Twenty thousand people attended the Belladrum Tartan Heart festival at the weekend, making it Scotland's biggest three-day music event with camping. Despite the increase in the number of tickets available once again this year, Bella, which takes place on a beautiful Highland estate a few miles out of Inverness and which was crowned the UK's most popular summer festival in 2017 by TripAdvisor, sold out for the ninth year in a row, and a line-up boasting the likes of The Charlatans, Paloma Faith, Amy MacDonald and Primal Scream only confirmed Bella's new-found status as Scotland's biggest music festival following the demise of T in the Park a couple of years ago.
Although hit by wet weather last year along with pretty much every other event in Scotland in 2017, Bella is in the fortunate position of having a hugely loyal following that goes back year after year whatever the line-up and whatever the weather. It also manages to attract new fans every year as the increase in numbers testifies.
And the once wee festival, which started out in 2004 with just a couple of thousand folk, has now grown so much that earlier this year it was bought by international music promoter, the Kilimanjaro Group, which has been involved with the event for the last eight years. Festival founder Joe Gibbs remains heavily involved in Bella's organisation as director and insists that everyone is determined to ensure that it keeps its much-loved spirit. Tartan Heart has built its reputation on years of providing just what the majority of festival goers want, which, in the words of Saturday night headliners Primal Scream, is to have a good time.
Which is pretty much what everyone intended to do this weekend. The gates to the campsites opened at 8am on the Thursday and there were queues of folk lined up waiting to get in and get set up. Although entry to the caravan and campervan site was relatively stress free, entry to the camping sites was less so with bag searches creating long queues. There were also long queues and delays to get wristbands at most of the entry points, with some reportedly running out of Thursday night wristbands and folk missing bands that they had paid extra to see.
This year there were no separate zones in the caravan and campervan site for quiet or family camping, which although might have contributed to getting everyone on site relatively quickly did little to help foster a sense of campsite community as those who wanted to party - or even just sit outside their vans and chat - into the wee small hours were warned and in some cases even chucked off site by security after complaints.
Quiet or family zones, even in caravan and campervan sections, are so important for parents of young children and essential to ensuring Bella's family friendly vibe, and it is something organisers really need to look at re-introducing again for next year. It is also important for those without young children to be able to enjoy the campsite atmosphere in a space where they don't need to be quite so quiet after 11pm; many a friendship and musical collaboration have been forged late at night over a drink or two under the stars and are an integral part of the festival experience for a significant amount of the loyal Bella fans.
Just on the campsites, the clean fields site was a big success again this year, although many people were choosing it over the family and quiet sections of the campsites after noise levels were so high in those areas last year.
And just on security, the searches at the campsites getting in to the main arena were very full on too - it wasn't just bag searches, folk were getting patted down, one guy even went through my purse card by card; it was a bit much for what is after all a family festival and just created more delays and hold ups.
Also, the perennial problems of getting off the sites have still not been resolved, it took us two hours to get off the site and clear of Inverness on Sunday and obviously we weren't alone stuck in miles of queuing traffic as 20,000 festie-goers made their way home. Scotland's biggest festival really needs to get that sorted, it gets worse every year and will only continue to do so if Bella continues to get bigger.
Those gripes aside, Bella 2018 was another masterclass in how to put on a beautiful festival that entertains and delights 20,000 folk. It continues to innovate and adapt to accommodate the growing numbers of people who have discovered the Bella magic and make it a regular date in their diaries, and has a reputation for listening to its fans and acting on the feedback provided where it can.
As well as extending the caravan and campervan site once again this year, other developments saw the Grassroots stage and the Venus Fly Trap swap sites in an attempt to alleviate congestion around the Black Isle Brewery Bar. The Seedlings Stage also moved and was closer to the Hothouse Stage this year.
Also new for this year was the facility to pre-order merchandise. Pre-ordering beer tokens has been possible for a few years now and the merch stall is always busy on a Thursday as folk arrive and buy their t-shirts and hoodies in time for the weekend. Pre-ordering meant that people could browse the merch at their leisure at home - and spread the cost of the weekend a little bit further. It was a quick and easy process and the merchandise was of its usual high quality.
