IN the popular imagination, every magician needs a top hat. In that respect 37-year-old Kevin Quantum is no different. What is unusual is that right now he isn’t using his to pull a rabbit out of but to drop a fireball into. After flaring powerfully in his hand – his hand! – it disappears into the upturned topper, but when I peer inside there’s nothing to see. There isn’t even a whiff of singed lining. Even though I’ve seen how it’s done, it’s an impressive trick.

A less flammable prop is a deck of playing cards he produces which are covered in nine carat gold. “I think if you were a magician and you got them you’d think they were pretty useless,” he admits. But he likes how they glitter expensively as he fans them out and flicks them through the air. His preferred brand, he tells me, is Bicycle, which styles itself the world’s finest. They're specially engineered to be easy to control, to move smoothly and to act consistently every time. What Quantum doesn’t know about playing cards you could write in capital letters on the back of one. With a fat Sharpie.

“They’re a big part of my arsenal,” he says. “Playing cards are the main tool I would use in a close-up magic performance. Although I can make it work with pretty much any deck, you lose a bit of the smoothness and slickness of it. So if I’m trying to eliminate any possibility of something going wrong – stage magic in particular is all about risk management: you have to try to give the impression of power at all times – I’ll always use a pack of cards I’m familiar with. But I’ve always got 20 or 30 different tricks I could do with a borrowed pack.”

We’re talking in a vast empty space on the top floor of Edinburgh’s Biscuit Factory, a hip Leith venue-cum-office space redolent of shabby industrial chic and about as far from the world of children’s parties and end-of-the-pier attractions as you can get. The choice of backdrop isn’t down to sleight of hand on Quantum’s part – he has a lock-up nearby where he stashes his magician’s kit – but it’s indicative of the way he wants to reframe magic as an art form and his approach to programming the event he founded and which we’re here to discuss: the Edinburgh International Magic Festival, still the only one of its type in the UK.

Now in its ninth year, the Festival, which Quantum directs, opens on Friday and among the highlights are Dutch outfit Magus Utopia, fresh from their judge-wowing appearance on last weekend’s Britain’s Got Talent. They’ll perform at the Royal Lyceum Theatre at a gala night hosted by Quantum. Also featured in the Magic Festival programme are Rubik’s Cube maestro Tom Crosbie and pickpocket par excellence James Freedman, whose hands are reportedly insured for £1 million and who taught Sir Ben Kingsley a few tricks of the trade to prepare him for playing Fagin in Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist. There’s also a Wizard World Gathering which will see the Assembly Roxy venue turned into an atmospheric den of magical delights (complete with dragons) while away from the stage there are two Secret Room events, at Lauriston Castle and The Writers’ Museum off the Royal Mile.

For Quantum, the idea of a magic festival in Edinburgh is a no-brainer. Even leaving aside JK Rowling’s association with the city, there’s plenty in the capital’s back story that makes it the ideal place to celebrate both the trickery and staginess of magic but also the thing that gives it its edge: the sense that there might be something afoot which defies rational explanation. Edinburgh and its surrounds may have once been home to the arch-rationalists of the Scottish Enlightenment, but the city also led the way in burning witches, was home for a time to alchemist John Damien (who told James IV he could fly and broke a leg trying) and has even drawn Uri Geller, who in 2009 bought an island in the Forth which he believes has ancient Egyptian treasure buried on it. Even today it’s not hard to see how superstition pools in the Old Town’s tight, history-soaked closes and wynds, and in the spaces beneath them, such as Annie’s Room in subterranean tourist attraction Mary King’s Close. For years now visitors have reported all sorts of unexplainable goings-on there, from cameras misfiring to metal objects flying through the air.

