Runrig: A Sasannach* appreciation

I missed out on Runrig in my earlier days, so they have indeed been something of a foreign territory. Coming first to national prominence in the late 70s, but on radio shows and TV that, living in England, I wouldn’t have seen, I was certainly aware of them from 1987, with the release of The Cutter and The Clan, their breakthrough, fifth, LP. By then, though, the only guitars I really wanted to hear were African, and specifically Congolese (out of Paris), while I really wanted to hear west African koras and, as for accordions – well, they were fine as long as they were in the vallenato style or otherwise played by Flaco Jimenez; and, if Andy Kershaw or, to a lesser extent, John Peel never played it, I never heard it. And I certainly missed their, surely unlikely, appearance in the 1990s on Top of the Pops, singing An Ubhal As Airde, their rather lovely song in memory of Calum and Rory’s father, and introduced by a young woman presenter who’d clearly been taken lessons from one of the band on how to say Gàidhlig properly (and very nearly making it, too).

What I didn’t do was make the connections between traditional music from elsewhere and that coming from ‘home’: the one should have led me back to the other.

So, for ages just about the only Runrig song I actually knew was An Toll Dubh, and that on a compilation CD which had been lent to me (thanks JB!). And, even then, I wasn’t quite sure how much was Runrig and how much was Paul Mounsey (the producer/re-arranger). Until this summer, that is, when my regular stint volunteering up at the museum in North Uist brought me into regular contact since, in advance of The Last Dance, and given that the museum holds the Runrig archive, part of the display was a Gold Disc (for Searchlight) and a series of well-chosen TV and other video clips from throughout the band’s history (including the aforementioned TOTP appearance) showing on a continual loop. Slowly, gently over the weeks, the songs got into my head, so I went out and bought 50 Great Songs, a 3-CD compilation (two in English and one in Gàidhlig) as well as a DVD. The CDs feature a number of studio and live recordings, mostly from the Bruce Guthro era, plus unusually, but typically generously, an allocation of space to a handful of other musicians singing Runrig songs (and including the stand-out track in this collection). One of these is Dick Gaughan, last heard by me in a session for Kershaw singing – among others – Amandla! a ahout-out for Umkhonto we Sizwe in the last days of apartheid which continues to be both chilling and inspiring.

You don’t have to live on Uist to appreciate Runrig’s worth: apart from elsewhere on these islands, and on the mainland, the band is also highly successful in Germany and in Scandinavia and, famously but tragically, in North America, too. But it does help, I think – and I don’t mean the obvious appeal of references to the Uists and in lyrics such as that in The Message:

Gonna take the last flight home to Balivanich/In the month of June/Go racing up the South Ford…’

[in a car, obviously: no-one goes racing up South Ford on a bike].

What Runrig does very well is to capture the spirit of Uist in a way that not only pulls on the heartstrings of emigrés but also pays tribute to the courage of those who took the decision to stay – the product of a lack of opportunity in some cases, sure, but in many others one of a conscious desire to build on traditions, to pay tribute to the efforts of those who went before and to sustain communities – choices which, once made, frequently carry a heavy toll on those who make them. Runrig does this both in the lyrics (although the lyrics tend more towards moments in and out of consciousness, lines of inspired poetry, and emotional references and pulls, in songs that may not necessarily otherwise tell a linear story) but perhaps more particularly, as I’ve hinted already, in the music – but, in truth, the magic lies in the combination of both. Other than in echoing the luadh (waulking), as famously in An Toll Dubh but also in other songs in the collection, the melody lines are strong and with solid hooks, and the band well know the little tricks of making keyboards and guitars sound like falling rain, bass lines that pulse like gusts of mighty gales, rolling drums that echo the pounding ocean, and the whole coming together in a sound that forms a subliminal, aural recognition of the wild-at-heart soundscape underneath the big, wide-open skies of the Uists.

Of course, the short answer is that, wherever they’re actually from, like all live bands who’ve spent a lifetime gigging and spending a life on the road, the secret to Runrig is that the band are really good at giving a live audience what they want: passion, intensity, rousing choruses and the chance to jump up and down a bit. In that, they’re not so different to any other band, including that E Street one (with which there are some melodic similarities here): it’s all rock’n’roll, whether its inspiration is rooted in Celtic mysticism, American blues and gospel or British beat.