The VIP area for Club Clan Bella members was back after a wee break last year, although in a slightly different format to previous years. And at the other side of the site near the Hothouse Stage was the Gin Palace, an almost fairytale like creation resplendent in leopard print and pink and selling some of the finest gins produced in Scotland.
2018 has been designated as the year of young people in Scotland and in recognition of that, young people designed and curated the new Otherland area where the Seedlings Stage used to be near the Mother's Ruin DJ area.
The fun started earlier this year too, with a full day of entertainment lined up from noon on Thursday at the Potting Shed, including the Dougie Burns Cadillac Band, the Galipaygos and The Cowans.
First band for us was Ward Thomas on the Garden Stage. These 24-year-old twins from Hampshire sing country music with a distinctive British perspective. Comparisons with the Dixie Chicks are obvious, although that won't stop me making them as they are still appropriate.
In a slick and impressive set they introduced singles Lie Like Me and I Believe in You from their new album, scheduled for release later this year, as well as Carry You Home, Guilty Flowers and Cartwheels from their 2016 album. Always partial to a bit of country, and always supportive of sisters doing it for themselves - especially those with beautiful voices that sing in such gorgeous harmony - this was a great start to this year's Bella experience.
Next on the main stage was New York's very own Fun Lovin' Criminals, an iconic band headed up by Huey Morgan which first got together some 25 years ago - before Ward Thomas were even born. They came on stage to the strains of New York New York before launching into a blistering version of Fun Lovin' Criminal quickly followed by Loco, Back on the Block and Bombing the L.
As sharp-dressed as ever, the former marine introduced Smoke 'Em with Brian 'Fast' Leiser on the fugle horn, and a more mellow vibe to the set, before King of New York and their best known hit, Scooby Snacks, followed by their tribute to Barry White, Love Unlimited. They finished with Big Night Out, with Huey claiming "it isn't goodbye, it's see you later at the bar", as they left the stage to I've Had The Time Of My Life. And yes, some audience members did attempt the 'lift' from Dirty Dancing.
Scottish singer-songwriter, guitarist and musician Amy MacDonald was Thursday night's main stage headliner, returning to Bella some eight years after her last headline slot at the Tartan Heart Festival. Despite the rain, which was increasingly heavy, there was a good crowd in the Garden Stage for Amy's set, and she thanked everyone for their support over the last 10 years.
Singing into a sparkly saltire microphone, she rocked out Dream On and Automatic from her latest album Under Stars, Slow It Down, and Youth of Today, This is the Life and Mr Rock N Roll from her debut album, the crowd singing along to every word, although, it has to be said, not in quite as fine and distinctive a voice as Amy's. She also introduced Women of the World, which she wrote for a new film about a pug called Patrick, and seemed genuinely pleased with the reception she got from the near capacity crowd.
The crowd enjoyed the set too, with many singing away to themselves as they wandered back up the hill. The night was still young though and over in the packed out Grassroots tent Rhythm N Reel were rocking out their always popular and very energetic celtic rock and traditional tunes in a bombastic set that included covers of Mr Brightside, Uptown Funk, Bad Moon Rising, Galway Girl and AC/DC's Thunderstruck, You Shook Me All Night Long and Back in Black. And over at the Potting Shed, self-proclaimed Highland hillbillies The Federals headlined, bringing the first night of Bella 2018 to a close.
The rain lasted most of the night but the showers became increasingly fewer and far between and by lunchtime on Friday the site was bathed in glorious warm sunshine and was already filling up with excited festie goers. The mobile library was back, and youngsters also had a chance to try shinty, meet donkeys and play football in giant inflatable balls.
There were craft sessions, theatre, music and song, sand art, puppetry, knitting and crochet, circus workshops and a carousel to keep little ones entertained at the Tir nAn nOg children's area, while the wrestling and comedy acts in the Venus Fly trap tent proved to be a big draw with youngsters as well.
The Walled Garden, which is always a wee oasis of calm on the edge of the festival arena, was home to the Bollydrum stage this year, as well as a yoga tent, the Free Range stage, the Burke and Hair theatre and a range of stalls and other attractions - including a post apocalyptic world of decontamination zones and big red buttons that you really shouldn't press.
