Does Edinburgh's population double over August?

What fuels a factoid most is that it feels true – and we've all heard the one about Edinburgh’s population doubling during the Fringe. Jenni Ajderian investigates

Feature by Jenni Ajderian | 22 Jul 2016
  • Does Edinburgh's population double in August

Edinburgh is not a big city, and we are closely-packed inside it. Throw in visitors attending six summer festivals within the space of a month, go to a bar, and try to get served: it certainly seems like the entire world has arrived and they’re all getting their pints before you.

However, figuring out exactly how many visitors we get will take some number-crunching from official sources and a bit of lovely logic.

The Edinburgh Festivals Impact Report is the best data we have, and also 12 years out of date. We have to assume the demographics of Edinburgh haven’t changed much since 2004, and take all our conclusions with a pinch of salt and an extended error-bar – but this survey does give a nice breakdown of visitor statistics and includes details that reports from later years left out. Namely, estimates of how many people stayed in Edinburgh during August.

They found that 47% of respondents were out-of-towners on an overnight trip away from home, while 30% were Edinburgh residents. This doesn't mean we can conclude that the other 70% of people around at the time were non-Edinburgh residents, though. The survey focused on festival attendees and so is a pretty biased sample.

Figuring out how many attendees there were in total is another task, and not one we can solve by simply looking at ticket sales. Most people buy more than one ticket at the Fringe, and may even stroll over to the Art Festival or the Tattoo. To avoid counting everyone four times, we have to look at ticket sales in conjunction with survey data.

Down a Data Rabbit Hole

In 2004, each survey respondent attended an average of 2.8 events. Attendances of just over 2.5 million events leads us to just over 900,000 actual people.

Still with me? Good.

Roughly 40% of those people were extras staying in town, which gives us an additional 363,132 people looking for a bed for at least one night.

Our factoid isn’t looking too strong just now: even back in 2004 the population of our fair city was over 450,000. But just as we’ve made assumptions about what counts as ‘the population of Edinburgh’, we'd then have to examine what we mean by ‘Edinburgh’: everything from Gogar out to the Shore, or just the parts where visitors usually stay?

Then, the rabbit hole goes down even further.

Over half of the population of Edinburgh live within 4km of the city centre – in 2011, that meant 55% of 476,262 people lived a mere half-hour jog from the castle. We can comfortably assume that most out-of-town festival-goers would want to stay in this same area, sharing space with the 262,144 permanent residents there.

Since those additional 363,132 people looking for a bed for a night is a larger total than the 262,144 permanent residents, and by a margin of over 100,000 people, we could conclude at this point that our seeing double factoid is correct.

Except, those visitors don’t all descend on Auld Reekie all at once: the same report showed that those surveyed stayed in Edinburgh for an average of 5 nights, not the whole 4 weeks of August. Even a conservative assumption of a fifty-fifty split, with half the visitors arriving in the first half of August, brings our figure down to 181,566 extra people at any one time. That doesn’t look like double the population, even of the very centre of Edinburgh.

Data-fumbling conclusions

Of course, further data-fumbling could lead us to different conclusions.

Permanent as the average permanent resident may be, a number of us let out properties or flee during August, potentially bringing the baseline for comparison down by a couple of hundred. Plus, Edinburgh plays host to tourists all through the year: is it fair to compare the overall population of Edinburgh in August to only the permanent residents in other months? Then, what about all the techies, performers and journos who show up during the month, and who may have been missed off the survey?

Maybe we should have left well enough alone. 

(1) Festivals impact report, 2004

(2) Population density and distribution in Edinburgh, 2013

(3) Edinburgh By Numbers report, 2015