Let’s be honest about it, Perthshire has never seemed the most fashionable corner of Scotland. To me, it was always the kind of place you stopped briefly en route to or returning from the “real Highlands”, for last-minute provisions or comfort food to ease the blow of an impending return to the city.
Its main tourism strongholds of Pitlochry and Callander always seemed besieged by tour coaches, their inhabitants flocking to the endless supply of “fashion” emporia and coffee shops. Well-heeled shopping always seemed to be the main pursuit in this part of the world, with shooting and fishing not far behind.
Those worlds couldn’t have been further away deep in the heart of Perthshire late on Saturday night, when Aberfeldy Town Hall’s very foundations seem to be shaking as the town’s fledgling festival reached a climax. As King Creosote, the slightly scruffy godfather of Scotland’s indie scene, led the euphoric sold-out crowd towards the midnight-hour curfew, it seemed as if the whole of Aberfeldy was crammed into the venue.
In fact, it was around a fifth of its 2,000-odd population, according to Ryan Hannigan, the local artist and musician who took to the stage just before King Creosote to deliver a few thank-yous and also remind the audience what their presence meant to the town.
Several-hundred hungry and hungover festivalgoers provided local businesses with a roaring trade throughout the weekend, filling hotel rooms and helping to sell out every cottage at the nearby Moness resort – one of several local businesses to help pay for the festival – at a time of year when Scotland’s tourism industry is in positive slumber.
But Aberfeldy’s festival – completely sold out in only its third year – is by far from Perthshire’s one-trick autumn pony. In fact, the area is on the way to becoming a major powerhouse for the tourism industry in the pre-festive period. Down the road yesterday in Pitlochry, at Edradour, Scotland’s smallest whisky distillery, veteran singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean was hosting his now-traditional Sunday afternoon farewell from his Perthshire Amber festival. An event he launched over a weekend eight years ago – inspired by the long-running “Celtic Colours” festival held on Cape Breton Island when the autumn leaves cast a magical spell on visitors – it has grown to a full-blown ten-day festival featuring more than 250 musicians playing in 25 different venues, several of which are in Dunkeld, the singer’s home town, which since last year has been the thronging HQ of the event.
Also, Dunkeld was the location for the first Enchanted Forest event, the sound and light spectacle relocated to Pitlochry several years ago, and which broke through the 30,000 audience figure this year and is now worth £1.5 million to the Perthshire economy.
One can only imagine what kind of difference these three events have made to Perthshire’s ability to withstand the impact of the economic downturn, particularly after what even the most optimistic tourism industry expert would admit has been a difficult year.
It’s little wonder VisitScotland’s chairman Mike Cantlay, who lives in the area, is so keen to champion events like Enchanted Forest. It is one of the area’s main contenders for glory at the national “tourism Oscars” on Friday.
I was astounded at the way Pitlochry’s businesses had embraced the Enchanted Forest on my first visit a couple of years ago.
Ryan Hannigan and his band of volunteers have whipped up that same communal spirit for Aberfeldy’s festival, bringing on board whisky distiller Dewar’s to the extent that they were laying on free cocktails and sampling sessions almost as soon as you handed over your ticket this weekend.
Pop-up cafes from local businesses, the chance to snap up some of Hannigan’s own distinctive artworks and a free al fresco market – compete with cockle-warming sets from many of the visiting bands – rounded off with a fireworks display added to an overwhelming feeling of conviviality.
It’s hard to imagine Perthshire without these events, none of which existed more than a decade ago. Yet with the prospect of a major expansion for Perth Theatre and a reopening of Aberfeldy’s historic cinema on the cards, I suspect the transforming cultural scene on offer in Perthshire in the autumn is a success story only just beginning.