The life and times of Runrig – in 90 minutes

Where does half a century go? As far as the men who made Runrig are concerned, the answer has been encapsulated into a 90 minute documentary film which will be released on DVD next week.

Friday, 22nd October 2021, 9:38 am
An early line-up - Rory, Calum, Malcolm and Donnie
An early line-up - Rory, Calum, Malcolm and Donnie

We are of the same vintage. When I met Rory and Calum Macdonald for a long lunch this week, under the guise of discussing this forthcoming launch, they recalled that their first interview as a band was with me … in 1973. The circle is unbroken.

“Launch” is maybe an exaggeration since the project to tell the story of Runrig in a history DVD and accompanying coffee table book, “There Must Be A Place”, was blown off course by Covid-19 for the past 18 months. If all had gone to plan, the film would have been shown in cinemas and on Netflix by now.

At one point, there were hopes for a drive-in cinema event at Loch Lomond, redolent of the great Runrig concert that attracted 50,000 in 1991. That would have been a real launch.

Maybe some of it will still happen but for the moment, the priority is to give the Runrig faithful what they have been waiting for – a beautifully-crafted trip down memory lane.

Rory is still not reconciled to four and a half hours of great footage having, in the end, been boiled down to the required 90 minutes. But then how do you condense a five decade story into the length of a football match? Such a feat of ruthless editing cannot be matched by 1700 printed words, so best to stick to the early days.

The seventies, we agreed, as people of our age tend to, was a great decade to be alive and to be on Skye. There was radical journalism with plenty of targets waiting to be hit. There were signs of an invigorated cultural and historical awareness among a young, bright generation. And there was Runrig.

By any standards set by the music industry, they became an exceptional phenomenon. They lasted for almost all of that half century. They never altered their natural persona. They attracted huge loyalties and sold vast numbers of records. Then they departed, on a memorable night in Stirling, with the fans still shouting for more. Now they even have a tribute band.

None of that was planned in advance, or even dreamt of. They first came together as an impromptu trio when the accordionist Blair Douglas’s formidable mum, Ina, needed a band at short notice for a North Uist and Berneray Association dance in Glasgow. She knew Rory played the guitar and Calum was persuaded he could play the drums. Ina did not take no for an answer. It was the birth of Runrig.

“Making a big hit on the Skye dancing circuit at present are three

Portree lads who have got together as the Run-Rig Dance Band….

Next week they widen their horizons and move to Uist, with dances in Balivanich and Lochmaddy. All have North Uist connections, so it will be something of a home from home”.

That initial report cautioned: “Staying together as a band will become more difficult in October since Calum and Blair are studying in Glasgow while Rory works as freelance graphic designer on Skye”.

Fortunately this difficulty was overcome and the Runrig personnel expanded to take in Donnie Munro and Malcolm Jones.

“The early stages were all about friendship and camaraderie,” says Rory. “We were living next door to each other in Portree and Blair was just in Braes. It was very localised and we were enjoying life without any great aspirations. We could afford not to be very professional which was just as well, because we certainly weren’t”.

It’s difficult at this range in time to pin down chronologies without memory prompts about, for example, the exact changes in personnel in these early days. Fortunately, there is no shortage of memorabilia to help with that.

Every drawer and cupboard in several Highland homes has been looted to come up with photographs, tickets, cuttings, posters, press adverts, the lot. And so we follow the trail from Skye, up and down the west coast, into the wider world and then the recording studio. All still in the 1970s.

For the first few years, Runrig had been a dance band that produced a great sound and kept the village halls bouncing. That perception changed when in 1978 they made their first album, Play Gaelic, which was true to its title. This was the first sign of the band’s depth of commitment to the language since all the songs were written by Rory and Calum, in Gaelic.

The story of how the record was made is one of the DVD’s classics.

The character who ran Lismor Records, Peter Hamilton, is still recalling the unreasonableness of these four guys from Skye who expected a week to make a record.

