The Belladrum Tartan Heart festival enjoyed another bumper year this year with over 20,000 people attending Scotland's biggest three-day music event.
Bella, which takes place on a beautiful Highland estate a few miles west of Inverness in the north of Scotland, is now in its 16th year and some ten times bigger than when it first started in 2004. It also sold out for the tenth year in a row – and when tickets for the 2020 edition went on sale less than a week after the close of this year's event, the response was unprecedented with kids passes selling out within just a few hours.
The popularity of this event shows no signs of waning with families paying hundreds of pounds to secure their tickets before a single band has been announced - despite some negative comments on social media and the experiences of some festival-goers this year.
This year's line-up undoubtedly contributed to the surge in ticket sales amongst young people, featuring as it did “Scotland's Beyonce” and man of the moment Lewis Capaldi, as well as fellow home-grown talent Chvrches, and Jess Glynne. Further proof, as if it was ever needed, that Bella has something for everyone could be seen in the inclusion of space rockers Hawkwind, indie stars Elbow and Dodgy, Glasvegas and Scottish new wave punks The Rezillos on the bill as well.
2019 was the first year that new owner of the festival, international music promoter Kilimanjaro, was in charge and festival-goers noticed a few changes to the atmosphere at the event, as well as an increase in numbers.
The gates to the campsites opened at 8am on the Thursday once again this year and even at that time in the morning there were queues of folk lined up waiting to get in. Although there were queues throughout the day as thousands of people descended on the site, the organisers and stewards managed to keep them moving and get everyone in with relatively minimal stress, despite a number of caravans and motorhomes having to be towed in by tractors due to muddy conditions caused by torrential downpours the previous day.
Organisers also seemed to have taken on board feedback from previous years about delays getting wristbands as this also appeared to be more efficient this year. Bag searches at the entry points to the main arena depended entirely on the individual security staff; some went through every bag, confiscating any banned items, while others were letting folk through with entire boxes of wine stashed in their bags.
Feedback about the number of and the state of the toilets last year also seemed to have been taken on board as the queues to the loos, while often long, were moving quickly and most of the facilities were always clean.
The layout had changed a bit once again this year, with the Cleanfields site on the move. The general campsite was located right by the main entrances, meaning that you had to go through the undeniable carnage of that site - described as “an eye-opener” by one individual in a master of understatement - if you were just at Bella for the day and driving home or catching one of the shuttle buses off the site.
The changing landscape is evidence that those behind the event continue 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. Some of the original team behind Bella are still involved in the production and management of the event and they have a well-deserved reputation for listening to its fans and acting on the feedback provided where possible.
New for this year was the Foodie Forest in a secluded glade in the Hothouse field which had been home to the Temple of Dub over the last couple of years, and the Bella Boffinarium in the Walled Garden. The Boffinarium boasted a full programme of science and technology themed events throughout the weekend, including late night star gazing sessions, family science shows and a panel discussion on women in science.
The VIP area for Club Clan Bella members was back, as was the Love Bella restaurant which offers a fine dining experience to festival goers.
The music got under way at noon on Thursday at the Potting Shed, and first band of the weekend for us was Edgar Road, playing Bella for the third time and described as one of the best bands in the north-east of Scotland in the last few years.
The Elgin-based five-piece opened with Say it Another Way, followed by Photograph, Looking Glass, Blackbird, Sun's in the Sky, Everything has Changed and Kollide. They were joined on stage by fan Raymond Johnston on cowbell – one of seven appearances he was to make with various bands on different stages over the weekend - for Hold On and finished their accomplished set with Friday Night.
Over on the Seedlings Stage was Tranqua Lite from Leeds, whose style is described as “post dad rock”. Having seen them I'm no clearer on the intriguing description but suffice to say these youngsters had boundless energy bouncing around the stage and belting out Hassle Heart, Phantasmagorie and Retrogression. There was a definite Red Hot Chilli Peppers vibe to their heavy baselines and almost funk style and they clearly loved music and loved playing together.
Americana rock 'n' rollers The Carloways from Perthshire were on the Grassroots stage at their favourite festival and attracted a good crowd to their early evening slot. It was another great set from the band, the first of two they would play over the weekend, with singer Mikey MacLennan's voice sounding fantastic, the harmonies spot on and the honky tonk keyboard perfect for the setting. Crawlin' Back, No Sympathy, One More Night, Down to the River (To Pray) and Long Hot Summer's Day all got an airing in their toe-tapping, foot-stomping hoedown of a set.
