Fergie MacDonald - 60 years of music and mischief




Fergie MacDonald is remembering the evening in Flodigarry where he and his band were playing for a dance. During a break the king of ceilidh, as MacDonald is known to Gaelic music fans around the world, saw a woman bearing down on him very determinedly, frowning. What, he wondered, might he have done to offend her.


“So you’re Fergie,” the woman said in a broad American accent and started to prod and poke the object of her apparent disgruntlement. “And you’re real.”


The man whose button accordion playing put ceilidh dance music on the cultural map’s reputation often precedes him thanks to his friend Phil Cunningham’s serial updating of audiences with Fergie news on his tours with fiddler Aly Bain. Such are the exploits that Cunningham describes and the Fergie lines he gives voice to that people can easily be confused as to whether these are fact or fiction.


They may be a combination of the two, although any man well into his seventies who can create headlines in national newspapers for defying a music curfew in Paisley, as Fergie did during the National Mòd in 2013, is clearly a bit of a character. What’s not in dispute, though, is that Fergie is about to play a central role in a double anniversary as this year mark’s his sixtieth year in music - and Cunningham’s twenty-fifth year of doing Fergie impersonations.


“I hear whispers of things that might happen to celebrate the occasion,” he says down the line from his home in Argyll. “But I’m not supposed to know.” Having been the guest of honour at Cunningham and Bain’s Le Grand Anniversaire concert, marking their thirty year partnership, at Celtic Connections in January, Fergie has already taken one special bow in 2016 and he’s about to take another as the first subject of the Gaelic version of Desert Island Discs. He’ll also be treading the red carpet at the world premiere of the remade Whisky Galore at Edinburgh International Film Festival next month.


His first foray into film elicits a typical Fergie tale. He and the outstanding Aberdeenshire fiddler Paul Anderson are the band at a wedding on Barra, where the SS Politician with its golden cargo was washed up on the rocks in 1941, and their make-up involves, according to Fergie, an industrial quantity of Brylcreem.


“It was great fun and I was really pleased to be asked because there are all these young box players out there who could have done the job,” he says before adding that the hair oil that was applied to his still plentiful locks “took away my good looks!”


He may be nudging his eightieth year but Fergie keeps up to date with the young music scene. As the man who defined ceilidh music by gigging all over the Highlands and Islands from the mid 1950s – and got banned more than once by the BBC or his trouble – he’s delighted and not a little proud to see youthful bands such as Trail West and Skerryvore taking the music into the popular arena. He’s also honoured to have been invited to play at Tiree Festival this year.


“I’m a bit surprised in a way because there’ll be all these young people, throwing their arms up in the air and having a ball and old Fergie’ll turn up and play as a guest,” he says.


He shouldn’t really be surprised at being a hero because he’s forever meeting people during the round of gigs that keep him busy who are the offspring, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren of people at whose weddings he played. The many tunes he has composed – and continues to compose – are taken up by musicians and bands across the world, and not just accordion-led bands.


His Jig Runrig has been recorded over a hundred times and featured in the tune set that won the Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band first place at the World Pipe Band Championships. It’s also in the less formal Red Hot Chilli Pipers’ repertoire and will be included in a new book due out soon of Fergie tunes set for the bagpipes. Not a bad achievement, he says, for a box player.


Having survived major heart surgery in 2011 – his surgeon was also rewarded with a tune – Fergie values life dearly, although in conversion a laugh is rarely far away.


He does have one bugbear that he insists is for ceilidh music’s benefit rather than his own, and that’s a lack of formal recognition by the UK honours system. He himself has apparently been nominated six times but never made the final selection.


“I sometimes wonder if the people who make these decisions see ceilidh music as another Jacobite rebellion because the great Scottish country dance bandleaders – Jim MacLeod, Jimmy Shand, you name them – all won honours. It upsets me but then I look at the Download charts from a couple of years ago and you have No. 1 – The Shinty Referee by Fergie MacDonald and No. 2 - Rihanna. That’s amazing. You couldn’t make that up!”


From The Herald, May 25, 2016


Fergie - the making of a ceilidh king


Phil Cunningham and Aly Bain should beware. After years of being the fall guy as the dynamic duo regale audiences up and down the country with his exploits, Fergie MacDonald is planning to retaliate in kind.


Tonight in Glasgow’s Old Fruitmarket, Phil & Aly are among a cast of musicians and friends gathering to mark Fergie’s fifty-year career as a button accordion maestro and ceilidh band leader in a golden anniversary concert promoted by the organisation for the development of Gaelic, An Lòchran.


Fergie – everyone, including Fergie himself, calls him this – is also using the event to launch a book of his compositions, The Clanranald Collection. This includes his Philaly Reel, a tribute to the men he refers to as the best accordion and fiddle players ever, although his foreword to the tune isn’t quite so reverent.


"It’s just a bit of fun," says Fergie, "to let them know that I know all about the mischief they’ve been having at my expense. We’re great friends and I admire them so much as musicians, but I know when Phil comes on the phone and asks me what I’ve been up to lately that he’s fishing for material."


Phil and Aly’s Fergie stories have become so popular that they claim to get more requests for Fergie’s tales than they do for their own tunes. There’s the one about Fergie needing a push in the early hours of the morning and Aly going outside to find him "over here … on the swing." Or there was the time, allegedly, when Fergie was sitting onstage, with his kilt askew, and he mistook a woman’s concerned "D’you know you’re willie’s showing?" for a request for a tune.


