Capercaillie celebrate 40th anniversary with new album Re-Loved

As folk trailblazers Capercaillie prepare to mark four decades of music with a lavish collaboration with the BBC SSO, founding member Donald Shaw takes a trip down memory lane with Jim Gilchrist

Forty years ago, I reviewed for this paper a highly promising young band from Argyll who were making their first foray into the mêlée of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It’s sobering to be reminded of that review – not to mention my advancing years – as the band in question, Capercaillie, celebrate their 40th birthday with an album release featuring a lavish collaboration with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Re-Loved sees Capercaillie revisit their repertoire of four decades with full-blown orchestral arrangements by Greg Lawson (creative spirit behind the Grit Orchestra), composer Kate St John, and Capercaillie founder member, accordionist and keyboards player Donald Shaw, also a producer and composer, as well as artistic director of Glasgow’s massive Celtic Connections festival.

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Now 57, Shaw muses that at the time of that early Edinburgh gig, he might not yet have been out of Oban High School. He and the embryonic group’s then whistle player, school-mate Marc Duff had been joined by fellow pupil Karen Matheson, whose sublime Gaelic vocals, partnered with a sharply honed instrumental edge on accordion, fiddle and guitar, signalled the arrival of a significant presence on the Scottish folk scene. Capercaillie have become globally roving ambassadors for Highland music; they appeared in the Hollywood blockbuster Rob Roy and achieved the first UK top 40 placing for a Gaelic song, their supercharged version of the waulking song, Coisich a Ruin.

Capercaillie PIC: Sandy ButlerCapercaillie PIC: Sandy Butler
Capercaillie PIC: Sandy Butler

Back in 1984, they certainly weren’t thinking in terms of a four-decade lifespan. “I remember early discussions, and we’d be chatting about what college or university courses we were applying for,” says Shaw. “I had to make a pact with my Dad that it was just a year out then I’d be going to college. I’m not sure he was entirely convinced about any of it until he saw me on TV.”

The line-up for Re-Loved is essentially the band’s long-time core of Matheson, Shaw, fiddler Charlie McKerron, flautist-piper Michael McGoldrick, Manus Lunny on bouzouki and guitar, percussionist David Robertson and bassist Ewan Vernal, plus guests guitarist Sorren MacLean and drummer James Mackintosh – and, of course, that orchestra.

Was such a venture challenging – or even advisable? They have performed with orchestras in the past, at festivals in Brittany and Galicia, as well as with the BBC SSO. Shaw suggests, however, that they were perhaps destined to play with one “ever since we sat in the school orchestra and experienced the beauty and dynamism of an orchestral setting”.

For much of his career though, he would have been apprehensive about such a collaboration: “In past experiences with orchestras in traditional music, I’ve found it more challenging than rewarding a lot of the time, particularly with the instrumental music – the jigs and reels. It always seemed a clash of styles.

“I think for years there was a bit of a division between folk and classical musicians. Orchestral players were suspicious of us, who didn’t use any printed music, and folk musicians were terrified about the extraordinary technical ability of orchestral musicians both to read and play.”

These days, however, he feels that there is more respect and understanding between genres, and this recent collaboration has been “a real joy”, with the BBC SSO proving highly supportive.

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The past 40 years have seen the trad scene change hugely, he agrees: “Probably the biggest change is that you were still perceived as being for an older audience. But at Celtic Connections some nights, in Barrowland, say, there would be 2,000 people, all under 25 and absolutely loving it.

“I wouldn’t go to school with my accordion, or when I was out playing football with friends I wouldn’t tell them that I needed to get home to practise my 2/4 marches. Now at every school gate you seem to see kids walking in with a clarsach or fiddle or pipes. The landscape of confidence and respect for the music has changed hugely.”

Re-Loved is on Vertical Records, as double vinyl, CD or streaming. See

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