The Lismor formula was to record one side of an LP in the morning, break for lunch, and get the second side finished in the afternoon. Runrig were no exceptions to the rule.

Calum says: “When we got back to the Skye Gathering Hall after Play Gaelic, we just about got kicked out. They wanted to know why we were singing our own songs, for heaven’s sake, and why were they in Gaelic? What was the point of that? That was certainly the mood at the time but we were determined not to let it faze us”.

The Skye Gathering Hall doubters could not really be blamed for their scepticism since, to say the least, Play Gaelic was entering into unfamiliar territory.

The music revolution of the sixties had passed the language by and there were still very few bridges between the traditional perception of Gaelic song and the expectations of a young generation. Na h’Oganaich had come closest to making that link and due tribute is paid by Runrig.

Calum says: “Their first album was hugely influential on us. Rory and I had been writing songs in the bedroom for years, just for fun.

"But the first thought of writing a Gaelic song was prompted by the idea that maybe we could write something that Na h’Oganaich would want to sing. That’s how we came up with Air an Tràigh though we never offered it to them. We put it on Play Gaelic instead”. And it has been sung ever since.

However, a tough Friday night in the Skye Gathering Hall was not the whole story. There were forces at work driving attitudes in other directions and Runrig personified them. Even by the following year, when the National Mod was held in Stornoway and Runrig’s presence was a notable break with the norm, there was a change of mood.

Rory recalls. “We felt we had connected and that there was a real movement, if you like, of young people starting to embrace the heritage, their own history and the language”.

Shortly afterwards, Runrig played Eden Court in Inverness and packed it out. That was perhaps the moment when they realised they could be something more than a “localised” west coast band.

Iain MacDonald, late of BBC Radio Highland, who was “fear an tighe” for the night describes the moment in his contribution to the book.

As supporting acts, Dick Gaughan had been hired to add gravitas and Ishbel MacAskill to draw in the Gaelic crowd.

Iain recalls: “The audience were duly respectful and variously enthused, but I could already very much sense that none of these people were who they were there for.”

"Then the interval. ”Thank you for waiting, I managed. This is Runrig. Chaos ensued. Without another detail required, Runrig’s rocket to the moon was launched.”

In retrospect, perhaps, the surprising point is that the rocket had taken seven years to reach the launch pad but Eden Court was the game- changer and a career as professional musicians became inescapable.

Playing to mass audiences inevitably meant greater emphasis on English but without ever compromising the loyalty to Gaelic or to the struggles of the Gael. The rest, as they say, is history.

Jack Cocker has directed the film and came to the role as a non-fan of Runrig “even when they were in their pomp in the 1990s”.

He says: “In a way, that made me a good candidate to direct it because I could make a story that would hook other non-fans into taking a look at what it was about.

“The more I got to know them and their music, the more I realised I had to re-think what Runrig was. It wasn’t just a band to go nuts to at the end of a wedding.

"There was so much more depth and thought than I had realised. In the course of it, I became a big fan”.

With 18 months to reappraise since the editing was concluded and the project put on hold, Jack is pretty pleased with the outcome – as well he is entitled to be. It’s a great piece of work, worthy of its subjects.

Runrig is described in the publicity as “Scotland’s house band” but in the places they originated, they have been much more than that.

Donnie Munro says: “I think we have all realised with the benefit of hindsight that we were part of something bigger going on in the Highlands and Islands – that sense of a political and cultural identity reawakening. Without knowing it, we were part of it”.

One comments sticks in his mind. While they were doing a Gaelic children’s series for Grampian in Aberdeen, there were long sessions in the pub with the broadcaster, Martin MacDonald, talking about Highland history and politics. Martin, of course, was thrilled by the idea of four young guys from Portree singing original Gaelic songs about the themes they all held dear. But, asked Donnie, should they be more overtly political in what they were doing? Definitely not, said Martin. “You are political by the mere fact that you exist”.

Runrig, for almost half a century, were great entertainers for the masses and even greater ambassadors for the history and language of their own people. Political by the mere fact that they existed.