It’s going to be a tough old night for everybody associated with Runrig as the band pull the curtain down on 45 years this weekend. I had the incredible pleasure of being the keyboard player for the band at the height of its success and the experience of being part of Runrig changed me as much as Runrig changed the face of Gaelic’s place in Scotland.
There simply hadn’t been a band like Runrig before and there won’t be another one quite like them again. Their contribution to Scottish music and culture can not be overstated. Runrig reintroduced Gaelic to a new generation of young Scots and then took Gaelic and highland culture round the world.
What Runrig offered was a perspective of Scotland from the north delivered in its authentic voice. Scotland had never heard its like before and would forever be altered by its profound message. The songs spoke of historic institutional cultural damage, of emigration and clearance, of land ownership and of our shared home and identity. In rediscovering the part of Scotland that was Gaelic it could be said that Runrig helped Scotland rediscover a large part of itself.
For most young people growing up in Scotland in the 60s and 70s Gaelic was misunderstood if it was ever even considered at all. A cultural ‘tweed curtain’ ran the length of the Highland line and it was still a time of ‘teuchters’ and weird highland stereotypes. Scotland was still dealing in tales of a Highlands cleansed and made palatable by Walter Scott’s ‘Balmorality’ and what Scots saw of Gaelic culture was largely in the shape of Calum Kennedy and Dotaman. Gaelic was at best a charming other world but one that was largely disposable and dispensible.
When Runrig emerged in the 1970s the future of Gaelic was very much in doubt. Gaelic had been largely deserted by young people who had most of the language beaten out of them at school before what was left challenged by the more readily accessible rock and pop music. The Scottish folk revival of the 60s had largely left Gaelic music untouched and what remained of its promotion was left in the hands of village bards and sing-songs behind closed doors.
It was in this environment that the early Runrig started writing their own Gaelic songs. The fusion of Gaelic traditional song and rock music would probably have remained a minority interest if not for the song-craft of Calum and Rory MacDonald. Their ability to make the local universal, for being able to talk of big historical themes and make them relevant and real, to observe the huge truths in small things, defined a song writing approach that readily reached out beyond the confines of the West Highlands.
Then there were the songs. Songs like Dance called America. A song written about how the aristocracy mocked and mimicked the forced emigrations during the clearances. Then there is the Gaelic epic ‘Siol Ghorraidh’ written about an obscure medieval battle fought on Sleat in Skye between competing branches of Clan Donald. There’s ‘Fuaim A’ Bhlair’ a song that recalls how the highlanders were enlisted as canon fodder for the empire adventures.
But contemporary concerns were there too. Saints of the Soil celebrates the Assyntt community land buyout where Ravenscraig is one of many songs that addresses the deindustrialisation of Scotland. But then there is also ‘the Loch’. Loch Lomond became a defining song of the band and rarely could one song be so unrepresentative of a bands whole catalogue. Like most of the band I had a love/hate relationship with ‘the Loch’ but now find it highly amusing that its has ended up as a staple at the close of Scottish weddings.
The MacDonald brothers have always tried to down play the political significance of Runrig but I won’t share that reticence. Runrig put the big political issues to song and told the world of historical injustices and their contemporary equivalents. Runrig could be said to be part of the sound track of the coming of the Scottish Parliament. The 1987 song ‘Alba’ talks of that ‘empty house in Edinburgh without authority or voice’ with ‘the beautiful soil of the people still in the hands of the few’. It should come as no surprise that two members of Runrig stood for Parliament and one now remains the longest serving MP from Scotland
But this probably didn’t matter to the legions of fans who just loved the music. And Runrig sold records in the barrowload. Over 2 million albums sold worldwide with top 5 records in the UK, Germany and Denmark. I’ll never forget how the album Amazing Things just lost out on being the UK number 1 by one of the lowest margins ever to the Greatest hits of Hot Chocolate. Runrig was Scotland ’s biggest band in the late 80s and early 90s. When in 1991 the BBC asked the Scottish public to vote in their music awards Runrig won all categories even coming second in the top female singer category. They never run the awards again. And foreign audiences lapped it up particularly German speaking Europe and Scandanavia. I’ll never forget German fans telling me that what they enjoyed was an immersion in an easily accessible cultural package when so much of their own culture was out of bounds because of history.
Even with all the well deserved plaudits I still don’t think that the cultural contribution of Runrig has been properly acknowledged. Runrig had to survive and compete in a bizarre and fashion fuelled music industry marketplace that could never properly understand the band far less properly market them. Runrig, though, went beyond genre with songs that will prove to be timeless. There will be other bands who will come and go but none will be able to open our eyes to part of our nation with such beauty, poetry and drama as Runrig.
Gaelic is now a national language of Scotland. Gaelic medium is a feature of our education system. There is Gaelic broadcasting and multitudes of Gaelic bands. Where there remains political detractors there is a tremendous effort and broad consensus in rescuing this beautiful language and culture. A language that helped define and chronicle Scotland itself. Runrig is a huge party of this ‘recovery’. This will forever be the band’s enduring legacy.