One of the most popular acts throughout the weekend was the return of local hero, internet sensation and Scotland's most famous trials bike rider, Danny MacAskill and his Drop N Roll show. Dedicated fans were queuing for the best vantage points from one show to the next, keen to see Danny, who hails from Skye, along with Ally Clarkson and Inverness's very own Duncan Shaw, entertain the crowds to the pulsating riffs of AC/DC and Iron Maiden. Despite recovering from a broken knee cap following an accident earlier this year, MacAskill was on good form for each of his six shows over the weekend, one of which might even have included an unofficial world record-breaking performance from Ally C.
Musically speaking, the first band of the day for us was Elgin-based five-piece Edgar Road. These guys - and gal - have grown in confidence a lot since I first caught them at the Bella Bar stage a couple of years ago. Two years of gigging - including shows in the world-renowned Cavern Bar in Liverpool and at Camden Rocks earlier this year - has really paid off and these talented musicians were totally at ease performing to a large and appreciative crowd in the Grassroots tent.
The melodic rockers opened with Friday Night, appropriately enough for a Friday, followed by Say It Another Way, Sun's in the Sky, Photograph, Everything Has Changed, Olivia - written for singer Mark Conti's young daughter - Looking Glass and finishing their accomplished set with Kollide.
It was the Grassroots again for our next band, Adam Holmes and the Embers, whose third album Midnight Milk has been nominated for Scottish Album of the Year 2018. I have seen Adam and the Embers play a few times now and am always moved by his amazing, deep, soft, soulful voice. People Come, People Go from the Brighter Still album was an early crowd pleaser, and Adam dedicated Mother Oak, complete with catchy chorus "Won't you come out drinking with me", to his five-month old daughter Rosa.
One Love, Alone We Stand, When Will I Be Free from Midnight Milk, Heirs and Graces and Nadine all had the afternoon Grassroots crowd singing along and it was another beautiful, nuanced performance from one of the rising stars of the Scottish folk scene.
From one powerful Scottish voice to another, and Tide Lines' Garden Stage set. The four-piece are also heavily influenced by the trad scene but have added a contemporary almost pop rock twist to their music - as well as their own material their set included a storming version of Shut Up and Dance, complete with bagpipes. This was their first time at Bella and their brand of heartfelt Scottish rock - following in the spiritual musical footsteps of Runrig - proved popular with the main stage audience. Another Day, Fortunes of the Few, Walking on the Waves, and Far Side of the World all got an airing and were well-received.
After two sets from up-and-coming Scottish talent it was time for a return to the 90s with Glasgow indie hitmakers, The Supernaturals, at the Hothouse Stage. It was classic hits all the way from the lads, who described themselves as "The Saturdays of the 90s with facial hair", kicking off with Submarine Song, I Wasn't Built To Get Up and Lazy Lover. Singer James McColl explained that the set list was influenced by his six-year-old daughter who had commented that "everyone loves the old shite". Self-deprecating humour was always a mainstay of their song-writing style - this is a band whose biggest hit over 20 years ago included the lines "You better smile, cos that's all that you've got left" - and it was fitting that they finished their nostalgic set with Smile.
Back on the main stage excitement was building ahead of The La Fontaines appearance with the crowd belting out their customary chant "The La, The La, The La Fontaines". It was another typically energetic performance from the lads from Motherwell who just seem to have the best time at Bella. Singer Kerr Okan hyped up the crowd even more than they already were, bouncing about the stage and even into the crowd at one point, and urging two men dressed as kangaroos to lead the audience in more bouncing. The band seems to feed off the audience's reaction to their indie-tinged rap rock with sing-along choruses, belting out their new single Up as well as King, Under The Storm and Asleep, with drummer Jamie getting to fulfil his dream of singing at Bella on What Do I Know.
