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When Stonehaven hosted Scotland’s biggest Hogmanay party outside Edinburgh

Susy Macaulay
Simple Minds playing Stonehaven in 2013. Image: Newsline Scotland
Simple Minds playing Stonehaven in 2013. Image: Newsline Scotland

For a few brief years, Stonehaven attracted A-list bands to its massive street party on Hogmanay.

From the year 2000, revellers could gather in the Market Square to enjoy the traditional fireballs display, live local music, disco and giant video screens.

It was a good night out, often menaced by the weather, and even cancelled in 2003 due to storms and rescheduled to February.

Another threat to the street party came from the difficulty of drumming up volunteers and marshals year after year, and the danger of seeing the whole thing cancelled due to lack of support.

That actually happened a decade on, and it seemed all might be lost for Open Air in the Square.

In stepped the town’s Royal Hotel to take put together a new team, carrying out fund-raisers, obtaining charitable status for the event — and finding a red-hot act to lift Open Air in the Square phoenix-like from the embers of past years.

A buzz started.

Red Hot Chilli Pipers usher in new era for Stonehaven celebrations

The headline act in 2012 was to be no less than the Celtic Rock band Red Hot Chilli Pipers.

The same year saw devastating floods in Stonehaven just before Christmas, and it seemed all might be lost for the new, exciting Hogmanay party.

Fortunately not, and a couple of nail-biting days before the big night, it was announced the gig would go ahead.

In came the Chillis, by this time used to performing all over the world from New York to Bejing.

They visited Dunnotar Castle, the Auld Toon and harbour area, saying how delighted they were to be performing at such an iconic location for Hogmanay.

The Red Hot Chilli Pipers entertain the crowds in Stonehaven in 2012.  Image: Colin Rennie/DCT

They were supported by Beatles’ tribute act, Revolver.

And with that, Stonehaven’s Hogmanay party was established as the best outside Edinburgh.

Don’t you forget about Simple Minds performing in Stonehaven

It couldn’t stop there, of course.

So the following year massive 90s band Simple Minds were the headliners.

Jim Kerr and the Simple Minds concert during the Hogmanay celebrations in Stonehaven in 2013. Image: Jim Irvine/DCT

Frontman Jim Kerr came to Stonehaven to promote the bash and declared the Hogmanay party organisers ‘could easily teach the already-established a thing or two about launching events’.

But it wasn’t plain sailing, even with Simple Minds as headliners.

For a while, the event was under threat due to police concerns about crowd movement by the 5,500 ticket holders and further 15,000 revellers expected to flood in for the fireballs.

The business community protested, saying this had never been a problem.

The Police Scotland horses at the Simple Minds concert in Stonehaven.  Image: Jim Irvine/DCT

Eventually, Aberdeenshire Council came around and ruled the event could go ahead, much to the relief of the organisers.

But there were other wrinkles to be ironed out.

Despite the granting of an entertainment license, the Open Air in the Square volunteers said they “were not out of the woods yet”.

They said the uncertainty surrounding the licence approval had prevented them from finalising arrangements and reduced the amount of time needed to obtain essential sponsorship and lucrative VIP packages necessary to help cover the event’s massive costs.

Meanwhile, a battle of the bands took place to decide who would support the iconic Simple Minds that night with a 15-minute gig.

Battle of the bands determined support act

The hopefuls were Stolen Society, Searching for Donkeys, Oliver Richards, Midnight Horrors, Full Fat, Decipher, Ok Taxi, Andrew Brand, UTN, Fall Front, Odium, Low Cash, Black Heart Beats, Evening Sprint, and Standby, with the play-off taking place at the Blue Lamp in Aberdeen’s Gallowgate.

Inverness band Searching for Donkeys were victorious, with vocalist Graeme Gilchrist saying they were over the moon about securing the slot.

Support band Searching for Donkeys at the Simple Minds concert in Stonehaven.  Image: Jim Irvine/DCT

“It’s bigger than anything we have done before,” Graeme added. “It will be a really exciting event and quite a challenge.”

The 11-piece band The Dangleberries were also booked to support on the night.

Once again, the town was on flood alert, but the show went ahead to huge acclaim, not least from Simple Minds themselves.

The Dangleberries supporting at the Simple Minds concert. Image: Jim Irvine/DCT

Michelle Ward, chairwoman of Stonehaven festival and events, said: “Apparently, Simple Minds have been raving about us.

“They had a brilliant time at Stonehaven, played for an extra 20 minutes and now we’ve been approached by half a dozen A-list bands wanting to play next year.

“We were going to announce early-bird ticket sales in the next week or so, but now I think we’re just going to slow down, take stock and consider the options.”

Don’t you want The Human League to perform at Hogmanay?

The following year came something for fans of 1980s pop with The Human League hired to top the bill.

Organising chairman David Lawman said the announcement “has been worth waiting for”.

“This is another scoop for the little town that likes to think big,” he said.

Susan Ann Sulley and Philip Oakey of The Human League playing at Hogmanay in Stonehaven. Image: Andy Thompson Photography

A fateful shadow was growing in the background though, clear when Mr Lawman added that because of soaring production costs they would again be looking for financial grants, support and sponsorship from local and national bodies.

The Human League were number one in the UK in 1981 with Don’t You Want Me? which was also number one in America.

Human League fan Mark Lynch from Stonehaven at Hogmanay, 2014. Image: Colin Rennie/DCT

They were supported by the Peatbog Faeries in another rip-roaring Hogmanay.

Deacon Blue put on Stonehaven show with dignity

The following year, Deacon Blue did the honours.

Frontman Ricky Ross said: “We’re really looking forward to coming to Stonehaven. It’s a place that I know quite well. When I was young, I grew up in Dundee and we would go up to lots of places along the east coast.

“I haven’t been to Stonehaven for a long time. I’m looking forward to going back there and I think it’s the first time ever that we’ll be doing a gig there.”

Ricky Ross from Deacon Blue on stage in Stonehaven. Image: DCT

It was another fantastic night, and the people of Stonehaven must have wondered what would come next.

Sadly, in 2016, the cash flow problems lingering the background finally caught up with Open Air in the Square.

The end of Open Air in the Square

In August it was revealed that the festival owed thousands to smaller bands and companies and was facing legal action.

The organisers talked up the 2017 event, but it never happened.

The Simple Minds year had cost nearly £300,000.

Fireball festival on Stonehaven High Street. Image: Kath Flannery

Even a more modest event would come with a £150,000 price ticket and it proved too much.

The top-end music acts may have gone, but standing the test of time is the town’s annual fireballs event.

Dating from 1907, it still draws thousands to Stonehaven for a wild Hogmanay.