How it all started

It all really started in Edinburgh in the late 1980s. The city had been going through a period of stagnation, typified by derelict land or deserted buildings which had been earmarked for developments for which the City Council had no money.

In the late 1980s an energetic team developed in the City Council’s Economic Development Department under the leadership of Bill Ross. Bill had come from handling property for British Rail, and to him a piece of derelict land was not a problem, but an opportunity. In the case of local authorities, it was an opportunity for partnerships with the private sector, to access the necessary investment.

The extent of the challenge they faced was brought home when Glasgow began to cash in on the results of all its own redevelopment work. ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’ was the slogan – beautifully concise and with a slight touch of ambiguity.

Areas of opportunity

By the late 1980s it was clear that Glasgow was forging miles ahead in several areas. It was successful in hosting the 1988 Garden Festival, and then it hooked the big one – European Capital of Culture for 1990.

This really stung in Edinburgh, which had with its great tradition in art and architecture and literature regarded itself as the encapsulation of Scotland’s culture. But by now its Economic Development Department was in full cry, tackling the problem of derelict sites and turning them into new areas of opportunity, which shortly would become the South Gyle retail and technology park, the finance centre, the conference centre and much else. The work was being carried out by a team led by Ian Wall, and Ian’s approach to Glasgow’s success in the field of culture was to seek a positive and innovative reply.

And that was how the city of Edinburgh held the world’s first-ever science festival in April 1989.

One of the people watching Edinburgh’s progress most keenly was Orkney Tourist Board’s Chief Executive, Josh Gourlay. He had noticed how the Isle of Man had built up a massive all-the-year-round tourist industry through a portfolio of festivals, and decided that Orkney, with its wealth of history and culture and environment, had the potential to do the same.

So Josh gave strong support to the first St Magnus Festival in 1978, and then was a founder-member of the group which created the Orkney Folk Festival. With a keen interest himself in science and particularly astronomy, he was determined that Orkney should move fast in the wake of Edinburgh’s success.

Orkney has a tradition of such events, in community concerts and gala weeks, in which everyone joins in and enriches the event in their own way. The challenge was to find ways to bring that atmosphere to Edinburgh, which has a rather more staid tradition of public events.

And so one of the first regions in the world to take up the new concept was Orkney in 1991.

It was in a way a coming home for the Science Festival concept, as the whole format for it in Edinburgh had been created by Orcadian Howie Firth, who had built into the idea numerous memories of festival activities in his home islands.

‘A science festival is first and foremost a festival,’ he says. ‘Up till then, science had been something that was good for you, and science events were aimed at scientists and people who were already interested. By contrast a festival was something for the whole community to enjoy, something fresh and creative, with surprises and excitement and sheer enjoyment.

‘So in the first Edinburgh Science Festival, for instance, we had a talk by Caroline Wickham-Jones at the Royal Botanic Gardens about her excavations on the island of Rum and the herbs she had found. We then had a sample of ancient beer, prepared in advance by Professor Geoffrey Palmer of Heriot-Watt University, accompanied by Orkney oatcakes and cheese.

‘Seeing the way in which the Edinburgh audience cheerfully relaxed and enjoyed the beer and the food and the discussion, it was clear that we had confirmed the concept. And it’s great to see how it has now spread around the world.’

Howie Firth

Festivals for the community

The development of Orkney Science Festival would have been impossible without the core support of Orkney Islands Council. Orkney’s rich diversity of festivals is the result of the vision of the former Orkney Tourist Board, supported by the economic development resources of the Council’s Reserve Fund.

The Tourist Board wanted to extend Orkney’s tourist season from its summer peak, and they noted the high levels of visitor numbers attracted to the Isle of Man by its various festivals through the year. They therefore encouraged the development of first the St Magnus Festival and then Orkney Folk Festival.

Both of these festivals had a tremendous feeling of community about the way in which they took shape. The St Magnus Festival came about through the move to Orkney of the composer Peter Maxwell Davies, his meeting with the Bevan family and the poet George Mackay Brown, and then the energy and flair of the team of Archie Bevan, Norman Mitchell and Jack Ridgway who made it happen, with vitality and flair.

