Time for a People's Festival

Well-founded charges of elitism and inaccessibility are regularly levelled at the Edinburgh Festival. Ironically, it was similar charges that led to the emergence of The Edinburgh People's Festival some fifty years ago. Colin Fox recalls this unjustly forgotten episode in the history of Scottish popular culture.

The 1945 Labour government took the visionary decision to lift the post-war gloom through the inauguration of an international celebration of the Arts. Edinburgh was chosen as the location rather than the other possibility, Bath, as it had more venues spared by the Luftwaffe.

Clement Attlee's government enlisted those whom Hamish Henderson, the great Scots singer, songwriter and poet describes as 'the Edimbourgeoisie'- what a wonderfully accurate description - the city's arty elite and effete middle class, to organise the party and draw up the invitations. They remain firmly in charge to this day, self-elected critics and guardians of taste and morality.

Given the way this elite arts festival developed, more than just 'Portobello's proletariat', as Hamish might describe them, found themselves excluded. A debate arose as to how this Edinburgh Festival had failed the people. Opinion was sharply divided. Some, like poet and writer Hugh MacDiarmid, dismissed the event as 'the latest English cosmopolitan plot to subvert the native Scottish culture', and argued for a boycott. Others, like Henderson himself, Edinburgh Trades Union Council, the Miners' Union, Labour and Communist Parties, took the view that an opportunity existed to establish a celebration of the arts with a wider appeal.


So it was that the Edinburgh Labour Festival Committee was established to organise a 'People's Festival' in 1951. Its aim, 'To initiate action designed to bring the Edinburgh Festival closer to the people, to serve the cause of international understanding and goodwill' struck a chord in the spirit of post-war Scotland. Central to its success, the organisers believed, was attracting working class families, and keeping prices within the reach of everyone. It was to be an open event, with an inclusive and co-operative spirit.

The involvement of the Communist Party, with a significant influence among a wide layer of radical young artists, writers, performers and musicians, was crucial. Trades union branches, cultural groups, community organisations and independent art groups were all brought together in a celebration of the arts 'By working people for working people.'

In August 1951 an ambitious People's Festival was presented. Highlights were Scots playwright Joe Corrie's 'In Place of Strife'and Ewan McColl's anti-nuclear play 'Uranium 235'. The climax to the week's celebration was a 'People's Ceilidh'. Singers, poets, performers and musicians from across the burgeoning Highlands and Islands folk scene were introduced by impresario Hamish Henderson himself.

The entire event was an enormous success, so much so that plans for an even more ambitious Festival were laid for the following year.


Such was the enthusiasm and momentum generated by the initial debut and with so many more people keen to participate that the 1952 festivities ran for three weeks. The event grew in confidence and stature and sought to reflect post-war frustrations in its theme that year, 'That the people's voice may be heard and the people's needs may be met.'

The EPF now claimed the backing of 50 organisations (compared to 17 the first year) representing 150,000 people. Regular reports appeared in the Daily Worker and the Edinburgh Evening News. There was a 'People's Art Exhibition', 'comprising paintings, drawings and photographs by and about working people'

Ewan MacColl wrote a new play, 'The Travellers', for that year's Festival. The action takes place on an express train and a special set giving the impression of interior coaches was erected in the gangway of the theatre, with the audience seated on either side.

In honour of the 60th birthday of Hugh MacDiarmid, (by then reconciled to participation), a series of poetry recitals was arranged 'representing various aspects of the 'Scottish Renaissance Movement.' which he had helped to create. Young Scots poets lined up to deliver tributes in Lallans (Lowlands Scots), English and Gaelic. Sydney Goodsir Smith, Alexander Trocchi, Norman McCaig and Sorley McLean, who would all become key figures of Scots poetry, led the way.

A series of four Beethoven recitals, with explanations of the composer's life and work, was delivered in the unusual surroundings of George Heriot's School (Edinburgh's most prestigious fee paying academy). The comments of miners, their wives and children in the newspapers reflect their glee at gaining access to the august corridors of Edinburgh's most prestigious fee paying schools as much as their enjoyment of Beethoven.

'Flatter No Flesh' was, as promoters of the EPF were quick to point out, the only new play being staged anywhere in Edinburgh Festival programme that year. The play attempted to reassess the important role John Knox played in the Reformation. Another play 'Out of Bondage' by James Gregson, a young Yorkshire schoolteacher, ended with the audience singing in 'militant spirit' Blake's 'Jerusalem'.

