An Elegy for Wickerman Festival
The organising team for Dundrennan’s Wickerman Festival announced on the 18th November 2016 that they will no longer be continuing the festival. It ran for fourteen years and held its last event in July 2015 (2016’s festival was cancelled). It’s difficult to even know where to start with this one; the festival has such a big place in my heart and I’ll never forget all the weird and wonderful memories I made there. I first attended Wickerman when I was in primary seven. Now I’m 23 and trawling through old photographs of my friends and I dressed as hippies and standing around colourful tents and prayer flags and feeling very sappy about life, the way good things always have to end.
There’s something special about Wickerman, a unique sort of magic you don’t quite get at the bigger commercial festivals. Yes, it’s a cliche to say that now, especially as ‘non-commercial’ and ‘family-friendly’ are terms flung around constantly by startup festivals cashing in on the middle-class nostalgia for folk music and rural picnics, homemade gin and artisan cheese. Wickerman came before all that. It started as a passion project with a commitment to putting on a variety of musical genres and activities ranging from go-karting to circus skills to drum workshops. It never sacrificed its particular brand of pagan carnival for the enticement of getting in bigger bands and hiking up ticket prices. Sure, there was a fairground, but it hardly took up half the arena, and there was something mildly thrilling about seeing all those fluorescent colours flash in the purplish midsummer dusk, alien ships landing tacky mid-noughties style merry-go-rounds and carousels in the middle of ancient farmland.
I’ve been to Wickerman about eleven times. I can’t quite believe I’ll never go again; never get to sit in the car, heart thumping with excitement as we pull up the hill and into the field, directed by cheerful stewards with flowers painted on their faces and wellies splashed with mud. That silent, uncanny thrill when you look up and see the Wickerman itself: giant effigy woven of wicker and mysterious history, standing tall at the top of a mound. We always arrived on Thursday morning, and there was never that mad dash or endless queue or epic quest to drag your stuff across field after field to get set up. Wickerman was big enough to showcase a load of acts across an array of tents, but small enough that you always felt safe, you could always (more or less) stumble through the dark, tripping over guy ropes, to find your way back to the tent.
I’ve made friends for life at Wickerman; I’ve seen bands that I’ve stuck with ever since I first saw them play in the rain; I’ve discovered the wonders of power drinking for warmth; the value of dry shampoo; the importance of custard creams and caffeine pills; the absolute magic of seeing a giant wicker effigy go up in flames while fireworks sparkle around it, a strange sensation rising in my blood as if we truly were channelling the ancient spirits that lay still in the earth and now leap to the sky in torrents of fire.
I think the best way to properly recount all my favourite festival memories is with a list, since there’s so many to go through! These are mostly my own highlights but if anyone has any they’d like to share it would be lovely if you left a comment. I’m hoping this will be a wee bit cathartic, as I’m currently going through a sort of what-will-I-do-with-my-summers-now crisis, as well as the problem of no other festival quite living up to my experiences at Wickerman, and what’s more where else can I properly embrace my witchy identity?
These memories are in absolutely no order and most likely I will have forgotten the actual year in which they occurred, but anyway, hope you enjoy!
- GLOWSTICKS – Especially when we were kids, glowsticks were absolutely essential. We’d stockpile them from trips to Poundland and crack them open as soon as the first shadows of darkness fell over the sky, waiting for the strange gooey liquid to start glowing like plutonium. Sometimes we’d bite the plastic tubes to make the stuff come out and spray them all over each other, waking up with luminous neon bleeding all over our skin. Sometimes a stranger would gift you with a bracelet and it felt truly celestial, running around all night with that circle of light sliding up and down your wrist.
- MEETING THE SOUTERS – I was maybe eleven years old and my brother eight. We were sitting in the tent waiting for the rain to stop while my Mum hunched over the camping stove, stirring a pot of pasta, when the Souter family arrived at our tent. “Are you Debs?” they asked my Mum, who promptly answered in the affirmative. A mutual friend, Lynn, had generously brought our two wee families together and ever since then we’ve been a bit like cousins to each other, going to the festival year after year (in various combinations, with various extra friends, boy/girlfriends and family members tagging along). The first meeting became a bit of a mythological encounter. I remember sharing some fizzy laces and talking about school and maybe playing football on the grass before everyone came the next day to pitch their tents. Anyway, if it wasn’t for Wickerman, we wouldn’t have met, so I’m very grateful.
