Fergie MacDonald - 50 Years in Music
Fruitmarket, Glasgow 2006, Saturday, September 16, 2006
It’s fitting that Glasgow should host this concert to honour Fergie MacDonald. Because not only was this marvellous character who will forever be associated with the music of the Highlands actually born in Glasgow, in Rotten Row Maternity Hospital, but it was also here that Fergie’s career as one of the greats of Scottish traditional music really took off.
Typically, music wasn’t what brought Fergie to Glasgow in 1959. He was really here to study physiotherapy – and in the face of considerable distractions, he managed to graduate on schedule. But through joining Glasgow University’s Ossianic Society, where contemporaries included singers Kenna Campbell and Alasdair Gillies, Fergie became immersed in the city’s Highland social scene of the time, an alternative swinging sixties, and formed his first ‘proper’ band.
Fergie’s love affair with music had begun at home in Moidart, where village hall dances and ceilidhs and radio broadcasts by the top bands, including Jimmy Shand, Bobby MacLeod, Jimmy Cameron and the Wick Scottish Dance Band, had directed him to the sound of the accordion. At Mingarry Village Hall, the young Fergie would sit all night listening to Farquhar MacRae playing his button key melodeon with the Roshven Ceilidh Band.
Eventually, around the time of his fourteenth birthday, Fergie acquired an accordion of his own. It was, it turned out, the wrong kind - a piano accordion. This, though, was the start of an adventure that would lead to more tales than the Brothers Grimm could ever muster.
There are stories of bands being stranded on sand banks. Musicians bidding fond farewells from departing ferries to friends and, they’d soon discover, crucial pieces of equipment on the jetty. The Fergie band ‘hyping’ their music onto pirate radio through requests from a certain Willie John MacPhail, whose itinerary bore a marked similarity to the band’s own. There was also the home-brew incident that left Fergie’s landlord missing a ceiling after the beer exploded in the accordionist’s room upstairs. And that’s before we get to the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll chapters.
After making slow progress on the piano accordion, Fergie persuaded his parents to swap it for a button key model and during a year off from Lochaber High School in Fort William through a prolonged and worrying bout of cunjunctivitis, he really began to get his technique together. In Fort William, where he boarded at Green Hill Hostel, Fergie and his friends spent most of their spare time in Marion Weir’s music shop, listening to the latest Scottish records. At home he’d play ‘78s’ over and over again on the family’s wind-up gramophone, learning tunes by rote and getting through boxes of gramophone needles which had to be changed after every session.
His dedication paid off when his role model and subsequently great friend, Farquhar MacRae, invited Fergie, who was still at school, to play his first engagement, a dance in Glenuig. In those days there was no road beyond Loch Moidart and the musicians and many of the dancegoers, and their carryouts, had to be transported by boat, resulting in the revelries beginning well before everyone arrived at the venue. This baptism of firewater would set the tone for many a trek round the Highlands and Islands’ village halls.
After completing his two years’ National Service, Fergie returned to Moidart and spent the year before he moved to Glasgow working on his music. He formed his first band that summer of 1958 and also competed successfully as an athlete at various Highland games. At one meeting, in Tobermory, he collected no fewer than seven prizes in sprinting, triple jump, pole vault and high jump. A first-class marksman, like his father, Fergie later represented Scotland at clay pigeon shooting, winning fourteen caps over a twelve-year period. His marksmanship hasn’t always been put to legal use and many a stag found its way to the MacDonalds’ kitchen. There’s even an unofficial record, for transporting the most stags in and on a Health Board Mini, but we’re jumping ahead here.
Once in Glasgow, Fergie attended his first lectures in anatomy and physiology and through his involvement with the Ossianic Society he was soon adding first experiences of bothans and road dances on the society’s tour of Skye and Lewis. It was at this time, too, when still a student, that Fergie encountered a man who introduced himself as ‘Davy Crockett.’
On Saturday afternoons, Fergie and his chums would go on a pub crawl that wound up in McCormack’s music shop, where Fergie would need little persuading to try out a Shand Marino accordion. At £200, this holy grail of boxes was beyond Fergie’s budget. But at £100, courtesy of Davy Crockett, who had noted Fergie’s enthusiasm in the shop and slipped him an address on Maryhill Road, he could just about afford it. With a little advance from home and if he lived on lemonade and chips.
For Christmas dinner that year, Fergie pushed the boat out and had a bottle of lemonade and a fish supper. On Boxing Day, though, his poacher’s instincts got the better of him and Kelvingrove Park’s duck population was left a member short as Fergie made off with one for the pot.
Once he mastered his new accordion Fergie formed his first serious band and through the success of its first big gig, The Wester Ross Gathering, and after beating off competition from thirty other bands, the Fergie MacDonald Band was offered the Saturday residency at the Highlanders’ Institute in Berkeley Street. This was the meeting place for Gaels in Glasgow and with five hundred dancers packed inside, and dozens more locked outside, word about Fergie quickly spread.
Fergie held down this residency for the next five years and the band became involved in all sorts of scrapes as they rushed back to Glasgow from Friday night gigs all over the Highlands.
More doors began to open. Fergie made his entrée into the world of theatre when he replaced Will Starr in a production at the Metropole Theatre in Stockwell Street. His opening night was typically eventful. He chose to stand on the spot on the stage where, unbeknownst to Fergie, a microphone would shoot out of the floor, and he played his first number to the accompaniment of the sound of his most intimate features being prodded blasting through the house PA system.
