Under Canvas burst into life when James Mackenzie-Blackman took over as CEO of Eden Court in Inverness in early 2018 and immediately noticed there was a need for a greater events programme in the summer months. Together with colleagues, he came up with the idea of erecting a stretch tent on the lawn outside, creating a pop-up bar with a local brewery and – working with partner Fèis Rois - inviting local Celtic, Gaelic, Scottish and traditional musicians to showcase contemporary Scottish music.
It brought tourists to Eden Court in a way we hadn’t expected. People sometimes have the vision of Scottish music as being a bagpipe player clad head to toe in tartan, but at Under Canvas, we had young people in their 20s who looked very cool and were bringing the 21st century vibe to what is often wrongly perceived by those who do not know Scotland well.
We have a beautiful location on the banks of the River Ness and we made it a free-to-attend event. It was on for seven weeks and we were completely overwhelmed by its success. One evening, I remember being on the lawn outside and overhearing a couple with Australian accents talking, so I got chatting to them and they said they were on a post-retiral trip around Scotland and that this was the most authentic Scottish experience they’d had to date. I remember thinking: ‘we’ve done something amazing here – by accident!'
In 2019, Under Canvas ran for 12 weeks with a footfall of 25,000 visitors. It was so successful that it was nominated for Event of the Year at the 2019 MG ALBA Scots Trad Music Awards. James improved upon the event using lessons learned from 2018.
We had live music five nights a week. The nights we had live music, the bar and catering takings were two-thirds higher. We got the catering right – using an outdoor pizza oven with locally-sourced produce.
We also ran two VIP guest nights – one for local dignitaries and the other for local hotels, B&Bs and guest house owners. The second year, we asked the hotel owners to send their front desk staff along rather than their general managers, as they are the people who are speaking to the guests and advising them of things to see and do during their visit.
This year’s event will run for 12 weeks, from 1 July - 30 September (Wednesday to Sunday), with two live music sessions per day. The tent will be double the size previously used, to allow for social distancing and a small table deposit per head introduced to collate customer data for contact tracing purposes, the cost of which will be deducted from the customer’s bar/catering bill.
James anticipates that this year’s event will create 400 paid employment opportunities for freelance and independent musicians whose work has been devastated as a result of the pandemic; the creation of seven full time jobs in catering and hospitality and bring six Eden Court staff back from furlough. The event is also contributing bed nights to the local accommodation sector as Under Canvas attracts people from across Scotland who will stay overnight.
When Eden Court announced the return of this year’s festival on social media, they experienced their most popular interaction to date, with 63,418 Twitter impressions, 508 Instagram likes and 4,122 Facebook engagements reaching almost 13,000 people.
Under Canvas visitors are now a fusion of local people having a great night out, tourists from near-and-far and families. Some people sit in the tent and some bring picnic rugs and sit on the grass. The music finishes at 10.30pm as we want to respect local residents and keep their support.
We are incredibly proud of all that the festival has achieved. I’m delighted that Fiona Dalgetty, and her wonderful team at Fèis Rois, will once again partner with us to bring the best live music to Under Canvas audiences. Myself and my team can’t wait to welcome everyone back to Eden Court this summer.
How you can get involved
Tourism is an economic and social powerhouse for Scotland. It creates wealth and social benefits in every corner of the country and enhances the wellbeing of everyone who takes a holiday at home. For more information on all strands of this project and how you can get involved visit our #tourismforceforgood page.