- MAKESHIFT CEILIDHS – If eight years of Scottish P.E lessons doesn’t drill the rules of ceilidh dancing into you, I don’t know what will (especially as both my P.E teachers across my six years of secondary school were positively militant in their approach to dance demonstration). Mind you, I don’t think my muscle memory stood the test of time. I remember we started some very ad hoc makeshift ceilidhs in the Acoustic Village at one in the morning, jostling into one another and spinning round and round till we fell over, got covered in mud and decided to do it again. Earl Grey & the Loose Leaves and the Trongate Rum Riots were firm ceilidh(ish) favourites.
- WEIRD STORYTELLING/SPOKEN WORD – When it rains in the middle of the day, often you end up in the spoken word/poetry tent. There’ll be some guy walking around with a drum, incanting a bizarre story about a bear, or maybe someone giving a both tenderly beautiful and utterly absurd ode to his body fat. Either way, as soon as you’re in, often the warm cosy atmosphere stops you from leaving and it’s nice to just chill.
- EMBARRASSING BODIES – I’m not sure what the tv show hoped to find in a field of drunken Scots but they must’ve picked up a few choice samples for broadcast. One of my pals nearly got on telly by showing them his rather delicately-located skin tag, but because he was underage at the time, they had to phone his mum first to check. Bet she appreciated that call!
- OUTDOOR CINEMA – Watching the original Wickerman film being projected onto a giant dome in the middle of a field in Dumfries & Galloway is just dreamy. Also very spooky. Watching naked witches dancing round gravestones – well it was enough to curdle my childish blood but it felt like something genuinely horrific, an actual evil that made me very curious…
- THE TAMPON APPLICATOR – A weird one this. When we were much younger, we used to jump the fence and play up in the woods up by the quiet campsite. One time, we found what I now know to be a tampon applicator, though back then we were convinced it was a needle. Cue various kinds of recounted horror stories (as the second eldest, with a stupidly wild imagination, I was probably not the best influence). Eventually, one of the adults in our party thought it was about time the needle was checked out, and she informed us with much gusto that it was in fact a tampon applicator and not a syringe. Our wee hearts sunk with disappointment. I don’t know why we liked the idea of junkies hanging around in the woods so much; maybe we’d watched too many Skins episodes. Still, the thought of actual tampon applicators still gives me the creeps; I can’t shake the association with dirty injections, with worms crawling over a plastic shell still resonant with the mysterious vapours of its narcotic contents.
- THE TIME LYNN BURST THE WATER PIPE – This was one of the first, if not the first, festivals we attended together as a big group. We were camping near the wall to keep away from the river midges and to shelter from the wind. On the first night, we decided it was fine weather for a bbq, and we’d all brought disposable ones. Lynn got hers lit first and all was going swimmingly as we began fishing out the packs of veggie sausages when all of a sudden a thin spout of water burst extravagantly from the ground, scattering the bbq aside and continuing to spray upwards like a sort of avant-garde fountain. It took us a good five minutes to realise that the bbq had burnt through a water pipe which (Lynn had neglected to notice) lay directly under where she placed the bbq like an alluring blue snake…Cue various comic attempts to tape up the hole while Lynn ran around manically looking for a steward to help.
- TOO KEEN – That time my maw made us turn up for Roddy Hart’s acoustic village gig about two hours early so she could get a view from the front, only for it to be announced last minute that he wasn’t gonna play due to a sore throat. Och well, we’ve seen him plenty of times since to make up for it!
- SIBLING PROTECTION – That time my pal Jack, aged thirteen at the time, squared up to this creepy stocky middle-aged guy who kept trying to convince Jack’s sister to go on his shoulders.
