When Colin Beattie first took me around Kelvinside Parish Church, which was to become Oran Mor, pigeons were still nesting in the rafters and the basement was flooded. He painted a picture of a venue which he hoped would become a firm fixture in Glasgow’s West End and part of Glasgow’s culture. Before he could start building, however, 13 tonnes of guana… (that’s bird droppings to you and me!) had to be removed!
Eighteen months later the venue opened, but from day one it grabbed and held the attention of all that visited it. I don’t think anyone, except for perhaps Colin, would have imagined that a decade later not only is Oran Mor an iconic Glasgow venue but it is famous the World over. In fact it is hard to imagine it not being there. It definitely lives up to its definition the ‘great melody of life’.
Annually around a million people pass through its doors – at capacity the building caters for in the region of 2000 people but as General Manager Sandy Gourlay explains, “We count people in and out, and by 8pm at the weekend we can have had 1,400 through the doors, and that’s not counting our evening customers.”
Oran Mor’s first event in the auditorium was Colin’s daughters wedding, and since then it has played host to loads more weddings of all shapes and sizes. In fact my own mum re-married there. It has played host to conferences, product launches, charity functions, and concerts of famous and not so famous artists. The success of the venue has filtered down to the events that it supports such as “A Play, a Pie and a Pint”. This lunch-time theatre has been credited with putting the oomph back into Scottish theatre. It has provided an outlet for creative talent in Scotland. As a result theatre here is thriving.
When Oran Mor launched in 2004 the investment was somewhere in the region of £6.5m, and since then a further £3m has been spent. Says Colin Beattie, “We’ve spent over £9m, but with a million people coming through our doors every year, it has been worth every penny.”
I asked him where he first got the idea from. Says Colin, “The concept came from the experience I had working for Mayfest. From the mid-80’s to the mid-90’s I was involved in its operation with Billy Kelly. We were the first to use the Fruit Market as a venue and we built and created the Renfrew Ferry. We put on a variety of different acts from comedy with folk like Jo Brand, Lily Savage and Rory Bremner to live music such as the Tom Robinson band and Nina Simone. In fact the Renfrew Ferry probably played host to Scotland’s first ever Karaoke night too. The success we had at Mayfest gave me the idea for a venue like Oran Mor. I wanted to run a Mayfest all year round. I looked at the Partick Market which was too small, and the old Creme de la Creme. But when I heard that the Kelvinside Parish Church was for sale I jumped at the opportunity. It was the ideal building in which to create a ‘built for purpose’ venue. We created it so that we could have five events going on simultaneously.”
When the venue opened, with a capacity of 2,000, it became one of the biggest venues ever to open in Scotland. At the time I remember some fellow members of the licensed trade suggesting that it would never do the revenue needed for the upkeep. The thought of bringing in revenue of £100K a week seemed out of the realms of possibility. To put it into perspective, at the time The Horseshoe was still Glasgow’s most popular pub and on a good week did £40K… but right from the off Oran Mor did just that. Says General Manager, Sandy Gourlay, “We consistently do well in excess of that now.”
The success of the venue is down, there is no doubt, to its versatility. The Grand Auditorium with its meticulously hand-painted ceiling and walls by Alisdair Gray, depicting Birth, Life and Death, as well as various philosophical quotations on the meaning of life, is a work in progress, and it probably always will be. It is Scotland’s biggest piece of public art. Says Colin, “It is spectacular.” I agree.
However, Colin explains, Alisdair is not the only artist to have his work displayed at Oran Mor – Bill Blackwood, Adrian Wiszniewski, Sandy Moffat, John Clark, Sheila Tandy, Lizzie Lockhart, Jim Lambie and Ranald McCall – to name but a few, have contributed to stained glassworks, murals, sculptures and paintings. There is also a major piece of work by George Wylie ‘Mitigation of Woe’. Says Colin, “It lifts my spirits.”
The venue in the basement not only hosts the award winning A Play, a Pie and a Pint lunchtime theatre, but evening performers have included Joss Stone, Simply Red, Patti Smith, James Grant, Dr Hook, The Proclaimers and Amy Winehouse and too many others to mention. The Private Dining Room (PDR) is one of Scotland’s most coveted private dining venues, while the Brasserie Late Night bar is an institution in the city. The John Muir room is set to come into its own this year with a small refurbishment planned.
But back to A Play, a Pie and a Pint – an initiative that rose out of the success of Oran Mor and which has gone on to almost single-handedly restore the fortunes of Scottish theatre. David Maclennan brought the original idea to Colin and he didn’t just embrace it, he has backed it over the last decade and is proud of its success. Colin comments, “We are just about to enter the Guinness Book of Records for the most amounts of original plays staged in a season.” While Director David Maclennan says, “Over the last ten years Oran Mor has become an oasis for artists, musicians, writers and actors. It’s been a wonderful place to work and a great place to relax. It may not have an Arts Centre sign above the door but it’s the busiest venue of its kind in Scotland. I’ve been incredibly lucky to work there with Colin Beattie and Sandy Gourlay, his General Manager, and all their staff and it’s their support which has made A Play, a Pie and a Pint the success it has become. Shows from PPP have been performed from Australia to Alaska, from Beirut to the Bahamas, from the Netherlands to New York and almost everywhere in between – where Oran Mor leads, the rest of the world follows.”