Our whistle-stop tour of some of Bella's 16 stages continued with Tom Odell on the Garden Stage. The award-winning singer-songwriter kicked off his blistering set with I Know, Sparrow and Still Getting Used to Being on My Own. It was an immense performance as he worked the crowd into a frenzy, urging them to “dance like f**king animals”, pounding hell out of his grand piano with his band rocking out behind him, then slowing things down and ramping them right back up again much to the audience's delight.
He said that Belladrum was the first festival he ever played and that it was “still one of the best festivals in the world”. Half as Good As You, Heal, Can't Pretend, Grow Old with Me and Hold Me all got an airing with the heartfelt Another Love from 2013 album Long Way Down bringing his impressive set to a close.
Next up on the main stage was Elbow with their brand of brooding indie ballads. Singer Guy Garvey told the crowd he wished he was more Scottish. Magnificent (She Says) was indeed magnificent, new song Empires was well-received and the latter part of their set even more so featuring classics such as their best-known hit One Day Like This.
Back on the Grassroots stage was Bella regular Davy Cowan and the Storm Chasers. The singer-songwriter and self-proclaimed post-punk gent belted out Working Man and Answerphone Song in an energetic set that had the crowd dancing away. There was a bit of Wild Rover and a bit of Wild Mountain Thyme thrown in and as the man himself pointed out, it wasn't a bad way to spend a Thursday night.
The night was still young though and in typical Bella style Rhythm N Reel rocked out the Grassroots tent with their always popular and very energetic Celtic rock and traditional tunes in another bombastic set while at the Potting Shed, self-proclaimed Highland hillbillies The Federals headlined once again, bringing the first night of Bella 2019 to a close.
Friday dawned bright and sunny and the increasingly warm site was filling up with excited festie-goers from mid-morning.
The Walled Garden, which despite the increase in numbers remained a wee oasis of calm on the edge of the festival arena, was home to a yoga tent, drumming, the Bella Boffinarium, the Free Range stage, the Burke and Hair theatre and stage and circus skills shenanigans.
In the Tir nAn nOg children's area, the mobile library was back, and youngsters also had a chance to enjoy craft sessions, theatre, music and song, sand art, puppetry, knitting and crochet, circus workshops and a carousel, while over in the Venus Fly trap tent the entertainment continued with comedy acts, wrestling, choirs and fashion shows. There was also entertainment from Team Extreme, a professional display team featuring BMX riders, skateboarders and scooters.
All the usual food stall-holders were back, including the Food from Argyll area with salmon rolls, fish pie and kedgeree and Churchill's Venison Burgers as well as the strawberry stall, the wood-fired pizzas, Mutley's Crepes, the noodle bar and the curry stall. This year the Co-op shop had moved from its usual spot opposite the Verb Garden to a much larger platform nearer the Hothouse tent where it even had its own rather zealous security team.
We caught the Bella flash mob, choreographed by staff from Eden Court in Inverness and which hundreds of enthusiastic people got involved with, but the the first stop of the day for us was the Hothouse Stage for a very bouncy set by Glasgow electro band Bis. The three piece have been combining disco beats with big riffs and frenetic vocals for some 25 years and belted out Action and Drama “for everyone who knows what records are”. They emphasised their pop punk credentials with Kandy Pop before slowing things down to “traditional disco”.
It was back to the Grassroots Tent for a change in genre if not pace with The Poozies. This all-female trad band has been on the go since the early 90s and founder member Mary Macmaster's bassy harp sound, along with guitarist Tia Files guitar and percussion, is the grounding from which fiddle players Eilidh Shaw and Sarah McFadyen soar from. There is never a sense that these two talented musicians are duelling in the way that some do; instead they work together building atmosphere and emotion with their instruments. A “wee tribute to Slipknot”, a medley of traditional tunes and their own material and Soaking in the Bathtub all contributed to another outstanding set.
The Trailer Trash stage was the venue for the first of two sets at Bella by Edinburgh-based five-piece Cow Cow Boogie and their brand of rockabilly, swing and country style blues. With a self-professed 1940s and 50s influence, this weekend saw them without their usual singer Nicole Smith but they still impressed the Bella crowds. Their Trailer Trash set saw them play more than a dozen tunes, including Candy Man, Scorched, Itchy Boogie, Bang Bang, Home Cooking and finishing with Got Rhythm and Train Train.