Indie legends The Charlatans were next up on the Garden Stage and were the highlight of the weekend for many a Bella punter of a certain age. Tim Burgess took to the stage with a beautiful and infectious smile and grooved away to Totally Eclipsing, North Country Boy, Just When, One to Another, Plastic Machinery and The Only One. And in what was a truly spine-tingling moment, about three-quarters of the way through their set, Tim introduced Grant Hutchison and Billy Kennedy from Frightened Rabbit on to the stage with them to sing an emotional rendition of Head Rolls Off.
Frightened Rabbit were due to headline the Hothouse stage on Friday night, and rather than try to replace them after singer Scott Hutchison's death earlier this year, Bella organisers instead held a number of touching tributes to him. Thousands of fans gathered in the Hothouse tent where their acclaimed 2008 album The Midnight Organ Fight was played in its entirety to a backdrop of a montage of footage of the band, promo shots and photos of their previous performances at Bella. Those that were there were encouraged to view the evening as a celebration of Scott's life, which they did, albeit tinged with more than just a hint of sadness.
The Charlatans' tribute was also very poignant, with Grant pounding the drums and belting out his brother's words - "When it's all gone, Something carries on, And it's not morbid at all" - with Tim. There were lumps in throats, tears in eyes and hearts going out throughout the arena and no one there could fail to be moved by what was a very special moment. Respect to Grant, Billy, Tim and the Charlatans, and the Bella organisers, for what couldn't have been an easy thing to do, but do it they did. To quote Scott: "While I'm alive, I'll make tiny changes to earth".
Paloma Faith was the big name main stage headliner on Friday night and the Garden Stage was packed with thousands of fans waiting for her set. Her band and backing singers and dancers were all ready and she made a spectacular entrance in a very striking sequined head piece and stunning chiffon dress and platform shoes.
Then it all started to go a bit wrong. What should have been a powerful and empowering start to her set with songs CryBaby, Kings and Queens and new single Warrior was marred by dodgy sound - those in the front of the crowd couldn't hear her even though they could see she was singing her heart out. With the audience shouting that they couldn't hear anything, she said that she had a lurgy and talked about kindness - despite no one being able to hear her. Her set was being broadcast live on BBC Alba and there was some confusion about whether the transmission was affected by the sound issues (apparently it wasn't) and it wasn't until she was joined on stage by BB Bones for duet I'll Be Gentle and she used his microphone that everyone could finally hear her amazing and instantly recognisable voice.
With a new mic, Make Your Own Kind of Music, Picking Up the Pieces, Guilty, Lullaby, The Architect, Til I'm Done, Only Love Can Hurt Like This made for a storming second part of the set, and Paloma joked that all she needed was for someone to hear her. From calling for someone to be fired to insisting on wanting to sing the first songs again for the people who had actually paid to see her, both her mood and that of the crowd lifted and suddenly the truth was something beautiful once again. As good as her word, and before the curfew, she sang a rousing version of Warrior - "Some days I'm sure to lose to fate, sometimes I cannot find my faith, but I just fight on". Bella goers were the lucky ones though, as the day after her gig in the Highlands she was forced to cancel her show in Glastonbury at the last minute after being diagnosed with acute laryngitis.
The Garden Stage may have closed for the evening but the party continued for many, at the bars, at Mother's Ruin, the Dirty Harry tribute band at the Grassroots tent, at Craig Charles' DJ set at the Hothouse Stage, the Potting Shed and the Free Range Stage. Just not in the campervan site.
Saturday was a wee bit cooler than Friday, but was still warm and more importantly, still dry. First band of the day for us was Americana rock 'n' rollers The Carloways from Perthshire on the Grassroots stage. It was another poignant return to Bella for these boys as well as it was their first time back at their favourite festival following the sad death of guitarist Chris Paterson age just 21 earlier this year just weeks before the launch of their debut EP. They have come along way since their Bella debut a few years ago at the Potting Shed, and attracted a good crowd to their early afternoon slot. The band were really tight and singer Mikey MacLennan's voice was sounding great, the harmonies were spot on and the honky tonk keyboard perfect for the setting. Hello Sunshine, Last Stop Blues, Crawlin' Back, One More Night, No Sympathy, Down to the River (To Pray), Lose My Mind, Worrying Kind - which was dedicated to Chris - and Long Hot Summer's Day all got an airing in their half-hour set.
