Fresh in from far out - Shetland

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - Resurging power of Runrig

Maisie was at the airport to meet me, and as her elderly, quarter-of-a- million-mile Saab headed arthritically north, she pushed a cassette into the stereo. "Gram Parsons or Runrig? It's their new album."

Hmm. Tricky one. Gram Parsons, the deceased country-rock decadent, is a godlike figure in Shetland, where the twangy howl of steel guitars is the soundtrack to many lives.

Runrig, though. Thereby hangs a tale. Indeed, a book: the first, and far and away the most successful, of my literary life. Going Home: the Runrig story was published in 1991, at a time when it seemed as if Scotland were on the cusp of massive change to come, with devolution at the very least and rampant nationalists talking independence with worrying conviction. In the summer of 1991, Runrig's anthemic Gaelic rock was ubiquitous. They were the biggest attraction in the country, pulling 40,000 to an outdoor gig at Loch Lomond; having been a fan for several years, I was happy to document, enthusiastically, the band's rise to stardom. Published in the October, the book sold 20,000 copies in a fortnight. In hardback. Runrig conquered Europe and could sell out major venues in England.

Then things began to go awry. A second edition of 10,000 was hastily prepared, but this time the band had ultimate control over content, and there were changes I knew nothing about. When it hit the bookshops, it became immediately apparent that the entire Runrig fan base had bought the first edition, and nobody else was interested. And the following year, the band, always careful to avoid political labelling, and with strong Labour roots, allowed itself to become publicly and uneasily aligned with independence, to the great unhappiness of the lead singer, Donnie Munro; as the Tory revival in England rubbed Scotland's nose in the reality of Westminster's hegemony, Runrig's star began, slowly but surely, to wane. The music became repetitive; the live performances hinted at duty rather than delight. When Munro decided to commit himself to Labour and a prospective political career in the run-up to devolution, the end seemed nigh. But by then, I wasn't really interested.

The fascination had been strong, though. Here was a group that had come out of the Gaidhealtachd, merged its native roots with stadium rock, and in English and Gaelic dealt with Highland history and contemporary Scottish life in a gracefully poetic and extraordinarily powerful way. Some dreadful experiences at the hands of music-biz bastards had given it a combination of ruthlessness and paranoia which could make the band infuriatingly hard to deal with; like many other rock'n'roll entities, it was a gang, and if you didn't play by its rules, you didn't play. Money was always too important, as evinced by the decision to allow its wonderfully mystic spiritual psalm "An Ubhal as Airde" (the Highest Apple) to be used in a beer advert.

I didn't so much fall out with them as fall away. Suddenly, the continual sniping from central-belt hipsters about woolly-jumpered, old-fashioned Seventies rock'n'reel seemed fair enough. Donnie, to his great credit, left the band, ran for Holyrood in his homeland of Skye and Lochalsh when a safe list seat was on offer, and was beaten by the Lib Dems entirely on the basis of the student fees issue. But what of Runrig? The core of the band, the brothers Calum and Rory Macdonald, regrouped and, last year, they finally released an album, In Search of Angels. It was largely ignored, although a tour attracted a substantial, if much smaller following than of yore.

Now In Search of Angels is playing, while the big Saab rumbles towards Lerwick. And as the sound of "May Morning" celebrates the Scottish Parliament, shivers run up and down my spine. This is better than good. The sequenced modernity of the backing track of "The Message" merges faultlessly with skirling pipes, and the lyrics bring a prickling of tears in their perfect re-creation of island youth. On it goes, and it becomes clear that this is the best Runrig album since . . . oh, maybe the seminal Heartland.

Old resentments fade. Older history and perennial concerns return with awesome power:

Dileab mor nan daoine

An t-acras is am pathadh . . .

Hunger and thirst . . . the legacy of our people.

We stop in town, and I run into Clive's Record Shop to buy the CD. Clive raises his eyebrows, but it comes in a plain wrapper. So that's all right.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why I am voting for Ken Livingstone