While writer Ian Pattison comments, “David MacLennan and Colin Beattie are both risk takers who are used to seeing their ideas, however mad, coming to life. Promoting lunchtime theatre in a converted church must have seemed like an excellent opportunity to lose money, hair and sleep so naturally, being visionaries, they leapt at the chance. To the amazement of everyone, except themselves, the idea has worked. A Play, a Pie and a Pint, or PP&P as we aficionados call it, is now in with the bricks and the stained glass windows as an integral part of the nation’s cultural scene. People learn and practise their craft thanks to PP&P. Just as important, they eat and pay their rent thanks to it too.
Now Oran Mor and A Play, a Pie and a Pint are ten years old. If we’re not careful, we’ll have a Scottish success story on our hands.” He concludes, “PP&P has ensured that for a generation of Scottish writers the taste of mutton pies is for us what madeleines were to Proust.”
The bar itself at Oran Mor is a one off. The gantry is a mix of oak and mirrors and authentic cooperate whisky barrels moulded in to the design. It also features a ‘snuff mull’ which Colin admits dictated the whole design of the gantry, with the four barrels signifying the four whisky regions.
The walls are adorned with paintings of customers past and present, while the panels on the ceiling have been hand-painted.
Says Herald diarist Ken Smith, “I could tell you about the quirky objects in the bar, the quality of the fittings in Oran Mor, the extensive range of drinks, but in truth it’s the folk you meet in Oran Mor that make it. I walked in last week and within five minutes someone had come over to tell me a story for the Herald Diary, an actress had told me what show she was about to do, and an old friend came over to say she had hoped to bump into me. And all this was before I’d even sipped from my first pint. It’s a home from home.”
His view is shared by the thousands of people who come through the doors every week for a wee drink or two. Unusually it is one of the few bars in the city, which despite the name meaning ‘The Big Song’, doesn’t play music – it’s the music of the chatter that makes Oran Mor sing.
John Gemmell of Heineken comments, “I cannot believe it is now 10 years since we embarked on the journey with Colin to support him with the building of Oran Mor. He had incredible imagination and vision from the very beginning and talked about how he thought it might evolve. He has created a space that continues to intrigue. At Heineken we are immensely proud to have Oran Mor as a showcase for our beers and ciders. Oran Mor is a living and breathing entity that has become an icon in Glasgow. I am convinced that the next 10 years will be every bit as interesting.”
Colin also believes the success that Oran Mor enjoys is down to the people that work there. He says, “Many of our staff have come up through the ranks and the people featured on the cover have all been responsible in their own way for helping me build Oran Mor into the success story it now is.”
Everyone who knows Colin knows that he is famous for collecting unusual items – and Oran Mor is the perfect place to display them. From the former SFA table in the private dining room to the writing desk formerly owned by Cockburns Of Leith which was allegedly used by Sir Walter Scott. There is also a sculpture of Chic Murray and Billy Connolly created by David Annan, just waiting to be erected on the North side of the building. Says Colin, “It is completed, and cost in the region of £100K, but it is currently in storage as I am still waiting for planning permission.”
When I ask Colin what was his most memorable event at Oran Mor was he hesitates, “There have been so many” and then said, “I think the charity events that the likes of James Grant, Bobby Bluebell and Justin Curry put on are all memorable. We have always endorsed charity nights under the Spirit Aid banner. This charity, run by David Hayman, is our charity of choice and we have donated a converted ambulance.” Colin has just received the honour of becoming a keeper of the Quaich and he fully intends to uphold the tradition of promoting whisky to all. Says Colin, “It was a tremendous honour. I think our whisky awards are a real success story and this year we will launch our own Oran Mor Whisky. I am also planning on opening a new Whisky Emporium in Glasgow.”
As for guests that have been a pleasure to entertain at Oran Mor Colin says one of his favourites was Kate Moss, and recalls how Amy Winehouse said the Private dining room was the plushest dressing room she ever had.
Colin believes that the reason that Oran Mor is so much part of Scotland’s culture today is because it is a “coverall”. He explains, “It is a real social hub that caters for everyone.” He concludes, “The success of Oran Mor has also come about because of its affiliations to my other pubs Granny Gibbs, the Lismore and the Ben Nevis. We create safe environments for people to enjoy.”
Ten years in and there is no stopping him. Next month the Oran Mor Hotel opens, and it will include serviced apartments. He also has plans for a new sculpture; there is a rumour it might be of two whippets!!