KEITH MACKENZIE was among the crowd in Stirling last Saturday as Runrig played their final concert…..
Thig crioch air an saoghal, ach mairidh gaol is ceòl. The old Gaelic proverb says the world will pass but love and music will endure, and as the sun set on Runrig’s remarkable career there’s little doubt the band and their final concert will linger long in the memories of all there to experience it.
Underneath the ancient ramparts of Stirling Castle, the group’s finale was a celebration of all they had achieved in music since setting out as a ceilidh band playing Hebridean village halls in the 1970s.
Over two nights last Friday and Saturday close to 50,000 people attended an emotional, but uplifting occasion which proved a fitting way to bow out for a band which has done so much to fly the flag for the language and culture of Gaeldom over nearly half a century.
Among the throng were fans from throughout Scotland, from Germany and Denmark and North America – yet the huge exodus of fans from the west Highlands and Islands made sure this was occasion rooted in the places to which the band had originally belonged.
It seemed every face was a familiar one in a gathering of Highland and Islanders that it’s hard to imagine will ever take place again. This was a day when a shinty cup final met the Mòd; when Barra Live met the Black Isle Show; when Saturday night in the Park Bar met Friday afternoon in the Broadford Co-op for one giant party.
Donnie Munro got the crowd going with several of the songs he had belted out as Runrig’s front man for over two decades. On stage he recalled the band’s early years and a time in the 1970s when the Gaidhealtachd stirred with dissent over land and language – giving shout-outs to the 7:84 theatre company and to the West Highland Free Press who with Runrig helped bring Highland issues to the forefront of national debate.
Munro was followed on stage by one of the voices of the modern-day Hebrides – North Uist’s Julie Fowlis. The Western Isles has produced wonderful singing voices for centuries, so it would be stretching it to say that without Runrig there wouldn’t be a Julie Fowlis. Yet the path the band had previously forged could only have offered encouragement and inspiration to a Uist Gaelic singer who has won acclaim to the extent of featuring in Disney film.
And so to Runrig themselves, who made their first appearance at the North Uist and Bernera Association’s 1973 Glasgow ceilidh on a night when the most colourful thing on display was the matching purple suits worn by the original trio of Calum and Rory MacDonald, and box player Blair Douglas.
Last Saturday, however, the vast arena became a riot of lights and pyrotechnics as Runrig embarked on a three-hour set which took them through all stages of their 45-year odyssey in music.
The crowd were whipped up into a singalong start as lead singer Bruce Guthro launched into ‘The Years We Shared’; ‘Protect and Survive’ and ‘Rocket to the Moon’, and there would be little let up in the cheers and dancing thereafter.
All the band members took a shot of being centre stage – from a thumping drum set involving Iain Bayne and Calum MacDonald; to keyboard player Brian Hurren’s haunting vocals during ‘In Search of Angels’. Guitarist Malcolm Jones had his image projected onto Stirling Castle as he showcased the immense guitar playing talents that have made him a cornerstone of the band since he was a teenager; and founding member Rory MacDonald took time out to name check some of the old venues where the lads had honed their craft – sharing snippets from Ness Hall to the Skye Gathering via Eden Court and a raucous night in Lochaline.
For ‘Cearcal a’ Chuain’ and ‘Cum ‘Ur n’Aire’ Donnie Munro rejoined the band, backed by the Glasgow Islay Gaelic Choir, and there were cameos too from Julie Fowlis, fiddler Duncan Chisholm and accordionist Gary Innes.
The strains of ‘Every River’ briefly swept the atmosphere of celebration beneath the bittersweet undercurrent as both crowd – and performers – sensed the end was approaching.
During two encores the crowd bounced wildly for one final time to signature anthem ‘Loch Lomond’, before fans sang and swayed together as ‘Hearts of Olden Glory’ echoed into the damp Stirling night.
There was a tearful embrace from band members – and Calum MacDonald led tributes to former band members Blair Douglas; the late Robert Macdonald; Donnie Munro; Pete Wishart; Richard Cherns and Campbell Gunn, as well as former managers and production crew, including the late Broadford-based Chris Harley.
“Thank you for the 45 years of memories you’ve given to us. We will not perform on stage as Runrig again, but the music lives on,” added MacDonald in a final salute to fans.
A spectacular fireworks display crackled high above the castle walls as crowd members began the long troop to their tents, cars and buses. The muted procession might have felt slightly funereal – were it not for the bond of appreciation felt by fans for Runrig’s music and what it stood for, as well as their shared sense of pride summed up by the back of one concert-goers t-shirt. ‘Bha mi ann’, it read. I was there.