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As the Ironworks closure edges nearer, who will step up to fill the gap it’s going to leave behind?

The Proclaimers recently played in front of a crowd of 1,800 at Inverness Leisure. Image: LCC Live
The Proclaimers recently played in front of a crowd of 1,800 at Inverness Leisure. Image: LCC Live

When the Ironworks closes its doors for the final time in 2023, it will be a huge blow for the arts scene in Inverness.

The Elephant Sessions will bring down the curtain on nearly 17 years of music at 122B Academy Street on February 4.

It will undoubtedly be an emotional occasion for many.

But what happens next is unclear.

Will a new Ironworks-type venue open elsewhere in Inverness?

Could another already established venue step up and fill the gap it leaves behind?

And if it does, is there even enough demand in the Highlands to sustain it?

We caught up with a few major players from the Inverness music scene to take a look at the next step.

Does Inverness need a new music venue?

You only need to look at the reaction when the decision to approve a proposal for a new hotel in the Ironworks’ place was made in August.

Most of the Highland councillors involved in that decision didn’t want to pull the trigger. But their hands were effectively tied.

Regardless, it was the final nail in the coffin.

Inside the Ironworks with director Graham Forbes before it opened in 2006. Image: DC Thomson

Les Kidger is the director of LCC Live, an events company that has brought numerous major artists to the Highlands.

In his eyes, the demand is definitely there.

In August, 8,000 fans turned out to see Amy MacDonald at the Northern Meeting Park.

We’ve also seen artists like Noel Gallagher, Bryan Adams and Olly Murs at Bught Park, playing in front of crowds of around 14,000 in the recent past.

And it’s not that long since we saw Rod Stewart belting out a string of hits to 18,000 at the Caledonian Stadium.

LCC Live director Les Kidger. Image: LCC Live

“There is a definitive demand,” Les said. “But it’s about getting the right venue in the right place.

“And the financial risk with it is key to it all.

“When the Ironworks closing was first mooted around four years ago, we looked as a company at creating a new indoor venue in Inverness.

“Financially, it didn’t stack up. And the amount of touring bands interested in coming north is a lot less now than it was back then.”

More gigs in the pipeline for Inverness Leisure

As the country lurches from one financial crisis to another, there’s probably never been a worse time to think about opening a new venue.

But one recent success story is the Inverness Leisure Centre.

The Proclaimers recently sold out their show there on December 15.

Texas at Inverness Leisure in 2017. Image: LCC Live

LCC Live has a contract with High Life Highland (HLH) – which runs the centre – to host two gigs a year there.

But in response to the Ironworks closure, there are currently talks ongoing to potentially increase this.

A spokesman for HLH said: “We are keen to work with local promoters to offer venues.

“Like many other charities, High Life Highland is facing a really financially challenging outlook.

“Therefore, our teams need to look at ways of working in partnership with local businesses to generate new income and in new ways.”

Inverness Leisure could help the city’s music scene in a post-Ironworks era. Image: High Life Highland

This sounds like it could be good news.

And with a capacity of 1,800, Inverness Leisure is a similar sized venue to the Ironworks, which holds 1,400.

The only problem is the obvious one. It’s a leisure centre.

It might be the solution for two, three or four gigs a year.

But could a space usually reserved for badminton and 5-a-side football accommodate much more than that?

‘We really need it now more than ever’

It would be great if someone with deep pockets was just waiting on the horizon to fix this.

Ideally with the ability to swallow losses while a new venue finds its feet.

But that prospect becomes less and less likely with each passing day.

A 155-bed hotel will replace the Ironworks. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

Many also hope that the Ironworks’ own management have something up their sleeve that they’re waiting to unveil.

It’s possible. But the Ironworks did not respond to requests to participate in this article.

Blazin’ Fiddles founder Bruce MacGregor is another person who is adamant there is enough demand to satisfy a dedicated music venue in Inverness.

But he doesn’t retain much optimism that there is an easy solution in sight.

He said: “It’s quite bleak. It’s not the time I would be trying to open an arts venue.

Bruce MacGregor believes a new venue is essential for Inverness. Image: Innes and Campbell Communications

“But Inverness really needs something. This city prides itself on culture and tourism.

“Music and culture are up there with whisky and golf when it comes to why tourists come here.

“Arts and music are so important to people’s lives. And we really need it now more than ever.”

Ironworks loss has knock-on effect for Inverness

There are a number of successful smaller venues in the city.

But it’s the bit between places like the Tooth and Claw – which has a capacity of 75 – and huge outdoor spaces like Bught Park that the Ironworks filled so well.

Finnbar Connell, the events co-ordinator at the Tooth and Claw, believes a new Ironworks-style venue is needed to grow music in Inverness.

He said: “The loss of a space like the Ironworks is very detrimental to the area.

“A band like Twin Atlantic would be hard to draw to come and play in the city without it.

“The loss of this space also provides less places for bands to play and less places for sound and lighting techs to work.

“It will result in a drain of talent from the area if an alternative isn’t able to be found.”

Among the other contenders to fill the gap, there are drawbacks.

Not to mention the fact most of them are already serving another purpose and may have no willingness to change.

Who are the other contenders?

Eden Court is the Highlands’ home of the arts, but its seated theatres lack the kind of space needed for a potentially raucous rock gig.

The Inverness Ice Centre famously hosted The Clash in July 1982, but its low roof means it’s unlikely to ever repeat a feat on that scale.

Its size means it can host decent-sized charity events like Strictly Inverness. But its prime use is for ice hockey and curling, so it could never be a regular option anyway.

The Clash appeared at the Ice Centre in 1982. Image: DC Thomson

Caledonian Stadium has hosted a few major concerts in recent years.

However, the Inverness Caley Thistle Concert Company – which organised Andrea Bocelli and Duran Duran’s gigs there in 2022 – is now in liquidation.

Many have also suggested that the closure of the Old High Church and the need for a new dedicated arts and music venue in Inverness could go hand-in-hand.

That would be terrific. But both Les Kidger and Bruce MacGregor poured cold water on that idea for different reasons.

The Old High Church in Inverness. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

Les said: “It’s not going to be big enough. It’s not just putting a stage into a hall, you need space for the dressing rooms and everything that needs to go backstage.”

Bruce added: “It certainly would be an ideal location. But churches are difficult places acoustically, they don’t lend themselves well for amplified music.

“If you can spend millions on it fine, but I don’t think anyone has that money to spend on arts and music right now.”

What do you think the solution to the Ironworks problem is? Send your thoughts to