Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Little piece of Scotland at London 's heart

From the window of the Inner Temple, the scene below might have been transported from Glen Bogle, an impression sharpened by the sight of Alastair MacKenzie, the star of TV's Monarch of the Glen, loafing around in his best Sunday kilt.

But this is not the Highlands. This is the Inns of Court in the heart of London, the setting for the London Gathering, an annual festival inaugurated at the weekend and designed to present the best of contemporary Scottish culture to curious cockneys, for just £35 a ticket.

Once the Inns' gardens provided the red and white blooms that became the emblems of the War of the Roses. Now Goldie and Grant, two vast Scottish tenors, are bellowing out Flower of Scotland. MacKenzie looks on, standing with another of the event's hosts, the writer and broadcaster, Hardeep Singh Kohli. Scot Gardiner, the London Gathering's owner and director, is delighted by the incongruous effect, so lovingly planned. "We were looking for a beautiful venue and when we found one, we thought its would be a twist to put something Scottish in an arena like this," he said.

The bill was inspired partly by the Edinburgh festival and partly by Tartan Week, the Scottish promotion that takes place in New York. Mr Gardiner devised it - "I kept thinking 'What would I like to come to see?'" - and set about hiring the talent.

A day ticket bought customers a literature and whisky event - including the authors AL Kennedy, Alan Bisset, Isla Dewar and Christopher Brookmyre - cookery displays by Nick Nairn and Mary Contini and music from a cast including the singer songwriter Sandi Thom and Bee Cake, a band fronted by the screen actor, Billy Boyd.

Getting this far was not easy for Mr Gardiner, nor was it cheap, though he declines to reveal the final figures. Suffice to say that you pay more per square foot to hire the Inns of Court than you do for the Royal Albert Hall. Mr Gardiner carried most of the costs with a quarter of the budget generated from sponsors, including VisitScotland.

Preparations were nearly destroyed a week ago. With a final advertising blitz planned and paid for around the London Underground, the first Tube strike in a decade erupted virtually overnight. After a brief "head-in-hands" moment, Mr Gardiner had 100,000 leaflets printed and sent 100 casual workers out to publicise his event all over central London.

It worked, just. On Saturday - competing against televised sport on the grand scale -the gathering amounted to just four or five hundred. On Sunday, advance sales were five times higher.

This is Mr Gardiner's first venture in the arts. He is from Broughty Ferry and was sales manager at Rangers FC before being chosen by Sir Alan Sugar as commercial manager of Tottenham Hotspur. When he struck out on his own four years ago leasing jets to businessmen, it was Sir Alan - the curmudgeonly host of TV's The Apprentice -who lent his private plane to get the venture off the ground.

Mr Gardiner now has a clutch of businesses, but the London Gathering is his "real baby". He has put in the the money for a second year and expects it to be "flying" by 2009. Next year the gathering will open on Friday evening with a "Scottish proms", featuring, he hopes, the Scottish National Orchestra.

Mr Gardiner's motto, emblazoned on his business card, is: "I brought you to the ring and now you must dance."

William Wallace said that and Mr Gardiner believes it encapsulates the London Gathering, though he adds with a wry smile: "I never tell anyone he said it just before Flodden."

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