US clan chiefs’ dream shattered as council pull plug on Gathering celebrations

Clansman John Earl from Ocala, Florida, watches the Gathering assemble in Holyrood Park in 2009. Below: clansmen march towards Edinburgh Castle. Photographs: Ian Rutherford/Ian Georgeson
Clansman John Earl from Ocala, Florida, watches the Gathering assemble in Holyrood Park in 2009. Below: clansmen march towards Edinburgh Castle. Photographs: Ian Rutherford/Ian Georgeson
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YESTERDAY morning, the lobby of the Hilton Northeast Hotel in the southern American city of Atlanta, in Georgia, was a blaze of tartan.

Outside the front door, a pipe band warmed up in the sunshine. Inside, men, women and children wearing every tartan from MacGregor to Donald could be spotted, along with several fully made-up Braveheart warriors.

But while the costume was most definitely Scottish, the mood was a little subdued.

Stone Mountain 2012, America’s most famous highland games, held this weekend, was supposed to be a milestone on the journey to the 2014 Gathering of the clans in Stirling. But on Friday night, Sir Malcolm MacGregor, chief of Clan MacGregor and convenor of the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs, had to tell his fellow American clan leaders that the Gathering 2014, which hoped to attract 30,000 people and generate £3.5 million for Stirling, had been quietly dropped.

Much to the dismay of some of the US clan leaders – who were expecting a three-day shindig like the 2009 Gathering in Edinburgh which brought almost 50,000 people to the city for the biggest gathering of the clans ever seen, the entire event has been shelved.

But while the mood across the Atlantic is, according to MacGregor, one of “disappointment and a slight sense of perplexity”, the truth appears to be that there was always a question mark over whether the 2014 Gathering would go ahead. Indeed, Stirling Council itself appears to have had reservations about hosting such a grand scale project.

“I think the 2014 event was forced onto Stirling Council,” said Rodger Moffet, who runs the Clans2014 website which describes itself as ‘Scotland’s largest clan resource’. “They weren’t really that keen on it and were certainly never keen on it being called a Gathering.

“We had concerns about what the cost would be to Stirling,” admitted Corrie McChord, the leader of Stirling Council.

“Given the position of local authorities at the moment with budgets, I was concerned that the cost would grow in terms of underwriting the event.”

There were also concerns about the logistics. Bannockburn is, as one source close to the situation says, “basically a field that’s been half built on and is surrounded by housing estates”.

“There’s no parking, no facilities to try and manage something on that sort of scale,” said Moffet. “From the moment we launched our site we had dozens of clan societies contacting us asking how they were going to hire tents – they were expecting something that looked like 2009, where you had this huge system of tents, but there’s no space for it at Bannockburn.”

Scotland on Sunday understands that what EventScotland is calling its “signature event” will now be Bannockburn 700, and it will involve a battle re-enactment over the last weekend in June staged at Bannockburn by the National Trust for Scotland, alongside a variety of other events including weapons demonstrations, falconry displays and medieval music.

But there will be no parades, no pageants, no tented village – all key elements of the Gathering in 2009 which drew thousands of visitors to Edinburgh from across the globe. That weekend brought £10.4m into the Scottish economy, but it came at a hefty price after the company behind the event, run by clan chief Jamie Sempill, went into administration, forcing an emergency bailout of £180,000 from the Scottish government. A number of the debts from 2009 remain unpaid, with more than 100 small businesses still awaiting over £300,000 in payment.

Martin Hunt, of Tartan Silk, which is one of the businesses still owed money, said: “In some ways I’m delighted this isn’t going ahead, but I’m also saddened, because as a concept it’s actually very good, and a great way to bring Scots families back to Scotland. But they can’t do another one without paying the people who did the first one. It’s embarrassing.”

Scotland on Sunday understands that the Scottish government had concerns that there would not be enough time to market the Gathering event effectively abroad, and that a decision had to be made by this weekend so that the clan leaders at Stone Mountain could disseminate news to their members.

“The overseas clan groups need a good deal of warning – a good two years advance notice of what is happening,” said MacGregor. “The possibility of coming here [to Stone Mountain] with nothing to say about 2014 would have been disastrous from a marketing and presentational view of Scotland.”

But there is still confusion over what, exactly, will be happening in Stirling in 2014, and whether the clan diaspora will be welcomed.

“To be honest, nobody really knows,” said Moffet. “Nobody I’ve spoken to really understands how this is going to work.”