AS Runrig release their ‘final studio album’, founders and brothers Calum and Rory MacDonald explain why their music has never lost its upward trajectory
When, in 1973, two brothers from North Uist ambled on stage as the Runrig Dance Band, to entertain a North Uist and Bernera Association function at Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall, they had no idea whatsoever of where their hesitant foray into performing would take them. Forty-three years on, as Runrig launch what is billed as their last studio album, Calum and Rory MacDonald, the songwriting brothers at the band’s core since day one, can look back on a journey that has seen them play venues from East Berlin to New York’s Times Square, in the process playing a significant role in the resurgence of Gaelic and wider Scottish culture.
Did that first, faltering performance, accompanied by another founder, accordionist Blair Douglas, give any inkling of what was to come? “Ever so slightly not,” replies the younger MacDonald, Calum, now 62.
The Story, on their own Ridge Records label, may be their final studio album, but this is by no means the end of the road for the Gaelic rockers, they stress. Calum, the band’s percussionist, explains that their 40th anniversary celebrations in 2013, which climaxed with the “Party on the Moor” at Muir of Ord, prompted them to take stock: “It was fantastic, but we didn’t want that feeling of things ending, and the only thing we could do then was a new album. Being realistic, this will be our last, but we’ve turned that into a positive.”
“Calum and I write intuitively,” says Rory, 66, the group’s bassist and co-singer with Nova Scotian Bruce Guthro, “and a few weeks into the session we were listening to the songs and one of us said to the other, ‘These have a sense of finality about them.’”
Produced by the band’s youngest member, Brian Hurren, The Story turns out to be a quintessentially Runrig-sounding album, with tracks such as Rise and Fall tugging at the heart, while The Place Where Rivers Run suggests a bucolic accordion-fuelled paradise. The jubilant title track, with Malcolm Jones’s anthemic, bagpipe like guitar, declares: “And I’m still dreaming of the Hebrides/ And I’m still leaning on the early years/ And I can’t help feeling it will always be/ The story of the life inside of me...”
One might regard it as emblematic of what this band has been about over the past four decades, but Rory suggests it’s more about the years that he and his brother spent growing up on North Uist during the Fifties and early Sixties: “It was an amazing time with a terrific sense of community, and bonds that really formed us. The song is really about that memory we’ve carried through the years.”
By the time the family moved to the Isle of Skye, they were into the momentous cultural shift of the Sixties and their native Gaelic took something of a back seat as they embraced Elvis, the Beatles and the Stones. However, Calum in particular experienced an epiphany at a wedding in Glasgow when a cousin of his mother’s, Mòd gold medallist Angus MacLeod, got up and sang. “Gaelic was always there and I loved it,” he recalls, “but it just couldn’t compete with all that. But hearing Angus at that wedding really got me and I went out the next day and bought his LP.”
A year after the MacDonalds’ Kelvin Hall debut, Skye native Donnie Munro, their singer until 1997, joined the band, followed in 1978 by guitarist and piper Malcolm Jones.
Other early members were accordionist Douglas, his successor Robert MacDonald, who died in 1986, and keyboard player Richard Cherns.
The band’s sound has been informed by everything from the Beatles to the late Sorley MacLean, Bruce Springsteen to Free Church Gaelic psalm-singing.
Its open-heartedness and rootedness in place haven’t always endeared it to certain world-weary critics more preoccupied with the next big thing, Calum agrees: “Rock bands don’t write about a lot of the things that we’ve written about. Gaelic wasn’t cool, although it’s a lot more so now, definitely.”
During the late Eighties and Nineties, albums such as The Cutter and the Clan and The Big Wheel established Runrig as a force in Scottish cultural resurgence, a contribution recognised recently by the Gaelic College Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, which presented the brothers with Sàr Ghàidheal awards for having, in the words of college principal Professor Boyd Robertson, “revitalised and extended the corpus of Gaelic song... and brought Gaelic music and song to the world stage”.
There have been some emotional moments. The album’s final track, Somewhere, with its tidal surge courtesy of the Prague Symphony Orchestra, ends in a fading crackle of space chatter, amid which the distant voice of astronaut Laurel Clark can be heard. Dr Clark was on board the Columbia space shuttle which broke up on re-entry in 2003. A fan, she had played Runrig’s Running to the Light that morning as a wake-up call. Her CD was later retrieved from a Texas field amid debris, and was brought to Scotland and presented to the band by her husband and son.
Rory sees Somewhere, with its “arc of wonder”, as “probably what we’ve been trying to express over the years, about the struggle we all have in finding spiritual meaning in our lives.”
The band now embark on a hefty touring schedule, with February’s concerts at Aberdeen Music Hall, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and Edinburgh’s Usher Hall all sold out, although at time of writing tickets remained for Dundee’s Caird Hall on 12 February.
“So we’re looking forward to that and we’ll see where it leads us,” says Calum. “But there’s no stopping.”