- THE MARGARET THATCHER/TEXAS ENCOUNTER – The year that Texas played, my Mum dragged me along to see them. I stood at the top of the hill and ended up getting stuck in an endless conversation with a guy from Dumfries about Margaret Thatcher. It was quite interesting at first and good to let off some political steam, but pretty soon I realised he was more or less gurning crazily on Mandy and talking a load of pish. Still, it added some flavour to the Texas set.
- THURSDAY NIGHT PIMMS – A proper tradition. Get your tents all set up, help each other unload the cars, meet the stragglers off their buses. Eat some crisps, a cereal bar (you’re gonna need your energy). Then crack out the Pimms. We graduated eventually to buying proper plastic wine glasses and loading them with actual strawberries and lemon slices. If I was pouring, the ratio to Pimms and lemonade weighed rather heavily on the former. Afterwards, we’d explore the main arena and probably go up to see the Wickerman itself at dusk, the purplish light falling on the pines and casting the perfect feeling of eeriness over the site. Then maybe we’d get a chippy on the way back to the tent, drink more Pimms and talk until it got too cold.
- BROKEN CAMPING CHAIRS – Let’s face it, there’s always a few. I mean, a grown man really shouldn’t try and perch himself on a three-legged stool. Have you seen someone fly backwards on a camping chair, straight into their own tent? It’s rather amusing.
- THE BUILDUP – We’d meet at a lay-by near Dalmellington where there was a river and picnic benches and we’d rub our sleepy eyes, drink from flasks of coffee and set out on the road for the Co-op in Castle Douglas. It was the last point of call in the real world before entering the shimmering membrane of the festival site.
- LOUISE GETTING KICKED BY A MAD BREAKDANCER – My friend Louise and I were in the dance tents one year and it was all going well until I heard her cry out in wincing pain. Some dude getting a bit overzealous with his crazy dancing had accidentally side-kicked her right behind the knee. Poor Louise went to calm down outside while the entire entourage of this guy’s mates came to apologise to my group, the dancer in question sleeking back into the shadows. It left a bruise as dark as mouldy fruit.
- THE SHISHA BAR – There was a guy with dreads who constantly got up and played Pendulum’s ‘Tarantula’ on the mini stage, so much so that the song was stuck in my heads for weeks afterwards. There were shisha pipes which you could rent cheaply and enough pretty tea flavours to cure any hangover. There was also Scrabble, for when you really needed an intellectual lift.
- STARTING A CROWD CHANT – I’ll probably never get to say this again but once upon a time I started an actual crowd chant. The whole weekend, we were mocking the fact that The Feeling were headlining (I think on the Saturday as well!) and I encouraged my pals to start chanting ‘Steamin for the Feelin’ when they came on. I don’t remember much (alcohol was involved, yes), but for about five minutes half the crowd were chanting Steamin for the Feelin and yes it was sort of bizarre and wonderful and I was thoroughly, pleasantly ashamed of myself. They weren’t even that bad in the end, and played a nice wee Blur cover which sounded very good in a drunken messy sort of way.
- THE FUDGE STALL – Every year, especially when we were younger, we’d visit this poor man who made Galloway fudge and ask to try every free sample before buying a paltry wedge of straight-up fudge worth maybe a £1, our teeth already dissolving under the taste of rum and raisin, hazelnut nougat and caramel. W’d keep little paper bags of the stuff with us all day and dole it out carefully to our closest friends when the blood sugar hit low after hours of dancing.
- FALLING FLAT ON MY FACE – One time I really did drink probably a little too much gin and I was on my pal William’s shoulders and we were going to be late for a band (can’t remember who, maybe it was Twin Atlantic?!) so he started running in crazy zig zags down the hill and I was totally fine, held on tight, until he stopped at the edge of the crowd and I went flying over his head to land flat in the mud. I don’t think anyone noticed…
- THE PROCLAIMERS – I’m pretty sure they played at least twice. The first time, I was very young, maybe twelve, and high on two cans of Irn Bru, having a rare moment of pure patriotism next to my very ginger very Scottish friend Holly. The second, my brother and Mum got to go backstage to meet them, while I was probably too busy lolling around the reggae tent. Which brings me to…
- THE REGGAE TENT – Where else do you go on a Thursday night? You were sorely missed in 2015 and will be sorely missed forever…The sweet smell of a certain magic psychotropic plant, of incense; the trippy bass which vibrated right in your chest, all the people dancing languidly and the warm weightless feeling of being inside. One year I bumped into two boys from school in there, which was weird. Another year, I watched my pal make very awful and awkward attempts (I think they actually succeeded in the end?!) to chat up girls. You could go in there in the afternoons and lie down and smooth out a hangover, no problem. The damp grass just smells so nice, even with all the sweat and bodies, there’s something comforting about light glowing through tarpaulin, the earth right beneath your skin, a heavy bass shaking right through you.