Another Edinburgh-based band, the mighty Bombskare stormed a packed out Grassroots Stage with their inimitable brand of Scottish ska fused with a definite rock edge. The UK's official best part-time band started as they meant to go on, taking no prisoners right from the off with new material from their third album A Million Ways to Die as well as some old favourites.
Their typically energetic set included Wanna be Famous, Freedom 35, Lloyd Knibb - which was dedicated to the drummer from the Skatellites who Bombskare hail as their patron saint - Done No Matter What and Do All Dogs Go to Heaven. There was ferocious skanking both on stage and in the increasingly sweaty tent as the atmosphere grew and the energy bounced off the stage to the crowd of thousands and back to the band. They closed their triumphant set with a fantastic version of Live and Let Die which got a massive reaction from the delighted fans, leaving them shouting out for more.
The Grassroots Stage was the venue for The Strange Blue Dreams and their skiffle and rockabilly set. Their proudly retro mellow vibe is perfect for sunny evenings and this was no exception. Championed by DJ Vic Galloway, their soulful voices, beautiful harmonies and expert musicianship shone throughout their set, which included highlights such as The Ballad of the Sun and the Moon, single Twilight Zone, Monster of Love, Man's Game and set closer Anyway.
One of the weekend's 'must-see' acts for many of this year's Bella goers was legendary guitarist Johnny Marr. He played a mix of new material such as Armatopia, Hi Hello and Easy Money as well as classic tunes by The Smiths such as This Charming Man and How Soon is Now in a set that was far more upbeat and rock heavy than that band ever was.
He introduced Getting Away With It as a disco song from Manchester, commented that he was going to get himself a pair of the denim hot pants that he had seen so many people at Bella wearing, and praised the crowd for being “seriously chilled out”.
An electrifying set from Glasgow synth pop outfit Chvrches showed why they richly deserved their headliner status. From set openers Get Out, Bury It and We Sink, Lauren Mayberry completely owned the stage, her powerful voice and kick-ass attitude reminiscent of a young Debbie Harry or Cyndi Lauper.
She told the crowd that founder member Martin Doherty used to work at Belladrum and was now playing the “legendary” Friday night headline slot, imploring those there never to give up on their dreams. Back in the right here right now, the pounding bass lines and high octane electronica beat carried the audience away on a tide of energy as they blasted through Graffiti, Miracle, Recover, Leave a Trace, Clearest Blue, The Mother We Share and Never Say Die in an absolutely banger of a set which was the perfect end to the Garden Stage line-up.
The Garden Stage may have closed for the evening but the party continued for many, at the bars, at Mother's Ruin, with the David Bowie tribute band at the Grassroots tent, the Cuban Brothers' raucous show at the Hothouse Stage, and other acts at the Potting Shed, Ice House Jazz 'n' Blues stage - designed to look like a New Orleans street scene - and the Free Range and Burke and Hare stages in the Walled Garden.
Saturday was a wee bit cooler than Friday, but was still warm and more importantly, still dry. However, the chilled out vibe of Thursday soon became a distant memory as the site got more and more crowded throughout the day. primarily in anticipation of Lewis Capaldi's appearance in the evening.
First band of the day for us was Be Charlotte. This was the third time that Charlotte, who is still just 21, has played Bella and she has grown in confidence so much since her first appearance on the Free Range Stage some seven years ago. Her audience has grown significantly too, and it was lovely to see some familiar faces in the crowd who were also there at the Free Range Stage back in 2012, as well as all her new young fans.
Fresh from supporting none other than The Proclaimers at Edinburgh Castle, the singer-songwriter from Dundee filled the Hothouse tent with her powerful voice, delightedly dancing around the stage. Her set included Brighter Without You, Do Not Disturb, Set Someone Free and Lights On, all of which got a fantastic reception from the crowd who were singing along to all the words. The hard work and total commitment that the hugely talented Charlotte has dedicated to her music is deservedly paying dividends and long may that continue.
From one Scottish act to another and the return of Colonel Mustard and the Dijon 5 to the Garden Stage in what has become one of Bella's most popular traditions of recent years. An estimated crowd of some 15,000, one of the biggest Belladrum has ever seen, packed into the Garden Stage for what is always an entertaining, heart-warming and thought-provoking set from the stalwarts of the peace-loving Yellow Movement.
