Conductor back after 18 years to lead BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

A SCOTTISH conductor who made his name in the opera houses of Germany and the United States, but who for years dropped out of sight from the Scottish music scene, was picked yesterday to lead one of the country's top orchestras.

Donald Runnicles, born in Edinburgh 52 years ago, was named yesterday as the new chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, replacing Ilan Volkov, the Israeli 20 years his junior.

"Runnicles was long known as a Scot who was never recognised in his own land," said The Scotsman's music critic, Kenneth Walton. Outside the Edinburgh Festival and BBC Proms, he has not conducted a regular UK concert in 18 years.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Runnicles is one of a number of Scots who have found success overseas, a phenomenon that has occurred repeatedly through history, says the cultural historian Neil Cameron.

Architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the epitome of Glasgow style, was more appreciated in avant-garde circles in Austria than the UK, he said. Robert Adam, the famous 18th Century architect, left Scotland, calling it a "narrow country", and travelled in Europe, before eventually setting up shop in London.

Mr Cameron said: "Probably one would just have to accept that Scotland is a small place, opportunities are limited and people's imaginations are limited as well. By moving abroad you escape all that and the sense of limitation. If they stay where they were brought up, it doesn't allow them to free themselves from that culture."

Other cultural figures who have moved for success. include the Glasgow-born writer Andrew O'Hagan.

According to Willy Maley, professor of English literature at the University of Glasgow: "He is an example of a recent home-grown Scottish talent who might have felt he had to go to London. It was the London Review of Books and the London press and English institutions that were instrumental in giving him support."

Tom Hewlett, owner of the Portland Gallery in London, represented the painter Jack Vettriano, long spurned by the Scottish art establishment. He said that, while Vettriano had early success at Edinburgh exhibitions, his popularity came from cards and posters disseminated throughout the world.

"Artists always want to prove themselves," he said. "People can then claim to be an international artist, it's a desire to prove yourself on a different stage."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Mr Runnicles went from Cambridge University to Germany to work in the country's busy opera scene, where major cities have operas and orchestras of their own.

After conducting Wagner's Ring cycle at the San Francisco Opera in 1990, he became music director there. In 2001, the Edinburgh International Festival director Sir Brian McMaster asked him back to perform with the SSO. A critic called it an evening "when lightning struck".

Yesterday Mr Runnicles said: "I am privileged to have made music with them over the past five years, and I am deeply privileged to embrace the future at the helm of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra."


THERE is often great fanfare when a Scottish artist or actor returns home as a "prodigal son", but the reception can be mixed.

The Scottish Turner Prize winner Douglas Gordon, now based in New York, is one of the top Scottish names in contemporary art.

His first major Scottish show in 13 years, Supernatural, at the National Galleries of Scotland, impressed the critics but not the public. Only 10,000 people turned out in two months.

In 2004 the Royal Lyceum Theatre persuaded actor Brian Cox to return to the Scottish stage.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Dundee-born Cox, who made his movie name playing an early Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter, now divides his time between LA and London.

The Scottish comedian, actor, writer Craig Ferguson moved to Los Angeles where he's now host of the CBS network's Late Late Show.