An impressive programme of lectures, films, dances and concerts all added to the grand scale. Willie Gallacher, the former Communist MP for West Fife, spoke on the 'American Threat to British Culture'. Lectures included 'Thomas Muir to Robert Owen- a culture of dissent', and 'The Revolutionary Socialism of William Morris'. The grand finale was once again the Ceilidh, with performers from the Western Isles plus special guests from the West Indies, and a re-enactment of the trial speech of Thomas Muir, leader of the Scots radicals in the 1790s. And all achieved on a shoestring! Unlike the official festival, with a princely budget for the time of £50,000, the EPF, repeatedly denied assistance by the Arts Council, ran on pennies from audiences and donations from unions. In an attempt to broaden the list of benefactors the name of the Committee was changed that year from the Edinburgh Labour Festival Committee to the People's Festival.


But just as there seemed no stopping its advance, dark clouds gathered off stage. The Scottish Trades Union Congress, one of the most important players in the organisation, was now in the grip of McCarthyism. Despite widespread protest, it proscribed the Edinburgh Labour People's Festival as a 'Communist Front'. The Labour Party followed suit.

This was a shattering blow, a kick in the teeth to the many people both inside and outside the Communist Party involved in its success. The diversity and broad appeal that had been the linchpin of its success now drained away like vital oil.

The 1953 festival, though much larger than the first year and introducing many interesting new innovations, had lost momentum compared to the second year's successes. Organisers spoke bravely of attractions in the new programme and being determined not to allow the ban to prevent their success. But it was bravado.

Not that there were not attractions on offer in 1953. Hugh MacDiarmid was again in the thick of things. There was the remarkable Czech film 'Janosik', a mixture of Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling and revolutionary cinematic techniques reminiscent of Eisenstein. There was an acclaimed presentation of the grand Moliere comedy 'Imaginary Invalid'. There was a 'sparkling' performance of Pudovkin's 'Storm Over Asia', the story of the Mongols' fight against British Imperialism in 1920s Russia. Ewan MacColl again played a captain's role in supporting the EPF, this time presenting an adaptation of the anti-war play 'Lysishpata'. Described by one reviewer as the 'most exciting production seen so far at either festival', it was not enough to lift the dispirited morale of many stalwarts.

There was a determination to keep going but by the following year even the die-hards could see the writing on the wall. A game attempt was made in 1954 to weather the storm and involved a singing troupe from Essex, an internationally renowned bass singer, Martin Lawrence, a children's concert, scientific experiments and of course the Ceilidh. All were fine in themselves but incomparable to what had gone before.

If 'imitation is the sincerest form of flattery', the official festival paid the EPF the huge compliment of arranging its own Ceilidh in 1954. The EPF's own Ceilidh was still the one to beat, however, for innovation and new talent. Hamish Henderson introduced young Gaelic singers and performers including Dominic Behan, brother of Brendan. But it was Jimmy MacBeth, a performer at all four people's ceilidh's, who hit the nail on the head, remarking that this would be his last as he was getting too old. It was, as many could see, to be everyone's last. The curtain came down on the Edinburgh People's Festival, 1951-1954.


The imitation Ceilidh by the official festival was not the only mark left by the EPF, not by any means. Today's Festival Fringe is without doubt a child of the People's Festival.

It owes much to those pioneers of the early 1950's.

Yet ironically the Fringe itself has now come dangerously close to the position of the original official event. Rather than being a celebration for the people of Scotland it is in danger of becoming simply a fuelling station for the international art set to fill time between Royal Ascot and Glyndebourne.

We often hear that 'one simply cannot find a venue in Edinburgh during August where one can present one's work'.

What tosh! The community venues in the Inch, Wester Hailes, Oxgangs , Pilton , Portobello, Restalrig, Craigmillar, and dozens more sit silent and unused and a new, interested and yet uninvited audience waits, still.

The aims of the Edinburgh People's Festival are perhaps more relevant today than they were half a century ago.

- Hamish Henderson's marvellous essay on 'The Edinburgh People's Festival 1951-1954' is contained in 'A Weapon in the Struggle', by Andy Croft, published by Pluto Press.


Daily Worker 1951-1954

Edinburgh Evening News August 1951,1952,1953,1954

Edinburgh Trades Union Council Minutes 1950-1954