When Scottish supergroup Runrig played a series of three concerts on the esplanade of Stirling Castle in 1997, those lucky enough to be in the sell-out crowds witnessed one of the most emotionally charged performances they are ever likely to hear.
Not only were the band at the peak of their powers, performing some of the classic anthems which had come to define Scotland at that time, they were also seeing Donnie Munro, the band’s lead singer and front man, bowing out having been with them for over 20 years. It’s no wonder that recordings of that event continue to be played around the world and enjoyed by new generations of fans today.
Few in the audience for those amazing concerts would have realised however, that what they were hearing in Donnie’s soaring vocals, perfect timing and crystal clear diction was the product of a professional career that stretched back 30 years to when he was not long out of primary school on his native Skye.
“By the time I was 13 I was being contracted to sing for tourists in the local hotels with a school friend” he told me, with a chuckle at the memory. “We did contemporary light acoustic music in the vein of Simon and Garfunkel.”
While few boys of that age would have been comfortable singing in public it was something Donnie had grown up with. “My mother was a singer and she encouraged me very early on. She also taught singing to local children and in particular taught Gaelic songs.” With this start in life it is maybe not surprising that singing, performing and the Gaelic language become such important elements in Donnie’s life.
Yet when he started out it was English language pop and rock music that he played most often, as he explained:
“We had no Gaelic at primary school whatsoever. We maybe did a little bit of Gaelic singing for the Mod but in general terms our interests were looking beyond Gaelic, looking beyond our own inheritance if you like, to the more attractive – as we saw it then – culture of pop music, whether that was the Stones, Led Zeppelin or the Beatles”.
“I guess in some ways we did turn our back on our culture but for very obvious reasons. We had inherited the baggage of our parent’s and grandparent’s generation where it had been determined in their lives that Gaelic culture was something that was not to be encouraged and would not benefit them or their children”, he explained.
It wasn’t until Donnie left Skye to go to university that he started to fully explore his Gaelic roots. “Along with my colleagues in Runrig we began to look at what we had, what distinguished us and made our communities and people unique, both historically and culturally. We began to look seriously at the language and use it in a contemporary, vibrant way”.
As the band started to interpret Gaelic music and write their own numbers in the language Donnie made an interesting discovery. “It took me quite a long time to sing comfortably in English and I don’t mean that flippantly. Although we were doing rock and pop music and doing covers of American artists, singing with the diction of a Highlander with a Gaelic background it didn’t sit easily.” And it wasn’t just Donnie who felt this. “It has been said by audiences across the world they feel a deep sense of authenticity when we perform in Gaelic” he told me.
Donnie Munro and Runrig have always had a big following across Northern Europe and I wondered why he thought audiences in Germany or Denmark were attracted to music with its roots so firmly in Gaelic on the Western fringes of the continent.
“Going right back to the early days one of the first countries outside Scotland we played in was Denmark. We played the Roskilde festival, which was huge. It’s not far from Copenhagen, amongst the fjords where the great Viking longship museum is located. And from then on we developed a really solid audience in Denmark where in some ways Runrig is considered to be one of their own. This then developed into Germany which became a huge market for us both in terms of record sales and performances. One of the things in continental Europe is they are not as restricted by language as we are in the UK. You can count on one hand the number of non-English tracks you will hear on Radio 1 or any of the other stations. We live in a very English language dominant society. But in Germany, Demark or Finland for example they are quite used to accessing their music outside of their own language so there is never a barrier placed before an artist” he explained.
You don’t have to spend much time in Donnie’s company to appreciate the extent of his love for the Gaelic language. But for him it is more than that. He sees it as important, not just for Gaels but all Scots, if they are to understand the world in which they are brought up. “The Gaelic language is a central part of Scotland’s culture and heritage” he told me.
“It’s the language that has described the physical world that we live in – our place names, our mountains our rivers etc, etc. If you are living in Cambuslang for example and discover the name is a construct of two Gaelic words meaning bay and longship you have a historical sense of what that physical area meant. It was the uppermost part of the Clyde that the longships could sail. So instantly it gives you a very different sense of where you are and I think that adds huge richness to our sense of ourselves.”
It was no surprise to hear that Donnie has taken that passion for his culture and native language into his professional life as Development Director of Sabhal Mor Ostaig, Scotland’s National Gaelic College, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands. He has helped the college grow in size and influence over the past few years and he is rightly proud of its achievements. But for Donnie it is about far more than simply promoting the language. He explained about the impact that language, culture and the arts provide for the regeneration of our communities and how they were “a really powerful economic tool” in this regard.
“The evidence is there, very clearly in a whole series of economic impact studies that have been carried out and in pure demographics we have seen the population of the Sleat peninsula on Skye double since Sabhal Mor Ostaig was established there. And that goes against the trends of many of the areas of the Highlands and Islands” he told me.
He is particularly proud of his involvement the development of Kilbeg a new planned village on Skye which is very much being built on the success of Sabhal Mor Ostaig and the growing interest in Gaelic language and culture.
Donnie still performs regularly, sometimes with an 8-piece band comprising some of the top musicians in Scotland, sometimes in a trio with his long-time sound engineer and outstanding guitarist Eric Cloughley and young fiddler Maggie Adamson and sometimes as a solo performer or in collaboration with other musicians. He memorably played the gala concert prior to the opening of the Ryder Cup golf tournament at Gleneagles in 2014.
Donnie told me how much he enjoyed being chieftain at the European Piping championships which took place for the fourth time in Forres in June 2016. This fantastic day out for anyone with an interest in pipe music has become a firm favourite of the top bands that compete on the international piping circuit. It has long enjoyed an association with Benromach, who are the proud main sponsors of the event.
“My involvement with piping has always been at Highland games on Skye. It’s a time of year we all looked forward to but being chieftain at such a prestigious event was certainly a very exciting first for me. I have been very aware over the years how pipe band music has changed and the level of musical sophistication that has come into pipe band performances is quite staggering.”
And that’s quite a compliment coming from Donnie Munro – one of the giants of modern Scottish music who has himself made such a huge contribution to our traditional music and language.
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