We took a couple of hours to feed the kids and have a wander round the site, taking in the delights of the Ice House Jazz 'n' Blues stage, designed to look like a New Orleans street scene, the Temple of Dub, a beautiful secluded glade near the Hothouse tent which pumped out some banging tunes, thanks to the crew from Edinburgh-based bass music consortium Electrikal Sound System, and the Trailer Trash stage which featured a range of country and western bands all weekend and was very popular with music lovers.
All the usual food stall-holders were back, the ever popular Food from Argyll with salmon rolls, fish pie, piella and kedgeree, Churchill's Venison Burgers, the strawberry stall, the risotto stall, the wood-fired pizzas, Mutley's Crepes, the noodle bar, the curry stall, and although the food was as tasty as ever the queues at all of them were very long pretty much whatever time of day or night you went, another consequence of the increase in numbers at the festival. Queues at the toilets were also long and quite slow moving, with many folk commenting that they thought there were less toilets both in the arena area and the campsites than in previous years, and reports that some were even over-flowing.
We caught the Bella flash mob, choreographed by staff from Eden Court in Inverness and which this year seemlessly mixed Bollywood and Highland styles to impressive effect, and in such a way that pretty much anyone could get involved if they wanted - and plenty of enthusiastic people did.
And then it was the moment so many people had been waiting all year for - the return of Colonel Mustard and the Dijon 5. After last year's momentous appearance on the Garden Stage, it was difficult to know how the poster kids for the Yellow Movement could match it, but as soon as the Colonel took to the stage on a hover board it was clear to the 11,000 or so folk packed into the arena that it was going to be another belter of a gig. On stage with the band was a group of youngsters who opened the set with Limmy's Nursery Rhymes Techno Mega Mix. It was a great moment and perfectly illustrated the inclusive spirit of the Yellow Movement. The 6th Dijon, as their fans are known, were out in force and everywhere you looked there were swathes of yellow, sequins, glitter balls and Dijon 5 t-shirts.
The band launched into International Sex Hero and Bouncy Ball while the Dance Off featured a masterclass in moves - including flossing - from the Djuniors on stage as well as audience participation, and new song Seoul's Got Soul highlighted the band's mission to spread the message of peace and love across the globe following their tours in South Korea this year and last.
And then there was the moment that the audience had been waiting for. The Djancer donned his hi-vis vest and grabbed his lollipop stick and together with the Colonel, who was back on his hover board, led the near capacity crowd in a wee lesson on how to Cross the Road. What could have been a health and safety nightmare ("This gets bigger every year, if you're steamin' mebbe sit this one out") went without any mishaps as thousands of happy people danced and grooved their way back and forth across the Garden Stage lawn in almost perfect unison.
Every time I listen to this band I hear something new - at the moment I'm getting Bob Marley, Arcade Fire and Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine. And the musical influences go both ways - listen to Franz Ferdinand's Lazy Boy, released earlier this year, and tell me you don't hear hints of the Mustards in that intro. Another new song, Gonna Be Myself, proved that this band is no one trick pony, or more appropriately unicorn, and the anthemic These Are Not The Drugs (You Are Looking For) once again had everyone singing along with the catchy chorus, which at the same time reinforced important social messages around equal marriage, inclusivity and, well, drugs.
Dijon classic Peace, Love and Mustard closed a set which saw yet more converts to the ever-growing Yellow Movement and its hard-to-argue-with ethos of having fun, spreading happiness and working towards making the world a better, fairer place.
The crowds on Saturday were also growing, and were the biggest I have ever seen at Bella. There were certainly more teenagers wearing bandanas and hot pants charging around the site than ever before. Maybe it was due to the good weather, or the fact that Bella is the only large-scale festival left in Scotland now, or a combination of both.
And maybe Gerry Cinnamon had something to do with it. His main stage slot was probably the most packed I have ever seen the Garden Stage and to say the crowd was buzzing for his appearance would be the biggest understatement of the year. Someone commented this year that real music lovers are the ones that keep festivals alive and nowhere was this more obvious than at this set. The atmosphere was electric for what was essentially an acoustic gig by one man and his guitar.
