THE year 2014 saw more than a few landmark events in Scotland. The independence referendum, for one; then there were the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, and the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. And, after dark one night in April that year, thousands of people gathered for the public launch of two huge sculptures known as the Kelpies.

No expense had been spared for the occasion, with Andy Scott’s monumental horses’ heads making their public debut amidst a striking light, sound and pyrotechnic display devised by Groupe F, a high-profile French company.

Residents of Falkirk and Grangemouth - and thousands of motorists driving daily on the M9 - had grown accustomed to seeing the Kelpies being painstakingly assembled at the Helix site close to Falkirk FC’s stadium. But seeing them up close that night, impressively illuminated, was something else altogether. Their sheer scale - some 30m tall, and each weighing 300 tonnes - was compelling, too.

The sculptures, commissioned from Andy Scott by Scottish Canals, stand in the Helix Park, on the canal link between the Forth & Clyde Canal and the River Carron.

Around 7.3 million visitors (32% of them from outside the region)  have flocked to the Helix in the 10 years since. Since 2013 it is estimated that the visitors have helped generate an extra £67m in ‘visitor spend’ across the area.

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In the words of VisitScotland, the 350-hectare Helix, located between Falkirk and Grangemouth, was created as a space for the communities in the area to come together. The Kelpies, it adds, “go a step further in bringing together not only from different parts of Scotland and the UK, but from all over the world. The Kelpies have transformed the area into a five-star tourist destination”.

Falkirk District’s allure has also been aided by the Falkirk Wheel, the world’s only rotating boat lift, which opened in 2002 and links the Forth & Clyde Canal to the Union Canal 35 metres above.  Scottish Canals says that the Wheel has become one of Scotland’s busiest tourist attractions, attracting around 500,000 visitors annually.

Interviewed for a BBC Scotland documentary, Creating the Kelpies, in May 2014, Andy Scott spoke of his hope that they would focus attention on Falkirk in the same way that Anthony Gormley’s 20m-high Angel of the North had created positive publicity for Gateshead.

“I can’t tell you the blood, sweat and tears I’ve put into [the Kelpies project]”, he said. “I’d love to see them become well-known and recognised internationally as well as in Scotland and the UK. The London art world controls the world,” Scott added. “You can do what you like up here but to get any recognition for your works is very difficult. I’m hoping that these can do that and give Scotland something the whole population can be proud of.”

Not everyone liked the equine structures, though. The Guardian’s art critic, Jonathan Jones, clearly appalled, dismissed them as “trash” and “brainless dreck”.

“Scotland has unveiled the latest misbegotten ‘masterpiece’ of public art. It is big. It is bold. And it is rotten,” were the opening lines of his April 2014 article. The sculptures of the Clydesdale horse heads were, he surmised, for regeneration.  “It is claimed the £5m, 300-tonne sculptures will bring in £1.5m a year through guided tours – providing enough people mistake them for a worthwhile work of art.

“Leonardo da Vinci once planned to build a colossal bronze horse, but he put imagination and vision into it. He never finished the work, and yet his exquisitely illustrated notes for this unrealised dream statue stimulate the mind. The Kelpies are merely banal and obvious”.

Reader reaction to his article was divided. One reader responded: “I haven’t seen them myself, but they look fine in the photos, and I am glad to see the commissioning of figurative public art at this scale. The column smacks of the worse kind of art snobbery”.

Another observed: “Totally disagree with this article, the Kelpies are stunning and the scale of them is magnificent. Actually nice to see some figurative art for a change. Actually you are a pretty mean critic Jonathan Jones!”

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Recent public reaction on TripAdvisor has generally been positive.  “Sculpture and art in general is such a subjective matter,” writes one contributor. “What one person adores their neighbour may despise. The Kelpies are such a beautiful piece of work that you simply can’t be unimpressed. Dominating and aesthetically wonderful, you have to visit.”

Among the awards that have come the way of the Helix and the Kelpies are the Saltire Society 2014 Civil Engineering Award, the Helix’s Scottish Thistle Regional Award for Best Visitor Attraction in November 2022 and the Great Day Out award at the Scottish Thistle National Awards last year. In 2022/23 some 860,000 people visited the Helix, generating around £1.5m for the local economy. When the floorboards at the cafe near the Helix lagoon were replaced recently, £161.36 in dropped loose change was found; the money was donated to a local mental health charity.

Now plans have been drawn up for the tenth anniversary celebrations. Kelpies 10, a special one-off event, will take place on Saturday, April 27. The programme will begin with a series of free events but as the sun sets over the Helix, the Kelpies and their surroundings will become a performance space featuring live music by headliners Callum Beattie and the Red Hot Chilli Pipers. The evening concert, which gets underway at 7pm, will be ticketed.

Scottish Canals’ chief executive officer, John Paterson, said: “Scottish Canals had a vision to create a piece of art at the eastern gateway to Scotland’s historic Forth & Clyde Canal.  The Kelpies pay homage to the working horses of Scotland which used to pull barges along Scotland’s canals and worked in fields in the area where they now stand. Now almost a decade on and these magnificent works of art are global waterways icons attracting thousands of visitors to Scotland each year.”

Falkirk  Council’s Helix Business Strategy highlights plans to enhance the Helix, with national and international cultural, arts and active outdoor events. Small business will help to offer park activities; opportunities are being explored for bespoke and exclusive tours of the Kelpies; and   a 10-mile circuit, the Heart of Falkirk Trail, will take in the Helix, Rosebank Distillery, the Falkirk Wheel, the Union and Forth & Clyde canals, and Callander Park. The Helix’s biodiversity will also be improved.

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Falkirk Council leader Cecil Meiklejohn said: “There is no doubt that the Kelpies have been a game-changer for our area in terms of both the significantly increased volume of visitors to the area and the income generated in the local economy.

“We hope to welcome even more visitors this year as we celebrate ten years of the majestic Kelpies with an awe-inspiring programme of events for all ages to enjoy. Kelpies 10 marks an important milestone for these iconic landmarks and is testament to the undeniable appeal and enduring legacy of these remarkable structures”.