Jim Gilchrist: Skerryvore celebrating ten years together

Skerryvore. Picture: submitted
Skerryvore. Picture: submitted
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Oban’s Mossfield Park is the venue for the Argyllshire Gathering and Oban Highland Games, when pipers and heavyweight heroes from around the world let fly with pibroch and caber. This afternoon and evening, the stadium hosts an exuberant Highland gathering of a different sort, as folk-rockers Skerryvore celebrate their tenth anniversary with a gig which, when announced at the beginning of the year, saw 3,000 tickets sold within an hour, forcing the organisers to double the planned stadium capacity.

“Ticket sales surpassed our expectations at the very start,” says the band’s singer and guitarist, Alec Dalglish. “We thought 3,000 would be a good number and put the tickets on sale in two batches of 1,500. Each time they sold out within 30 minutes. We realised there seemed to be more people wanting to come than we’d ever imagined, so Daniel [Gillespie, the band’s accordionist] and the rest of the team organising it got in touch with the licensing people and asked if we could increase capacity to five or six thousand and that went ahead.”

With more than five and a half thousand tickets now booked, to say that Dalglish and company are gratified by their fans’ response is putting it mildly. “It really did surprise us,” the Livingstone-born, Glasgow-based singer says. “It’s probably the biggest event we’ve ever done off our own backs. Once you’ve been going for so long, you maybe don’t realise just how many people you’ve met along the way.”

The concert also marks the release of a celebratory retrospective album, Decade (Tiree Records), which reprises favourite material and a couple of new numbers in a mixture of live and studio tracks. One of these, the freshly written Happy to Be Home, has been released as a downloadable single and features the Irish accordion star Sharon Shannon – who also appears at today’s minifest, along with other guests including the Red hot Chilli Pipers, Skippinish and the Scott Wood Band.

They may be packing ’em into Mossfield Park today, but ten years ago, Skerryvore’s origins on the inner Hebridean island of Tiree were humble enough. The youthful founding quartet, which remains at the heart of the band, comprised the Tiree-born brothers Daniel (accordion) and Martin (bagpipes) Gillespie, who were joined by drummer Fraser West, who was holidaying on the island with his schoolmate Dalglish. Their tastes in music were broad, to say the least, but when they got together while at Glasgow University, it was simply as a ceilidh band – “basically for some fun and beer money,” as Dalglish puts it.

Taking their name from the famously elegant lighthouse that lies south of Tiree, the band gained a fiddler, Craig Espie, and its first bassist, Barry Caulfield (current bass incumbent is Jodie Bremaneson) and the good-time ceilidh band gradually metamorphosed into a high-energy outfit blending catchy country-rockish songs, many of them written by Dalglish, with that west Highland pipe, fiddle and accordion sound. “We had no idea back then that we would become a ‘proper band’ that writes its own songs,” recalls the 29-year-old Dalglish, still sounding slightly bemused at the group’s success.

Their reputation really took off with their third album, simply titled Skerryvore, which won a Scottish New Music Award (SNMA) in 2011 and they scooped the Live Act of the Year prize in the Scots Trad Awards the same year – an acknowledgement which Dalglish particularly appreciated, “because some elements of what we do are traditional and some aren’t, it was very nice to get an award like that.”

They were on occasion hailed as “the new Runrig”, which could have been a mixed blessing. “It was flattering of us because we all liked Runrig and we know them now, but also a bit embarrassing because we were just a young band and nowhere near as big. Also the kind of songs they did were perhaps more political and based around Highland issues than ours.”

In fact, the two bands have become acquainted to the extent that Runrig singer Bruce Guthro joined Skerryvore on stage for their cover of the Runrig classic Rocket to the Moon (also featured on the new album), while Dalglish has done the honours with Runrig during the same number.

Invidious comparisons apart, there’s a sense of jubilation about the Decade album, right from its opening instrumental, greeted by the kind of audience roar which can be expected, albeit even louder, at Mossfield Park tonight.