Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival: tears, love and laughs

A perfect balance of pleasure and scale, the beauty of Belladrum is that it has big-name bands and plenty of heart

There’s no shortage of shiny names at Belladrum. Main stage stars like Paloma Faith and Primal Scream unfailingly add a hit of fierce glamour to any outdoor shindig with glittery pop and arms-aloft rock anthems, and if you’re lucky even a hint of elegant chaos.

But the real (tartan) heart of Bella is that it’s so much more than some dearly beloved artists putting on a big show on a bunch of stages in a field. Over the 31 years since I started festival-going (when Reading was still a hoary old rock hellmouth) I became vehemently disenchanted with increasingly sterile atmospheres, desperate over-corporatisation of “the festival vibe” and all that other guff that old gits go on about.

It’s impossible to grasp just how gorgeous Belladrum is until you’re there

Bella, conversely, is the sum of many beautiful parts, from its super-cheerful, helpful, friendly stewards – five words rarely seen together – to bar tokens not being pitched at excruciating rip-off prices. People always talk about how lovely it is, but until you’re there it’s impossible to grasp just how gorgeous; the landscape in which it sits is absolutely stunning and the undulating festival site itself is a bosky delight, with dizzying pines as landmarks and hemmed in by deeply forested fringes. It’s big enough to avoid cross-stage sound annoyance but compact enough to traverse repeatedly in comfort without requiring Compeed and a lie down. Even queues for bars and loos are reasonable. Running since 2004, Belladrum balances pleasure and scale in a tremendously laid-back way.

The Verb Garden line-up offers discussions about Jacobites and John Muir (fitting, given the environment we’re in), while the tiny stage at Bella Bar, with its Grecian columns, has some very fine folk music being played before a delightedly appreciative front row of ‘flossing’ wee kids. Anywhere you wander at this festival, there’s top-quality stuff to stop and enjoy: the skill and strength of Fly Agaric aerialists demands attention, kilted yoga is promised in Madame Fifi’s Dance Parlour, where you can also brush up your tango.

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Younger festival-goers are buzzing like flies around a crashed plane rave thing, while mums and dads are safely ensconced in the Hothouse Stage where The Supernaturals are (still) nailing that quintessentially Scottish blend of melancholic lyrics of almost unbearable dirty sadness overlaid with ludicrously upbeat, bop-along swingy pop. Singer James McColl references their late-1990s peak of stardom, observing that some of the crowd weren’t around then. He describes The Supernaturals as “like The Saturdays with an alcohol problem” and in truth they’re still (surprisingly) lithe, and much-adored, with ‘The Day Before Yesterday’s Man’, ‘Dung Beetle’ and of course set-closer ‘Smile’ (“you’d better smile, ‘cause that’s all you’ve got left”) getting a mild middle-aged mosh going.

The Charlatans are similarly vintage-yet-vibrant over on the Garden Stage (why don’t all festivals have their main stage in an amphitheatre?). ‘North Country Boy’ is appropriately anthemic in this setting, ‘Weirdo’ kicks up the pace and ‘The Only One I Know’ is an obvious set highlight.

Frightened Rabbit, and specifically singer Scott Hutchison, who took his own life in May, are a tangible presence at Belladrum 2018 – a mural of Scott adorns fencing outside the Hothouse Stage and volunteers from SAMH (Scottish Association for Mental Health) are collecting donations throughout the day. The band have had a long-loved association with the festival and Scott’s brother Grant and Billy Kennedy join The Charlatans for a cover of the Frabbits song ‘Head Rolls Off’, a guest appearance which had been kept tightly under wraps and takes the massive main stage crowd by surprise.

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Their moving appearance presages the overwhelming emotional impact of a playback in the Hothouse Stage in place of the band’s scheduled set. In a tent packed right to the back, even before the tribute begins many fans stand with tears streaming down their faces, a shared sense of unity in grief. On a big screen on the stage clips of their performances from past years at Bella establish how significant a part of the festival’s fabric Frightened Rabbit are, while additional band footage, pictures and clips from over the years highlight the joy they’ve brought. Scott’s presence is invoked most acutely during the massed chanting in ‘Keep Yourself Warm’. Many tears are shed, but there is a great deal of love and solace among the sadness.

A festival as eclectic and friendly as Belladrum is the right place for a tribute such as this to take place. The later sets are kicking in – Craig Charles is DJing in the Hothouse tent next – and whatever people need, whether dancing with wild abandon or a substantial dram from the Tomatin Bothy, it can be found.

The Big Issue opts for a disco metal frenzy with Tragedy: All Metal Tribute to The Bee Gees and Beyond, headliners in the Venus Flytrap Palais. Drenched in glitter and glammed up like true rock gods in silver booty shorts (guitarists Mo’Royce Peterson and Garry Bibb), slinky lycra (bassist Andy Gibbous Waning), a Bella-perfect glitzed-up kilt (adopted brother Disco Mountain Man on vocals and keys) and frankly terrifying leopardskin loincloth (drumming powerhouse and blood-spurter The Lord Gibbeth) Tragedy know how to bring the house down.

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The Brooklyn outfit are each exceptional musicians (plus towel boy / “complete idiot” Lance), and Tragedy are a masterclass in heavy rock and metal riffage, genuinely one of the finest rock bands you’ll see – and definitely the funniest. They romp through outstanding disco classics and pop hits: ‘You’re The One That I Want’ delivered Ozzy-style – chilling vocals, booty-shaking verse, unfettered speed-metal headbanging chorus – ‘It’s Raining Men’ spiked by Slayer’s iconic ‘Raining Blood’ riff, and a whole rabble-rousing bit about The Beatles having formed in “Belladrum Festival City” and a surprisingly faithful rendering of “The Beatles’ ‘Wonderwall’” which prompts a full-throated Oasisesque singalong.

Several hundred late-night nutters squished, sweating and moshing like monsters in this tent (sorry – Palais) are total converts, and learn techniques with the Flying V guitar that they never previously imagined. The set ends with the stage being stress-tested to the limits of endurance with most of the women in the audience (full disclosure: including Big Issue correspondents) dancing madly, badly and frankly dangerously to Tragedy’s mash-up of ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ and ‘YMCA’. So funny, fast, furious and funky that it hurts, this is how every Friday night should end.

Main image: The Charlatans with Frightened Rabbit’s Grant Hutchison and Billy Kennedy as they paid tribute to Scott Hutchison on the main stage. Photo by Paul Campbell