Highlands & Islands

Belladrum: 'How we grew a music festival in the Highlands'

Belladrum Image copyright Paul Campbell
Image caption Belladrum is held near Beauly in the Highlands

Over the last 15 years, Belladrum has grown from a small one-day event to become one of Scotland's biggest music festivals. Other festivals have fallen by the wayside in recent years - so why has this Highland gathering thrived?

The Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival was the brainchild of Joe Gibbs, the owner of the Belladrum Estate near Beauly.

It started small in 2004 as a one-day event with tickets for just 2,000 people.

"When Joe asked me about starting a festival I said it would never work," says Pete Campbell, who has been a member of the organising team since day one.

But the first festival exceeded expectations. It was a sell-out.

Image copyright Paul Campbell
Image caption Pete Campbell had initial doubts about staging a music festival

"That was quite an achievement for a first-time event in the Highlands," says Rob Ellen, who has helped with booking acts and publicising Belladrum since 2004.

"I don't think it had ever been done before."

Bella, as the festival is affectionately known, continued to be run as a small festival in the following years. It then moved to a two-day format, and became a three-day event in 2015.

This year's festival, which gets under way on Thursday, will attract a 20,000-capacity crowd, about 14,000 of whom will be camping.

Image copyright Paul Campbell
Image caption Bella now attracts a 20,000-capacity audience

But as Bella has grown, some other Scottish festivals have struggled in recent years.

This year Electric Fields tried to switch from a rural location in southern Scotland to Glasgow, before being cancelled.

The organisers of T in the Park admitted this year that it had "run its course", with their focus now on the TRNSMT event in Glasgow. It also attracts big-name acts over a three-day festival, but without the camping element of T in the Park.

In the Highlands, RockNess last took place in 2013 and Loopallu will take place for the last time later this year.

Joe Gibbs said there had been occasions when he feared that Belladrum might not make it.

"There were many times in the first five years when we were physically and mentally exhausted, pushing hard to make it work," he says.

"There were times we were terrified of losing a lot of money."

Image copyright Paul Campbell
Image caption Joe Gibbs founded Belladrum

It had been a huge challenge competing for acts with bigger festivals backed by multinational companies.

"But over the years we have built up a reputation and there are acts that come to us now asking to be on the line-up," he says.

"Running a festival is like growing an oak tree.

"Oak trees take a long time to grow, but their roots are deep. Bella's foundations are secure."

Event manager Lesley Strang, who has worked at the festival since year one, says the secret of its success is that organisers never forget the core audience - those who live in the Highlands.

Image copyright Lesley Strang
Image caption Lesley Strang says Bella's laid back attitude is part of its appeal

"Bella's tag line is 'Homegrown in the Highlands'," she says.

"It's got a Highland attitude - a bit laid back and not corporate.

"We benefit from having a core audience. These are people who came in the early years when they were in their 20s and are now in their 30s and coming here with their own young families."

Dougie Brown attended the first Belladrum in 2004 when he was in his 20s and was looking for something new.

The following year he got a job in the festival's box office handing out wristbands, and has worked his way up to become event producer.

Bella is ingrained in Dougie's life.

He married wife Liz at the festival's Temple building and their children, Louis and Faye, have grown up with the event.

Image copyright Paul Campbell
Image caption Dougie Brown and son Louis at Bella

New generations have also joined the "family" which is involved in running the festival.

Andy Venters, who has worked at the festival since 2006, says: "My favourite thing about Bella is seeing my three boys, who came with me as kids to help in the early years, become part of the site team in their own right."

Amy Atkinson, who worked at her first Bella in 2006, now takes holidays from her day job to work as the festival's artist liaison manager.

"We have each grown with the festival, and the festival has grown with us," she says.

Image copyright Paul Campbell
Image caption Aly Gray stage managed boyhood heroes James
Image copyright Paul Campbell

Last year, music promoter Kilimanjaro Group bought over Belladrum. It had previously been involved with booking headline acts over the previous decade.

Boss Stuart Galbraith says: "The festival has a very broad appeal with everything from children's entertainment through to late night drum and bass.

"We just like what Joe and the team have been evolving, and that is a perfect festival run by Highlanders for Highlanders."

There will be live coverage of Belladrum on BBC ALBA, hosted by presenters Fiona MacKenzie and Niall Iain MacDonald, from Thursday. Festival highlights will be available on the BBC Scotland channel on Friday and Saturday nights, and on the iPlayer.

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