- HOME VIDEOS – There’s one of me sticking my finger into a tub of coffee granules and licking them off, and proceeding to do so despite constant yowls of protest. I think I was quite fleein’ indeed after that. There’s another of two friends doing an excellent impression of one of our old teachers which teeters towards complete Beckettian absurdism. Go trawl YouTube for them, I dare you.
- OFFICIAL VIDEOS – Every year, the festival organisers assemble a video with footage taken during the weekend. When it came out, you’d always keep an eye out to see if you were in it. Somehow, my friends and I ended up in the 2015 one, and also they used a Little Comets song in the soundtrack, which I’m still pleased about.
- LOSING YOUR FRIEND AT NIGHT – Splitting into search groups, talking to the police and forming an elaborate investigative operation…only to find they had stumbled back to the tent to pass out in their clothes, the zip of the porch still half open.
- AD HOC GUITAR PLAYING – Yes, there are only so many times you can play ‘Wonderwall’ without driving everyone in your vicinity to thoughts of murder…Still, it’s fun to push it. Again a cliche but nothing beats a wee singalong outside with a group of friends (it helps when you can download Ultimate Guitar for your phone and extent the repertoire beyond Oasis).
- PLANNING THE MUSIC – In the run up to the festival, I’d always make an effort to research some of the bands on the lineup. It’s always exciting getting to see bands live, especially when you’re not quite sure what to expect. It would be impossible to list all the great bands I’ve discovered/gone to see over the years at Wickerman, but here’s a few: Frightened Rabbit, The Noisettes, There Will Be Fireworks, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Martha Ffion, C Duncan, Sonic Boom Six, Alabama 3, The Xcerts, We Were Promised Jetpacks, Model Aeroplanes, Little Comets, The Futureheads, The Dykeenies, Fenech Soler, Fridge Magnets, Amphetameenies, Kobi Onyame, 808 State, Utah Saints, Unicorn Kid, Rachel Sermanni, Emma’s Imagination, Fatherson, Admiral Fallow, Withered Hand, Hector Bizerk.
- HEADLINERS – Ranging from the Buzzcocks to Arthur Brown to Gary Numan to Echo and the Bunnymen, The Human League, The Charlatans, Scissor Sisters, Goldie Lookin’ Chain, Dizzee Rascal, Example & DJ Wire, the one thing you could count on was that you could never predict who would be next year’s headliner, and that probably you’d enjoy it regardless of who the hell it actually was (providing you had enough glowsticks, caffeine pills & tequila).
- GOLDIE LOOKIN’ TRAIN – I’d arranged to meet my Mum to watch them on the main stage but my pal Courtney and I got a bit merry and completely forgot, so my Mum had to watch their entire set alone. I’m sure she really appreciated that sensational track, ‘Your Mother’s Got a Penis’. Don’t think she’s forgiven me yet.
- SURPRISE BANDS – Discovering bands who were announced last minute, or stepped in to fill an empty slot. I refuse to be ashamed about my Twin Atlantic excitement, but maybe all that jumping around was a bad idea as early as six in the evening.
- HAIR WASHING – Specifically, the lack of for me. Letting your hair billow out, just a bit greasy and free. For my male friends, hair washing meant standing underneath the drinking tap or the giant ‘Peeing Cow’ which spouted river water out of its tail, then shaking your head like a dog and spraying everything in your vicinity with water.
- THE WICKER FORUM – Nothing like deconstructing portaloo conditions and the effectiveness of security and stage placement with strangers online as a way of quelling your post-festival blues.
