One year on: The shutdown that forced Scottish culture to reinvent itself

For Daniel Gillespie and his bandmates in the group Skerryvore, 2020 was shaping up to be the most memorable in its 15 year history.

Friday, 12th March 2021, 11:59 pm
Updated Saturday, 13th March 2021, 8:48 am
Skerryvore are one of Scotland's most popular bands. Picture: Alan Peebles

This time last year, they had sold more than 3000 tickets for an anniversary concert at Inverary Castle, were in the midst of their biggest ever world tour and had already sold out their home festival on the Hebridean island of Tiree.

Exactly a year ago, life for Gillespie, accordionist with the group, suddenly turned upside down with the announcement of immediate restrictions on live events across Scotland.

He recalls: “You’re always aware of risk and so many elements that are outwith of your control.

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"However, I don't think anyone within the industry could have prepared for the past year and the challenges that have been created.

“Those early months of the pandemic were certainly the times of greatest concern and shock.

"However, once we had accepted the situation we very quickly wanted to focus our minds and energy on projects and ideas that perhaps we wouldn't have been able to do if out on tour or hosting a major festival.

"First was our Everyday Heroes composition and collaboration that managed to secure our first No 1.

The Tiree Music Festival has already been called off for this year. Picture: Alan Peebles

“Then we planned and delivered our first live stream from the Clydeside Distillery in Glasgow which engaged over 5,000 people in 22 countries worldwide. It was a huge boost not only financially, but also mentally as it re-connected us with the stage, our followers and the hope that live music can't be stopped, no matter the challenges.”

Adrian Turpin, artistic director of the Wigtown Book Festival, recalls: "We were lucky. Our festival wasn't until the autumn. We had time to plan and plan again for the various scenarios we might face.

"We made the decision early it was more important than ever to communicate during lockdown, so we began regular Wigtown Wednesdays, laying the grounds for a substantial festival.

“Now here we are again. Another March staring into the crystal ball while running spreadsheets. I believe we’ll have some kind of physical festival this autumn. And I'm more optimistic than some colleagues in the arts that audience confidence will return quickly.

Katy and Karen Koren run the Gilded Balloon, one of longest-running operators at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

"At the moment, the pivot to digital is still essentially a defensive manoeuvre. But soon - I hope - we will start to see it as simply another powerful tool in our toolbox, one that we learnt to use in adversity - which is where a lot of the best learning takes place."

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe was the biggest cultural event to fall victim to the pandemic over the last 12 months.

Karen Koren, founder and joint artistic director - with her daughter Katy - of long-running promoters and producers Gilded Balloon, which was running a year-round venue on Rose Street when the restrictions were introduced.

She said: “I remember thinking that it would only last a month or so and that surely it wasn’t that serious!

Eden Court in Inverness was turned into a humanitarian aid centre when the building had to be closed down in the face of the pandemic.

“We’d confirmed 60 per cent of our Fringe programme for the Fringe and had been feeling very positive about the coming festival.

"I’d been recovering from my cancer treatment a year earlier and was sent a letter from the NHS informing me that I had to shield – that’s when it started to get more serious.

"We realised that the Fringe was not going to go ahead as planned. As soon as we could we furloughed all our full time staff, but by September we had to make half our staff redundant and by October we gave up the lease on the Rose Theatre.

"It's been a lot to deal with and we have both struggled with anxiety and motivation throughout. As two incredibly social people, the limitations on seeing friends, colleagues and family has been the hardest thing.”

James Mackenzie-Blackman, chief executive of Eden Court, in Inverness, one of Scotland’s biggest cultural centres, quickly offered its use as a humantarian aid hub for the Highlands.

Although it was able to eventually reopen in October, the plug had to be pulled on a planned programme for the start of this year due to the new lockdown rules enforced over the festive season. It has had £2 million in emergency government funding avoid the prospect of insolvency.

Adrian Turpin is artistic director of the Wigtown Book Festival. Picture: Colin Hattersley

Mr Mackenzie-Blackman says: “We desperately need to start earning income and we are desperate to employ artists and companies to showcase their work for audiences.

"We anticipate social distancing may remain in place for some time in Scotland. That has a profound impact on our business model. Some indication of when it might end would be hugely useful to aid planning.

“We aim to restart live performance in July. Our most loyal audiences and visitors tell us they are desperate to come back. Those who attended less frequently will need active marketing that we are open, safe, and we want to welcome them through our doors.

