Runrig: Gaelic rock's finest pursuing circles of life

Tuesday 1st October 1991

Tony Cummings offers a think piece about Scotland's premiere stadium rockers RUNRIG.


We're all caught in circles. It's so popular an expression no one thinks about it anymore. 'Don't need to' say the nihilists. It just means how pointless things are. Chasing our own tails around and around - eventually coming back to where we started again. And we can't jump out of the circle of our lives unless we die. And can we then? But doesn't that circular path lead us somewhere that whatever path we take however many false turns, we eventually find our way to the centre? Like a maze, you get there in the end.

Two chats with Runrig and neither of them ideal. One in the jostle of a 1987 Greenbelt Festival Press Conference as I struggle to come to terms with my Englishness and seek to discover what is it in their music that sets off such deep, deep longings within me. The other chat is on the telephone a few days ago. Calum MacDonald patiently fields my questions; yes he's pleased that 'The Big Wheel' has gone Gold, yes he and his two brothers go to church, they don't work on Sunday, they wish they spent more time on the Western Isles, yes he believes in prayer. Calum Macdonald, as the percussionist and lyricist with the band, tells me that there's no historical significance in the title or the haunting, eerie circular maze image that Chrysalis designers have put on 'The Big Wheel' which decorated the stage when the band played that breathtaking concert on the 22nd June on the banks of Loch Lomond.
The journalist.

The Big Wheel is an exploration of everything that you are.
The writer of songs.

It's Saul the designer. Do I want another nine lines for the discography? House style. But I can't remember the years off the top of my head and there's no time for phone calls. The courier's coming at 4.00pm. The Highland Connection, Ridge (their own label). But the year? 198? Four for Ridge. The Cutter And The Clan, that's easy, Chrysalis, 1987. I didn't get to hear them till then. What came next? Oh yeah, the live album 'Once In A Lifetime'. 'Searchlight', 1989, two EPs; The Big Wheel'. But the years? No time. House Style looses out.
The journalist

There have always been bands on the edge of modern music that have had Celtic influences. They've come in waves. There has been the folk revival within rock music and bands like the Chieftains getting record deals with major companies in England. Throughout rock history there has been bands with Celtic influences. To a greater or a lesser extend Celtic music is a wide thing. We got our name Runrig from an old farming system that was used in Scotland from about the 12th Century onwards and its used in certain places today. It means different things at different times but In the clan system of Scotland you had an area of ground that was designated arable for these communities that was all sectioned off and this was called the Runrig system. In other areas It was used as a drainage system for the land, as the land was very poor and had to be drained so you had and the drains and pipes, it was a name that came from the past, it came from the earth, and it sounded quite modern. So we thought it was quite good.
The writer of songs

Found the biography. Donnie Munro (vocals) Rory Macdonald (bass, harmonies/vocals), Malcolm Jones (guitars, accordion, mandolin, lain Bayne (drums, percussions), Peter Wishart (keyboards), Calum Macdonald (percussion)
The journalist

The notion that we, the church, should be a subculture I don't find particularly appealing in any away. You have something that exists you know and is known by a certain section of society as Christian music it should be up there with all music. A bit like ourselves because If we were playing Gaelic influenced music it would have been very easy for us to have remained in the backwaters of Scotland playing only to the people who might have found it Interesting and in the same way that would have been a subculture of Scottish music that would never have done. The music you play is for everybody and If Its Christian music It should be for everybody's consumption.
The writer of songs

A paradox. A band that evokes continually within me, images of windswept, wild country playing 'stadium rock' before thousands of people. A rock band? A rock folk band? All I know is that in the hugest of crowds they awake a longing in me.
The journalist

Sunburst. The morning moor. The light of God. The heart of youth. I look around me. My eyes find their rest on this garden the flower of the next Sunrise.
The writer of songs

"Radical new approach to the article?" says my assistant editor unimpressed. "You're not going to start goin1 on about Wild Geese again are you? Wild Geese flying over the island. You did that with lona."
The Journalist

You should never dwell on the past but you have to investigate it you have to learn from It.
The writer of songs

Skye. lona. The Isle Of Lewis. Lindisfarne. Places I've yet to visit yet places that have helped make me what I am. While the world careers on in its giddying scramble for mammon they at least have stayed true to the old ways, the ways of simplicity, the ways of faith.
The journalist

If there is any predominant theme within the lyrics of Runrig is probably the landscape and everything to do with It. Coming from a rural environment, obviously you tend to write about the things around you. And what is around us is the landscape with its beauty. It's the real political environment, what people are set to do in this landscape and what happens to these people as they go through it historically. These are very common themes in our songs Also the spiritual side, the sense of spirituality within the people. I think those are the main themes of Runrig's music. But we are trying to widen that now. I think we have done that for a long time and with a lot of value but I think as the band Is growing I think the music and the songs have got to grow and come out into a wider context.
The writer of songs.