The idea of island Folk Festivals had been developing in discussions between the Orkney and Shetland Tourist Boards, and the opportunity to move forward with the Orkney concept came when Marjorie Linklater wanted to invite to Orkney a talented poet from Northern Ireland, James Simmons. BBC Radio Orkney agreed to contribute some sponsorship if a package could be developed which included one or two musicians, and a BBC producer in Belfast – Paul Muldoon (renowned today for his poetry) – found them. The Scottish Arts Council needed an organisation to channel grant funding through, and so the Orkney Folk Festival Society was born. The visit was a resounding success, and the Society met on the last day of the year to plan the first Orkney Folk Festival for the following May, just five months away.

Orkney 1991

That same spirit of enterprise was in the air when the Tourist Board heard about the success of the Edinburgh Science Festival in 1989. The Board’s Chief Executive, Josh Gourlay, who had been to the fore in the development of the St Magnus Festival and the Folk Festival, was ahead of all the other regions of the UK in seeing a way to adapt the science festival concept locally. Even areas like Cheltenham, with some of Britain’s finest festivals, had to wait for a number of years before they could see a way to develop the idea in the most appropriate way.

All three Festivals in Orkney received core support from Orkney Islands Council’s Reserve Fund. This is the fund that was established when the oil industry came to Orkney in the 1970s. The aim of the Fund is to support developments which will help to sustain Orkney in the years to come as North Sea oil runs down, and the expansion of tourism has long been a priority.

The first Orkney Science Festival took place in 1991, opened by Professor Heinz Wolff. It was the world’s second science festival, after Edinburgh.

Over the years since then, the programme has included speakers such as primatologist Jane Goodall, astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, physicist Prof. Peter Higgs, American astronaut John Young, cognitive psychologist Prof. Richard Gregory, educator Bunker Roy, Nobel laureate Brian Josephson, mathematician John Barrow, and television presenters Heather Couper, Tim Hunkin and Kathy Sykes.

Turnouts for events are high, with over 4,800 attendances for ticketed events in the 2016 Festival. The total attendance figure for the Festival, including unticketed and schools events, was just over 12,800.

Spreading further

Despite the success of the first Edinburgh Science Festival, many other places were slow to take up the idea. One reason was uncertainty as to whether something developed in a festival city like Edinburgh could naturally be adapted to conditions elsewhere. Also to many people in science and industry, the concept was still in its very early days. But Edinburgh’s success continued and over the course of time science festivals began to appear in various other towns and cities in the UK and overseas.

In some areas the driving force was educational, with colleges or universities to the fore, and in others it was economic development, following Edinburgh’s ‘city of science’ approach.

The British Association for the Advancement of Science – now the British Science Association – rebranded its annual general meeting as a science festival while continuing the traditional formal structure of the programme. Founded in 1831 to bring people together to debate core issues of science, the Association’s annual meeting in a university town has long been regarded as a ‘Parliament of Science’.

On the continent of Europe the science festival concept was taken forward in an imaginative way by various areas, amongst them Gothenburg, where the annual science festival has all the sparkle of a spring morning on the Baltic. You can go to a talk on polar science and then a concert of music on an Arctic theme, or hear a presentation on polymers and visit an exhibition of new fashion design. The venues range from modern lecture theatres to 17th-century buildings on the waterfront, lit by lamps and candles.

There is a similar sparkle about Festival Nauke in Belgrade, and in science festivals in cities like Warsaw and Genoa, where events take place in historic buildings, from cathedrals to private homes.

The Rolls Royce of science festivals has to be the World Science Festival. Taking place in New York in five days of late May or early June, it was co-founded by string theorist Prof. Brian Greene, and its leading members include the actor Alan Alda, who has hosted various award-winning series of science broadcasts. The panel of advisers contains some of the best-known names in science and the media, and there is a team of 47 staff to run the programme. The result is a programme of very high quality which has included over the years highlights such as a panel discussion on neuroscience and the nature of music featuring Bobby McFerrin with an explanation of the pentatonic scale and audience participation in a clip which has since been viewed by more than 11 million people: see it here.

You can sample some other highlights from the World Science Festival on its own video channel.

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