“The emergency public money will, of course, at some point have to stop. It is at this moment many organisations will be at the greatest risk because they’ll be totally reliant on the public’s willingness to walk back through their doors and buy tickets, ice creams, beers and coffees.”

Looking ahead into the next year, Gillespie admits his biggest concern is for the future of the Tiree Music Festival.

He said: "Not only do we carry the responsibility of 2000 ticket holders from around the world, we also have a local community that is the heart of the festival and one we must protect.

"Our decision to cancel the 2021 festival was easy in that respect as until we can guarantee the safety of the islanders and attendees we believe the festival must wait. The huge challenge we now face is survival without any income until July 2022.”

Ahead of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s next update to the Scottish Parliament, which is expected to set out a long-awaited route map out of the latest lockdown, Karen Koren admits nothing is certain yet about the 2021 Fringe.

She says: "We are now in a tricky position of figuring out how to start everything up again without a definite road map confirmed yet. Hopefully by this time next week we will have a clearer picture.

“It's going to be a long recovery, that's for sure - probably three to five years - and we'll need continued support to do what we do best, make events happen in Edinburgh. We can't wait to get back to it.”

As well as uncertainty over when live events will be able to resume this year, the lack of clarity over possible crowd limits and social distancing restrictions they may have to operate under has left the entire industry in limbo.

A year on from the introduction of restrictions, Al Thomson, director of Unique Events, one of Scotland’s leading live event companies, admits that planning anything in the current climate is still “practically impossible.”

He says: "We await information from the Scottish Government on the timeline and restrictions which will inform the start of Scotland’s event recovery plan over the next six months, but the completion of the vaccination programme will definitely be the turning point in which we hope to see a return to indoor venues and larger outdoor event gatherings.

“The success and speed of the vaccination programme in Scotland gives us huge optimism looking ahead for the next 12 months, but there is still a long way to go before we will have audiences gathering in their thousands indoors or outdoors.

“It’s interesting to hear such contrasting views within the industry as to when and how events should return this year.

There is no doubt we all want a return to live events and festivals as quickly and as safely as possible, not only for the positive impact on audience wellbeing and mental health, but the important role arts and culture will play in aiding the economic recovery from the effects of the pandemic on wider tourism and hospitality sectors.

“However, the reality for events producers as we learn to adapt events in a new covid environment, is that even when events make a return, hopefully this summer, this will be on a cautious approach, with ongoing safety measures and capacity restrictions in place, which we as event producers have a social responsibility to deliver to keep our audiences safe.

“But this will have serious financial implications on the industry for some time to come. Festivals and events require a huge amount of finance and planning time to deliver, relying on maximum attendance to generate the income required.

"As with cultural venues, delivering large-scale events on reduced capacities just isn’t financially viable, so planning to deliver any event at the moment without guidance on capacities or timescale is practically impossible.”

There is understandable debate over whether public appetite for attending live events will have diminished or grown by the time they return.

One of Scotland’s leading event experts, Joe Goldblatt, emeritus professor at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, in in no doubt.

He says: “The demand for live entertainment shall return and be stronger than ever.

“That’s why some clever producers will simultaneously live stream their performances to expand their digital foot print, generate more income and also create even more future demand for putting bums upon actual theatre seats.

“Live entertainment has always evolved since the Greeks.

"During the great plague of the 16th century the theatres in England closed for six years. When they re-opened they were much smaller in size and the new plays were more political in content. Our time will experience similar changes as audiences will demand to be entertained in a safe, secure and hygienic environment.

“People will initially be somewhat cautious and trepidatious about experiencing live entertainment, however, once they feel safe, secure and that they are being well looked after they will as usual, suspend their disbelief and enjoy the show.”

Thomson adds: “I think we have all acquired a greater appreciation for the things we haven’t been able to enjoy during lock-down. For those of us who enjoy Scotland’s incredible cultural events and festivals, a return to experiencing live performance will be a joyous, emotional and possibly anxious experience for both audiences and performers.

"Our lack of mass social interaction and live cultural engagement over the last year, will no doubt create reservations with some audiences, especially returning to indoor venues.

"But as was shown recently from the large music festivals who optimistically announced they were taking place this summer, tickets sold-out in a matter of days, showing a strong appetite and willing from music fans to get back in fields and venues experiencing live performance.”

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