When, in 1983, a teenage Donald Shaw caught the Mull ferry to spend the weekend with fellow Oban High School pupil Marc Duff at a box and fiddle festival on the island, he had no idea just how far that journey would take him.
Three decades on, as the seminal Gaelic folk band Capercaillie celebrates its 30th birthday with an anniversary album, At the Heart of It All, and a clutch of Scottish concerts, Shaw, now 46, can look back with a degree of bemusement. “Marc and I used to chum about and play tunes,” he recalls. “In those days it was a kind of little secret club, because you didn’t tell your mates you played traditional music.” Towards the end of a session in Tobermory’s Mishnish hotel, that weekend, a handful of youngsters was left playing, including Shaw and Duff. “A BBC producer came over and asked us what the name of our band was and we said we weren’t a band and that we’d never played together.”
The young tyros started gigging, and were joined by a superb singer from Taynuilt, Karen Matheson, for an early appearance in the unlikely location of a working men’s club in Haltwhistle, Northumberland. Shaw sent a recording of the gig to BBC Gaelic producer John Carmichael who got them into the studio – as long as they brought the singer.
The rest is history. The band recorded its first album, Cascade, while still at school. Duff left in the mid-1990s, around which time its core consolidated with Shaw and Matheson, fiddler Charlie McKerron and Irish multi-instrumentalist Manus Lunny. Since then flautist Michael McGoldrick and ex-Deacon Blue bassist Ewan Vernal have also become stalwarts.
Capercaillie took its combination of fleet playing and Matheson’s limpid vocals to more than 30 countries, not to mention chalking up a landmark Top 40 chart entry for a Gaelic song in 1991 with a souped-up version of Coisich a Rùin, and an appearance in the Hollywood blockbuster, Rob Roy. Among numerous exotic gigs, Shaw remembers a concert at a West Bank Palestinian university where their espousal of a once-suppressed Gaelic culture was regarded with a fellow feeling.
These days Capercaillie doesn’t tour so frequently, its members all having families and projects of their own – not least Shaw, who is artistic director of Glasgow’s Celtic Connections, runs Vertical Records, and recently composed the music for BBC wildlife series Hebrides – Islands on the Edge.
“We’ll continue to play select festivals across Europe,” he says. “There will be fewer situations where we do this, but I know that when we do, it’s always an enjoyable experience, because we still love playing together.”
Capercaillie play the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, tomorrow night, Aberdeen Music Hall on 12 November and Perth Concert Hall on 13 November, see www.capercaillie.co.uk