Set openers International Sex Hero and Gay Icon set the bar high from the off and were followed up with Dance Off which featured the Dijancer and a pair of giant dancing kangaroos showing off their moves. And why wouldn't it? Bouncy Ball's reggae-infused start built to a frenetic pace and got thousands of people jumping, and at one point during the set a giant whale floated through the crowd, past a couple of spaceships and of course those kangaroos. Well they do say to expect the unexpected in the Dijonverse.
Peace Love and Mustard saw the Colonel spreading the body positivity message, encouraging everyone – even the “daddy belly generation” to take their tops off and wave them round their heads to create an air-conditioning effect in the garden. Cross the Road got the biggest cheer of the afternoon as the Djancer donned his hi-vis vest and grabbed his lollipop stick and, together with the Colonel and those kangaroos, led the delighted crowd in a wee lesson in road safety.
The anthemic These Are Not The Drugs (You Are Looking For) brought the set to a close and once again had everyone singing along with the catchy chorus, which reinforces important social messages around equal marriage, inclusivity and drugs. Featuring guest vocals from Spring Break, introduced by the Colonel as “still the best band to come out of Dingwall”, and Mark McGhee from the Girobabies, it was an amazing and uplifting experience to be singing “everyone's happy, everyone's smiling, no one here is sad anymore” as part of a choir of 15,000 folk.
The Selecter were next up on the main stage. Somewhat unbelievably this band is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and the legends of the ska scene kicked off their polished set with Three Minute Hero, (Who Likes) Facing Situations and Frontline. Led by a sharp-suited Pauline Black and Arthur 'Gaps' Henderson, they played Celebrate the Bullet, Remember Me, Missing Words, Danger, Train to Skaville, James Bond and finished with Too Much Pressure. It was a classic performance from a seemingly timeless band.
And then it was the moment that nearly everyone in the field had been waiting for. Lewis Capaldi's set at Bella was one of the most hotly anticipated gigs in the festival's history, coming as it did on the back of a number one debut album, a much-publicised spat with Noel Gallagher, Capaldi's ever-growing fan base and THOSE sets at Glastonbury and TRNSMT earlier this summer. But for Belladrum there was no grand entrance, no videos, no put downs, just a down-to-earth Scottish guy with an amazingly soulful voice coming out on to the stage.
And while it is a cliché to say it, it is undoubtedly true that the crowd went wild. The buzz and energy coming off the Garden Stage audience was unlike anything Belladrum has ever experienced before, and this was my 13th consecutive year here. Security was told to lock the Garden Stage area down and not let anyone in as it reached capacity for the first time in Bella's history.
It's only two years since he last played Belladrum, and only a couple of months since he released his debut album but in that time he has gone stratospheric, arguably becoming one of the hottest tickets in the country at the moment, and everyone wanted a piece of that. His famous self-deprecating banter was very much to the fore as he said that anyone who loves rock and roll was going to be disappointed - “I just do sad songs” he pointed out.
He teased the audience about whether he would put on a pair of sunglasses, commenting “who knew that some stupid sunglasses would become such a big part of my thing”, introduced his band in the style of an old school game show host, modelled a hat made of beer cans passed to him by a fan – which he claimed was “just how I envisaged playing second on the bill at Belladrum would be” - and closed his set by telling everyone he had to go because he was “bursting for a pee”.
Songs such as Maybe, Bruises, Hollywood, Fade and Hold Me While You Wait showcased his soulful voice and he had everyone in the crowd singing along to every word, often drowning out the man himself. His last song of the night was his biggest hit, Someone You Loved, which he introduced as the song that “changed it all” for him, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, a sad song. “Let's all of us here be very f**king sad as one”, he said, and while there were many issues surrounding the crowd capacity at his set, everyone there was buzzing to have been part of something that will undoubtedly become something of a Belladrum legend.
The Bella rumour mill had been in full swing all weekend with stories that Saturday night headliner Jess Glynne had pulled out, perhaps fuelled by her non-appearance at the TRNSMT festival in Glasgow the previous month. In the end it was The Sugarhill Gang who cancelled and Jess Glynne took to the Garden Stage as billed. TRNSMT's loss was Bella's gain.
