Bill Jamieson: Hot stuff is the main attraction

Figures released by VisitScotland suggest the Year of Natural Scotland is a huge success. Picture: Robert Perry
Figures released by VisitScotland suggest the Year of Natural Scotland is a huge success. Picture: Robert Perry
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After weathering monsoons in the past, and overcoming petty bureaucracy, we all deserve our day in the sun, writes Bill Jamieson

Mind how you go when trying to define the well-being of Scotland by business data or GDP statistics. Voluntary effort, local enterprise and stunning weather can make a huge difference.

Thus it proved on a day beyond perfection for my local Highland Games last weekend. And I can only hope this experience is repeated across rural Scotland over the next few weeks.

The Balquhidder, Lochearnhead and Strathyre Highland Games just don’t figure in official data. They’re small by comparison with other games events. They are local, mounted almost entirely by community volunteers. And they are dependent on a network of local businesses and clan support – MacGregor, MacLaren, MacNab and Stewart to the fore.

But an unarguable claim to their distinction is the stunning scenic amphitheatre in which the games are set. The Games field is bordered by Loch Earn and Ben Vorlich to the south, the Ogle burn and village to the west, the dramatic Glen Ogle to the north and the winding road to St Fillans and Crieff to the east.

The field is close to the centre of the village, a small cluster of houses around Owen McKee’s shop and the junction of the A84 and A85 roads. Both take travellers through some of the most beautiful scenery – Breadalbane to the west and north, the lovely Vale of Strathearn to the east.

The Games have been going for more than 200 years. Like all outdoor events in Scotland they are a massive annual gamble, with the weather. Last summer was a near wash-out, with many Games across Scotland cancelled due to the relentless rain that turned the fields into mud baths. Lochearnhead valiantly ploughed on under threatening skies.

But this year was in such total contrast as to prove the observation that Scotland can be two different countries. And Scotland this year has been little short of a dream come true for those who gambled on no two years being the same.

As the Games officials and clan members mustered behind Chieftain Sandy Stewart of Ardvorlich for the Badenoch and Strathspey pipe band procession and march-in, there were clear blue skies, radiant sunshine and stunning warmth: a setting and a climate to die for.

The Games bring the village together, provide a huge visitor draw and show off Scotland at its best. And this year they attracted passing motorists and visitors in record numbers to a wonderful spectacle of Highland Games, music, refreshment and relaxation.

Throughout last Friday, Angus Cameron, the Games’ president, and local volunteers prepared the field, put up the clan tents and food and produce stalls around the track, struck the flag poles, installed the highland dancing platform, prepared the track and field events, checked the car parking sites, and above all, made sure the refreshment and ceilidh tents were linked the generator.

By Saturday morning there was no finer sight. The Games have seldom more delighted and enchanted than on this day. A dazzling stunt-flying air display, gifted by a generous patron, capped the event.

No GDP statistics or business surveys or output data can begin to capture the iconic appeal of such events or their importance for local economies across Scotland. Government bodies are quick to take credit but the Games are almost entirely privately funded – and council health and safety hassles put on a Games of their own. Two years ago the Highland dancing competition was threatened by council concerns that the swords were too dangerous. But Highland dancing with rubber swords? Never! It resulted in the Games organisers having to smuggle in the swords hidden in rugs from official view.

The organisers have to submit forms to obtain a Public Performance Licence, this over and above a licence for a public march and a drinks licence. New forms this year required a fire risk assessment for the bar and that all trade stands had to produce their insurance, food safety certificates and safety certificates for all rides and machines. These had to be submitted at least one week before the Games for forwarding to Stirling Council – together with a fee for £150.

One particularly bizarre hassle this year was a stipulation that the Highland dance platform could not be higher than 600mm without a structural report. To get round the cost and bother of this, the platform wheels were taken off. How fortunate, perhaps, that the council didn’t insist on measuring the height of the dancing shoes.

These obstacles notwithstanding, the Games were a triumph with takings up some 50 per cent on last year. According to Alex Gargolinski, the Games secretary, gate receipts this year totalled £11,600 with visitor numbers reckoned at more than 2,500 – an incredible number for a local Games and with spectators coming from as far apart as the US, Italy, France, Switzerland and Spain. Research by Games patron and supporter Bob Gibbons suggests some 75 per cent of spectators were from abroad or were first time in Lochearnhead.

That is a terrific boost for the three villages, for “tent sale” entrepreneurs such as Catriona MacGeoch with her Sula soft furnishings business, for the food and drink providers, local hotels and B&B operators and for tourism in general. Scotland’s 60 or so Highland Games in aggregate draw some 150,000 visitors a year and are officially reckoned to be worth £20 million to their local economies.

And it looks as if the Lochearnhead experience is being repeated across Scotland. While the latest VisitScotland figures for visitor numbers only go up to the first quarter, anecdotal evidence suggests a major summer upturn. The Skye Camping and Caravan site has seen numbers and booking up by around 25 per cent already this year. Cluny Clays in Fife is said to be having a “fantastic year” with numbers more than double since June.

The Scores Hotel in St Andrews has reported a 40 per increase in business on July last year while the town is also reporting packed beaches and a regularly-full coach parking area.

From Orkney, transport providers Loganair and Northlink report a big increase in traffic. And in Angus, self-catering lodging business Forbes of Kingennie has seen numbers significantly up on last year, with the fine weather leading to hefty last minute holiday bookings.

Says VisitScotland chairman Mike Cantlay, said: “We have had extremely good feedback from members throughout Scotland, with some reporting increases in business of up to 40 per cent due to the terrific sunshine.

“While we have long said that people don’t come to Scotland for the weather, there is no doubt that this summer is having a positive effect on tourism, particularly the staycation market, with people choosing to stay in sun-drenched Scotland rather than go further afield.”

“The timing is perfect, as the Year of Natural Scotland is all about encouraging people to get out and about and explore the country’s great outdoors.” Capture all that in our GDP statistics if you can.