Edinburgh’s Christmas Market – naughty or nice?

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Welcome to this month’s Real English video where I tell you about Edinburgh and Scotland’s history and culture, and you get a great English lesson looking at language in context! This month we are lookikng at Edinburgh’s Christmas Market and why it might need to be on the naughty list.

Edinburgh’s Christmas market is back!

It’s the holiday season once again and while we get ready for Santa to pay us a visit, one of the most popular things to do in Edinburgh to get you into the festive spirit is to pay a visit to the Christmas Market. It has recently been voted one of the top 5 markets in Europe, surveys say that locals and businesses alike love it, and the Council says it brings a ton of money to the city.

But, is it all Christmas cheer? The last few years have seen a backlash from heritage groups and Edinburgh residents, lack of planning permission, and overcrowding. So, is it all Jingle Bells, or does Edinburgh Christmas deserve to get coal in its stocking?

The history of Edinburgh’s Christmas Market

Full disclosure everyone – while I LOVE Christmas, I am not a fan of the market. I wasn’t always like that. When they started the celebrations way back in the 90s, I loved it. Granted, I was much younger then so I probably took more joy from it, but it definitely had a different vibe. And back then the big celebration was Hogmanay, not Christmas.

Historically, this makes more sense. Scotland didn’t celebrate Christmas for almost 400 years due to Presbyterianism, so the big holiday here was the 31st December. There were some awesome parties in the centre like the George Street ceilidh. This was one of my favourite activities with everyone getting involved and dancing in the streets. I remember taking part in a world record breaking strip the willow.

Until 1996, you didn’t even need a ticket to come, but the Street Party became a victim of its own success that year with so many people attending that there was a crush, resulting in many being hospitalised. From that point on you needed a ticket. I would also argue that that’s when things began to change with the festivities too. 

Edinburgh's Christmas Market in East Princes Street Gardens
Edinburgh’s Christmas Market at night

Edinburgh’s first Christmas market

1999 was the first Christmas market in the capital, and run by a Scottish company called Unique Events who managed both the Christmas and Hogmanay side of things. This would change in 2013 when London based company Underbelly would take over the market, and eventually Hogmanay too in 2017. And festive celebrations in Edinburgh got bigger.

The market began to grow, with East Princes Street Gardens and St Andrew’s Square being used. Installations were set up on George Street and on the Royal Mile. And eventually West Princes Street Gardens also became a venue. Now, what’s the problem with that you might ask? Edinburgh is a beautiful city, and it’s a great idea to use it as a backdrop for these fun and festive activities. Ah, but here is the thing. Underbelly is a private company, and Edinburgh’s streets are Common Good Land.

Common good assets are property that belongs to the Burghs of Scotland. These can be moveable things like paintings or furniture, or fixed like land and buildings. Before the law was changed to officially control common good land in 1975, we have no way of knowing how much of this property was sold, fenced off or stolen through corruption. It’s part of the ugly story of Scotland’s land ownership, the main point being that we have no idea who owns Scotland. I highly recommend checking out Andy Wightman’s extensive work in this area. 

Edinburgh’s common good land includes Princes Street Gardens, the streets of the Old and New Town, and Calton Hill, all of which are used during the Christmas and Hogmanay celebrations. And which are being managed by a private company. This means that public land is being used for private profit. Now, it’s not like the Council are giving this away for free. According to them, outsourcing the event saves Edinburgh £2 million a year. But we also have no idea how much they made from Underbelly, or how much Underbelly made in profits, because they refused to release the information.

If that all sounds rather shady to you, it’s because it was. Underbelly started to become particularly unpopular in the city after their 2019 market debacle when they built an enormous platform in East Princes Street Gardens to increase the available room, but without getting any planning permission. It then came out that they hadn’t applied for planning permission in 2018 either, and the Council hadn’t even realised.

This is not unusual for Common Good Land. This bar has put up the same structure at Christmas for 3 years. Now, I am not against a hospitality business making money,especially after what the industry has been through. But what I think is insane is that they can build a structure in a UNESCO world heritage site 3 years in a row, apply for planning permission after it’s been built, have that permission denied, and then do it all over again. Clearly, the system is not working.

Back to Underbelly and using common good land. The Christmas Market usually runs for 6 weeks starting in mid-November, which means 6 weeks of no public space for locals. But it’s actually much more than 6 weeks, because that doesn’t take into account the time for setting up and taking down this “winter wonderland”. And that doesn’t take into account the state that they leave the public land in. East Princes Street Gardens looked like a mud bath for MONTHS after the market was over. 

It also doesn’t take into account the damage that these structures can do to the land and trees that grow on them. And then there is the heritage issue of a fairground which doesn’t match its UNESCO surroundings. 

East Princes Street Gardens looking like a mud bath after the Edinburgh Christmas Market
East Princes Street Gardens was left a mud bath for months after the Edinburgh Christmas Market

Underbelly carried out a survey after 2019 to try and improve their reputation in local residents’ eyes. These results are questionable as their data wasn’t exactly solid, and it was not done independently. The bad press saw Edinburgh Council run a survey with residents about the future of the market. The result was significant support for the festivals to continue, as long as they were overhauled. That meant the environmental sustainability of the events, including minimising use of greenspace; making the celebrations family friendly; extending events beyond the city centre; and giving priority to existing and new local businesses. 

The Edinburgh Christmas Market in 2022

So, Underbelly lost out on both the Christmas and Hogmanay celebrations, and the Council put new ones out to tender. All good in the hood you might think. But not really. Because the new company, German firm Angels Event Experience Ltd, pulled out of the contract with weeks to go.

There has been no democratic process of the winter festivals, with councillors excluded from decisions and updates not being given. The city’s heritage bodies Edinburgh World Heritage and The Cockburn Society have once again expressed their concern about the appropriacy of the market in Edinburgh’s Old and New Town.

And if you look around the market itself, there is nothing particularly Scottish about it. I would argue this should be an opportunity for Scotland’s food producers, artists and craftsmen to present their products to the world, but the majority of the stalls seem to be selling generic Christmas items. The arena wasn’t finished in time for the opening and people reported “Disneyland queues” to get in. 

So, what should the future of Edinburgh’s Christmas Market be? You can call me a Scrooge if you like, but I think there needs to be a clear and accountable process for using public land. And I’m not the only one. There is now talk about the winter festivals being brought back under public ownership, which will perhaps make a difference to how it is run. Time will tell. But in the meantime, let  me wish you and yours the very merriest of Christmases wherever you are, and a happy Hogmanay. See you in 2023!

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