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General News 30 April 2024

Kelpies 10 by Robin McKelvie

As night falls over one of the most spectacular concerts ever held in Scotland the show really starts. Baron and Duke – the vaulting 30m-high equestrian steel sculptures that are unique in the world – are bathed in a spectacular light show as Callum Beattie rocks on, accompanied by the Red Hot Chilli Pipers and the cutest kids you’ll ever see from the Falkirk High Schools Pipe Band.

It’s a life-affirming celebration; there is reason to celebrate as the first concert ever held at The Kelpies is because they are celebrating their 10th birthday.

The Kelpies are icons that deserve celebrating. I remember my English mother-in-law being excited about them years before they opened. And no journey along the M9 for years has gone without a “look there are The Kelpies kids.”. It really hit me how special they are when I realised that people don’t just come from all over Scotland – and indeed from all over the UK – but that people make a pilgrimage here from all over the world. They are nothing short of a global bucket list icon. Get on Instagram or TikTok if you don’t believe me.

I take my daughter Emma and wife Jenny along during the birthday party, which kicks off in The Helix, the sprawling public park and green oasis that is the perfect home for The Kelpies. Seeing families ease around smiling and laughing makes me smile too as I’ve watched The Kelpies take shape and the park come of age too. We join the family ceilidh and swoon to the skirl of the pipes during the live pipe band display.

There are food and drink stalls too, plus craft stands and lots of Clydesdale horses, tying into artist Andy Scott’s inspiration for The Kelpies. I meet renowned Scottish storyteller James MacDonald Reid, who talks of his love for The Kelpies and the myths swirling around them, before it is ceilidh time again with chart-topping ceilidh band Whisky Kiss.

 

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The evening brings The Kelpies’ first ever onsite evening concert. It certainly shouldn’t be the last as Scotland has no concert venue remotely like it. The stage is behind Duke – the Kelpie looking down, Baron is the one looking up – but both Kelpies look spectacular bathed in the multi-coloured light show. A screening of Walid Salhab’s ‘The Kelpies’ and a short anniversary film, sets the scene brilliantly. I won’t pretend I don’t feel a little emotional as the massive teams behind the making of The Kelpies talk passionately of their hopes – and even fears – for The Kelpies as the project took shape. I love the guy contracted to provide the steel wondering what on earth was happening with this unique order.

 The music kicks off with the multi-instrumental, multi-talented Rebecca Vasmant Ensemble, who chills us towards sunset. Then it is the turn of the legendary Red Hot Chilli Pipers, with their slick, fiercely fun musical extravaganza. The headline act is an hour-long set from man-of-the-moment Scottish star, Callum Beattie. With the Falkirk High School band on the stage in a joyous, light-dappled finale the night finishes in effervescent, deeply memorable style.

 

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I want to know more about Scottish artist Andy Scott, the man behind the world’s largest equine sculptures who was commissioned by Scottish Canals to create something unique. Hats off to them as they really let Scott go for it. Each Kelpie soars 30m above Falkirk and each remarkably weighs over 300 tonnes. They were inspired by both Scottish mythology and the lumbering Clydesdale horses that used to work here during Falkirk’s industrial Golden Age.

Andy Scott is a figurative sculptor and Honours graduate of the renowned Glasgow School of Art, who now lives in Los Angeles. His works range in scale from three metres high to the Kelpies at 30m. I ask Andy what is it in his own words that is so special about The Kelpies? “It’s their scale, their presence on the landscape and their successful adoption by the people of Falkirk and Grangemouth. The way they sit in the beautifully designed canal basin beside the M9 motorway, with the Ochil Hills in the background is pretty special, and mother nature regularly helps with amazing skies and Scottish weather conditions.” I think back to those social media posts – The Kelpies are icons that change not just with the seasons, but with the hours and even the minutes.

