Beat The Drum

21 Aug 2007 in Festival, Highland, Music

Borlum Farm, Drumnadrochit, 18 August 2007

Red Hot Chilli Pipers at Beat the Drum (photo - Red Hot Chilli Pipers).

GLENURQUHART’S shinty team turned back half way to Oban as the Bailliemore Cup final was stopped by the appalling weather and the world’s best climbers called off The Great Climb in the Cairngorms, but Runrig’s “Beat the Drum” concert in Drumnadrochit went on in a rare all-day downpour that would have had Noah reaching for his woodworking tools.

The day kicked off with local band Torridon, twice MFR competition winners, whose joyfully spirited attacks on traditional Scottish tunes, including, naturally, the jig Runrig, had everyone dancing. (Everyone, that is, who had managed to negotiate the tortuously winding route to the site).

They were followed by those famously passionate lovers of life and fine ales, the Vatersay Boys, whose infectious enjoyment of the day was undaunted by the increasingly heavy rain. After that, things began to go a little askew.

The organisers having failed to publicise on the main website, or even by signs for the waiting queue, that parking in the two (count ’em) car parks was charged at £6, queues built up in no time as motorists and attendants scrabbled for change. At its peak the tailback stretched over five miles back on the Inverness road.

In that tailback sat Julie Fowlis’ band, so Aberfeldy changed places with her, performing a very competent crowd-friendly set of their lightly pop-accented music which would have been perfect for a sunny summer afternoon.

Even in the dreich grey light it was pleasant to listen to. The band were possibly quite relieved to get offsite before the mass of hardcore Runrig fans arrived – allegedly incensed by some disparaging online remarks about the headliners and threatening revenge.

Finally we were treated to Julie Fowlis’ beautifully pure voice, her trademark Gaelic ballads, and rousing tunes on the whistle, backed as always by her excellent band featuring Wolfstone founder Duncan Chisholm getting in a quick warm up before his own band’s set.

Next on stage, Great Big Sea from Newfoundland, were a breath of fresh, salty sea air, who poured their hearts and souls into energising the crowd with their shanties and increasingly frenzied jigs. No bland pop, this, it was a shot of hard liquor, just what the crowd needed.

But as the rain continued to beat down, even the stout hearted were finding it hard to keep from flagging. Some of the best music on site was taking place undercover, as many who sought shelter in the Blas Festival tent soon discovered. They came to dry out, they stayed to cheer some wonderful young musicians, including this year’s very fine Caledonian Ceilidh Trail band.

Meanwhile the crowds were still building up, the rain was still coming down and the green fields of Borlum Farm were fast turning into a sea of Glastonbury-style mud. But worse was to come. The organisers had spent much of the last year disbelieving the advice of locals – including Borlum farm owner Duncan Macdonald-Haig – that the Coiltie river running behind the concert site should be treated with respect as it can, and does, rise high and fast.

On Saturday it rose byaround 18 inches in less than half an hour, and effortlessly overwhelmed the small Bailey bridge across which stewards were attempting to funnel 15,000 people.

A lane of the A82 had to be closed instead to allow access; signage however was not changed, so returning from a brief sortie back to dry, firm ground, I had to redirect a party of young fans who had travelled all the way from the Western Isles and had been wandering lost in the muddy fields and woods of Kilmore.

There may have been more out there, but I was hurrying back to catch the Red Hot Chilli Pipers (as seen on Blue Peter, no less). As Glasgow’s finest came on stage, under darkening skies, a cold wind rose and temperatures dropped.

The Pipers have been praised by everyone from Ewan MacGregor to Princess Anne, and they seriously rocked, trading pipe licks with lead guitar and embarking on a series of humungous beat-ridden tunes. Spirits rose, a bit … but there had been a steady trickle of leavers all day as sensible folk chose shelter and warmth over hypothermia and mud, and even the Pipers’ world-famous ‘bagpipes with attitude’ approach could not stem the exodus.

By the time Runrig themselves came on, those who remained were the hardcore faithful – very hardcore, unbelievably faithful – cheerfully mudsliding, mudslinging and mudswimming around, waving their saltires, singing along with Bruce Guthro and mugging for the TV cameras recording the instant souvenir DVD of the day (yours for £10).

The last time I saw the band live was at London’s Albert Hall in the Donnie Munro days, when the audience erupted in a thrilling display of expatriate Scottish nationalism. I was much less impressed with this line-up. Mid-Atlantic softness and sentiment had replaced the spiky, uncompromisingly Gaelic passion that used to make Runrig rival U2 in the Celtic anthem stakes.

Before the first of several encores, people were streaming away from the site and only the uber-faithful stayed right to the last bars. As the throng stumbled wearily towards their cars, now encrusted with mud as town drivers revved and skidded, I heard someone sigh “For £6, you’d expect straw or something down on the mud”.

Good point. But straw would have cost money, which seemed to be the main theme of the day. Charity was not the name of this game. The exemplarily well-run Belladrum has made a sizeable donation each year to Maggie’s Cancer Care. Across the Loch, Rock Ness benefits the community of Dores to the tune of £1 a ticket and free VIP passes for all.

Both festivals do this with free parking which more than offsets their Highland 2007 funding. Runrig, however, had pleaded poverty from the start, and the total community benefit, allegedly, was free tickets for some residents, handed out grudgingly at the last minute, plus a new strip for the Glenurquhart Shinty team, and perhaps some travel expenses for the next Ireland game.

© Jennie Macfie, 2007