For an introduction into the sound of Runrig (at least, in its post-1997 second coming), this isn’t a bad place to start. That and Flowers of the West, which tells the story behind some of the songs and including some marvellous anecdotes and tall stories, including one of the TOTP appearances and a certain Diana Ross (sadly out of print, it seems, but perhaps available at a library, or indeed museum, near you).

That stand-out song? The version of Chi Mi ‘n Geamhradh (deliberately loose translation: Winter is Coming) by Catherine-Ann McPhee, a woman from Barra now living in Canada (a path familiar to many emigrés from the Western Isles) – and a reversal of the one undertaken by Guthro. Accompanied by the clarsach, and then by the violin, this is a vocal of extraordinary, spine-tingling power – confident, assertive and self-determining – set in the most lovely of arrangements. It is a thing of rare and lovely beauty: do check it out.

* Check the earlier discussion here.

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Learning the Gàidhlig

Saturday saw me and around a dozen others embark on the first of five Saturday morning lessons in Gàidhlig, run by the estimable Ceòlas organisation. This is not, I’m afraid to report, my first attempt to learn some Gàidhlig, having attended courses last year in which, despite the best attempts of a notable and patient teacher, aided by a few catch-up viewings of BBC Alba’s 1990s Speaking Our Language, I must confess that little sank in long-term (practise does make perfect and, of course, the reverse is also true). Indeed, for most of us present, this was at least a second go.

The Western Isles generally is a stronghold of the language, and we learned that Uist is currently regarded as holding the gold standard for how to speak it properly (like anywhere else, Gàidhlig has dialects and different accents). With some 52% of the population of the islands still using it as a native language, you can hear Gàidhlig spoken just about everywhere other, of course, than where you are yourself: islanders use it with each other but tend to switch to English if they don’t know who you are (there is little that is sinister about this; it comes more from a desire not to cause embarrassment). So, chances to practise can be fairly rare unless you are assertive; and, like learning any other language, while knowing what to ask is one thing, understanding the reply that you get is another thing entirely. Our teacher this week, Liam, a young US-Canadian probably in his late 20s, arrived in Scotland in 2008, finding his way to the islands sometime later, learned Gàidhlig by immersion and is profoundly knowledgeable about the language and about its scholarship. I can see the attraction: with immersion, you don’t get to rely on your English or have others rely on it for you – and sink or swim is always a good way of learning how to do more than just keep your head above the water.

The difficulties of learning any language vary from one to another. The Gàidhlig alphabet has only 18 letters (no ‘j’, no ‘k’, no ‘q’ and nothing beyond a ‘u’), leading to a variety of interesting ways to combine different consonants; and, although it uses the Latin alphabet, it seems best not to rely on familiarities for how they should sound but to see them in their own context. Gàidhlig has a verb-subject-object word order, in contrast to the English (and French) subject-verb-object; and, while it shares with a lot of European languages both cases and nouns being either masculine or feminine, this is not predictable (‘morning’ (madainn) and ‘night’ (oidhche) are feminine whereas ‘afternoon’/’evening’ (feasgar) is masculine; whereas in French ‘matin’, ‘jour’ and ‘soir’ are all masculine while ‘nuit’ is feminine). Beware of false friends. Indeed, my strategy this time around is to try and learn how phrases sound and learn them by rote, not to try and learn them by reading them out. And don’t get me started on the complexities of lenition.

After five weeks I’ll be hoping that a few more words and phrases stick than asking people what their names are and how they are; and ‘Turned out windy again’. Indeed, they already have, with two more ways to ask ‘how are you’ than the standard, one of which translates as ‘how’s your trim?’ a phrase originating in seafaring which ought (and may well do) have some localised English equivalents (English does of course have an expression about dis/liking the cut of someone’s jib). Perhaps there is indeed more in common than divides us.

Repairing to the Polochar Inn afterwards for a spot of lunch, the young woman who served us was (of course) bilingual and happy to reward our attempts to use our Gàidhlig. She grew up largely speaking English to her mum (who was from Edinburgh) and largely Gàidhlig to her father (an islander); and was learning French and hoping to study Italian. Much depends on the individual, of course – but what a start in learning, and in understanding others, comes when you grow up in the home with two ways of asking others what they know, and of intrepreting their answers.