Battle lines drawn over Bannockburn row

Bannockburn event a key feature of Homecoming 2014. Picture: Neil HannaBannockburn event a key feature of Homecoming 2014. Picture: Neil Hanna
Bannockburn event a key feature of Homecoming 2014. Picture: Neil Hanna
FURIOUS MSPs are demanding an investigation into a lack of “openness” from tourism chiefs who gave evidence to a Holyrood committee on the troubled Battle of Bannockburn anniversary celebrations.

MSPs were told nothing about plans to scale back the flagship 700th anniversary celebrations amid flatlining ticket sales when VisitScotland chief executive Malcolm Roughead appeared before parliament’s tourism committee on 15 January.

Just a fortnight later, it emerged that the troubled event was being cut from three days to two, while just 2,000 tickets out of 45,000 had been shifted by organisers.

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Supporters had hoped the beleaguered celebration would showcase Scotland on the international stage in the year of the referendum.

Responsibility for Bannockburn Live was transferred from the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) to tourism quango Visit-Scotland, and its budget cut by a third from £950,000 to around £650,000.

On behalf of the committee, convener Murdo Fraser has now written to VisitScotland chairman Mike Cantlay, voicing “concern and disappointment” about the recent developments. “We were surprised not to have been informed of your impending plans when Malcolm Roughead and Homecoming Scotland’s Caroline Packman appeared at the committee as recently as 15 January,” the letter states.

Although this evidence session was intended to update MSPs on VisitScotland’s 2014 programme, “no reference was made” to plans to scale back the Bannockburn Live event or the modest ticket sales.

An extract from the transcript of the committee session has been sent to VisitScotland in which Mr Roughead appears to indicate the programme for the day was not changing and any changes were only about “logistics and management”.

Mr Fraser adds: “We must question how open VisitScotland witnesses were to us when they appeared, as a guarantee was provided at the time that there was no change planned to the event programme.

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“It is inconceivable to us that the need for just such a change has been identified purely in the period since 15 January. For parliamentary committees to properly conduct their role of scrutiny and accountability, it is essential that we be provided with accurate information.

“I would seek an urgent review by you of the issues I have raised.”

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The Homecoming programme of events have been provided with £5.5 million from the public purse for funding and marketing of the events.

A VisitScotland spokeswoman declined to say last night whether an investigation would be initiated into the MSPs’ complaints. “We can confirm we have received a letter from the economy, energy and tourism committee and we will be responding directly. We have no further comment at this time,” a spokeswoman said.

The event is among flagship events for the Homecoming 2014 celebrations and is scheduled to include a mass re-enactment of the famous 1314 battle which saw Robert the Bruce defeat the English army of Edward II to secure Scottish sovereignty. Ticket prices start at £20 for an adult and organisers said they had sold around 2,000 so far.

MSPs have already been warned the event is unlikely to attract the 17,000 US visitors who came to Scotland for the 2009 Gathering in Edinburgh. That was the flagship of the Year of Homecoming five years ago, but it lost more than £500,000 and the organising firm went bust.

Bannockburn Live has been hit by the impact of Britain’s major Armed Forces Day celebration, which is being held on the same weekend in Stirling following a surprise announcement by the Ministry of Defence once the Bannockburn event had been finalised.

About £400,000 of public funding pledged for the Bannockburn event remains intact, despite the reduced site capacity and the final day being axed. The remaining £250,000 will be covered by VisitScotland, which hopes to recoup the money from ticket sales.

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The original £950,000 had included £500,000 in public cash. Insiders indicated that NTS had “taken fright” over the prospect of recouping £450,000 via ticket sales due to the impact of Armed Forces Day being held on the same weekend.

VisitScotland said there was no question of the battlefield event being cancelled.

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MSPs can call Mr Roughead and Dr Cantlay to give evidence as Holyrood committees have the power of summons in devolved areas such as tourism.