Scottish word of the week: Runrig

Donnie Munro, formerly of Runrig, playing Edinburgh Castle in Septemner 1993. Picture: Alistair Linford
Donnie Munro, formerly of Runrig, playing Edinburgh Castle in Septemner 1993. Picture: Alistair Linford
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THE Celtic folk rock band who last year celebrated their 40th anniversary are one of Scotland’s most popular traditional music acts - but what does the word runrig mean?

Most band names don’t mean very much, and never have. Contemporary Scottish acts with quixotic titles such as Frightened Rabbit and We Were Promised Jetpacks are, one imagines, weary of repeated inquiries into the origins of their band’s names. And that may well be because the answer doesn’t exist.

In Runrig’s case, quite the opposite is true. The band, who formed in Skye in 1973, liberally reference their Scottish heritage in their songs. They wear their origins on their sleeve, literally: album titles include Play Gaelic (1978), The Highland Connection (1979), and Heartland (1985).

So what does runrig mean? It is a now-defunct system of common landholding that formed the basis of much of Scotland’s farming until the 18th century. The runrig system largely died out in the late 19th century, persisting only in the Hebrides in the early 20th century.

The system would see tenants would draw lots as to which rigs (narrow strips of land that could be up to 15 metres wide) they would tend to in a given year. Tenants would then take turns, using that system, to cultivate the most fertile strips of land. In the event that broader strips of land were available, the system was known as run-dale. It’s not quite as catchy a name.

Runrig’s Calum Macdonald, in an interview with Gaelic heritage magazine am baile, gives an insight into the band’s deep passion for expressing their Highland history: “It has always been with a sense of deep seated grievance that I have looked back at my school history experience. A starting point for anyone should be to know about the people and events that have defined them and have brought them to where they are today. We were never taught any Highland history whatsoever, and I never learnt about the defining moments in my own history until I left school.”


Runrig celebrate 40th anniversary