Brian Ferguson: Will Edinburgh’s Christmas become new Fringe?

There are certain headlines that politicians shudder to recall.

Edinburgh's Winter Wonderland. Picture: Julie Howden
Edinburgh's Winter Wonderland. Picture: Julie Howden

Walking around Edinburgh at this time of year always makes me think of four simple words: “Eric on thin ice.”

It is nearly 20 years since the city’s then Lord Provost, Eric Milligan, got a frosty reception back home when he was captured by a BBC camera crew in New York waxing lyrical about the bargains to be found in the Big Apple.

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He was filmed watching his wife Janis skating around Central Park at exactly the same time as Edinburgh was attempting to embrace Christmas events for the first time with its own outdoor rink. “Let’s spike Milligan” was another memorable headline which greeted him on his return.

It may have suffered regular problems with melting ice in its early years, but it is worth recalling that Edinburgh’s Winter Wonderland was the UK’s first outdoor ice rink when it launched back in 1998, dreamt up by Fringe promoter Karen Koren.

Before long, the capital was boasting a six-week festival in the run-up to its Hogmanay festivities, launched five years earlier.

Outdoor ice rinks began springing up all over the UK and these days it seems that every second town centre has its own winter festival.

But back in Edinburgh, the concept has been reinvented by another Fringe promoter, Underbelly, brought in by the city council to overhaul the city’s attractions following concerns they had become tacky.

For the last three years St Andrew Square has been home to the ice rink, children’s attractions have been moved to Princes Street Gardens and huge crowds have flocked to towering attractions like the “Star Flyer”.

It is fair to say not everyone is enamoured with the current look of the city centre, in particular the number of fairground rides and pop-up bars, but the spectacular pictures of Edinburgh which appear on my Facebook feed every day speak for themselves. It is the city’s unique backdrop that makes Edinburgh a world-class stand-out at this time of year.

Some of the best images have, of course, been generated by the new “Street of Light” attraction on the Royal Mile.

While it is undoubtedly not to everyone’s taste, the sound and light installation has addressed long-standing complaints about the neglect of the Old Town over the festive season.

Up to 5,000 people a night have been descending on the High Street and the fact that all tickets are free offers a riposte to critics of the level of commercialism of winter festivals.

Now Underbelly director Charlie Wood, who previously pledged to try to turn the event into a “metropolitan festival to rival the celebrations of other world cities,” has set his sights on further expansion.

He cites the Grassmarket – where businesses are said to have suffered a slump in festive trade, and Bristo Square, which his company has used during the Fringe for many years – as possible sites for new attractions. A hint to a possible future direction is offered by the vast programme now on offer in the St Andrew Square Spiegeltent. Acts like Frisky & Mannish, Camille O’Sullivan, Circa, Abandoman and Austentatious might not have anything obvious to do with Christmas, but they are all tried and tested festival acts in Edinburgh.

With the prospect of a council budget still hanging over Underbelly, Wood has made it clear he does not just expect his company to be producing all future Christmas events.

But if things continue as they are going at present, how long will it be before Edinburgh’s winter begins to resemble the summer Fringe?