ORGANISING a festival always comes with a degree of uncertainty and in Scotland that usually extends to the summer weather. This year, however, it's been more akin to building a house on shifting sands.

Appropriate perhaps for Fringe by the Sea, the North Berwick festival that has been running in the East Lothian coastal town for more than a decade.

The community event has been growing in size and influence, particularly since it was taken over by new director Rory Steel in 2018. With his small team, there was an ambition to grow the festival, to make it longer and to attract bigger names – but to retain its grassroots atmosphere.

As experienced as Rory Steel is, having been involved in pop-up events at the Fringe as well as running a festival in the New Forest for a number of years, there is still some anxiety about the lack of Covid-related clarity (at time of writing) of what might change in Scotland on August 9. Or before then. Or not. You get the picture.

"In many ways we're fortunate in being a smaller event, with 100 our largest audience. For 2020, we didn't throw in the towel until around April, which was later than some events. When it became clear that it couldn't happen, we immediately started thinking forward to 2021 and the things that we might have to put in place."

READ MORE: On the eve of the Edinburgh festival, what does the future hold for the arts?

The idea of holding the festival outdoors was discussed with the local council, who were open to additional spaces around the town accommodating large marquees with open sides for ventilation.

"In the past, the festival has mainly taken place in two large Spiegeltents down by the harbour, and also in venues across the town," adds Steel.

"However, there are areas such as the Lodge Grounds, which I think many day trippers who come here don't even know exist, because they sit high above the town. The council was open to it being used."

Buildings such as the library have been used but this year a marquee will be erected outside.

"So it's outdoor, but the audience will be covered if the gods aren't kind with weather," adds Steel.

Even if restrictions are lifted on August 9, the festival will still encourage people to maintain distancing, wear masks, sanitise hands and make the declaration that they haven't had any symptoms.

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Away from Covid and putting measures in place to make sure the audience feels safe coming to see live entertainment, there is obviously the usual pressures of programming and of selling tickets to people.

"The fact that a few events have already sold is a testament to the names that we've been attracting, but also that the measures that we've put in place have made them feel as if this will be a safe event to attend."

Rory Steel's background in arts promotion goes back a long way, to that great rite of passage, handing out flyers on the High Street in Edinburgh during the festival.

"My mother had a theatre company for 25 years, and of course I had to help," he says. "I do think that a lot of people in the city do feel that the festival has got too big. That the city is too full during August.

"We have to learn from that. We want to grow the event, but never to the detriment of its roots as a community festival.

"As the demographics of the area change, then we have programmed accordingly. Again, though, that would never be to the detriment of audiences who have supported the festival for many years and are, by and large, slightly older. So, just looking at music, we might have Basement Jaxx, but there is still a healthy element of trad and Scottish talent."

Scottish talent has been particularly important this year with travel difficulties for many overseas artists. Looking at just a small part of the music offering, there's everything from Lulu to Stornoway's Peat & Diesel, from Mica Paris and Candi Staton to Neu Reekie and Eddi Reader.

READ MORE: An enchanting 'secret garden' only a stone's throw from the bustle of Edinburgh

"It's important that we include local talent. This year down at the harbour The Lighthouse Stage will be free, and has been created to showcase local bands. In addition to the street food down there, we're also adding an artisans' market where people picking up some food and listening to music can browse everything from pottery to wicker chairs."

Apart from an increased market from domestic tourism, Steel knows that many people visiting Edinburgh will come down to North Berwick for some sea air and see what the town's Fringe has to offer.

"We have very little dovetailing with the Edinburgh Fringe– sometimes comedians and authors, but in general they can come down here to see something different.

"That's obviously good for the economy of the town. The key is to attract the best names in every area we cover, but make sure that the original spirit is maintained."

Five by the Sea


Rab Noakes & Jill Jackson

Saturday, August 14, 9pm

Glenkinchie Lowland Stage

When Rab Noakes, then producer of the Brand New Opry radio show invited Jill Jackson onto the show as a guest in the 1990s it was the beginning of a great friendship and musical partnership. Since then, they have worked together on records, on radio and on stage. Like all Rab's shows, either solo or with musical collaborators, it's a mix of great songs, great playing and fascinating stories from six decades in music.


Simon Evans

Wednesday, August 11, 6pm

Belhaven Big Top

Simon Evans is one of the sharpest stand-ups on the circuit. He is equally as critical of all political sides, calling out incompetence wherever he sees it. His new show has a more personal perspective on events that turned his world upside down this year.


Lemn Sissay

Sunday, August 8, 5pm

Belhaven Big Top

Lemn Sissay is one of our best-loved poets but this event focuses on his powerful memoir My Name Is Why. It's a life story looking at neglect and determination, misfortune and hope, cruelty and triumph. The book has received rich critical acclaim and Lemn will perform a special reading at Fringe By The Sea.


Gail Porter

Friday, August 6, 2.30pm

Belhaven Big Top

Returning close to her Edinburgh home, Gail Porter is in conversation with Jennifer Crichton, editor of The Flock magazine.

Gail has been open about her struggles with self-doubt, anxiety, depression and anorexia during her early career as a television presenter. She went on to experience post-natal depression, alopecia, self-harm, divorce and homelessness.

READ MORE: Shetland fiddle player Jenna Reid on the magic of her island homeland

These were documented in an acclaimed BBC documentary Being Gail Porter. Gail's is an inspiring story of survival.


Phil Kay – Gimme Your Left Shoe

Saturday, August 7, 11am

Belhaven Big Top

If any stand-up was made to entertain children, it's Phil Kay. In this show, every child gives Phil their left shoe and has to win it back by performing a skit. Parents are asked to bring along any old, odd, safe object to be used as props by Phil.

Fringe by the Sea takes place in North Berwick from August 6 to 15. For more information and tickets visit