South Scotland

Waving a fond farewell to the Wickerman Festival

Crowds Image copyright Emma Lynch
Image caption The Wickerman Festival was a beacon event for the region attracting thousands of fans

There was little surprise but great sadness at this weekend's confirmation that the Wickerman Festival has been officially closed.

Little surprise because the announcement came almost exactly two years after the tragic death of landowner Jamie Gilroy, the festival's director and gregarious host.

Great sadness because the Wickerman was an integral part of the summer social calendar for thousands; a beacon event for Dumfries and Galloway which raised the region's profile and which it promoted with pride.

Mind you, it wasn't like that from the start.

Image copyright Brian Sweeney
Image caption The festival grew in size and stature over the years

Back in 2001, Sid Ambrose, a youth worker in Kirkcudbright, had the idea of staging a counter-culture festival themed on the cult Wickerman movie which was filmed in the area. He needed a venue.

At the same time, Dumfries and Galloway was reeling from the economic devastation of the foot and mouth epidemic and farmer Jamie Gilroy was looking at diversification and alternative income streams at East Kirkcarsewell on the outskirts of Dundrennan. He had a field which was a natural amphitheatre.

It was a perfect, if unlikely, match.

On the one side, a public school educated, tweed-wearing landowner with a cut-glass accent. On the other, a heavily tattooed former punk rocker who favoured ragged tee-shirts and chains and spoke unapologetically in the local vernacular. But neither was anybody's fool and it turned out to be quite a meeting of minds.

Image copyright Wickerman Festival
Image caption The wicker figures also seemed to become more elaborate with each passing festival

That first festival was controversial. A 30-foot high Wickerman effigy - similar to that in which Edward Woodward's policeman character was burned as a human sacrifice in the movie - would be set alight at the festival's close. A local minister condemned the event's pagan undertones and grabbed newspaper headlines.

But it passed off successfully with Irish punk rockers Stiff Little Fingers headlining the fledgling, homespun, event staged in front of a couple of thousand spectators.

I didn't experience Wickerman's delights until 2005. Arthur Brown - the God of Hellfire - headlined that year along with The Stranglers and Alabama 3. I was hooked.

In the early years, the audience was a mixture of local folk amazed and delighted that this was happening on their doorstep and visiting festival veterans who at that time were very much of punk and hippy persuasion and who found Wickerman's edgy, eighties, retro vibe very much to their liking.

For a number of years Mrs J and I chose to be day visitors, travelling home to a comfy bed on the Friday night and returning to the festival on the Saturday afternoon.

Image copyright Willie Johnston
Image caption The Johnstons' caravan, Rose, was also an eye-catching attendee at the Wickerman

Then we bought Rose!

Rose is a truly ancient caravan (1970s vintage) which we picked up for a few quid on Ebay and kitted out with the sole intention of using it once a year, and once a year only.

So, for five or six festivals up to 2015, Rose was duly washed down, scrubbed up and trundled the 30 miles from Dumfries to Dundrennan for us to sample the full Wickerman experience without resorting to a tent.

Unfortunately, I didn't always have a car with a tow-bar and a couple of times had to borrow my son's which is black and covered from bonnet to back bumper in dramatic Iron Maiden decals. It was quite a sight: a metal-head's car towing a barely roadworthy caravan whose prime had been in the days of glam rock.

Two years ago our rig did provide great amusement to the police at the gate. Seeing us approach they readied themselves in anticipation of a potential drugs bust, only to wave us through with a laugh after seeing the two mortified fifty-somethings in the front seats.

Image copyright Emma Lynch
Image caption Some big names in music were brought to a corner of south west Scotland by the event

Wickerman changed over the years. It became bigger and more commercial. Some said it lost a bit of its edge. The audience became less alternative and more mainstream. But it attracted some great names to the Summerisle Stage.

Personal highlights include Nile Rodgers and Chic, Texas, Scissor Sisters, James, The Proclaimers and many more. There were also some great moments in the Scooter Tent which kept alive Wickerman's punk and ska roots. The Undertones and Bad Manners spring to mind.

I lost count of the times over the years I would survey the site and the main stage acts and think how surreal it was that these musical superstars had come to perform in the corner of a farmer's field overlooking Dundrennan and the Solway Firth. Most of them probably hadn't really a clue where they were!

But Wickerman was about more than the big names. Its many venues, and especially the acoustic village, gave a platform for up and coming talent much of it home grown in Dumfries and Galloway. They will miss that showcase.

Image copyright Brian Sweeney

And I will miss it, too.

I was among those who wondered if the 2015 festival could possibly take place barely six months after Jamie Gilroy's untimely death, even though tickets had been sold and many of the acts booked.

But Jamie's wife Patsy and their daughter Jennie Camm (herself in recovery from breast cancer at the time) took it upon themselves to make sure it did and they staged it in Jamie's honour with dignity and pride. I can't really imagine how hard that must have been.

After taking a year out in 2016, they had pledged to bring Wickerman back next year and sought a third-party promoter to take it on. But negotiations broke down and at the weekend Jennie and Patsy took the hard but inevitable decision that the festival must close.

It was great while it lasted. It gave a lot of people a lot of fun and superb musical experiences. I will treasure them as I do the hand-written Christmas card I received from Jamie Gilroy in December 2014 just a day or so before he died.

Thank you Wickerman. Thanks for the memories.

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