As would be said in Gaelic, Blair Douglas "did no need to buy" his musical ability, he inherited it from both sides of his family. But genetics alone cannot explain this rare talent. What Blair has done over the years to hone and perfect his talents through good times and not-so-good times by dint of sheer hard and often thankless work. His musical expertise is a distillation of the tuition he received and the influences to which he was exposed, the years of playing and composing, and his recording and producing experience.
Blair was born and brought up in Skye. On his mother's side he has strong connections with North Uist while his father's people had moved to Skye from the Border country around 150 years ago. When he was 15 the family relocated to Glasgow but returned to their home in Braes after a number of years in the city.
Blair was inspired to buy an accordion after hearing the playing of the late, lamented Niall Cheòis of Lewis. In 1973, having quickly mastered the instrument he teamed up with Calum and Rory MacDonald, fellow Skyemen with North Uist connections. Together they formed the Run Rig Dance Band to play at the North Uist & Bernera Association concert in Glasgow. The band's background was in Gaelic/Highland music though somewhat tempered by exposure to rock so much so that part of their original repertoire allegedly included "gems" such as Whisky in the Jar and Snoopy vs the Red Baron, both classics for 70's cover bands.
During this time the band played mostly at the weekends allowing Blair to continue as a student at Glasgow University where he graduated with an economics degree. A short flirtation with a full time playing career in the late 70's proved unsuccessful and eventually led to Blair and Runrig (the 'Dance Band' tag having by this time been dumped) going their separate ways. However Blair did return to play on Run Rig's Recovery in 1981.
His first solo album, Celtology, came out in 1984 and featured songs rather than his better known instrumental style. It also included a few compositions which were not his own. Subsequent CDs are remarkable because the material is largely Blair's own. Beneath the Beret published in 1990 included Kate Martin's Waltz which became an instant hit with traditional musicians and remains a classic of the genre and Solus m'Aigh a beautifully haunting song which he dedicated to his friend Fr. Colin MacInnes. A Summer in Skye, many of whose themes are based on Alexander Smith's celebrated book of the same name was launched in 1996. Nic Mathain's Thank You on this CD was written for Blair's wife Marion, née Matheson. Other highlights on this album are A' Bhean Ionmhainn, The Landlord's Walk, and Nelson Mandela's Welcome to the City of Glasgow. The latter, like so many Blair compositions, has been picked up by other performers.
It was always going to be a tall order for Blair to match the originality and class of A Summer in Skye but in 2004's Angels from the Ashes it has met its match. He has achieved this is, providing us with a beautifully crafted CD which, though being remarkable in its originality, is unmistakably the work of Blair Douglas. It features delightful airs (the composition of which is a speciality of Blair's) waltzes, pipe tunes which are destined quickly to become part of the many pipers' repertoire, laments including An Gaidheal Uasal for Donald Archie MacDonald, a collector with the School of Scottish Studies, a gentleman, and an exemplary Gael.
The album also introduces a strong Cajun flavour to Blair's work and on this showing, what a rich musical seam it promises to be.
In the tradition of many Celtic composers, Blair's music draws from the deep well of social and political injustice, both at home and abroad. The plight of the Gael provides the local backdrop while 20th century icons like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Michael Collins bring, through their own local struggles, an international dimension. Where some would have turned to anger and brought bitterness and cynicism to the table, Blair's music exudes hope and brings a different kind of fruit.
The music of Blair Douglas comes from the heart, touches the soul, and was born beneath the ever present gaze of Ben Tianavaig.
Blair, firmly rooted in Uist and Skye with Border connections, profoundly influenced by Gaelic music but drawing on musical idioms (and political struggles) from Scotland and Ireland to Africa, now tunes into the music of the persecuted Acadian minority in Louisiana. Where next? Who knows, but we're looking forward to it.
Ridge Records RR052.
Blair Douglas releases his fifth studio album on 9 June. Following on from the 2004 album Angels from the Ashes, the new album Stay Strong/ Bithibh Laidir / Rester Fort is a mainly song based album featuring a variety of guest vocalists such as Michael Mara, Eddi Reader, Cookie Rankin, Kathleen McInnes and Runrig’s Bruce Guthro and Rory Macdonald.
Throughout his career Blair has been a cartographer of the tradition and has put down a marker wherever the musical diaspora takes root. As an accordionist he is strongly influenced by both his own rich Gaelic instrumental heritage and Cajun music culture – two strands of musical and cultural traditions closely linked, in Blair’s view. Stay Strong/ Bithibh Laidir / Rester Fort manifests this link in music and song – the language of cultural expression.
Blair provided some answers to questions about the making of the album. This was part of a much larger interview published in the Runrig Magazine – The Wire, in May 2008.
