IT is renowned as the world’s largest highland games event and has been a fixture on the calendar for more than 100 years.
• Event stripped of status due to ‘lack of proper infrastructure’
• Event to continue but will lose formal competition status after this year
However the future of the Cowal Highland Gathering in Dunoon - which has attracted crowds of more than 20,000 - has been thrown into doubt after being stripped of its major pipe band status.
Organisers have agreed to withdraw the Argyllshire event’s elite status with the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association (RSPBA) - which will see the number of bands performing at the event drop from around 130 to just 60. The decision will take effect after this year’s event, the last as one of the world’s leading piping competitions.
Local MSP Mike Russell is demanding answers from organisers over the decision, said to have been taken in response to complaints from bands attending the event about the lack of proper infrastructure.
The former Scottish culture minister said there were fears that the “international standing” of the event would be diminished and the tourism industry damaged by the surprise move.
Argyll and Bute Council said the downgrading of the event - worth £3.7 million to the economy in recent years - was “extremely bad news.”
Organisers insisted the event, first held in 1894, was not in danger of being scrapped, and insisted the decision has been forced on them by the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association, but also admitted the event had “outgrown” the facilities at the event arena in Dunoon.
The RSPBA has agreed not to stage any major events which will clash with the Cowal Highland Gathering’s traditional dates on the last weekend of August.
It said the Gathering’s organisers had agreed to withdraw its major status to help and pledged the association’s help in enduring the “historic event” still went ahead.
Gathering chairman Ronnie Cairns said: “The pipe band events have outgrown the venue we have and we have been told by the RSPBA that if Cowal was bidding for a major event for the first time today that we simply wouldn’t get it.
“We recognise that the increasing competitiveness of the event and numbers of bands attending were putting a strain on the space and resources we had available and that this was leading to unhappiness amongst some of the bands.
“It was a fait accompli - we were either turfed out or we worked with them. The RSPBA has made a commitment not to have another competition over the last weekend in August.
“It is a concern – we don’t know the number of bands we will get at the replacement competition, but we are looking at ways of encouraging bands to take part.”
Ian Embelton, chief executive of the RSPBA, said: “The decision was taken with the RSPBA branch members’ full support and the Association is committed to working with Cowal Highland Gathering Committee to ensure the continued success of this historic event which will still be held on the last Saturday in August.”
An official statement announcing the downgrading of the event on the RSPBA website said the changes were aimed at making the Gathering a more fun event for pipers.
However Mr Russell said: “For me, like everyone else in the area, this announcement came completely out of the blue.
“The games directors need to explain to local people why it has been made with no prior notice and what it will mean for the future viability of the biggest weekend of the year for Cowal.
“The statement doesn’t make clear what has driven the decision and what it will mean in practical terms.
“Many local people are concerned that it will reduce the attraction of the event to visitors and bands and will also diminish the international standing of the Cowal Games. “Were that to happen it would be very damaging for tourism and for local business and would wipe out, at a stroke, generations of hard work in the town by many volunteers. “I would be happy to hear from the directors and discuss the matter with them. I would also be keen to offer what help I can if there is a more fundamental problem of which these changes are a symptom.”
Louise Glen-Lee, the council’s culture leader, said: “This is extremely bad news. Cowal Highland Gathering has enjoyed a long tradition as one of the most prestigious major pipe band championships in the world.
“The event is crucial to Cowal and to the Argyll and Bute economy as a whole. We will be meeting urgently with other key agencies and politicians to discuss what can be done about this situation”