Brian Ferguson: Battle to sell Bannockburn event

The statue of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn. Picture: Robert Perry
The statue of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn. Picture: Robert Perry
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The Witchery, one of Edinburgh’s most exclusive restaurants, takes its name from the spot on nearby Castlehill where hundreds of witches were burned at the stake, but last week, in the establishment’s secret garden, I was merely told off for asking one tricky question too many of Scotland’s tourism minister at the launch of VisitScotland’s latest big campaign launch.

Fergus Ewing appeared uncomfortable trying to explain the fine detail of a deal which will see VisitScotland take over the running of celebrations marking the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, and effectively bankroll them to ensure they go ahead.

It wasn’t too long before I could feel both arms of my shirt being tugged by one of his aides and VisitScotland’s PR manager, who made clear her dismay at my “naughty” line of questioning.

The encounter sent my mind back five years to when I was summoned to the offices of a PR agency to explain why I wasn’t being more supportive of the big event on which they were working.

Fast forward a year or so and the same PR guru was pleading for help to recoup some of the money the firm was due for months of work on that same event.

Some people within VisitScotland despair of comparisons between the big clan gathering in Edinburgh that collapsed into financial disarray during the first Year of Homecoming and the way this year’s centrepiece historical event is unfolding, but others have longer memories – especially as the cost to the public purse has gone from nothing to well over £500,000.

As with The Gathering in 2009, the success or not of the two-day Bannockburn event will be pivotal to how this year’s second Homecoming campaign is perceived. And with the landmark anniversary just three months before the independence referendum, the stakes are much higher.

It is hard to imagine VisitScotland being called in to rescue the celebrations if most of the tickets had been sold. It is obvious the National Trust for Scotland – which has passed on the event after well over a year of planning – has been nervous about advance sales, especially with £500,000 of its own finances on the line, and although the event capacity has been more than halved, shifting some 20,000 tickets starting at £22 will be a tall order – particularly when the event is up against the UK’s official Armed Forces Day celebrations a few miles away.

At a time when event organisers have to jump through hoops to secure public funding, among the most pressing questions are: what kind of value for money the taxpayer will see from the Bannockburn celebrations; what level of spending scrutiny will be exerted over them, and from where it will come?