First look: 'Ghost lights' appear above Edinburgh to mark start of city's festival season

Edinburgh’s night sky is being transformed by mysterious light displays to mark the start of the city’s annual festival season.

More than 250 beacons are being sent out from sites across the city which would normally be playing host to performances, pop-venue and events in August.

However the displays, designed to be clearly visible even if is cloudy or rainy, have been created so that they are best seen from a distance, to help ensure large crowds do not gather in the one location.

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Tests are being carried out from locations like the Usher Hall, the Festival Theatre, Leith Theatre, Summerhall and The Stand Comedy Club ahead of the official launch of the “My Light Shines On” display on Saturday night.

Others sites include Edinburgh Castle’s esplanade, where the Tattoo normally takes place, and Charlotte Square, which usually hosts the book festival, and Calton Hill, where the Beltane Fire Festival usually takes place.

Named after lyrics in the Primal Scream song Movin’ on Up, “My Light Shines On” has been inspired by the centuries-old theatrical traditional of always leaving a light on to illuminate an empty stage.

The displays, which have been designed to be seen from homes across the city, are being organised by the Edinburgh International Festival, which was first staged in 1947 in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Lantern-style effects will be used to transform cultural venues in the city which have been lying empty since events and festivals were forced to go into lockdown in March.

It is hoped images and film footage of the displays, which are due to run until Monday, will “let the world know that the spark of the Festival City burns bright.”

The festival’s website states: “It is a symbol that, though the stage is empty for now, the building will be filled with laughter, tears and applause once again. In 2020, we honour this tradition on a grand scale, with a hopeful reminder of what is still to come.”

The display will be officially launched at 10.30pm on Saturday after the premiere of an hour-long film celebrating the Edinburgh festivals, which were officially called off in April in the face of the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

The programme, which will also premiered on the Edinburgh International Festival’s Facebook and Youtube channels, will offer glimpses into how the event has brought artists, performers and backstage crews back into buildings in the last few weeks to create and film brand new work.

The My Light Shines On display is being staged to mark the start of the city's festivals season.

The show also features new interviews with Killing Eve star Fiona Shaw, Broadway star Alan Cumming, musician Anna Meredith and comic Daniel Sloss.

Timed to start as darkness falls over the city, nearly 800 lighting effects are being used in the 90-minute displays, including glowing lanterns which are filling venues with light again for the first time in nearly five months.

As part of the project, which has been created by lighting designers Kate Bonney and Simon Hayes, the people of Edinburgh are being encouraged to either view the spectacle from their own homes or find a high vantage point in the city, while staying within social distancing guidelines.

Hayes said: “We will have more than 250 moving beam lights going into the sky, which will be going through a 10-minute cycle, where they will animate in different ways to represent different energies and parts of the festival.

The National Monument on Calton Hill is being lit up as part of the event. Picture: Ryan Buchanan

“There will be moments when the beams are quite sedentary and reflective and others where they will be fizzing and you will be able to feel the energy building up.

“There will be moments when they will appear at random in the sky and appear to be playful and spontaneous and others to represent the choreographed performances, skill and precision that are involved in putting shows on.

"It will all represent the energy of the Edinburgh Festival in its different guises.”

Bonney added: “What we’re doing is quite bold and simple, but we are doing this across the whole city. We think it will be the biggest ever light show because of the sheer number of venues that are involved. The beams will have a much better impact from a distance than if you are close up to them.

“A really important point is that all of what we’re doing across the city just wouldn’t be possible during any other August in Edinburgh.”

Donald Wilson, culture leader at the city council, one of the festival’s main funders, said: Since the very beginning our festivals have fought against all odds – acting as a beacon of hope to unite people from all over Europe after the Second World War.

The Usher Hall is among the venues which is being transformed by the lighting displays to mark the start of the festivals season in Edinburgh. Picture: Ryan Buchanan

"Over the last 73 years they have turned a small city like Edinburgh into the world’s biggest stage and, while we have to do things very differently this year, they will continue to light up our city and our screens.

“The festival organisers have very creatively designed a programme which will bring audiences from across the world together to enjoy a one-of-a-kind celebration of culture, proving that Edinburgh’s festival spirit shines on.

"Of course, it will be tempting to watch the displays live and in person, so we’ll be encouraging everyone to stay indoors or at a safe distance. This August, the best festival views are to be found at home.”

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The Nelson Monument on Calton Hill.
Ghost Lights are being set out from cultural venues across Edinburgh.
Edinburgh Castle esplanade is normally home to the Tattoo every August. Picture: Ryan Buchanan
The Festival Theatre is being lit up again for the first time in months. Picture: Ryan Buchanan
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