ALL the High Street is a stage, and all the street artists its players. The cobbled stretch of Royal Mile from Parliament Square down to the Tron Kirk is more than a slice of history preserved in stone – it’s a grand, open-air theatre, that has been the destination for many a performer since the 1960s. Welcome to the world’s biggest art festival, a fraction, this pandemic year, of its normal self, but still buzzing with life and risk, alive, as ever, with some of the world’s most skilled street acts.

Their theatre is built, chiefly of stone and air. They walk the high wire above the mosaic Heart of Midlothian. They fire breathe or juggle by the Mercat Cross or, sometimes, under the bronze gaze of a silent audience of David Hume or Adam Smith. On a street of many monuments, living statues created by performers mingle with the permanent staff, ephemeral figures, here one month, gone the next.

Some street performers return year after year, and even did so in 2020’s first summer of the pandemic. Among them is Dave Southern, creator of Chester the drumming puppet, who regards it as “one of the greatest street performance spaces in the world”.

Also to be found this year, causing gasps on the Royal Mile, is sword-swallower and juggler of chainsaws, the Mighty Gareth – who came up to the Edinburgh fringe and ran out of money, and turned to fire-eating in a bid to make cash. “Performers,” he has said, “don’t retire from performing. It’s in us, we do it our whole lives”

Or Pete Anderson, whose seemingly unhinged Unstable Acts can involve him perching on a freestanding ladder balanced like a stilt on the cobbles, juggling knives in the air, often whilst wearing a kilt, or just his underpants. These are artists that go out on a limb – who would have you on the edge of your seat, were there any seats available. Even behind Covid masks it’s possible to see the jaws drop.

Though, of course, what the artists want is for a few pounds to drop, into their hats.

The Royal Mile hasn’t been the only stage for street performers. The Mound is also usually host to such feats of daring. Not so this year, as the area has been given over to a Johnnie Walker bar – much to the annoyance of street performers and their audience – and seems now like a stage without its players.

Not so, the Royal Mile. It thrums – even if more quietly than usually.


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