From set openers Rollin, These Days and Real Love, through Thursday, All I Am and I'll Be There, this was a slick, professional and empowering performance that contrasted quite starkly with some of the drunken states that many people in her audience were in.
And so the Garden Stage line-up came to a close and the famous fireworks lit up the skies over the site, heralding the end of the 16th Belladrum.
As ever there were way too many bands and acts, particularly at the Verb Garden, that I wanted to see over the weekend but didn't have time to catch; it is impossible to take in everything the still vibrant and eclectic Tartan Heart festival has to offer in the space of a just few days.
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 an entertaining, mind-broadening and fun-loving festival is maintained in the future it is them.
However, the logistics of managing an event of this size are not simple, and as the old adage goes, it is impossible to please all of the people all of the time. The bigger an event gets the more likelihood there is that there will be complaints.
Yes, there seemed to be an increase in teenagers at this year's event, but many of these teenagers will have grown up coming to Bella every year – disclaimer: mine included - and it is as much their festival as it is that of the older people or younger families who have only recently discovered the Belladrum magic. And in defence of the teenagers, there were lots of middle-aged people literally falling over drunk as well, some who were just as abusive as some of the youngsters and at least one of whom thought it was perfectly acceptable to whip out his penis and pee on one of the magnificent trees in the Garden Stage in front of thousands of people and right next to a justifiably appalled teenager. My 16-year-old last year refused to come back to Bella again because he is fed up of all the drunk people there.
The over-crowding situation during Lewis Capaldi's set took everyone by surprise, following hot on the heels as it did of all the recent media attention he has been receiving – none of which could have been foreseen when he was originally booked to appear last year and was still a relatively unknown act. In fact the organisers have stated this week that it was probably a “once in a lifetime Belladrum moment” that is “extremely unlikely to happen again”.
However, it was obviously far from ideal – when they closed the barriers to the Garden Stage families and friends were split up. There were issues and tensions with people having camping chairs and buggies and trolleys there and “taking up space” even though they had spent the day there to ensure a spot to see the man himself and it is very much a Belladrum tradition and part of its long-standing appeal as a family-friendly festival. But the surging crowd was undeniably scary for many of Lewis' younger fans, and everyone had paid to see the same acts and some people did miss out.
But there was little else the organisers could have done given the circumstances, other than perhaps improved communication and announcements saying that the Garden Stage was going to be closed at a specific time, which would have given people a chance to get the drinks in or go to the toilet and get back to their families. I am sure those in charge will have learned from that experience and I have every confidence that the organisers deliberately schedule, for example, Chvrches at the same time as Glasvegas and Richard Thompson all on different stages so that everyone can find someone they want to see or something they want to do and to avoid over-crowding in any one area.
And as the bands at Bella get bigger, it is important that those in charge keep supporting and championing the wee bands as well. It is interesting to see bands that have been headlining or near the top of the bill at other events this year playing the Bella Bar for example – although to be fair to Tom Maguire and the Brassholes they knocked it out of the park, taking the unsuspecting Bella Bar crowd by storm during their set.
Bella, even its smaller stages, is a fantastic showcase for bands that are working really hard to make a living from the music we all love, often combining festival and gigging commitments with day jobs and families. The music scene in Scotland is really vibrant right now with so many talented bands deserving of support. So if you found someone at Bella whose performance you enjoyed, go and support them by seeing them at a gig near you and spread the Belladrum love.
The perennial problems of getting off the sites have still not been resolved, and to be honest I'm not sure they ever will be as 20,000 or so festie-goers make their way home on the Sunday. We left the site about 10.30am and were only stuck in the queues for an hour or so compared to the usual couple of hours we have experienced when leaving later in the day, and which I think is the best tip I could give anyone wanting to avoid the really long delays. However, an early start obviously means curtailing any alcohol consumption earlier on the Saturday for designated drivers.
Many of those involved in the management and production of Bella have been involved since the start in some capacity or another and continue to express their determination that what they believe is Scotland's best family music and performing arts festival doesn't lose its soul and stays true to its unique, quirky, Highland heart.
There are 20,000 fans – all of whom feel that Bella is their festival - willing them to succeed. And having that kind of loyalty on their side is the perfect example of how Belladrum is still, for now at least, a real community festival with family at its heart and the epitome of the renowned welcoming nature of the Highlands and its people.
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