Manran - Giving Gaelic music a sporting chance


Gary Innes had a plan. With the right song and the right singer and musicians, it should be possible, he reasoned, to take Gaelic into the UK Top 40 for the first time in the twenty-first century. And with the momentum of such an achievement, the band he had in mind would go a long way in a short time and skip a few rungs on the ladder to success in the music industry.


The song Innes chose, Latha Math, may only have realised his Top 40 ambitions very briefly when it was released in January last year, charting at number 32 mid-week before dropping to 61 by the time the official positions were released on the Sunday. But all the other parts of the blueprint he devised for Mànran have fallen into place, culminating in an Album of the Year title win for their self-titled debut release at the Scots Trad Music Awards in December.


“Winning the Album of the Year award was amazing,” says Innes, “especially since we were a brand new band up against some real legends of the Scottish folk scene. It was an honour but it also rewarded a lot of hard work that we’d done. The band really did hit the ground running and the single generated pockets of interest all over the world, but we were also lucky in that we managed to get gigs at a lot of the major UK folk festivals, including HebCelt, Cambridge Folk Festival and Celtic Connections in our first year. That helped but the idea was to get out there and play to as many people as possible and have fun promoting the language and the tunes, too.”


Innes had a core of four musicians in mind when he broached the subject of forming the band with long-time friend, fiddler and piper Ewen Henderson from Fort William.


“Ewen had to be in because he’s steeped in the West Highland tradition,” says Innes. “And since I thought we should have songs in English as well as Gaelic, Norrie MacIver was an obvious first choice. I’d heard him singing in both languages and thought he’d be a great front man. I was also keen to have the uilleann pipes alongside the Highland pipes because I think it’s a great blend and Calum Stewart, who I’d been hearing a lot, sounded the perfect fit for that as well as adding flute.”


Finding the rhythm section that would give Mànran the oomph to become, according to Innes’ master plan, the younger generation’s successors to Gaelic-folk-rock trailblazers Runrig and Capercaillie was more of a challenge but on the strength of glowing recommendations, bassist Ross Saunders and drummer Scott Mackay were invited to a rehearsal and the six-piece hit it off immediately.


Innes, who plays accordion, has a presence in the Gaelic heartlands that can’t have hindered Mànran’s drive towards popular appeal north of the Highland line. He wouldn’t thank me for calling him the George Best of shinty but when he’s turned up at Plockton High School to give accordion lessons at the National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music that’s attached to the school, he’s generated scenes reminiscent, to more than one observer’s eyes, of Beatlemania.


His success with Fort William Shinty Club in recent years – they won the coveted Camanachd Cup four times in succession between 2007 and 2010 – and with the Scotland national side has helped to maintain a high profile, but despite the highly physical aspect of the game, his participation in the sport hasn’t compromised his musical life.


“People often ask if I’m not terrified, as an accordion player, of doing damage to my hands playing shinty,” he says. “It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had to call in at A&E on my way to a gig on a Saturday night but apart from shattering my nose I haven’t had any major injuries. I think the thing with shinty, and it’s probably the same with any contact sport, is that the less committed you are in a tackle, the more chance you have of getting hurt. So I never go into a game worrying about my hands.”


Shinty and music have been twin interests for almost as long as Innes can remember. He may have held a shinty stick in his hands before he touched an accordion but it wouldn’t have been long before and hearing his dad play the accordion at home in Spean Bridge made him want to follow in the family’s musical tradition.


“Holding both the shinty stick and the accordion feels entirely natural to me,” he says. “I have a passion for the sport that just won’t leave. I’ll probably never get away from the game but I feel the same about music and I wouldn’t want to get away from that. Working with the band has been so much fun, especially when it involves travelling to really nice places, and when you consider that these trips to Europe, the album winning the Trad Award and the general buzz we’ve created have all been achieved since we formed in June 2010, we really have achieved our aim of going a long way in a short time.”


It hasn’t all gone their own way. There’s been some resistance from festival organisers, ironically at home, to the band’s strong Gaelic content but that’s now been overcome and although they’ll continue to promote Gaelic culture, Innes isn’t ruling out the next set of songs they work on having a stronger leaning towards English.


“We gave ourselves a Gaelic name [they favour the ‘tuneful sound’ translation but note that others, not necessarily so complimentary, are available] because we wanted to have a strong Gaelic identity,” says Innes. “But it just so happened that the strongest songs we had for the first album were mainly Gaelic. The next time, it could be different. We all have an input and everyone’s ideas about repertoire are considered because the group’s a democracy. In fact, we’re such a democracy that the other day we had a three-hour rehearsal that consisted of two and a half hours talking and thirty minutes of music. When we get on stage, though, we’re there to sing, play and party.”


From The Herald, April 5, 2012.

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