Doune The Rabbit Hole

Doune, Stirlingshire
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With Rockness and T in the Park in increasing credibility freefall, the lure of attending these festival behemoths diminishes with each passing year. So shirking those in favour of this small (and by all accounts perfectly formed) beauty was a no brainer. Set in the grounds of the magnificent 14th century Doune castle, this is a location with some serious cinematic provenance. It most famously appeared in 'Monty Python & The Holy Grail' and more recently in the HBO fantasy drama 'Games of Thrones'. Bring on the historical, picturesque non profit party we said and brought forth it was; literally with bells on.

Sadly, we were unable to attend on the Friday and were frankly gutted to have missed headliner Polar Bear. However, we were there with all guns blazing and kagouls packed, early on the Saturday. We couldn't have expected how truly miniature the event would be, as intimate as is possible within a festival remit, set within a magical walled garden and all the better for it. The word that springs to mind is charming. Amidst the stages and stalls there was a large 'professional' looking main stage which was the focus of proceedings, but other venues dotted across the site included a large scout tent, a fragrantly damp and grassy yurt, various makeshift lean to's and tarpaulins, all making for a cosy, make do and mend atmosphere. Posturing it would seem, could be left at the gates with the unnervingly friendly and helpful security.

First up for us were The Cosmic Dead a band from Glasgow that sound exactly as one would expect from their name and no less thrillingly for that. They perhaps didn't sound quiet as heavy or Krautrockish as is their want but playing outdoors during the day does something transmformative to all bands; even if it isn't sunny. Still, we were treated to some absolutely top notch, trippy space rock, the instrumental motorik grooves perfectly pitched as a soundtrack to the afternoon.

The next band we caught on the west coast heavy line up were Tokamak who took the intense vibes of the Cosmics and ratched up the tension and eccentric electronics to create an unusual mix of dreamy pastoral soundscapes mixed with a shuddering post apocalyptic wasteland of noise. This created possibly the perfect springboard for the next highlight of the day, Ted Milton, saxophonist, poet and bandleader of jazz rockers 'Blurt' performing with Scottish experimentalists Fur Hood. It was an unexpected and wholly successful coupling of electronica and repetitive jazzy prog which resulted in something quite abstractly beautiful. The gruff commanding presence of Ted created an unsettling but at the same time comforting experience that was akin to listening to Gong being beamed from the dark side.

Moving from this unhindered and joyous musicality into a set from (almost) local boy, Alasdair Roberts (or did this come before? I confess, it all becomes a jumble). The reedy toned troubadour of darkly archaic folkish melancholia didn't disappoint. He never does. He cast his usual world weary mystical spell over the crowd but the heaviness of his narrative storytelling is better suited to a small pub or a dark cavern somewhere; they should get a grotto sorted out for next year. Somewhere in between we attended a Zombie seminar in a yurt and whilst it was mildly amusing it didn't hold the attention for longer than ten minutes or so. That said, they didn't realise they had a resident Zombie Committee in their midst so perhaps those less informed would have found it more useful than we.

Awaiting the headliners we took shelter in one of the covered wall turrets during the rain, only to be approached by a group of lads from the 'neighbouring' turret, to be offered to join them as theirs had 'more facilities' i.e. seats and a table but not before regaling us with cheese based jokes and a spot of ballroom dancing. This community feeling was endemic to the whole weekend; something that's sadly missing from larger events.

Back on the main stage as the sun went down, BMX Bandits transformed proceedings into something approaching tongue in cheek twee. Their sixties girl group melodies coupled with Duglus T Stewarts whimsical lyrics certainly acted as a palette freshener of sorts but didn't quite thrill in the way we'd hoped or hankered for. And so to the evenings main attraction, the critically lauded and often name checked Glasgow rockers, The Vaselines, reformed and reinvigorated. Their particular brand of indie pop went down an absolute treat and tickled the fancy of almost everyone there, uniting a disparate crowd into throwing off their collective waterproofs to dance in the drizzle. What more could one want...

Everywhere we wandered thereafter people approached us or spoke with us, the good humour was palpable and many new friends were made. There were people dancing, locals swilling real ale, small children dressed as superheroes and whole family's resplendent with chairs and picnics. Most comedically there were some enterprising, if chemically enhanced, folks offering haircuts from their van (did anyone actually dare?). The tickets were a pittance compared to most other festivals and all the profits go towards funding art and music education for children, which is a truly admirable feat. Ultimately I was happy because there were several instances throughout the day of people playing glockenspiels which always makes me smile. My only criticism of the event as a whole is a relatively small one but important nonetheless. Despite the stunning setting nothing much was done to play up the rabbit hole theme, there was a dearth of decoration or design with relatively no ambient or chillout areas; had I been art director I'd have had a field day.

Don't get me wrong though, its refreshing to see something a wee bit rough round the edges. The bigger festivals have become unstoppable cynical money spinning ned magnets, the associations of which were all pleasantly lacking here. However, with just a modicum more of co-ordination this could be a truly magical event, marking the annual start to the summer in Scotland. Will we be there next year? It's a given. As we packed up on Sunday to head home (damn those other commitments) a refrain from Bowie's aptly named 'Memory of a Free Festival' ran through my head as if on a loop ”It was ragged and naive. It was Heaven.”

Words by Anna Wilson
Photography by Kelly McIntyre

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