My wife calls. She puts my five-year-old son on. A bomb has been discovered, unexploded, in his school. This world of ours.
The journalist

I think our single "Protect And Survive", in a lot of ways pointed out the problems, moral problems that we all, it Christians and non-Christians, have to grapple with it dealt with the whole nuclear issue which Is obviously one of the major issues that anybody who Is a Christian has to address.
The writer of songs

Sara's waiting to key-in. I'd better stop here...
The journalist

Three of the band members would say they are Christians if your definition of that Is having an absolute belief and realisation of the resurrection of Christ, three would adhere to that belief. And the others would have a very broadish spiritual base.
The writer of songs.

Lord, help me hit deadline.
The journalist

In the past I have occasion to phone editors or talk to editors in the music press, to criticise how they actually conduct themselves. Because I don't view the music press as being different from any other news publication and what It should be doing Is informing the public of what Is happening in music and that Is the basic task of the music press, not to be necessarily some thing for building up and knocking down people.
The writer of songs

I like a lot of the things in Q but the article in the September 91 issue is a complete stitch-up. 40,000 people, there to see Runrig play by the banks of Loch Lomond and they send in a sneering cynic to ridicule not only the band but the crowd as well. Carefully selecting his victims, "he wears a t-shirt reads: "If you're no Scottish, away and throw shite at yourself."

Images of drunken yahoos engaging in nationalistic clap trap. Fascist nonsense. Only the last paragraph captures the event, "A little later, a middle-aged woman is still staring into the sky, long after the fireworks have faded. 'This has been the most wonderful night of my life,' she says to no one in particular. She means it too." I'm sure she does.
The journalist

Many worshipping wealth at the world's altar (From "The Crowded River" translation of "Abhainn An T-Sluaigh").
The writer of songs

Ring a friend in the Folk Department at the National Discography. Classical-in the oral tradition. Bagpipes, Harp music. Folk songs and ballads. On the Isle of Skye, the McCrimmond Family wrote huge amounts of lovely pipe musical Gaelic. For generation upon generation. A language of stark beauty. Gaelic poetry, dependent on rhyming in the line rather than at the end of the line. All those throat sounds. Different vowel sounds and some we haven't got in boring English. Gaelic: a language, my friend tells me, infatuated with beautiful words and beautiful imagery.
The journalist

We've played in Denmark, Germany, France and Switzerland. So In some ways European audiences have been easier for a band like ourselves coming from an area In Scotland where there is an obvious ethnic link we have always felt that England was probably a greater hurdle within the United Kingdom than going to Europe because the English language is obviously very dominant. In a country like Denmark the people are very used to listening to music In a different language other than their own so there Is always ah easier acceptance of Gaelic music.
The writer of songs

Strange. The songs I love the best are the ones I understand the least. I cannot rationalise it. Other than to say it sounds like Donny is worshipping the Lord in tongues. In a sense he is.
The journalist

It is not even so much an issue of an language identity In the music, it is more to do with being a cultural influence on the music. We always feel that the backbone to our music Is the one that Is set very deeply In the tradition that uses the Gaelic language. The heart of the music if you like.
The writer of songs

Phew made it. Praise God.
The journalist

The Big Wheel? Its really a journey. Life is a journey.
The writer of songs

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Tony Cummings
Tony CummingsTony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.


Reader Comments

Posted by Susan Bell-Heneghan in Chicago, Illinois USA @ 22:28 on Nov 25 2018

I, too, have only recently discovered Runrig while researching my Scottish heritage. Sadly, too late to see them in their final tour. But it hasn't stopped me from listening to their music all the time. I, too, hear God in the strains, and what a refreshing, uplifting thing to hear, that "three" of the members KNOW the one true God! So, of course, we hear God in their music!! I do have a question about one song which I can't seem to find an answer to. What is "From the North" about? I've let my mind run amok with possible explanations; the Bruce searching for help in northern Scotland, among the fierce border clans, maybe? A Highland lord in a lifelong blood battle with, I dunno, someone, and looking among his Scottish brothers for assistance? Anyone know the truth or where I can find it?

Posted by Catherine Stafford in North Carolina, USA @ 08:05 on Sep 25 2009

I've just this week discovered Runrig. I'm amazed and in awe of the beauty and depth of the music. It brings me to a place before I was born, as if I lived there once and it's in me. It makes me long for it. It's a mystery. And in that, I feel like I'm that much closer to God through the music of Runrig. I really can't explain it. It's not in the words so much. Like you said, it's the songs I understand the least that I love the most. There is some kind of an annointing on this music that makes me unable to stop listening to it. It brings me peace, joy, and love all at the same time. It makes me long for a place where I was meant to be, but I got dropped off here instead and I will never get to that place on this earth. Maybe it's heaven itself.

The opinions expressed in the Reader Comments are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms.

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