by Margaret Chrystall
ON the eve of the last Loopallu festival, promoter Robert Hicks’ 12 years of memories include Paolo Nutini having a pint in the beer tent among festival-goers and Franz Ferdinand jamming with a ceilidh band.
Year 13 has turned out to be unlucky for Loopallu – the name created when Hicks reversed the letters of “Ullapool”.
As he explained, making this year the final event has been forced on the promoter.
“We couldn’t secure the campsite for this year,” said Mr Hicks.
“But the main reason why we decided to end it was that the season here is getting longer.
“At the start in 2005 we were just this little event that gave the last hurrah at the end of the season in Ullapool.
“But now September and April are starting to look like June and July and the numbers of people coming to stay here are up – which is a wonderful thing.
“But it means we don’t have the accommodation we need and if we lose just 100 tickets then the festival stops being viable.
“I suppose it feels a bit as if it’s coming to an end outwith our control.
“But on the upside, we put Loopallu on originally in September at a time in the village when things went quiet – which isn’t the case now – so that’s got to be positive.”
He also feels it’s good the festival will go out at its best with a hand-picked line-up of old friends and new talents.
“Whether Loopallu would come back at another quiet time of year, who knows,” he said.
“But we always wanted to go out on a high and we’ve been very fortunate we’ve never had trouble selling tickets.
“We’ve sold out every year, sometimes months in advance, sometimes on the weekend itself.”
He has clear memories of the first Loopallu in 2005.
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand. Picture: SPP
He laughed: “I remember sitting in the Ceilidh Place the day after just crying my eyes out!
“We had all the friends there who had helped make it happen – people who were nurses, joiners, shopkeepers and had put those lives on hold for a week to help put Loopallu on.
“And it really was a group effort – it was the fact that we delivered something against all the odds and contrary to what everyone thought at the time. Everything on paper said that it shouldn’t have worked.
“So I got to that Sunday and realised the enormity of what we’d delivered.”
The festival prided itself on punching above its weight in terms of artistes it could attract – and new talents it could break to a discerning festival crowd.
“To be able to namecheck people like Mumford & Sons and Jake Bugg and then still to say that we had Paulo Nutini and Franz Ferdinand – it just gives me goosebumps thinking about it,” admitted the promoter.
“These are all acts that are headlining major events and we managed on our budget and on our ticket price to entice them here.
“But the people who really knew and ‘got’ Loopallu – which was about 75 to 80 per cent of the people who came – they were the ones who came every year.
“I like to think that we had their trust. They might not know all of the acts on the bill, but they knew they would have a great weekend.”
There are almost too many good musical memories to recall for the promoter who has also been involved over the years with other festivals including Belladrum, Stopover in Aviemore – and he was the co-founder of RockNess.
“I only put on bands that I like.
Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons. Picture: SPP
“Personal highlights have included getting Mumford & Sons – we were working with them from the very start.
“But they went on to name-check Loopallu as an inspiration for their own Stopover events all over the world.
“The legacy from that in itself is so overwhelming.”
“Also a highlight for me last year was when The Wonder Stuff – my favourite childhood band – came on stage. I said to the rest of the Loopallu team ‘Take over, I’m going to go and watch the band for an hour!’.
But he has also enjoyed witnessing some young discoveries who have gone on to bigger things – people like Jake Bugg.
“I remember his manager saying Jake had his first encore at the Ceilidh Place and on the back of promoting that little run of Highland dates, we booked him for Loopallu to be second or third on.
“But by the time Loopallu came around, he had exploded!
He’s got a few tips of ones to watch from this year’s line-up.
“We’re really pleased to have been supporting Hunter And The Bear. I suppose this is their unofficial hometown gig for Michael who comes from Achiltibuie.
“They have packed the tent out for the last couple of years which is why we had to have them back this year – they will have a capacity crowd.
Hunter & The Bear
“So watch them over the coming years because stardom does beckon.
“Callum Beattie is another good example of someone who looks like he’s going to explode.
“And Sam Fender is another one that I like to think we were promoting at the very start.
“He’s going to be on all the ones-to-watch lists at the end of the year.
“And I want people to go away and remember ‘We saw him first at Loopallu!’.”
Though he admits that come next September he and the team he pays tribute to – who have helped make Loopallu what it is from the start – will be wondering what to do, he is positive about the future, at least temporarily without Loopallu.
“It’s left a space for something else to happen.
“I’m very fortunate that we’re in a very dynamic part of the world and I’ve been very lucky to be surrounded by a fantastic group of like-minded people.
“Invariably they would say something like ‘Let’s do something else!’.
“So who knows? The name will live on though.”
And it does so in lights ...
As well as funding the return of Halloween fireworks in Ullapool, the festival helped fund – with the help of a grant and some of the volunteers from Loopallu – the first Ullapool Winter Lights Festival held last November and December.
“It captured everyone’s imagination,” said Mr Hicks. “It’s wonderful that there is a Loopallu legacy left.”
The landscape for festivals is changing. Mr Hicks said: “If you look back even 10 years, we started RockNess and there was Belladrum and Wickerman, T in the Park and further south, Connect – now, a decade on, the festival landscape looks so different.
“And it does feel that it is going smaller, to local events and festivals with smaller aspirations are popping up.
“I think what people want to do at a festival is changing and the point of focus is changing.What is also interesting is I was reading an article last week where they felt that festivals have lost their way with all the add-ons –and ultimately we are all about togetherness.
"Now they are all so fractured, there are so many tiers of experience you can have.
“And, again, I’m no festival guru or anything, but we took the decision after year two to stop having a backstage VIP bar – very much inspired at the time by Bestival – they said ‘Everyone should be in it together’. And it made for a better event.
“I think with us being so small we have been able to evolve and we’ve always attracted a slightly older audience.
“We had people, over half of whom wanted to stay in B&B and hotels.
“And what is ironic is there is a much-documented rise in urban events now with people wanting to stay in B & Bs and hotels.
“You could argue that we were at the forefront of that, when you look back.”
This year’s festival has shifted to the pier area.
“People think we are picking up everything and putting it on the pier – it is smaller – but the core DNA will be there.
“We will be a different event this year.
On social media when we said it was the last one, we got four times as many posts as the peple who had attended the event over the years.
“Everywhere I go there are people saying ‘We were gutted, we only managed to go for one year,’ as well as people who say they have been every year.
“So there’s a slight element with bringing it to an end of ‘Oh God, what have I done!’.
“But who knows.
“We’ll just have to let the grass grow a bit and see where the wind takes us.”
Mr Hicks laughed: “That’s maybe not the most appropriate thing to say when we are on the pier! Hopefully the wind is not taking us anywhere.
“But the things that haven’t changed are this Loopallu is still in Ullapool, it’s still the people and the core and the heart of it hasn’t changed – we’ll just have a different view!
“Loopallu was not one piece of the cake but all the parts, that’s what made it so special – and we’ve still got one more to go!”
Loopallu runs at Ullapool harbour on Friday and Saturday, September 39 and 30. This year’s acts include The View, Glasvegas, Turin Brakes, The Pigeon Detectives, Hunter And The Bear, The Rezillos and The Vatersay Boys. The Literally Literary book event includes guest Ian Rankin. Details: www.loopallu.co.uk