My father never cared much for rock & roll.
He was a big band man, loved Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, that type of thing. Tango and calypso were also favorites and our house used to swing to those grooves. I daresay they reminded him of the various South American ports that he was so familiar with for he spent much of his life as a merchant marine on the London to Buenos Aires run.
We had a strange family life by most standards, much coming and going, lots of goodbyes and much expectant waiting. But children are adaptable and my father’s tipsy returns inevitably brought gifts.
Yet I was surprised when, on one such occasion, from out of his battered suitcase he handed me an LP, and muttered, “all the highland lads love this band.”
He was working on the oil rigs up in the North Sea by this time and I had left home.
The LP was by a band called Runrig, some of it sung in Scottish Gaelic. I liked the music but neglected to take the LP back to New York and over the years I forgot about the band and its music.
In one of my other gigs I host Celtic Crush for SiriusXM Satellite Radio and often encourage people to send me their favorite CDs.
Thus you could have knocked me over with a feather when a thirty-year compilation of Runrig arrived in the mail. All the memories of my father’s hellos and goodbyes came flooding back. It was like a letter from the past.
I didn’t dare play the CD at first for fear the music wouldn’t hold up. Where had Runrig been, what had they been up to? I hadn’t heard of them since that long ago day back in Wexford.
I could almost smell the old leather of my father’s suitcase, the neatly packed clothes of the sailor, the LP stored safely between them. How strange that a digital disc should bring back such strong memories of an analog era when my parents were both alive.
I need have had no worries about Runrig. The music was powerful, sophisticated, full of longing, it spoke of history and struggle, and as with all good songwriting it swept you away to a time and place of its own evoking.
It was calm and unhurried and yet the passions ran deep. The music had a certainty about itself; although the composers were masters of their craft, they had obviously made a decision early on that they would plough their own furrow, dance to their own different drummer.
The music was not unlike a mixture of Pink Floyd and The Waterboys, but that fails to do it justice for Runrig posses a unique Celtic depth.
The band has managed to infuse modern music with the soul of Scotland - not its more obvious manifestations of pipes and kilts, but the highlands that have seen the displacement of the cotters - the glens and valleys once alive with people now inhabited only by ghosts.
In five magical minutes, their song Empty Glens summonses up the pain of a displaced people; while Abhainn an t-Sluaigh speaks of a visit to London and being almost swept away by a “river of people,” all the while longing for the western islands where a man might breathe.
On their live version of Loch Lomond they’re joined by 50,000 people in Hamden Park. Sound hokey? Not at all, for eighth exhilarating minutes they take you deep into the recesses of the Celtic soul. This excursion never fails to move me - and the listeners, judging by the volume of emails.
My father never used the word - soul. It was too highfalutin and anyway he didn’t believe in such things. Yet when I listen to Runrig I find a connection to him that we often didn’t share when he was alive.
How strange that a Celtic Rock band from the Isle of Skye should furnish that link for as I said, my father never cared much for rock & roll.