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Skye’s the Limit

The organiser of Skye Live on the magic of the mountains, the picturesque backdrop of the rural Scottish event and the logistical nightmare that is the Highlands.

With the festival market reaching saturation point, organisers are asking themselves: what can we offer that’s new? The conclusion that some are reaching is – a boutique festival.

For audiences, it’s the smaller-scale and independently owned festivals that are increasingly becoming must-attend, not least because they frequently offer fresh, original content for a fraction of the ticket price of a major event. Skye Live is no exception. The small Scottish festival, now in its third year, has returned to its original site after a year away, offering the best of the Scottish Highlands’ food and music.

This year’s festival took place on 22-23 September, after previously being held in May. These months are known for being the best for weather, as the island has a reputation for an otherwise high rainfall as well as an unpopular native inhabitant in high summer: midges. But neither stopped co-founder and director, Niall Munro, from getting the event up and running three years ago. Munro says: “I felt more comfortable about it being held in September this year, as compared to previously in May. The last two years, people were only just getting over the festive period and getting back into work, so I feel this year, doing it over Skye and Glasgow’s long weekend, worked incredibly well.

“Generally speaking, the weather is always quite nice in September,” Munro adds, touching wood. “Which means, as the festival season is coming to a close, this is one last hurrah to really make the most of the festival season.”

Given that Skye Live is in a relatively remote location, it’s little surprise that Munro describes it as a ‘logistical nightmare’. He concedes, however, that the scenic view of the Skye Cuillin – the island’s mountain range – makes it all worthwhile. “The site we have this year, which was also our original site, has a real kind of magic about it, it is amazingly picturesque event. The site itself only has one main access point, so it becomes quite tricky. Everything needs to work efficiently and
run like clockwork.”

“Skye is very accessible compared to how it used to be; there are various modes of public transport. It’s not too much of a drive from any major city in Scotland,” adds Munro. The only way onto the island is over the Skye Bridge that crosses Loch Alsh, connecting Skye to the mainland. Without a doubt, the organisers’ main worries are the practicalities involved in getting the production and sound equipment to the site. “Obviously there is a lot more cost involved because of all the haulage that’s required to take everything up here. That is, by far, our biggest challenge, but we just need to be aware of it and budget with that in mind.”

“Logistically, the original site it is an absolute nightmare, but the land lends itself so perfectly to a festival that it’s worth the work to make it happen!”

In order for Skye Live to return to the original site, Munro tells Access, he and the Skye Live team needed to develop the ground and call in landscapers to create a larger site to hold two stages. “The site is a place called The Lump, right in the heart of Portree on this piece of elevated ground, which has these amazing views across the Cuillin mountain range and across the island further afield.”

The population of the quiet island is of about 10,000 but, despite midges, August this year witnessed an influx of more than 70,000, according to The Times. Skye is quickly becoming known as a key tourist destination in the Highlands, with visitors making the most of its outdoor activities. “Skye is the second most-visited place after Edinburgh in the whole of Scotland and in terms of tourism that is crazy,” adds Munro.

“There has always been a gap in the market for something like this,” he says. The original Isle of Skye Music Festival ran from 2005 until 2008, stopping after the organisers ran up over half a million pounds of debt, leaving a natural space for Skye Live. “A friend and myself looked into securing a site, booked a couple of artists and the next thing we knew, we were running a small-scale festival,” says Munro. “It became obvious that something like this was needed in Skye.” He tells Access that the founders had only initially considered the event as a one-off. “After the festival happened, we realised that it would make sense to try and make it an annual thing.”

“Last year we stepped it up a bit, in terms of the line-up and artists… The site was good in that it was in the heart of Portree and logistically, more easy. It was a big playing field, fit for purpose and allowed us to extend the festival. It grew to two stages in the second year, whereas we could only have one focal point musically in the first.”

After scouring the island to find another site, all the while trying to organise the festival this year, the founders returned to the original location.

“We actually realised that we could develop and make use of some of the unused ground. We’ve got two stages, the main stage and a power stage that’s hosted by a club in Glasgow called Sub Club. We were so happy about it going back up to the more rural part of Skye, and it was all on the off chance of: ‘let’s go for a walk back up to the original site’ and we actually realised we could make this work.”

With the main aim of the festival to make the original site a success with two stages, Munro had to consider two musical offerings for each. “The last thing we want would be to have the two stages last year but then to go back to the original site and only be able to have one. Luckily we have managed to achieve what wanted and we are now into our third year. It’s all coming together and we’re really happy with the lineup.”

As to the acts that the Skye Live team book, says Munro, “Part of the reason we were able to secure them and afford them is because they want to visit Skye and make a weekend of the isle.”

“Django Django are a band that I’ve been trying to nail down for the last two years… this is actually their only gig this year. One of the band members has a strong, personal connection to Skye, so I think that was part of the reason.”

The festival is music and food focused, specifically showcasing the produce that the island has to offer. “Skye is quickly becoming a real ‘foodie’ destination,” confirms Munro.

“We are noticing visitors who are beginning to come back year after year, we are recognising more people now. Even now, there are a lot coming from further afield, from countries like Germany, France and the US, which is nice because it shows that our marketing guys are doing pretty well,” Munro adds.

“But it is amazing to see such a mix of people, especially visitors from overseas mixing with the locals, it’s a good mix of folk. With people coming from that far away, it makes it really special for us that our festival is worth it and it’s great to be able to introduce people to the island.”