Vital support for Scotland's village hall music venues can go a long way – Brian Ferguson

The last of the daylight was beginning to disappear as I set off with a group of friends on a walk through the Fife countryside.
Saltfishforty and Esther Swift playing at Letham Nights, near Cupar, in Fife, recentlySaltfishforty and Esther Swift playing at Letham Nights, near Cupar, in Fife, recently
Saltfishforty and Esther Swift playing at Letham Nights, near Cupar, in Fife, recently

Our Saturday night destination half an hour away was a venue which had long been on my wishlist, but had remained tantalisingly out of reach. It is 15 years since a group of local volunteers started staging their own gigs at Letham Village Hall, near Cupar.

Word of mouth about the attentive and enthusiastic audiences packing out “Letham Nights” spread so quickly among bands, singers and musicians that they were soon getting in touch to ask to play there.

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The success of the shows has led to Letham Nights being proudly promoted as “the best small gigs in the world".

It was hard to disagree with that description after seeing Orcadian trad duo Saltfishforty and harpist Esther Swift play a sold-out show that featured everything from folk, jazz, blues, storytelling, comedy and poetry to Motorhead, Dire Straits and Doris Day covers, and left our party feeling instantly welcomed into the Letham Nights family.

Our Saturday night in Fife was a timely reminder of the crucial work going on at a grass-roots level in the Scottish music scene, much of it involving teams of volunteers putting on gigs in local social hubs just as important as Letham’s.

One of the best initiatives to come out of the prolonged pandemic restrictions on live music events in Scotland was a dedicated fund to support the staging of shows in towns and villages.

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The £850,000 Scotland on Tour fund was opened up to venues, bands and musicians to allow them to reduce the risk of putting on shows.

Demand was so great that almost 400 shows across 114 venues have been staged over the last year.

Many of these venues have semi-mythical status among musicians due to their location, local support and ambience, including those in Glenuig, Knoydart, Ullapool, Pathhead, Dunoon and West Barns, in Dunbar.

The project also allowed other intimate gigs to be staged in a masonic lodge, bowling and golf clubs, cafes, restaurants and churches, as well as village halls which had never previously hosted concerts.

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Local promoters were able to take gambles on rock, pop, jazz, classical, folk, traditional, opera, reggae and experimental acts they would never previously have booked, while bands took the chance to play venues for the first time knowing that they would not be making a loss.

Although the government’s Scotland on Tour funding comes to an end this month, it seems a complete no-brainer that the scheme should continue in some form, particularly when our national performing companies are funded to go out on tour. With ticket prices generally coming in at under £15, these gigs are a world away in terms of affordability compared to a night out at an arena or stadium concert in Scotland.

And they can perform key sustainability roles in reducing the need for audiences to drive long distances and helping to keep rural venues viable.

There is no shortage of challenges across a Scottish cultural landscape which is only just starting to recover from a turbulent three years.

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But if the government wants to target meaningful support in the right places it has plenty of evidence of where it can have the most impact.

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