Runrig: The Last Dance at Stirling Castle

I was at the Runrig show in Stirling on Saturday night. I was there.

Along with my husband and eight-year-old son, I was among the crowd of 25,000 at The Last Dance.

I’m feeling a bit lost now but I’m going to try and describe what Saturday was like, for those of you who weren’t there… and so that I can relive it too, in a way.

It’s hard to believe that’s it over. 

Logistically, Saturday worked out fine for us. We had driven through from Glasgow at 1pm, found a parking space in one of the multi-storey car parks and taken the shuttle bus out to Stlrling Park.

We were there around 4pm, in plenty of time for Donnie Munro coming on at 5.30pm.

Our Michael on his daddy’s shoulders

It was really lovely to see him actually and it was totally right that, as Runrig’s original singer, he played a part in their final farewell concert. 

He came back on again during the main Runrig set, along with the Glasgow Islay choir – and what a lovely moment that was. Their performance of Cearcail a’ Chuan was just wonderful and it was great to spot one of my old pals from school, Coinneach MacLeòid, on stage. 

As he was standing behind Donnie Munro, the cameras were on Coinneach a few times so you could see him really clearly up on the big screens. I loved the look on his face and I think you could get a sense, from his expression, of how it must have felt to be up there on stage, with Runrig, during this incredible event.

Julie Fowlis came on after Donnie – and she was brilliant. There are many wonderful female Gaelic singers from this part of the world but I think there’s something particularly special about Julie.

I can’t quite put my finger on it – her purity of voice but also her powerful delivery and strong spirit – and she too has a brilliant band around her, fiddle hero Duncan Chisholm for one.

She also came on during Runrig’s set, to sing with Bruce Guthro. And aaah, it was lovely. 

Julie Fowlis

As for the main Runrig event, what can I say?

What a show. What an experience. And what a location, right at the foot of Stirling Castle.

All night – Runrig came on stage at 7.30pm and played for more than three hours – I was transfixed by what I was seeing as well as hearing. 

The Saltires were waving – but so were the flags from other countries – and every detail seemed to serve to deepen the experience. As the night grew darker, the rain started to fall, but it was beautiful too as the raindrops picked up the beams of light from the stage and carried their coloured beams further out across the crowd.

They finished with an impressive fireworks display – although we missed that, having decided to leave during Loch Lomond to beat the bus queues, as we had a child with us.

I know it was the wise thing to have done, but a part of me is sorry I wasn’t there until the very end.

That lovely smile from Coinneach, on the left of the pic behind Donnie Munro

At the time, though, I was more than satisfied. The band had played a huge show, with more than 30 songs on the set list, and did two encores.

For me, the most visually thrilling moment was between the encores, when the stage was in blackness and a couple of huge spotlights swirled over the walls of Stirling Castle. They settled on a figure – a guitarist – on a balcony at the castle. The lights threw his shadow onto the castle walls and for a moment I did actually wonder if it was (the awesome) Malcolm Jones. 

That was a particularly good trick but this was a top production all the way through. The visuals were strong and often harked back to the early days, beginning with the old poster which heralded a performance of ‘The Runrig dance band’ in the Skye Gathering Hall.

The mood was often reflective but the show never stopped rocking, from that moment when Bruce Guthro stepped up and said: “Scotland … let’s do this!”

They began with The Years We Shared, followed by Protect and Survive and Rocket to the Moon. It couldn’t have been a more appropriate, anthemic start.

There were a few moments during the show when I was close to the edge, emotionally, and that was often in response to words from Bruce.

The band’s emotions were palpable – and in a way I’m glad I wasn’t there at the end because I’m sure the sight of Malcolm Jones crying would have finished me off for good.

As one of my friends put it on Facebook: “When Malcolm Jones lost it, I lost it.”

Michael took this one – he had a great vantage point!

As the frontman, though, it was largely down to Bruce to create the show’s narrative.

“Over land and sea, my friends…” he said, just before Proterra. “We’ve come a long way together. It’s only right we finish it together.”

A little later: “Oh Scotland, we will miss you… but we have one last dance to do together. Will you dance with us? Will you sing with us?”

That was when I realised that this night wasn’t just about Runrig giving the fans one last great performance. It was about the band gaining the strength they needed, from their fans, to bring the Runrig ship safely home.

There were 25,000 pairs of shoulders to lean on and 25,000 voices to sing the songs. 

Many moments marked this show out as different. Just before the end, Bruce did something they had never done before – he introduced all the band members by name, saying how many years they had been with the band and where they were from.

We know them all of course. Even ‘new boy’ Brian Hurren – he replaced Pete Wishart on keys – has been with them 18 years! We also have drummer Iain Bayne, guitarist Malcolm Jones, and the songwriting MacDonald brothers, Rory on bass and vocals and Calum on percussion. 

He named himself last and it was another bit of showmanship. 

“From Nova Scotia, 20 years with the band, I’m Bruce Guthro and we are RUNRIG!” 

The crowd went wild again.

It was a night of thank yous – and Bruce reflected on his own experience, as the ‘new’ singer.

“Nearly 20 years ago to the day, I set foot on Scottish soil. I met these strange Highland lads… and 20 years, us and you, we rose from the ashes and got 20 more years.

