Runrig founder Calum Macdonald: ‘It’s a sobering thought that it’s been 40 years’

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Different people greet turning 40 in different ways. Some like to go with the old adage of ‘life begins at 40,’ others prefer to stick their heads in the sand and pretend it’s not happening.

But Celtic rockers Runrig have definitely decided to make the most of the landmark anniversary.

Last July they started off by holding the Celebration In The City, a show at Edinburgh Castle, before throwing themselves and 16,000 of their closest friends a big birthday bash, dubbed the Party On The Moor , at the Black Isle Showground in Muir of Ord, near Inverness that August.

And at the start of next month the party reaches Portsmouth Guildhall.

The Guide caught up with co-founder, main lyricist and percussionist Calum MacDonald.

So, did he ever think The Run Rig Dance Band, as they were originally called, would get this far?

‘No, we would never have imagined that in a million years – there was no game plan,’ he says.

‘It has been a privilege, we feel very thankful to have done this for our lives’ work. It is essentially a hobby that we have been able to do as a career.’

Calum formed the band in 1973 with his brother Rory on guitar and their friend Blair Douglas on accordion to play at parties, weddings and the like. That first three-piece played more folk and traditional music that took in more rock aspects as the line-up expanded.

They played their first gig that year at Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall .

Calum recalls the time: ‘Musically we had to be jacks of all trades, we played a whole mixture of music.

‘Rory and I had been writing songs before the band started – the band was actually something that was very separate from that at first.

‘The band was just something we had started for a bit of fun – pocket money and things like that.’

But their popularity grew, and in 1978 they decided to take things more seriously, recording their debut album Play Gaelic, and shortly after that they ditched the day jobs.

Along the way there have been 13 studio albums, line-up changes, fights with record labels and the loss of close friends.

As Calum says: ‘There have been so many highs – and lows – in between the start and now.

‘One of the biggest highs was the concert last August, our 40th anniversary show. We’d put a lot of work into it.

‘We were very concerned that it would go right.’

The band were joined onstage that night by original singer Donnie Munro, who quit the band to go into politics – he unsuccessfully contested the UK parliamentary seat of Ross, Skye and Inverness West in the 1997 general election, where he was defeated by the Lib Dem Charles Kennedy.

He was replaced by Bruce Guthro, who has been with the band ever since.

‘It was really good to have Donnie back on stage,’ recalls Calum. ‘And it was really good for them to sing a song together.

‘It was like he had never been away when he came to rehearsal.

‘It was a good way to celebrate all of the 40 years.

‘It was a long set because we wanted to include material from all of the different eras – the setlist just grew and grew.’

For any band to lose one member to politics is unfortunate, but two? Keyboard player Pete Wishart left in 2001 after being elected as the MP for Tayside North for the Scottish National Party.

Calum jokes: ‘There will be no more members going into politics. But Donnie always had an interest in politics, and so did Pete.

‘Runrig throughout the ’80s and ’90s was quite synonymous with that movement towards devolution, it was kind of the soundtrack to those years.

‘But we as a band have alway avoided getting involved in politics. We have had people from different parties asking to use our songs in party political broadcasts, but as a band it’s not something we wanted to do.

‘We got involved in Red Wedge, but that was it.’

The band have also been touched by tragedy: ‘We lost our accordion player Robert Macdonald to cancer and we lost our manager Marlene to cancer as well.

‘You go through these kinds of personal lows when you’ve been together this long though.

‘It’s all just the normal ups and downs of life.’

And there was also the period in the mid-’80s when they were mired in legal hell as they tried to extricate themselves from a recording contract, which Calum recalls left them virtually bankrupt.

However they soon signed up to the big leagues and reached their commercial peak with albums such as The Cutter and The Clan and The Big Wheel.

Looking at where they are now, Calum says: ‘We could all do without all the travel now, and that side of things, but if we didn’t enjoy the playing we wouldn’t still be doing it.

‘It’s a sobering thought that it’s been 40 years, but it doesn’t feel like it.’

And as for the future?

‘It’s been easy for the past two years – we knew that it was all about the 40 years and telling that story. It’s great fun doing it and picking songs we haven’t sung for many years, if at all. We also chuck in a couple of new ones to freshen it up a bit.

‘But we are bringing the 40th to a conclusion this year and that will clear the decks.

‘We have got a DVD coming out and when the dust settles from that we will look at the next stage.’

Runrig are playing at Portsmouth Guildhall on April 2. Doors open at 7.45pm. Tickets cost £27.50 and are available from portsmouthguildhall.org.uk or by calling the box office on 0844 847 2362.