Brian Ferguson: Trad scene is booming, but can anyone replace Runrig?

Not so long ago it was a case of feast or famine for many of Scotland's musicians. The summer and winter festivals were still a time for hectic schedules, long journeys and playing to packed crowds in concert venues, village halls and tents across the UK. For those who associate themselves with the '˜trad' scene, Celtic Connections was a rare chance to take to a much bigger stage than they were used to, and win new fans perhaps unfamiliar with their music.
Trad scene favourites Manran. Can they fill Runrig's footsteps?Trad scene favourites Manran. Can they fill Runrig's footsteps?
Trad scene favourites Manran. Can they fill Runrig's footsteps?

But it has been increasingly clear that there is nothing resembling any kind of lay-off for many of its leading acts. Celtic Connections has now become a launchpad for bigger and better things. For some acts it is effectively a warm-up for vitally important overseas tours and showcases. Some of the hottest new acts on the trad scene at the moment - including Talisk, the Elephant Sessions, Fara and Rura - have extensive forthcoming dates lined up in Europe, United States and Australia.

They are following in the footsteps of other more established bands who regularly spend much of the year outside Scotland plying their trade, including Skerryvore, Shooglenifty, Breabach and the Red Hot Chilli Pipers. All of the above acts can be found in the line-ups of festivals across Scotland, along with crowd-pleasers like the Treacherous Orchestra and Niteworks. But now it is now increasingly commonplace for bands to organise their own headline tours - with growing box office success.

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The Elephant Sessions, Tide Lines, Skipinnish and Manran are part of a new wave of bands from the Highlands and Islands filling venues up and down the country - and not just village halls. They are already promoting gigs for later this year in some of the biggest stages in Scotland - including the Barrowland Ballroom in Glasgow, the Usher Hall in Edinburgh and Eden Court in Inverness. The idea of any bands drawn from the traditional music scene filling these venues would have seemed fanciful a few years ago. Now their followers are scrambling for tickets and hatching plans for big nights out months in advance.

Fresh evidence of resurgence emerged last week with what must be the best ever Scottish representation in the nominations for the notoriously anglo-centric BBC 2 Radio Folk Awards, with three singers Julie Fowlis, Siobhan Miller and Karine Polwart all vying for best folk singer.

What is fuelling this boom is hard to pin down. Social media is undoubtedly playing a significant part, with an increasing emphasis on videos and teasers for major announcements for gigs and tours. The growth in the numbers of festivals around Scotland and their willingness to book trad acts for prominent slots must be helping to build and sustain audiences, particularly within the crucial teenage demographic. Events like Showcase Scotland, the industry expo event at Celtic Connections, and its spin-offs are undoubtedly playing a growing role in securing exposure for tried and tested acts. There is also increasing backing and awareness Creative Scotland, VisitScotland and the Scottish Government.

The big question is which of the acts above is ready to take the next big step. The countdown is well underway to Runrig’s last ever live shows, which will be staged in the shadow of Stirling Castle in August. Many of those tickets will have been snapped up by younger generations of fans whose parents may not even have been born when the band formed in 1973. When they finally leave the stage, who will be up for the challenge of filling their shoes?

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