Capercaillie

About

The story of Capercaillie is an incredible journey that mirrors Scotland’s renaissance and elevation of cultural identity through traditional music.

The inspiration for the band was sparked in the early ’80s by high school friends Donald Shaw (accordionist) and Marc Duff (bodhran & whistles), both from Taynuilt. After realising their shared passion for traditional Scottish tunes, they joined forces with like-minded musicians from Oban, including fiddler and vocalist Joanie MacLachlan, guitar and bouzouki player Shaun Craig, and bass and fiddle player Martin MacLeod. They were first been spotted amid a session at the 1983 Mull Music Festival, by legendary radio presenter Iain MacDonald, who immediately booked them for his next show, so the fledgling band had a week to come up with a name, deciding on Capercaillie – a large, rare, and very beautiful Scottish bird – in part to symbolise a winning battle against extinction, with implicit reference to their proudly distinctive Gaelic repertoire. After building a reputation with local performances, the band added an ace card to their line-up with Gaelic singer Karen Matheson, and went on to cut their teeth around the Highland village-hall and festival circuit (a baptism of fire for any aspiring outfit), before winning wider attention with their debut album Cascade (1984) which was recorded in Palladium studios Edinburgh in a fast-paced, three-day recording session.

Its successor Crosswinds (1986), and The Blood Is Strong (1988) – originally the soundtrack to a major Channel 4 series on the history of Scottish Gaels – expanded their reputation as an exciting new force, combining deep-rooted fidelity to tradition with rhythms and instrumental textures adapted from pop and dance music. Following their maiden US tour, when Lunny first joined them, 1989’s Sidewaulk marked further strides forward in developing this hallmark interplay between Matheson’s transcendently potent singing, Shaw’s atmospheric keyboard arrangements and Lunny’s assertive grooves, as well as Shaw and McKerron’s close-knit melodic partnership, leading to a five-album deal with Survival Records.

Capercaillie’s major-label debut, 1991’s Delirium, was a watershed release on many levels – being on a major label, for a start, plus featuring the band’s first original songs in English, and introducing percussion to their sound – but above all for the track ‘Coisich a Ruin’, a brilliantly funked-up, 400-year-old waulking song which went on to become the UK’s first ever Gaelic Top 40 hit. In 1992, Capercaillie released Get Out, featuring live tracks and tunes from earlier albums.
Thankfully, even throughout this busiest period of their career – which also saw them feature in the 1995 Hollywood movie Rob Roy – Capercaillie have steadfastly insisted on ploughing their own furrow, with subsequent albums including Secret People (1993), To The Moon (1996), Beautiful Wasteland (1998), Nadurra (2000) Live In Concert (2002) and two albums released on their own label Vertical records with Choice Language (2006), and Roses and Tears (2010), reflecting their ever-thoughtful engagement with popular and world music styles, hand-in-hand with continual replenishment at the Gaelic wellspring.

And while the membership’s profusion of other projects, as well as family responsibilities, latterly meant less time on the road, Capercaillie’s reputation as one of the Celtic world’s greatest live acts has only increased in recent years. At The Heart of It All, the band’s most recent release from 2014, explored a treasure-trove of songs sourced from the rich vein of centuries old Hebridean folksongs, enriched by compelling contemporary arrangements, and features an array of special guests representing the cream of today’s flourishing Scottish music scene. The collaborative aspect of that album highlights a remarkable transformation of the cultural landscape where Capercaillie first emerged, a transformation in which they’re widely credited with a seminal role – not least by the myriad of younger Celtic musicians, including many of the new album’s guests, who cite them as trailblazing role-models. The Gaelic songs themselves, were variously sourced from Matheson’s family repertoire, old cassette field recordings, and the vast, recently digitised School of Scottish Studies archive.

But until now, apart from a brief encounter with the Irish Film Orchestra on their Gaelic lament ‘Ailean Duinn’ which featured on Carter Burwell’s score for the film ‘Rob Roy’, the band had not realized their dream of creating full symphonic arrangements for their music. So, it is particularly apt and special that in their 40th year they have released ReLoved (2024) – surely the band’s most ambitious and rewarding album in such an illustrious career.

Flute, Whistles and Uillean pipes
Michael McGoldrick
Bass
Ewen Vernal
Guitar and Bouzouki
Manus Lunny