One of Quantum’s favourite Edinburgh-based magic stories concerns Sigmund Neuberger, or The Great Lafayette to give him his stage name. The David Copperfield of his day, the German-born Neuberger earned tens of thousands of dollars a year on the American vaudeville circuit of the early 20th century but he met his end in Edinburgh on May 9 1911 – 107 years ago on Wednesday – when the stage at the Empire (now Festival) Theatre caught fire during the performance of his signature trick, The Lion’s Bride, in which a woman is turned into a lion. Oddly his dog Beauty, which had been given to him by Houdini, had died four days earlier. Neuberger wanted Beauty buried in a consecrated grave but the authorities would only consent if he agreed to be buried in the same plot. This he did, though he can’t have thought his death would come so soon.

“The story gets even more fascinating because after the whole thing burned down they uncovered a body which they thought was him but wasn’t,” says Quantum. In fact it turned out to be his body double. Neuberger’s body was found later, dressed identically but distinguishable by the rings: his bling was real, the body double’s jewellery was paste. “All these stories add texture to Edinburgh as a wonderful and amazing city,” says Quantum.

ONE less wonderful aspect of the city from his point of view is the way the Magic Festival is viewed by some in the cultural hierarchy as an anomaly or, worse, a sort of interloper in the Edinburgh festival offering. To Quantum’s eye, magic is every bit an art form as any other stage-set activity such as dance, theatre or opera. Possibly more so as it requires so many different skills on the part of the performer.

“There’s a lot going on, especially in stage magic because you’ve only gone one chance,” he says. “You have to have a level of choreography, so you’re acting like a dancer. You have to remember a sequence of moves. You have to remember a script, so there’s an actor’s delivery in all that. There’s a character beyond all this which should support all the magic and make it tangible for an audience. Quite often there’s backstage things happening as well that you need to be aware of.” And quite often there’s an audience member on stage too. The punter is always carefully and skilfully chosen, Quantum steers clear of anyone who volunteers - “inside my head alarm bells are going off,” he says – but even the most pliant helper brings an element of chance to proceedings. It’s a lot to conjure with (sorry) and still pull off a series of jaw-dropping tricks.

So is magic art? “The question shouldn’t even be asked,” he says. “Does it make you feel things? Yes. Then it’s art. Does it change the way you think when you leave the theatre? Yes. Then it’s art. Those are fundamental things that don’t need to be asked about magic. Can it be entertainment? Yes. Can it be more than that? Obviously.”

Accordingly, he has a jaundiced opinion of arts funding bodies such as Creative Scotland. “I went to one of their open forums and discussed magic with someone quite high up in the organisation and how to get it funded and he said to me: ‘If we funded magic we’d have to fund flower arranging’. That’s a direct quote from someone really high up in Creative Scotland and still high up. That really upset me. Our applications stopped at that point because if they have that fundamental mindset and opinion about magic it doesn’t matter how many amazing words I use on the application form, it won’t do anything.” He pauses. “I was upset for flower arrangers as well, don’t get me wrong.”

Casting his eye around elsewhere he sees magic being given far more respect and kudos in countries such as South Korea and France, where there is a growing New Magic movement that seeks to reposition magic as a form of high culture. Even the United States has given consideration to designating it an art form – in 2016 Republican Congressman Pete Sessions brought Resolution 642 before the House of Representatives. Its title was “Recognizing magic as a rare and valuable art form and national treasure”. For Quantum, then, “funding magic is like funding a dancer. You’re investing in that person. You have to trust them and they have to have a track record.”

But how do you gain that track record? One problem is that there is no “tangible certificate”, as he puts it, for magicians to be able to present as a form of credentials. Unlike in Harry Potter, you can’t go to wizard school. There is no Royal Conservatoire of Scotland for magicians. Instead they learn from other magicians, in much the same way as folk musicians once learned from each other.

What might help is for the Edinburgh Fringe – the world’s biggest arts festival – to have a separate magic section, as is the case at the world’s second-largest festival, the Adelaide Fringe. Quantum has recently returned from the South Australian city where he became the first Scot to pick up the Best Magic award in that standalone section, so he knows all about the kudos it confers Down Under.