- WHEN AMY WINEHOUSE DIED – We’d literally just been over at the Summerisle Stage listening to Emma’s Imagination do a lovely cover of ‘You Know I’m No Good’ just as the sun was finally coming out in a shower of faint rainbows. We were back at the tent having some dinner and my pal William checks his phone and says, Amy Winehouse is Dead. It was one of those flashbulb moments.
- ELABORATE DRINKING GAMES – Often played in Carol’s big tent when it started to rain. We came up with lots of creative rules, and it did the trick.
- VENDORS – Selling everything from cheap Nag Champa incense to pretty silver rings, prayer flags, tarot cards, deliriously tacky 90s rave wear, goth trousers, dubious legal highs, healing crystals, handmade felt bumblebee brooches, sew-on band patches, circus paraphernalia and all the body glitter you could ever need (my wee brother once being scared to death by a lovely couple of Rastafarian men who were offering us pots of body glitter – Joe was convinced it was drugs bless him…Wait, can you snort glitter?).
- MAKING FRIENDS WITH STRANGERS – Including strangers who want to sexy dance with your underage pal (and his mother) at two in the afternoon. Aye, go for it love, but please, put some knickers on under those short shorts.
- THE DODGEMS – Getting whiplash off aggressive six year olds isn’t generally how I’d like to spend my Friday nights, but somehow it was always fun.
- REUNIONS – There were certain people I’d only really see once a year, at the festival. That gave a bit of magic to our friendship; it felt almost religious, that sense of returning for a yearly carnival. Having the time to just walk around and chat and soak up the atmosphere and feel super relaxed and forget that you have a dissertation due or whatever. I’m going to miss that sense of structure to the year, the promise of freedom offered by a single weekend in July. I’ll have to start properly celebrating the summer solstice or something.
- GETTING TOO DRUNK AND FALLING ASLEEP AT FOUR IN THE AFTERNOON – Enough said. I’d have to crack out the ProPlus after that.
- FAMILY FRIENDLY – You’re constantly surrounded by kids having fun at the festival, and never in a way that seems dangerous or intrusive/annoying. It merely adds to that sort of magic freeing atmosphere. Once, a ten-year-old ginger kid who looked a bit like Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother kept tormenting us and tried to steal our tent pegs, but the wafting smell of fag smoke coming from our wee site kept his ~unadulterated youthful self~ away.
- PLAYING STEAMING RED ROVER UNTIL WE ALL FELL OVER – Into a stranger’s tent…
- PLAYING TENNIS WITH SAUCEPANS AND APPLES – You smashed it!
- STOPPING AT THE CAFE ON THE WAY HOME – My Mum used to always pull into a wee cafe in a nearby village, where you could sit at outside by a gently trickling river under parasols and order a proper lunch (sandwiches with salad and fresh bread!), a pint of water and use a very nice clean toilet. It was part of the ritual of slowly readjusting to society.
- NOT WANTING TO READJUST – When I was younger I used to hate having to readjust to social norms. What do you mean I have to have a bath everyday again? 😦 I would hang around town wearing my inappropriate festival clothes for as long as possible until the whole of Maybole genuinely just thought I was a witch.
- DANCE TENTS – Enjoying the whole sweaty pulsing maddening sea of bodies thing until you’re forty minutes in, sobering up and realising everyone is over forty, on pills and reliving their glory (rave) days and suddenly you feel like an intruder and have to leave, maybe to hang around the oxygen bar and feel like even more of a twat.
- GETTING (ACCIDENTALLY) HOT BOXED AGED ELEVEN – There used to be these really cool Eden tents which I believe were the origin of the actual Eden Festival. They were full of mad tall zanily-coloured mushrooms, sandpits, palm trees and pulsing trippy psytrance. Once, I sat in there a bit too long letting the bass flood through me, sucking in whatever that bittersweet smell was, and when we went back outside I looked around and promptly turned to my Mum: “Gosh, the sun’s bright tonight isn’t it!” It was midnight, and I was looking at a hanging lantern.
