THE opening day of a controversial festival staged to mark 700 years since the Battle of Bannockburn was finally declared a sell-out yesterday, but visitors were hampered by chaotic queues inside and outside the rain-lashed arena.
Tourism agency Visitscotland, which took over the running of the event in January following poor ticket sales, said all 10,000 tickets for yesterday’s festivities had been snapped up by early afternoon.
The event, a centrepiece of the Scottish Government’s £5.5 million Year of Homecoming campaign, had to be scaled back from three days to two earlier this year and had its overall capacity cut from 45,000 to 20,000 in the wake of poor ticket sales.
Yesterday many visitors complained that they faced lengthy queues to get into the site, even when they pre-booked £22-a-head tickets, due to the late rush at the gates.
Organisers had failed to separate the queues between those who have bought tickets in advance in the run-up to the event, but had still to collect them and those trying to pay on the gate.
Festival-goers faced further frustration inside the site, next to the new Bannockburn visitor centre, as there were lengthy queues to see the battle re-enactments, with many visitors leaving disappointed when the heavens opened.
There was a rushed exodus from the site at 3pm after the second of the three battle re-enactments, when the site was hit by a prolonged downpour, leaving late-afternoon performers appearing before just a few hundred spectators.
Last night organisers insisted they were delighted with the turn-out following months of adverse publicity and predicted another sell-out with less than 3,000 tickets available for the final day of the festival today.
Political groups had been banned from running stalls or handing out flyers at the festival, which is costing around £650,000 of public money to stage, with only a minority sporting “Yes badges and T-shirts.
By the time First Minister Alex Salmond turned up for a walkabout at 5pm, more than half the crowd had left.
However the early part of the day saw huge crowds, with a lengthy queue snaking around the entire site.
Ann Scott, 76, who had travelled to Bannockburn from Galston, in Ayrshire, said: “The whole thing is just a shambles. They have got just four windows to sell tickets and allow people to pick up pre-paid tickets. They must have known a lot of people would turn up on the day and I don’t even know if I’m going to get in. If I don’t get to see a re-enactment I’ll be gunning for someone.”
Eddie Baird, 50, from Kilmarnock, in Ayrshire, said: “I didn’t expect to have to queue for as long as this. We’ve been waiting around 45 minutes just to buy a ticket.”
A spokeswoman for VisitScotland said it was aware of some issues and that the queuing systems would be reviewed for the final day of the festival.
Pete Irvine, managing director of Unique Events, the producers of the festival, said: “We were always sure that people would come to the event and we were expecting some sales to come at the last minute. We think there’s a good chance of another sell-out tomorrow once the word has got out about the whole event. There was enough capacity for everyone to see one of the re-enactments and I thought they went very well.”
More than 300 performers took part in the re-enactment set-pieces, with many of them goading the crowds into cheering or jeering along during the 45 minute show.
The battle scenes were accompanied by a light-hearted narration by Scott McMaster, the manager of the visitor centre, with more than 3,000 people cramming into the arena for each performance.
John Saddington, 64, from Newcastle, in Australia, said of the re-enactment: “It was brilliant entertainment. We didn’t really know what to expect, but it was fascinating how you were taken through the whole history of what happened, but in a humorous way.”
Among those who had decided to go at the last minute was Alasdair Ross, 35, from Edinburgh. He said: “I thought the tickets were a bit pricy without really knowing what you were going to see and the event wasn’t that well advertised. I don’t think the SNP government were that keen to get involved in it as they were worried about it having anti-English connotations.”
VisitScotland was forced to take over the running of the Bannockburn celebrations after the National Trust for Scotland raised concerns over an “unacceptable” financial risk to the charity.