Scott continues, explaining how remarkable it is that they even came about: “The Kelpies were the result of fantastic teamwork involving many talented individuals and companies, as well as Scottish Canals and Falkirk Council. It’s easy to forget they were created at an incredibly difficult economic point in recent history. The Kelpies required some serious perseverance and vision to bring to reality and I’m very proud to have been part of the story.

This visionary artist clearly feels an affinity for Falkirk. So how do The Kelpies fit into the story of Falkirk? “They reflect the area’s rural and industrial past and of course symbolise the importance of the Forth and Clyde Canal,” he says. “With their setting within The Helix Park, they’ve helped transform a previously overlooked area of landscape into a very successful green space which is hugely beneficial to the well-being of the area.”

Turning to the future, Scott sees a continuing role for The Kelpies. “I really hope they become a proud cultural landmark for the area in years to come and enhance the town's position as a great place to live and work. They’ve achieved some very inspiring figures in terms of visitor numbers and investment in the area in their first ten years and I hope this continues well into the future.”

There are certainly strong signs that The Kelpies will continue to be a brilliant asset for us all and Falkirk. They have attracted well over 7 million visitors from all around the world over the last 10 years. An independent report released April 24 by Scottish Canals and Falkirk Council, measuring the social and economic impact The Helix and The Kelpies have had on the local and national economy over the last decade, showed they have generated £81m and created 110 new full time equivalent jobs (contributing £47m in wages) over the last decade. The study also shows that The Kelpies have helped to grow the local tourism economy by 73%, with around 300,000 people participating in cultural/community events at Helix Park since it opened. Estimates reckon around 32% of total visitors to The Kelpies are from outside the Falkirk area. 

 

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Reacting to the report, Scottish Canals’ Chief Executive Officer John Paterson said: “We know the value public art can bring to local people and communities, art on this scale, however, requires real bravery to take forward, invest in and to deliver. The Kelpies and their Helix Park setting have proven to have been a tremendous investment for Falkirk and Scotland, and already in their first ten years, have paid back wide ranging benefits many times over. They have been a tremendous investment and have established their rightful place, as one of the most notable icons of Scotland. They are true giants in more ways than one. I would encourage everyone, whether you have been before or have never considered a trip to Scotland and Falkirk, to come and visit these magnificent icons and grab that #KelpieSelfie.” 

Also deeply enthusiastic about The Kelpies is Falkirk Council Leader Cecil Meiklejohn, who says: “The Kelpies stand tall as icons of Scotland, embodying the spirit of innovation and heritage. As we mark this milestone, we reflect on the profound impact these magnificent structures have had on Falkirk and beyond. With a return on investment of almost 8:1, The Kelpies have not only captured the world's attention but have also fuelled local growth, with significant economic benefits to the local area. The Kelpies are also an important part of Falkirk’s identity and regeneration story – helping create attractive places and quality of environment. We look forward to celebrating the ten year anniversary of these iconic sculptures at the weekend when The Kelpies 10 event marks their legacy and the bright future they continue to inspire."

The Kelpies startle from all angles, but I recommend getting inside too. I once took a tour and guide Kirstie led the way, telling me that although the steel took a year to fashion, but then they impressively managed to heft up the Kelpies in only 90 days. Kirstie was also keen – like everyone involved is – to stress that The Kelpies never exist in isolation: “The Helix ecopark opens up all around. It’s a real oasis where everyone is welcome.” I meet Kirstie again at the 10th anniversary and she smiles at seeing me back. We both talk positively of the future of The Kelpies.

I intend to be part of that future, writing about them and sharing my love for two unique structures that Scotland can be deeply proud of. You are part of that future too. Whether you just pop by for a selfie at The Kelpies, or linger longer at the Helix Park using the visitor centre and excellent café you are part of their story. Let the kids let off steam at the adventure play park, splash play water fountains or parkland and immerse yourself in an oasis for wellbeing. Or just admire the lagoon, ease around the parklands, canal towpaths, woodlands, wetlands and boardwalks. It’s your Helix Park. They are your Kelpies, so enjoy them for the next decade. And beyond.

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