Many top names in pop have played there, and it was once a bigger draw than the Beatles. Now the locals could be about to call the tune at a famous Highlands’ night spot
The story goes that, on the evening of 4 January, 1963, the Beatles were booked to play Dingwall Town Hall. On the cusp of their stratospheric rise to stardom, the band had already toured Hamburg and Love Me Do had made a respectable impression on the UK chart. The world was about to be their oyster but Dingwall, it seems, took a little more convincing. Only 19 people turned up at the infamous gig, which was declared by all, including the Fab Four, to be a wash-out. The Highlands had better things to do that night.
Five miles away, in the pretty spa town of Strathpeffer, local band the Mellotones were playing to a raucous crowd at the pavilion and the Beatles just couldn’t compete.
“They couldn’t figure out why there was such a lack of interest,” says Glen Knott, who works at the pavilion today. “They eventually packed up and came with their equipment in the van – two others came on the free bus service with the rest of the audience – and they watched the Mellotones play in front of 1,200 people.”
You’d hardly guess at its hipster past to see it today. Strathpeffer (pop: 1,469) is a picture postcard of douce village life. Tubs of pansies and fuchsias wilt in the sun and, across the road from the pavilion, in a row of neat shops (Green Tree organics, Aladdin’s Cave toy shop, McColl’s newsagent) the local pharmacy is closed for lunch. Up the road the Wee Swally Victorian Tea Room is advertising cream teas.
The pavilion (upcoming shows include Rab Noakes, T Rextasy and the Johnny Cash Story), has been through a series of owners and identities since it opened in 1881 – Victorian bolthole, military hospital and ‘Nite Spot of the North’ – before being boarded up, earmarked for demolition, then saved and refurbished. But it is hoped the next chapter in its history will take it into community ownership and a promising future as a destination venue for big-name bands.
Commissioned by the Countess of Cromartie, its original purpose was as a social destination for the growing numbers of society ladies and gents who travelled to Strathpeffer to take the waters. Hordes of sozzled Victorians would board the direct train from London Euston to Strathpeffer to dry out after the long season, and the countess’s role as Mistress of the Robes to Queen Victoria gave the whole enterprise the royal seal of approval. People couldn’t get enough of the place.
“It became extremely fashionable to come here,” says Andrea Muir, general manager of the pavilion. “The ‘quality’, as they were called, would come for dances and balls and social events and all sorts of Victorian loveliness.”
“There was a sort of elitism between British spas and European spas,” adds Knott, who is now in the process of researching the pavilion’s colourful past. “Europe was considered much more cosmopolitan and fashionable. Contrary to popular opinion now, people didn’t want to go to Buxton and Leamington and Bath; they wanted to explore the more continental side of things. So part of the reason Strathpeffer looks the way it does is because the Countess of Cromartie’s obsession with European spas led her to back a design based on the casino at Baden-Baden.
“It made this place the place to be, and to be seen. In the early days we had notable speakers such as Sir Ernest Shackleton, shortly before his final expedition to the Antarctic, and Emmeline Pankhurst from the Suffragette movement. I believe there was a bit of a riot that day.”
Inside, the wooden trellis work was painted, patriotically, in vibrant red, white and blue, and a veranda was laid with loungers on which visitors would sit back and read the papers, which were bussed in daily at great expense.
During the two world wars, the pavilion was requisitioned as a military hospital, beds lined up on that majestic dance floor, nurses and injured soldiers replacing the great and the good of Victorian society.
Then in 1960, it was bought by local hotelier Harry McGhee, who laid a brand new Canadian maple dance floor and attracted acts such as Freddy and the Dreamers, Acker Bilk, and Brian Poole and the Tremeloes. “They had local bands too, some of whom lived up in the attic for the season, and they used to get in 1,000 people on a Friday and Saturday night,” says Muir. “People were bussed in from everywhere – from Gairloch, Inverness, Ullapool – they would fight all the way on the bus, they’d come in here and the drams would be lined up on the bar, they’d have a dance, have a drink and get bussed home again.”