Dip into Fergie’s autobiography, Fergie: Memoirs of a Musical Legend, and it quickly becomes apparent that there’s little need for, pardon the pun, apocryPhil tales. The true ones are more outrageous. Like the Christmas in Fergie’s days as a physiotherapy student in Glasgow when he was so broke that he reduced Kelvingrove Park’s duck population by one so that he could have a change from his regular diet of lemonade and chips. There was also an occasion when Fergie’s band were having such a good time on the ferry en route to a gig in the Western Isles that they missed their stop and the dance had to be relocated to the ferry’s next port of call further down the coast.


The real Fergie story, though, the one that really matters is that for many years he was a kind of one-man ceilidh music preservation society. The term ‘ceilidh music’ has become so misused – Fergie uses a stronger word – that it’s become almost meaningless.


"The other week I saw ‘ceilidh music’ on a poster at a village hall and it was a disco they had on in there," he says with considerable scorn. "That sort of thing, I’m afraid, just makes me ill."


True ceilidh music, the music Fergie grew up hearing in Moidart and dreaming of one day playing, has character. Like the rural blues of the Mississippi Delta, it pays little heed to bar lengths. Slow airs are played with the words of the original song in mind, to give them meaning, and faster tunes swing like cow dung off a pitch fork. Strict tempo they are not.


In the 1960s, Fergie fell foul of the BBC at a time when, he says, you either broadcast on the Scottish dance music programmes or you were considered third rate.


"We went along with it for about three years," he says. "My band at the time were all students and we knew how to swot things up. So we spent a long time getting everything just so in that very particular, regimented style that they play that music in. But after a while I got sick of it and on one particular broadcast, from Dundee, I started throwing in all sorts of Gaelic stuff and had the fiddle player slurring and playing with real expression. Well, that was the end of Fergie as a broadcasting band leader."


Sure enough, a letter arrived from the BBC, expressing disappointment in Fergie’s performance and inviting his band to re-sit the stringent audition that bands were required to pass. Fergie declined and continued giving audiences in the Highlands and Islands the music they wanted to hear.


Of course, twenty-five years later, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, ceilidh music had come into fashion. Thanks largely to Fergie’s continuing efforts, bands playing in the carefree, swinging style were proliferating. Even before that, Runrig’s Ruaraidh MacDonald had acknowledged Fergie’s influence on his taking up music.


"I don’t bear any grudges with the BBC, because I know the people who work there now and attitudes have changed," Fergie says. "And I don’t have anything against bands who play in the strict tempo style because they do it very well, it’s just not what I do. But I did feel that an important part of Highland culture - Scottish culture - was being ignored for a long time."


Although he was actually born in Glasgow, Fergie grew up on a croft in Moidart. Money was tight but thanks to his father’s expert markmanship, there was usually venison or rabbit on the menu. Fergie inherited his father’s eye for a target and later represented Scotland at clay-pigeon shooting. He was also quite an athlete in his youth, winning track and field prizes at Highland games all over the Highlands and Islands.


Music was the biggest draw, though. He got his first accordion when he was fourteen and before he’d left Lochaber High School he was playing his first gigs at local dances. When he went to Glasgow University, after completing his National Service, he joined the Ossianic Society and doors started to open.


Through this connection, his band secured the residency at the wildly popular Saturday dances at the Highlanders’ Institute in Berkeley Street, which they held down for five years. And so commenced an adventure that entailed mad dashes back from Friday night Highland engagements; an accordion bought half-price from a fence called ‘Davy Crockett’; and an early example of a band hyping its own music as Fergie’s musicians sent requests to Radio Scotland from one Willie John MacPhail, whose various addresses shared a remarkable similarity to the band’s itinerary.


This ploy worked. Soon, scores of genuine requests were following the ones sent from ‘Willie John.’ And when, during a refreshment stop on one of their dashes to Glasgow, the band heard a workman singing a song that seemed to be catching on with his fellow drinkers, Fergie had a hit on his hands.


The Loch Maree Islands, released on an EP, topped the Scottish charts and took the record company completely by surprise. It sold fifty thousand copies almost instantly and had to be re-pressed in all haste.


A chart-topping record – and the first of some two dozen albums that followed – didn’t lead to pop star modes of transport in this case, though. Dances, particularly those in farther flung parts, were still often reached by rowing boats, fishing trawlers or on the backs of tractors.


Amid all this, Fergie somehow managed to qualify as a physiotherapist and he eventually settled back in Moidart, tending to patients on his rounds by day and playing ceilidh music by night. Often the two coincided and patients would vouch for the healing power of Fergie’s accordion, which became as crucial a part of his physiotherapy equipment as his heat lamp and diathermy unit.


Sometimes Fergie might come away from a patient’s house with a tune he’d learned. Sometimes, the Health Board car he took on his rounds had bigger, altogether more physical loads – like the time he set some sort of record for transporting stag carcasses, at least one of which was strapped into a seat belt, in and on a Mini.


Nowadays, Fergie is joined in his band by daughter Morven, who plays keyboards, and son John, on accordion. It gives him great pride that his children are carrying on the family tradition, although in his self-deprecating way, he says they should have better things to do than run about the countryside playing gigs with their old man.


"I’m glad that I’ve passed on my love for this music to them because it’s the love of ceilidh music that keeps me going," he says. "The leaflets for the concert in Glasgow refer to me as ‘The Ceilidh King’ and that’s a fine tribute. But someone paid me a compliment the other day that I thought was just wonderful. I thought, Now that’s how I’d like to be remembered: the man who gave ceilidh music to the world."


From The Herald, September 16, 2006 


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