Television was next and in 1964 Fergie joined Mr Glasgow, Jack House, and singers Evelyn Campbell and Alasdair Gillies on STV’s popular Highland Air programme, the first of many, many TV appearances over the years, including the BBC’s Talla a’ Bhaile.
Radio and records didn’t prove quite so successful, however, at least not at first. After an audition for the BBC where Fergie encouraged his band to play with the raw feeling he felt gave Highland music its essential lift, he was informed in a rather snooty letter that the band was suspended from broadcasting until it re-sat its audition and came up to the required standard. Fergie stuck to his guns and it would be thirty years before he graced BBC Radio Scotland’s Take the Floor.
EMI Records’ Waverley division was similarly unimpressed with Fergie’s real deal ceilidh music style. An album recorded in Edinburgh, Dance to Your Partner, sold only four hundred copies and Fergie was dropped from the catalogue. Yet, ten years later, the same album, re-released under the title of It’s Scotland’s Music, sold ten thousand copies in its first year alone.
A successful record wasn’t that far off, though. On one of the band’s drives back from the Highlands for their Saturday residency at the Highlanders’ Institute, they stopped off at Kintail Lodge Hotel. In the bar, a workman from the new Invergarry to Lochalsh road was singing a song that his friends enthusiastically joined in with. Alasdair Clark, Fergie’s co-accordionist of the time, suggested that this song had the potential to be the next Hiking Song, which was then a big hit for Calum Kennedy.
On a drive that took him from Kintail to Poolewe and on to Nairn, Fergie tracked down the song’s composer, Kenneth MacKenzie, jotted down the real words and learned that MacKenzie had written them to the tune of Loch Maree Islands. The band added this to their repertoire, with various members trying out on vocals until eventually Fergie sang it himself.
Released on an EP with several instrumental tracks, Loch Maree Islands flew off the shelves, taking the record company, Thistle, and Fergie, completely by surprise when it topped the Scottish charts ahead of Andy Stewart, Kenneth MacKellar and Jimmy Shand. The follow-up album, Dancing at the Highlanders’ Institute, was another big seller – and all this without airplay from the BBC, who had barred Fergie after the failed audition for the Scottish country dance programme.
Radio support was soon forthcoming, however, from Jack McLaughlin, later known as the presenter of STV’s Thingummyjig, who was then broadcasting on the pirate station Radio Scotland. Every time the band went off on their travels, they would send Jack a request, often purporting to be from the aforementioned Willie John MacPhail, for something by Fergie’s band. The ruse worked and soon McLaughlin was getting hundreds of requests for Fergie’s music from genuine fans.
It was literally Fergie’s music, too, as he began to compose his own tunes. The first, Ness Bothan, named after a drinking den on the Isle of Lewis, became very popular when, much to Fergie’s delight, the Wick Scottish Dance Band with Addie Harper included it on one of their LPs. The Jig Runrig is another popular Fergie tune and became all the more significant for Fergie when he discovered that Ruaraidh MacDonald of Runrig had been inspired to take up music through hearing Fergie’s band as a youngster. It’s now been recorded by well over fifty artists, including a Cherokee Indian fiddler from Canada.
As the 1960s headed towards the 1970s, the escapades continued. There was the van that even at the bargain price of ten shillings (50p) proved to be overvalued. Amps exposed to the elements on ferry crossings went up in a puff of smoke onstage and to add to the BBC’s ban, Fergie was barred from playing on Iona for twenty-five years after the band, one by one, became over-refreshed onstage. Successful trips abroad, including a particularly eventful visit to Copenhagen, followed before a fear of flying restricted Fergie’s overseas tours to the Hebrides and Ireland, where he is as much revered and loved as he is on this side of the water.
As is well known, Fergie gave up playing music professionally for a time, although he didn’t give up playing the accordion entirely. Patients on his rounds as a physiotherapist would attest to the instrument’s restorative powers as it became as much a part of Fergie’s kit as his heat lamp and diathermy unit.
He also became ‘mine host’ of the Clanranald Hotel, where one day in the late 1980s a young man appeared, hoping to have a tune with the great Fergie MacDonald. Fergie was astonished – and was even more astonished when the visitor started to play. It was Phil Cunningham, who had been a big fan of Fergie’s since he was a youngster. Phil told Fergie that he should get back to playing the accordion and promised to be in touch about a television programme he was soon to be involved in.
Fergie took this with a pinch of salt but true to his word, within a week Phil invited Fergie on to Talla a’ Bhaile and with a new, young band, playing the Fergie way, Fergie found himself re-energised. Letters poured into the BBC asking for more of Fergie’s music, and with Scottish dance music enjoying a revival, Fergie was ideally positioned to give new audiences the real ceilidh sound.
In Fergie’s style the slow tunes are played with the words of the song in mind to give the melody real meaning and the faster tunes are played at an exciting clip with that lift that gives Gaelic music its special quality. It’s raw but it’s right and Fergie has become a hero to a new generation of fans as well as remaining one of the undisputed giants of Scottish music to his long-time admirers.
As Boyd Robertson, chairman of tonight’s hosts An Lòchran, says, "Fergie is to Gaelic instrumental music what the recently deceased Calum Kennedy was to Gaelic song."
Fergie, a great admirer of Calum Kennedy – and his sometime accompanist (but that’s yet another story) – will be chuffed to bits with that comparison, although we all know it’s no more than he deserves.