Music fans from home and abroad have helped an island music festival generate £20 million over the last two decades.
The award-winning Hebridean Cetic Festival, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, attracted about 1,000 mainly local followers in its first year. However it now draws crowds of 15,000 annually to Stornoway, with half the total coming from outside the islands.
Over the years fans from over 100 countries have made the pilgrimage to the four-day festival – which this year is being held from 15-18 July – and they help double the population of the host town and provide the biggest money spinner for local businesses outside the festive season.
HebCelt organisers calculate the overall economic impact of the festival over the 20 years is up to £20 million at current prices, with bars, restaurants, cafes, accommodation providers and transport firms among those benefiting.
Since the first festival, 202,000 fans have attended concerts, with ten per cent arriving from abroad, 40 per cent from other parts of the UK and the other 50 per cent made up of local followers.
The 20th festival will feature acts including Idlewild, Afro Celt Sound System, Treacherous Orchestra, the Karen Matheson Band, Shooglenifty, Chastity Brown, Le Vent du Nord, Raghu Dixit and Salsa Celtica.
Festival director Caroline Maclennan said: “As we look back over the 20 years, the growth of the festival has been phenomenal. It is now the biggest single annual event in the Outer Hebrides and is a vital economic generator with businesses saying the money they earn during festival week helps them until Christmas.
“We enjoy fantastic support from the local community and also from fans across the UK, Europe and beyond. We have regulars from the US and Australia and this year alone people have booked from Canada, all around Europe, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.”
She added: “HebCelt really has come of age over the past two decades which is all thanks to the hard work and dedication of the local community, sponsors and support we get year after year from the public.”
The festival’s impact has been praised by local MSP Alasdair Allan. He said: “The importance of HebCelt economically and culturally to the islands cannot be over-stated. It has been a huge draw in terms of tourism and in supporting and sustaining local businesses over 20 years, as the figures demonstrate.
“It does a wonderful job promoting traditional music and the Gaelic language and raising the profile of the islands to an international audience.”
Many of the overseas visitors to HebCelt join the 150-strong army of volunteers who provide vital free manpower at the festival. About 60 per cent of the helpers come from outside Lewis, many from across the UK but also from throughout Europe, the US and Australia.
Among this year’s contingent are first time festival goers Pol Múrria, 21, and Elisenda Condomines, 19, from the village of St Llorenç d’Hortons, near Barcelona. Both attend the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Pol in his third year of an industrial management degree and Elisenda in her second year of a psychology degree.
They learned about HebCelt having signed up for an exchange visit at the Heb Hostel in Stornoway. To get to Lewis they will be flying from Barcelona to Prestwick, then taking a train to Inverness, a bus to Ullapool and finally a ferry to Stornoway.
Pol said: “We are going to stay a month in Stornoway, so we think that is a good way to learn a little more about the Hebridean culture and enjoy the local music.”
Elisenda added: “We volunteer at home in local events, including music and food festivals, and are looking forward to meeting people and enjoying the experience.”
Visiting HebCelt for the fourth time is primary school teacher Marsha Spears, from Little Rock, Arkansas, who describes herself as a Scottish music ‘junkie’.
Marsha, 64, faces an 18-hour journey through three US airports and a drive to Ullapool and ferry to Stornoway and will also visit other parts of the Outer Hebrides, Skye, Orkney and the northern Highlands during her visit.
She made her first solo visit to Scotland in 2001 when she “followed the music” and also took in events including the Orkney Folk Festival and the International Piping Competition in Glasgow as well as HebCelt . “And I have followed the music ever since”, she said
She said of volunteering this year: “I happily paid for my ticket for the other years, however I believe in volunteering and supporting causes and organisations in which I believe.
“Yes, it would be easier to purchase tickets on my credit card, but HebCelt is about music and community. I believe I have the skills and experience to help make HebCelt more enjoyable for other guests. I would be remiss of me to not support the festival by contributing my energy and time.”
Due to the large influx of people for HebCelt, accommodation in and around Stornoway will be at a premium and an appeal has gone out from the local VisitScotland office to people with available beds to contact them at 01851 703088 or Stornoway@visitscotland.com