“I’ve never really had a chance to say ‘thank you’, so… thank you. Thank you for having my back, for having our backs.”

He recalled how it “hadn’t been easy at first”, a scaled-down production, playing to half-filled halls.

Then came the day when they realised it would be okay. It was a gig on the banks of the Ness and the heavens opened. “You guys didn’t budge. You danced in the puddles, hugged each other to keep warm…” 

Talking of the fans, Rory pulled out a list about halfway through of some of the venues the band had played over the years and asked for anyone who had been at these shows to shout out.

Bass player, songwriter and founding member Rory MacDonald

It was cities first then Eden Court Theatre in Inverness – “been there many times” – and the Corran Halls in Oban, “that was our stomping ground for many years”.

“Then we move out north and west… there’s the Skye Gathering Hall in Portree, that was our spiritual home for many, many years. Ness Hall up on the Butt of Lewis…”

He described these old village halls as carrying the memory of all the people who had walked through them – “their sweat and their drink is impregnated and marinated into the floorboards” – and name-checked Leverburgh Hall, Lochmaddy Hall and Castlebay.

There were multiple cheers – ‘we were there!’ – for every single village hall show he named. 

“There’s one that we can’t forget and it’s called Lochaline Hall in Argyll. That was the hall where the stramash of all stramashes broke out while we were playing this next song that we’re about to play.

“Our accordion player at the time, Blair, said, ‘come on lads, keep on playing – it will calm them down!’ The chairs and the bottles kept flying and we carried on again to the end of the song. Then he said ‘start it up again! start it up again!’ … so I think we had three turns of the song before calmness was restored.

“So to the song, we wrote it over 50 years ago, in the late 60s, and it’s all about the lifelong pull of home and the sense of place and I think it chimes very much with where we find ourselves on this night at this time. Going back, returning, and completing the cycle. This is Going Home…”

That’s when I was lost. 

The awesome Malcolm Jones on guitar (one of five he played on the night)

And as they sang, a skein of geese flew up above the stage and soared away over the castle. 

“So the Almighty was in charge,” remarked my dad later. “Choreographing the whole thing.”

Another two skeins flew over during that song, playing during the last light.

It was timed to perfection and a moment that I will never forget. 

My first concert was a Runrig one – at the airport hanger outside Stornoway. They were also my other half’s first gig; he saw them at a show for under-18s in the Cabarfeidh Hotel in Stornoway. There have been numerous Runrig gigs along the way too, including a particularly memorable Murrayfield in 87 when they supported U2 on The Joshua Tree tour.

The last time I saw them play was at HebCelt two years ago. Superb then and now. 

I wonder how Michael will remember Saturday – his first and last Runrig concert, which he watched perched on his daddy’s shoulders?

There were so many highlights – Cnoc na Fèille for one – but in the end, and perhaps predictably, it was Every River that finished me off. 

“You ask me to believe in magic…” I buried my face in my hands and cried. 

I don’t actually know what I’m going to do now, without them. I feel a bit lost. And low. 

From the day I found them, on that Heartland tape from DD Morrisons more than 35 years ago, they’ve been the sound of my life and the sound of home.

There’s been a solace and a comforting familiarity in their songs. They stood for so much and their music gave me a real pride in who I was and where I came from; a strong sense of identity and a passion for being a Hebridean, a Highlander, a child of the Gaidhealtachd. 

Lots of people have been thanking Runrig this past week for what they’ve done for our corner of the world, for the Gaelic language and heritage, and for Scottish politics.

I’m just one fan and I can’t thank Runrig for anyone else. 

But I can thank them for me and I want to. 

Thank you, Runrig. Thank you so much, from the bottom of my heart. 

You are the music of that heart. 

Every river I try to cross

Every hill I try to climb

Every ocean I try to swim

Every road I try to find.

All the ways of my life

I’d rather be with you.


Comments 7

  1. I just wanted to say thanks for this, not for making the tears well up again as they did on Saturday, not least at the sight of Malcom Jones trying to hide his behind his guitar, or with the sound of 25000 voices singing Hearts of Olden Glory as the fireworks brought the evening to a end, but for putting into words how I think so many of us felt, whether Scots, Germans, Danes or like me a Yorkshire exile in Fife, how this amazing band had transcended language and geography to provide the soundtrack for so many lives. Thanks, for a brilliantly written piece

  2. I did lose it reading this wonderful descriptive report for those of us who could not attend this nostalgic and emotional concert .
    Been an avid fan of Runrig for 45 years, they started as small group in 1973 shortly after I migrated to New Zealand- recall my sister in Scotland, sent their first album, recorded at Barrowlands, Glasgow, where I spent many a happy day in the early 60’s , long before Runrig .
    Hope a video album of this Final Concert is released so those of us unable to attend can share in this wonderful emotional experience.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts

  3. yes truly the best band in the world I have followed runrig since 1989 ay perth city hall and seen them at loch Lomond loch ness and have travelled all over Scotland and England to see them over 60 times they will be sorely missed

  4. As I sit in my den, at the end of 2019, watching our DVD of that magnificent that we also attended, I’ve come across your article. It perfectly depicts how that night was as well as what Runrig has meant to so many people through the decades. Thanks for the stroll down memory lane of a great night with Runrig.

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