HebCelt success built on solid foundation

There has been no-one more associated with the success and growth of the Hebridean Celtic Festival than Caroline MacLennan, not that she would ever seek to claim the credit.

Thursday, 29th July 2021, 1:22 pm
Stars of the show: The One Show presenters, Matt Baker and Alex Jones, who filed an item from the festival a few years back, with Caroline and MG Alba's Fiona MacKenzie

It was a bit of a shame that with this year marking the 25th anniversary – hard to believe it all started way back in 1996 – the event had to be cancelled. With such a significant milestone to mark, it was sure to have been the most memorable of occasions, had we been able as usual, along with the usual throng of tourists, to gather on the Castle Green. But at least there’s always next year.

The HebCelt, we are assured, will return and continue its success – only in the future it won’t be with Caroline at the helm.

After 25 years of hectic organisation, after all that time of dealing with bands, musicians, businesses, sponsors, volunteers – and probably also the odd critic – she has decided to step down.

The festival might today be one of the top attractions for live music in Scotland, certainly for Celtic music anyway, but it wasn’t always so, as Caroline recalls. In fact, hard to believe now, but it all came about as something of an after-thought.

“A colleague and I who shared a place of work once upon a time got chatting about music,” she said. “Celtic Connections had been going for a couple of years, so we thought a festival rooted in our community would be a great idea.

“We built the first team just through friends and acquaintances, secured the financial backing necessary and held our first festival in 1996. In that first year we made a loss of £6,000 out of a budget in the order of £5,600.

“But we had the courage and conviction to continue and turned that loss around in the second year. I was employed about five years later as the event became more established and the time commitment grew.”

Some of us well remember those early halcyon days when it was very much an event for the community. But for it to succeed in the long-term, for it to make the vital economic contribution it does today, a major step-change was required.

“Hand on heart I don't think any of us realised just what we had started,” said Caroline. “Year one was scary, especially as we were personally liable for financial loss. So by year three we set up the company structure, obtained charitable status, and really have never looked back.

“It’s been a roller coaster ride and you need a heck of a lot of stamina to maintain HebCelt as it deserves to be, but we are still in the game thanks to prudent financial planning and, more recently, vital industry support.”

This year’s on-line “Survival Sessions” have proved highly successful and have maintained some level of interest, but it could never replace the real thing.

Caroline is confident that with the strong structure they now have in place behind-the-scenes – including securing Graham MacCallum as her replacement as director – it will continue to be just as successful. In fact, she believes that creating that foundation has been one of the biggest achievements in the last 25 years.

“The board has never been stronger than it is now,” she says. “These people, as well as being friends and respected colleagues, are the most amazing collective of individuals. And they do it for the love of it, for no personal financial gain. That should always be recognised.

“Surviving the last two years with no self-generated income has, and continues to be, a real challenge for ourselves and the wider industry. Public funding and private sponsorship are critical to ensuring HebCelt happens here, but we need to operate at full capacity. Otherwise it just won’t work.”

In amongst the overall success there have been a number of individual highlights for Caroline, including getting Runrig and Van Morrison on the billing in the same year in 2005, “making it the highest grossing festival in our history up to that point”.

“The most recent HebCelts consistently highly-achieved and we were on target to beat all previous records in 2020 when the pandemic broke,” she said.

So what does she think has been key to all the success?

“The festival can point to its music, setting and community as three key foundation blocks. We are indebted to our community both for financial support and through fans buying a T-shirt or a ticket. That, coupled with the fantastic backdrop of the wider Outer Hebrides and Lews Castle grounds. We continue to be very grateful to the Stornoway Trust for their support and to the community who bear with us as we occupy one of the most iconic settings in the Outer Hebrides for the week.”

After all these years of being the principal backroom fixer, it would neither be sensible or realistic for Caroline to depart the scene all together. She will always, she says, be on hand. But for the moment another pressing and altogether more important task beckons: granny duties.

“I hope to be very much involved in the 25th live HebCelt and the building blocks are in place,” she says. “However, I am delighted that Graham is set to take the event into its next phase and know he is supported by a fantastic team. HebCelt really couldn’t find safer hands. As long as I’m needed I will be there if advice is required, as are previous key trustees who have moved on but have continued to support me.

“On a local level I enjoy being involved in community projects and have eyes on wider music interests. However, I am delighted now to have granny duties and I also have my eyes set on a polycrub to further develop my gardening skills.

“I won’t be idle, that’s for sure. It’s not in my nature.”