- TEQUILA MAGIC – Running down hills in pursuit of the mainstage summons of Utah Saints, red hair flowing freely and the drunken wind in my ears, neds somewhere in the distance shouting – “LOOK, IT’S FLORENCE! ! ! !”
- HEATWAVE – That freak streak of nature when summer 2014 was so hot at the festival that we had to dip our heads in washing up bowls full of cold water and actually apply suncream every five minutes because there was no shelter from the heat except in the Pimm’s bar and everyone was just mad with it (the sun, that is).
- ROSIE LOCKING HER MAW’S KEYS IN THE BOOT – It took a while for the AA to arrive, but we had fun sitting in an empty field eating dry Weetos and playing guitar till then.
- MOMENTS OF BEING – I remember last year’s Wickerman I was walking up to the caravan field on the Thursday evening to meet my school friend Connor who was staying in his auntie’s caravan for the weekend. I was excited to see him, it being so long since we’d caught up. The sun was just setting in the distance, a big juicy orange orb spreading its light over the pines and the hillsides speckled with sheep. I could smell the trees in the air and the vague cool coming of nightfall. I don’t think I’ve felt so serene ever since. Connor’s mum ploughed me with several glasses of Prosecco and his whole family were there, steaming and brilliant and buzzing with good craic. We caught up on small town gossip and got very drunk and it was a wonderful and very unique moment (seconded only by the time Connor took me to a Hogmanay party and folk were playing a game throwing tatties at each other to see who could catch them in their mouth?).
- MAKING FRIENDSHIP BRACELETS AND TALKING POLITICS FOR HOURS – When else in life do you have the time / inclination to indulge in such activities, simultaneously?
- FLOWER GARLANDS – Once, I thought you could only wear them at festivals, but then I gave up caring. Embrace the Pre-Raphaelite vibes!
- THAT YEAR YOU FINALLY GET YOUR OVER-18s WRISTBAND – And then promptly realise that the beer tent is like, the worst place to hangout. Plus, beer drinking from cups with bad chart music is lame. Still, the novelty was cool for a while.
- WHEN THE MIST COMES DOWN – At quarter to midnight and a bagpipe drone seeps eerily into every particle of air, filling the surrounding valleys and hillsides with its resonant, primordial echoes. A strange glow appears in the distance and fire dancers sweep their maddening patterns round a giant effigy, which already is starting to burn as flames lick hungrily up its legs and stomach and arms, while in the background the neds are chanting BURN THE BASTARD and you’re dying for a falafel and a piss but still none of that kills the original magic.
- MY 2003 WICKERMAN HOODIE – It has the smiley rave face, Northern Soul and Ska symbols on it and I still wear it to bed, and fancy that buried somewhere deep in the material is the smell of stale beer, incense, smoke, cut grass and sparkling midnight dreams.
- THAT FEELING ON SUNDAY MORNING – Sometimes, when the majority of hungover tent packing is complete, I like to take a lonesome wander over the main arena, where already the Wickerpickers are busy clearing up the weekend rubble, where stall vendors are packing away their goods and folding away tables. There’s that peaceful sense of a good weekend done, of things slipping away and back to normality. The field will be green again and the cows will return. It’s sad but also calming; it brings a nice sort of closure to the festival. Sometimes, picking through the trash left behind by other people, you’d find whole crates of Tennents or packs of cigarettes, a harmonica, unopened bags of crisps, ripe for the taking. Once, a whole teepee. This process is obviously more fun when the weather isn’t awful, which invariably it is – just when you need the wind to let up so you can unpeg your tent.
Wickerman, you were so bloody beautiful. You’ve given me a lot of fun experiences which I’ll never forget, even though most of them were thoroughly soaked in gin. There was something so special about those three days which were spent utterly in the present, in the company of friends and good music and lots of equally crazy and lovely people. It’s not just the breathtaking landscape or the amazing people or the sweet sweet music – you’ve got some mysterious brilliance that I can’t quite pin down. I’ve got a drawer full of wristbands and old programmes at home and even though the fabric is wearing away, my sense of all that mad atmosphere and the enchanting farmland and the fresh Galloway air won’t! I hope one day another festival will come close to what you were, but I don’t think it ever will. Keep the faith! ❤