Exclusive:The spectacular three-night Edinburgh International Festival curtain-raiser that will transform school overlooking Edinburgh Castle

Grounds of George Heriot’s to host night-time spectacle

The Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) is to stage a spectacular three-night curtain-raiser in the grounds of an historic school looking onto Edinburgh Castle.

George Heriot’s School, which has been compared to fictional wizarding school Hogwarts by many Harry Potter fans, will be transformed for an after-dark event inspired by the unique landscape of the Scottish capital, including its hidden vaults and tunnels.

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Elements of performance, music, storytelling, fire and video projections will be brought together at the all-ticket event, which will also be partly inspired by centuries of Edinburgh’s history, as well as stories of Scottish heritage and mythology.

Pinwheel, the creative producers of this year's Edinburgh International Festival curtain-raiser, previously worked on the Hull UK City of Culture programme in 2017Pinwheel, the creative producers of this year's Edinburgh International Festival curtain-raiser, previously worked on the Hull UK City of Culture programme in 2017
Pinwheel, the creative producers of this year's Edinburgh International Festival curtain-raiser, previously worked on the Hull UK City of Culture programme in 2017

Where to Begin, the first event the EIF has ever staged at the school, will also draw on the festival’s launch in the aftermath of the Second World War, when donations of coal from residents ensured the castle could be lit up during the event.

More than 3,000 tickets, which will go on sale from noon on June 18, will be available for each night of the “large-scale communal experience”, which will unfold between 9.45pm and 11pm on August 2, 3 and 4.

Where to Begin is expected to reflect EIF director Nicola Benedetti’s 2024 theme of “Rituals That Unite Us”, with the finale expected to see audiences gather in front of a large-scale video projection using the turreted building.

The creative team for the event, which is being staged under a new partnership between the festival and the malt whisky brand The Macallan, is being led by Katy Fuller, founder of outdoor festival and event specialists Pinwheel.

The grounds of George Heriot's School will host a three-night curtain-raiser for this year's Edinburgh International Festival in August. Picture: Daniel QuirkeThe grounds of George Heriot's School will host a three-night curtain-raiser for this year's Edinburgh International Festival in August. Picture: Daniel Quirke
The grounds of George Heriot's School will host a three-night curtain-raiser for this year's Edinburgh International Festival in August. Picture: Daniel Quirke

Ms Fuller had previously worked on “North of the Tyne, Under the Stars”, a night-time arts festival held in Newcastle, Northumberland and North Tyneside, a cultural festival staged across Newcastle, Hull, Leeds and Manchester to coincide with the Rugby World Cup two years ago, and Hull’s UK City of Culture programme in 2019.

Ms Fuller told The Scotsman: “I had already had a few conversations with the festival and was then invited to come to the opening event last year and start thinking about ‘reimagining’ an opening event.

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“The overarching theme of the festival was a really exciting starting point, as I often try to bring little rituals into my events – moments of exchange, that mark a tradition and feel like there is a communal sharing of something. The thing that really underpins the whole concept for the event is the idea of setting an ignition point for this extraordinary outpouring of creativity and energy across the city, and that there must be something beneath the surface of the city that causes it to happen.

“It’s also about the fact that audiences have a part to play in that as well. It’s not just about the artists. It’s about the coming together of artists and audiences to kick-start that festival energy.”

Pinwheel, the creative producers of this year's Edinburgh International Festival curtain-raiser, previously worked on the event 'North of the Tyne, Under the Stars,' which was staged in Newcastle, Northumberland and North Tyneside.Pinwheel, the creative producers of this year's Edinburgh International Festival curtain-raiser, previously worked on the event 'North of the Tyne, Under the Stars,' which was staged in Newcastle, Northumberland and North Tyneside.
Pinwheel, the creative producers of this year's Edinburgh International Festival curtain-raiser, previously worked on the event 'North of the Tyne, Under the Stars,' which was staged in Newcastle, Northumberland and North Tyneside.

The independent school’s history can be traced back to 1628, when it was built with a bequest from the goldsmith George Heriot to provide an education for Edinburgh’s “faitherless bairns".

Former pupils include actors Ken Stott and Alastair Sim, the artist Henry Raeburn, Mike Scott, frontman with The Waterboys, DJ Mark Goodier, novelist Nigel Tranter and filmmaker Charlotte Wells.

Ms Fuller said: “We needed somewhere with a big facade for the projections, but we also wanted somewhere with a space for people to explore as well. We had a shortlist of venues and were able to secure the one we really wanted to work in. From there, we have been able to take inspiration from the building, celebrate it and make it a central character.

"When you walk into the site, you will be met by this amazing building surrounded by beautiful lawns. As you come round to the rear of the site, you will see the castle. When you are in there, the views that you get of the city are astonishing, so it was also about how we play with that as well.

The grounds of George Heriot's School will host a three-night curtain-raiser for this year's Edinburgh International Festival in August. Picture: Greg MacveanThe grounds of George Heriot's School will host a three-night curtain-raiser for this year's Edinburgh International Festival in August. Picture: Greg Macvean
The grounds of George Heriot's School will host a three-night curtain-raiser for this year's Edinburgh International Festival in August. Picture: Greg Macvean

“It’s a magical space, bang in the middle of the city. But when you’re in there it feels sort of secluded. It has a certain frisson about it which just seemed perfect for the event. It’s been such a gift to get the chance to invent an opening event for such an amazing, iconic festival in an inspirational city like Edinburgh.”

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Also involved in the Where to Begin creative team are theatre-maker Simon Sharkey, projection mapping and video installation experts Yeast Culture, composer Roma Yagnik, playwright Davey Anderson, fire specialists AndNow, theatre designer Becky Minto and lighting designer Phil Supple.

Ms Fuller said: “I feel that as soon as people come through the gateway they will be in a different place and mindset for the story we want to tell. We want to create a world almost like a hidden Edinburgh, which is part of the force of creativity that is unleashed every August. When you arrive, you will have a sense of that other world.

"We will take the audience through a number of rituals, one of which is drawn from the origins of the festival in 1947, when the people of the city donated coal rations so that the castle could be lit up, and we have fire as a welcoming force.

“There will be an environment to journey through, with beautiful music and sound, with a sense of something rumbling, something about to happen. There will be a few little surprises in there.”

Festival director Nicola Benedetti said: “We know audiences will be blown away by this spectacle. We're proud to show the formidable creative power and potential of Edinburgh and its people to the world.

The grounds of George Heriot's School will host a three-night curtain-raiser for this year's Edinburgh International Festival in August. Picture:  Daniel QuirkeThe grounds of George Heriot's School will host a three-night curtain-raiser for this year's Edinburgh International Festival in August. Picture:  Daniel Quirke
The grounds of George Heriot's School will host a three-night curtain-raiser for this year's Edinburgh International Festival in August. Picture: Daniel Quirke

"It's an event that beckons us to find new ways to experience and appreciate our city.”

Jaume Ferràs, global creative director at The Macallan, said: “Where to Begin will captivate audiences with stories of Scotland's past, present and future, and will offer the inspiration that only a live event like this can offer.”

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