BORN Kevin McMahon in Edinburgh and raised in Rosyth, he started out as a physicist. A graduate of Edinburgh University, he was working on his masters at Heriot-Watt University and eyeing a career in the aerospace industry when he applied for Channel 4 show Faking It, partly out of boredom after finding himself laid up with a five-a-side injury. The programme makers were looking for physicists – he didn’t know exactly why – so he dressed up as a caricature of one (think 1970s Open University meets Albert Einstein) and had a friend film an audition tape. He was picked. His challenge was to be trained up as a magician, a task which involved studying with Penn and Teller and then going up against Paul Daniels. Having always loved magic as a boy, he had a blast. That was in 2006.

So as his chosen stage name suggests, it’s science that drives Quantum as much as art. For one show he built a flower bed which changed colour depending on the angle. It involved collaborations with a mathematician and a florist. For another show, Illuminations, he created the first ever indoor rainbow that didn’t use water. It required yet more maths and some heavyweight physics this time too. “We had to solve the Second Order of Differential Equations and then mathematical models around that to make sure we knew where to put the lights,” he says. It doesn’t sound like the sort of thing you work out on the back of a beer mat.

His Best Magic award in Adelaide, meanwhile, was for a show called Anti-Gravity. “It was built around the question of what happens in a world where antigravity becomes a reality,” he explains. “What happens if an object goes up when you drop it?” It isn’t just a theoretical question either. As Quantum well knows, it’s currently a matter of intense interest to the boffins at the CERN particle physics laboratory in Switzerland. “Weird stuff like that inspires me,” he adds. “This year my show’s all about Big Data, the whole idea that people can be manipulated.”

That show is Vanishing Point. Backstage it involves collaborations with a mathematician and an app developer. On stage it will feature a massive pendulum whose weight has been replaced by a razor-sharp blade. The trick will use mis-direction and something Quantum refers to as “a dark spot”. This in turn will be used to “do something interesting”, as he puts it. I suspect he means dangerous. He certainly means gasp-inducing. But as he's a magician I'm not finding out any secrets today.

Whether Kevin Quantum will ever see magic accorded the respect he thinks it deserves is a moot point. What is certain is that, over a decade on from that fateful television appearance and a Eureka! moment that saw him turn from physics to magic, the aerospace industry’s loss is prestidigitation’s considerable gain. Yours too if you’re lucky enough to be wowed by this fireball-wielding, gold card carrying, envelope-pushing trickster.


Get the cards out

Put down the Sunday Herald, dig around in the kitchen drawer and there, next to the used batteries and take-away menus, you’ll find a pack of cards. Remove them and give them a sneaky shuffle to see if you can still do it. Pick up the cards you have dropped and put them back in the deck.

The setup

Remove nine cards from the deck. Make them face cards: Jacks, Queens, Kings. It works better with these. Take a look over both shoulders to ensure no one is looking and place four in your back pocket. Leave the other five ready, in your hand, on the coffee table, or wherever. Now lie in wait for your victim …

Turn on the style

They see you holding some cards in your hand. You look simultaneously suspicious and excited. They apprehensively asks “What are you doing with those old cards?”. Pause for a moment, then look up with a knowing smile and say “Want see some magic?”. They’ll say ‘Yes’. They always do.

Show your cards

Fan all five cards to your participant and ask them to remember one. This is the card you’re going to predict. Place all five cards behind your back and explain to that you can divine their card simply by touch. Explain that you’ll remove one card from the five and place that one in your pocket leaving four, and that the one you remove will be the participant’s card. While giving them the chat, swap the five in your hand for the four in your pocket.

Take a bow

Bring the four previously pocketed cards back round in front of you and display them to the participant asking them to ensure that their card isn’t there. They will confirm that it isn’t and will be amazed! Take a bow and leave the room quickly before they start asking questions. Or searching your pockets.

The Edinburgh International Magic Festival run May 11-19