Brian Ferguson: Questions over Bannockburn Live

VERY little of my dusty paperwork survived my evacuation from The Scotsman’s office at Holyrood a couple of weeks ago. But the contents of the bulging file on the huge clan gathering in Edinburgh at the height of 2009’s “Year of Homecoming” were too good to discard.
The estimate of Bannockburn Live's economic benefit is just £750,000. Picture: Greg MacveanThe estimate of Bannockburn Live's economic benefit is just £750,000. Picture: Greg Macvean
The estimate of Bannockburn Live's economic benefit is just £750,000. Picture: Greg Macvean

There was something ironic about reading through the documents, reports and publicity material on The Gathering in the run-up to Bannockburn Live.

There was a four-year gap between the two but there were many uncanny echoes – from their spectacular settings and the attempts to combine history and culture, to the large public subsidies they required and behind-the-scenes anxieties caused by poor ticket sales.

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Organisers of these events – both hugely symbolic for the Scottish Government – claim they were a huge success. Almost 50,000 attended The Gathering, while Bannockburn Live was finally declared a 20,000 sell-out by the middle of the second afternoon. But both required hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money.

VisitScotland was drafted in to both events as storm clouds gathered, and it is highly doubtful either would have attracted the audience they did without its marketing muscle. Of course, significant lessons had been learned from The Gathering. One should hope so too, given the collapse of the firm set up to run it, a secret loan from the Scottish Government, the writing off of hefty public sector bills and dozens of businesses being left out of pocket.

The National Trust for Scotland (NTS), which is responsible for the battlefield site, was originally in charge of Bannockburn Live, which was given £400,000 from the government’s Homecoming fund, a significant chunk of the £5.5 million budget for a year-long programme of 900 events.

In January, the decision was taken to cut the capacity of Bannockburn Live by more than half and drop the event’s final day. By then, NTS had taken fright and the event had landed on VisitScotland’s doorstep. It was obvious then that Bannockburn Live was simply not allowed to fail.

But was Bannockburn Live really a success? Again, it is worth comparing it to The Gathering, which generated about £10m for the economy, for an initial investment of £490,000.

Bannockburn Live’s initial £400,000 subsidy was, of course, supplemented by the staff and resources of VisitScotland for six months. Yet the most optimistic estimate for economic benefit is a mere £750,000.

MSPs will be recalling the event’s organisers to answer public complaints over problems at the event. It would be nice to think someone would also inquire about any real benefits to the public purse of staging the event.