Potter. Edinburgh remains a magical inspiration to the millions who visit, with Harry Potter tours and inspired events like the Wizard World Gathering, which opens the Edinburgh International Magic Festival. It goes to show that although people love reading about and watching TV magic, nothing compares to seeing it live or living the inspiration behind it. And here in Edinburgh we’re very lucky the opportunities are plentiful.
Edinburgh International Magic Festival, various venues, Edinburgh, 11-19 May, www.magicfest.co.uk