This wee boy from Castlemilk with the heart and soul of a modern day poet had thousands of people of all ages singing along to his every word. His message to be who you want to be and believe in yourself clearly resonates with many young people and it is beautiful to see the power of decent music and how it can have such a positive impact on so many people.
He was the one act that everyone was talking about and songs such as Lullaby, Fickle McSelfish, Diamonds in the Mud and of course She's A Belter proved why his gigs are the hottest ticket going at the moment, selling out in minutes with next to no promotion. Singing his beautifully-crafted songs which are by turn funny and poignant, and always honest, sometimes brutally so, he was laughing and grinning the whole way through his set, almost as though he couldn't quite believe he was there. The audience's reaction, however, proves he really deserves his place on the line-up.
In a complete contrast of genre, pop-punk quartet from Surrey and a darling of the Kerrang crowd You Me at Six were up next on the main stage. They worked the crowd hard, kicking off with 2014 single Fresh Start Fever but sound issues affected their set too. They encouraged the audience to take off their shirts for Reckless, played 3am from their new album which is due out later this year, Loverboy and No One Does It Better from 2011's Sinners Never Sleep and were all screaming guitars and vocals and thumping drums.
Attempts at banter with the crowd nearly went horribly wrong when they asked who supported Croatia over England in the football world cup before reminding the Scottish crowd that Scotland hadn't even made it to the world cup - like anyone in Scotland needs to be reminded of that - and then quickly tried to redeem themselves by claiming to be a little bit from Kinross and a little bit from Dumfries. Hmmn.
Bobby Gillespie is not known for his attempts at banter. He is the epitome of cool and showed the expectant crowd why the mighty Primal Scream are the true musical legends they are after over 30 years on the scene. Their blend of psychedelic rock, acid house and trip hop blues was one of the mainstays of my soundtrack of the 90s and they hold a very special place in thousands of tartan hearts who have grown up with the band. Gillespie worked his magic on the crowd like he worked his tambourine and maraccas, taking us all on a beautiful trip back through time.
They opened their headline slot with the optimistic and almost gospel-style Movin' On Up, hurtling straight into Jailbird, Shoot Speed Kill Light, Kill All Hippies, Higher than the Sun, I'm Losing More than I Ever Had, Swastika Eyes and Loaded. It was heads down and hands in the air anthems all the way for a classic set from the Glasgow indie-dance outfit, complete with a crowd sing-along for Come Together.
Country Girl from 2006's Riot City Blues album and Rocks brought the much-anticipated set - and the Garden Stage line-up - to a close ahead of the famous fireworks which exploded over the site as the last chords faded.
As ever there were way too many bands that I wanted to see this weekend but didn't have time to catch, way too many - Professor Green, Broken Records, Roseanne Cash, Whisky Shivers, Siobhan Wilson, Hunter and the Bear, Beth Orton, Issac Gracie and The Van Ts to name just a few. And with the sun shining for most of the weekend it would have been nice to have a wee bit of time to sit and have a drink and take in the atmosphere, maybe catch some of the talks at the Verb Garden or try to impress my teenagers with my yoga skills.
But it is impossible to take in everything the Tartan Heart festival has to offer in the space of a few days and - despite the increase in numbers and crowds - Bella remains a vibrant, eclectic, crowd-pleasing event that really does have something for everyone and that makes everyone's world a better place for a few wonderful days at least.
The team behind Bella put in a power of work to make sure that it is the best it can be every year. They don't take anything for granted, and if anyone can ensure that the magic formula they have for putting on a beautiful, soul-restoring, entertaining, mind-broadening and fun-loving festival is maintained in the future it is them.
Research has shown recently that going to gigs and experiencing live music can increase your life expectancy, and after three days at Belladrum you can totally see how that works; I joked last year that folk should be able to get Bella on prescription but maybe that isn't such a laughable idea after all.
And on that note, the last words should go to one of Belladrum's biggest fans, Frightened Rabbit's Scott Hutchison, from I Feel Better: "The sun does shine in this place some days, and even when there's clouds, there isn't always rain."
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Belladrum Tartan Heart 2018 review