Turning a Last Resort Option into a Record-Breaking Event

Tyler C. Lott, of the SPAB, and John McKinney, of the Scottish Traditional Building Forum, Reflect on the 2020 Edinburgh Traditional Building Festival.

© Scottish Traditional Building Forum

Sometimes great ideas come from unexpected places. While it might be somewhat of a household name by now, The Edinburgh Traditional Building Festival comes from humble beginnings sparked by a chance meeting of ideas from one of our Edinburgh Traditional Building Forum members. Nine years ago, while attending the Festival of Politics, a member found himself observing swaths of tourists marveling crane-necked at the glory of Edinburgh’s built heritage. As his attention was drawn back to this celebration of politics, something clicked and he declared, “if they can do a festival of politics, then we can do a festival of traditional buildings”.

The following year, the Edinburgh Traditional Building Festival was born as part of the Festival Fringe and aimed to deliver a number of demonstrations and educational events in order to Celebrate Edinburgh’s Traditional Buildings. With practical demonstrations such as stonemasonry, roof slating and tiling, leadwork, lime, painting and decorating, and other traditional skills on display, the principle of the Festival was to connect traditional building owners, caretakers, and enthusiasts to the expertise and skills needed to help them understand and maintain these magnificent structures. We knew that understanding the way traditional buildings were constructed and functioned was the key to ensuring they remained well-maintained and well-loved for future generations.  As the years went on, the Festival continued to grow in popularity with the last few years being delivered to completely sold out crowds and the Forum expected 2020 to be no different. Unfortunately, like the rest of the world, we had not foreseen the global pandemic that would disrupt everything and challenge how we would adapt to deliver the Festival, if we would be able to at all.

It was clear in our discussions within the Forum that failing to host the Festival was not going to be an option, no matter the obstacles. Our members were certain that what this free event offered our public was too important to let our physical distancing get in the way. We knew that bringing a week-long, ten-show event online would be challenging at this time, but we were determined to make it work. Our presenters were confident that through the use of technology, we could deliver just as beneficial of an experience and we were impressed with how well and how quickly they adapted to do so with the guidance, support, and encouragement of our festival organisers.

As with any new event, you prepare yourself for a target, usually a respectable, if restrained one and we were no different. As it was the first year we were offering it online, we set what we thought to be a lofty goal of delivering the Festival to our usual size audience of 400 over the course of the week. However, it became evident shortly after tickets were available that it was going to be a record-breaking year. As the ticket bookings continued to go up, we became astonished to see how wide of an audience this event appealed to, and the numbers just kept going up. In our physical locations in past years, we’ve been restricted to near on 40 attendees per event, yet, without our physical barriers, we quickly surpassed 1,000 tickets… then 1,200… then 1,500… then 2,000. By the end of the festival a total of 2,126 tickets were totalled and audiences tuned in from across Europe, Asia, and North America with engaging questions being asked and informative advice being now made globally.

It is no secret that we believe our built heritage is second-to-none, but this year’s online Festival showed us that traditional building owners, caretakers, and enthusiasts across the globe are turning to the buildings and craftspeople of Edinburgh to help protect their own traditional buildings in their respective countries. While each session was scheduled to last for an hour, our presenters regularly and graciously stayed online longer to continue to address the incoming streams of questions and calls for advice. As we continue to receive positive feedback from audience members alike, we’re astonished by the impact that our craftspeople are having on traditional buildings across the globe in unexpected ways. Dervish David Mitrovica, tuning in from Toronto Canada commented, “I’d like to thank you for organising this conference. I’m extraordinarily impressed. I’m a homeowner in Toronto, Canada and I’m learning what to do to repair and conserve my late mother’s century old home… It’s not old by UK standards but, nonetheless, the house was built using traditional techniques. I won’t pursue other changes until I’m better informed and your webinar was extremely helpful.”

It became quickly clear to us that while we know that hands-on demonstrations are an irreplaceable experience that offer unique knowledge, a coinciding digital presence is not only available, but in demand. While we aim to return to our live skills demonstrations of roof slating, roof leadwork, stonemasonry, painting and decorating, sash & case window and others in the coming year, we have learned that the world wants to tune in to what is going on in the world of traditional building in Edinburgh and we are keen on examining the feasibility of a hybrid delivery model moving forward. Of course, as the forum is volunteer driven, a hybrid model will likely present additional challenges and costs, but with the breadth of skills and knowledge within the forum, we are sure we can come up with something even bigger and better post pandemic and we hope to see you all there.

Gordon Lindhurst MSP kindly submitted a parliamentary motion in the Scottish Parliament to recognise all the presenters at this year’s Edinburgh Traditional Building Festival.

The Edinburgh Traditional Building Forum would like to extend our gratitude to all of our presenters and members who have helped make this event possible. Special thanks go to Tyler C. Lott of the SPAB for leading on the project and hosing, Ali Davey of HES and Euan Leitch of BEFS for their assistance in hosting, Gillian Murray of AECOM her assistance in organising the event, and John McKinney of the Scottish Traditional Building Forum for his continued support and assistance in making the Edinburgh Traditional Building Festival a reality. 

This event would not have been made possible without the specialists and craftspeople who have dedicated their time and expertise to the Festival. This year’s presenters included Kevin Stewart, MSP (Minister for Local Government and Planning), Una Richard (Scottish Historic Building Trust), Jessica Hunnisett (HES and SPAB Scholar and Fellow), Dr. Martin Gillespie (British Geological Survey), Rosamund Artiz (Scottish Lime Centre Trust), Andy Bradley (Andrew Bradley Stonemasonry and SPAB Fellow), Emma Rose Berry (LDN Architects), Steve McLennan (NFRC), Graeme Millar (NFRC), Oliver Beatson (HES and SPAB Fellow), James Innerdale (Conservation Architect, Historic Building Consultant, and SPAB Scholar), Craig Mattocks (Cademuir Building Consultants LTD ) and Jackie Timmons (Edinburgh City Council Shared Repairs Scheme).

For more information on the Edinburgh Traditional Building Forum, our events, and how you can get involved, please visit our website or connect with us on social media @ScotTradBuild on Twitter.