It’s that time of year again, when the streets of the Capital are filled with over-excited performers, bemused tourists and sleep-deprived theatre critics all in search of the next great thing in the arts world.
The Edinburgh Fringe is the world’s largest arts festival and its organisers have near legendary status for their abilities in recognising talent and predicting success.
So news that the man behind one of the festival’s most prestigious venues is backing the Yes Campaign is one more positive sign for supporters.
This year, the newly revamped Assembly Rooms and associated venues are being run by Tommy Sheppard of Salt n Sauce productions. And as the Fringe launches this week, the former deputy general secretary of Scottish Labour and campaigner for devolution has revealed he will be voting Yes for an independent Scotland in 2014. He believes many others in the arts and creative industries will be doing the same.
“Since the 1990s there’s been - well I wouldn’t go so far as to say a renaissance - but definitely a rejuvenation of Scottish arts and Scottish artistic self-confidence. We have this vitality in the Scottish stand-up scene now that just didn’t exist twenty years ago."
This expanding cultural self-confidence, he says is directly related to the increase in political autonomy that began with devolution. But he believes the time has now come for Scotland to make its voice heard on the world stage as an independent country.
“I don’t think it’s that my political position has dramatically changed over time, so much as the context and situation has changed. Independence – for me – is all about the right to choose, the idea of sovereignty resting with the people.”
“Ever since devolution there’s been more of an awareness and acceptance in terms of Scottishness, and that’s reflected in stand up comedy too” he says.
“I think before then, talking about Scottishness in that context was either considered a bit twee or it cast you as a nationalist, but that’s changed now and most people would just naturally identify as being Scottish.”
We're talking in a coffee shop round the corner from The Stand on Edinburgh’s Queen Street, because the venue itself is already overflowing with rehearsing performers and busy admin staff ahead of this week's launch.
This year is a major step-up in scale for the director as his company, which started out as a small local comedy promoter in Edinburgh 15 years ago, takes over one of the Fringe’s biggest group of venues. As he says himself, “there’s no sugar-coating the challenge” he faces.
“But we’re proud to be doing this as a Scottish company rather than one of the big London-based ones who run most of the other major venues,” he adds.
Born in Coleraine, Sheppard moved to Scotland in the late 70s to study at Aberdeen university. Since it became clear he got on better with stand up comedians than Tony Blair and left Scottish Labour to establish the now internationally-renowned Stand comedy club, he has been at the forefront of Scotland’s ever-expanding stand up scene.
“The best stand ups are pillars of their society,” he says.
He believes there’s a distinctive Scottish humour, which he describes among other adjectives as “dark and industrial” and very different from the genteel word play he sees as characterising “Home Counties” humour.
So far, so funny, but his reasons for believing Scotland should be in control of her own future, are serious. The traditional socialist values which once led him to join the Labour party, are reflected in the way he does business today, “We’re one of the few festival organisations who pays all our staff and don’t use volunteer labour and our wages are at least 25 per cent above the minimum wage – this is something I’m proud of.”
And unlike most Fringe venues, his company don’t expect performers to pay up-front, meaning the venue not the act take the risk on ticket sales.
Now he’s no longer affiliated to one particular party (“I’ve voted for a different party the last four times I’ve voted”) he sees independence as a natural step forward in the context of a modern world where there is what he describes as an “interdependency” between all nations.
“Back when I was running the Labour Party’s campaign for devolution the sovereign right of the people of Scotland wasn’t in question – so I hope it won’t be now.
“Only a fool, or perhaps a North Korean politburo member, would interpret independence as standing apart from the rest of the world – if fact, it means having the power to control how you interact with the rest of the world.
“Scotland will need to work together with the other nations on this island, and with those of Europe and beyond to establish a series of arrangements which allow us to depend on each other. Independence means we get a say on how that will be done, but it most definitely does not mean going it alone – except on a few matters where that might be the best thing to do.”
“I have always believed that we should be in the situation where the people who live here are the people who have control over the country’s future.”
In George street this morning, just up from the Yes Scotland’s Edinburgh offices, the space outside the Assembly Rooms is bustling with people constructing sets and performance spaces for the month ahead.
Edinburgh is once again becoming a stage for the expression of social, political and cultural ideas from across the world. This year another even bigger platform is under construction as the nation prepares for the referendum in 2014. Then the stage will be set for an independent Scotland: a place where the social, political and cultural future of this country will be in the hands of the people who live here.