“You never thought of going anywhere else at the weekend,” says Margaret Spark, the retired town pharmacist who now spends her time gardening and acting as secretary of the local golf club. “Friday was the big night and, to a lesser extent, a Saturday too, but then it closed before midnight. We were jammed in. You literally couldn’t move. I remember seeing Alan Price [the original keyboard player with The Animals] at the Pavilion, and my husband saw Kenny Ball.
“There were two bars,” she adds, “but we didn’t drink the way they do now; we were there for the dancing. Quickstep, foxtrot, and you learned which men could dance and which ones couldn’t. You’ll hear lots of stories about people who met at the pavilion. In fact, Margaret Paterson, our councillor in Dingwall, met her husband there and she’s very fond of telling people about it.”
“Your visits to the dances at the pavilion started long before you ever set foot in the place,” adds Arthur Scott, who now lives next door to the venue and whose own life is intertwined with that of the pavilion. At the end of August, his daughter, Emily, a music graduate, will host the AmaSing music festival, the highlight of which is a gig by Eddi Reader there.
But back in the 1960s, he says, things were very different. “The week leading up to a Friday night was filled with anticipation, but centred mainly on two things: what would you wear and who would you meet. I remember being told in no uncertain terms that Cuban heels would not go with bellbottoms. As far as who you would meet – well, it was pot luck, but if you were lucky you wouldn’t be turned down for a slow dance.
“The end of 1967 saw the beginning of the residency of the Sterling Showband,” he adds. “They were to remain for about 18 months, during which time they built up a loyal fan base. In fact, at least two band members stayed in the area and married local girls.”
Come the 1970s, the Bay City Rollers played there, as did the likes of Mud and Lene Lovich. But the building started to crumble, cash ran out and when Evelyn Glennie performed in the pavilion in 1980, it is said she had to move her xylophone around because water was pouring through the roof. By 1985, all it was good for was an indoor football pitch for local hotel staff.
“It was basically a heap,” says Muir. “When I first came about 18 years ago, I remember wandering up to this derelict building trying to peer in the windows. The grounds had weeds growing through paving, there was broken glass. It got to the point where they were talking about bulldozing the site and building flats.”
At that stage, the locals held up their hands in horror and the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust stepped in with a rescue plan. Using council, heritage and lottery funding, the building was restored at a cost of £2 million and was reopened in 2004.
Since then it has attracted acts such as the Saw Doctors, the Proclaimers, Deacon Blue and Janis Ian. The Kaiser Chiefs played in 2008. “That was a huge coup,” says Muir. “They went from two nights here – a 650 capacity – then they went to Elland Road in Leeds, which seats 30,000, and they sold out. It was great to see them wandering around, playing football on the croquet lawn, going over to the spa shop.”
Now, however, the trust is coming to the end of its commitment. Its job is to restore buildings then pass them on – the lease runs out in 2015. It will take an unspecified amount to buy, but Muir places the cost at “conservatively, half a million”. She’s confident that, with lottery funding, trusts and foundations “and good old tin rattling” they will be able to continue and thrive.
“What we want to do is become one of those niche venues where people say, ‘Have you played?’ It’s so unique. Edwyn Collins was here in April and asked to play here. Then Justin Currie from Del Amitri told us he had heard good things from Edwyn Collins, so the reputation is building.”
It might even, she hopes, recapture those glory days, when “The Strath” was a more tempting option than the biggest band of the 1960s.
On 11 January, a week after their disastrous gig in Dingwall, the Beatles released Please Please Me and their fame – even in the Highlands – was assured. And while Dingwall has never shaken off its reputation as the town that shunned the Beatles, if you ask around town who was there that night, says Knott: “Every man and his dog was at that gig.”
Margaret Spark was. “I put my nose through the door at Dingwall and I thought, ‘This doesn’t look very good.’ We had no idea who they were. They weren’t playing, they were just hanging about and there were only a few people there. So we left and went up to the Strath.
“It was only afterwards when they became famous that I said to my friend, ‘We must have been out at something else that night.’”