THE NEW ALBUM, STAY STRONG – BITHIBH LAIDIR/RESTER FORT, IS NOW RELEASED. ARE YOU SATISFIED WITH THE WAY IT HASTURNED OUT?
I am extremely happy with the album. It is always hard, when working as a solo artist, to know if the material is up to standard. You rely a lot on your own instincts and hope for the best! The singers and musicians have all been wonderful and Robin Rankin has done a brilliant job on the production side as well. When you are working with real talent, it is much easier to achieve your musical goals. I suppose now it’s a case of – ‘let the people decide!!’
AN AMBITIOUS PROJECT FROM THE OUTSET, CAN YOU GIVE SOME BACKGROUND?
The recording process began about a year ago. Sound designer Robin Rankin co-produced it with me – I really enjoy working with him. He's done a top class job on the recording and production. I decided to go with more songs this time round, and we have brought in different vocalists – Rory, Bruce, Michael Marra,
Eddi Reader, Kathleen MacInnes, Arthur Cormack, and Cookie Rankin from the Rankin Family in Cape Breton. There’s a strong Cajun/Louisiana influence to the material – I have also used the New Orleans NightCrawlers brass section, and members of the Cajun band, L’Angelus, on one song. Recordings have taken place in Skye, Glasgow, Orkney, Sweden, Louisiana, Nashville, and Nova Scotia!
ALSO SOME OTHER NOTABLE PLAYERS?
Yes, the instrumentalists also include – Gordon Gunn (fiddle), Colin Tully (sax – Colin was a member of seminal Glasgow band Cado Belle), Gary West (pipes), Dougie Pincock (whistles), Eddie McGuire (alto flute), Mairi Rankin, and Wendy MacIsaac, (Cape Breton fiddlers). I’m also pleased to say that Malcolm features on it as well, plus my own children, Iain and Ceitidh!
YOUR THINKING BEHIND THE ALBUM TITLE?
The album is called Stay Strong – Bithibh Laidir/Rester Fort. Hopefully this reflects the general theme runningthrough the album, and echoes this sentiment, Bithibh Laidir and Rester Fort being the respective Gaelic andFrench translations of Stay Strong.
AND THE TRACKS?
Artists — Blair : Latest
Blair with Runrig in New York
Blair performed with Runrig at the Nokia Theatre on 4 April at a benefit concert for Glasgow the Caring City. As an introduction to the evening he played Western Soul, Tonn nan Deur (Wave of Tears) and various reels. During the Runrig set he joined the band for rousing version of Skye - the pic below shows Blair with Malcolm in full swing. As a finale Blair led the playing of Angels from the Ashes with Runrig and the Inverclyde Junior Pipe Band.
Portree High School CD
Portree High School on the Isle of Skye has celebrated it's centenary with a concert and CD featuring former pupils. Malcolm, Blair and Donnie performed at the concert and each have donated tracks for the CD ( buy here ). Blair provided Iain Angus Douglas's Welcome to the Big Wide World, The Woodworker and An Corran Glas.
Blair in the Bayou
Am Bràighe‘s Am Bayou
One of Scotland’s most highly acclaimed solo musicians is the subject of a new television documentary to be broadcast on BBC Scotland on Thursday 5th January.
Am Bràighe‘s Am Bayou explores the themes and motivations that run through the music of Blair Douglas, a founder member of bands Runrig, Mactalla and Cliar.
As a solo musician Blair has gone on to create a series of idiosyncratic and highly acclaimed compositions. His inspirations range from family and the Highland landscape to the Cajun sounds of New Orleans, and world events and politics, uniquely blended with Gaelic sounds in his last album, the widely-acclaimed Angels from the Ashes. The title track from the album was composed by Blair in memory of all those who lost their lives on 9/11, and earlier this year was released as a single to assist the work of a Glasgow charity working with the families of Firefighters and Port Authority Police officers who lost their lives on that day.
In a rare TV interview, the programme takes the form of a travelogue following Blair from his home in Braes to the Bayou of Louisiana, as he visits the birthplace of his latest musical inspiration. He also visits New York and the inspiration and impetus that moved him to compose his Angels from the Ashes.
Programme producer, Alasdair MacKinnon, describes Blair as “a shy and very private individual, with a great sense of humour. Its very difficult to categorise his music, but it communicates with so many people and without doubt the depth of his own spirituality comes through very strongly in all his work.”
Piper and musician, Dougie Pincock describes Douglas in the programme as a pain in the neck – but only because of the frustration that “he should be famous, like really famous, and he is not, and the reason he is not is because he doesn’t want to be.” Pincock, also Director of the National School of Excellence in Traditional Music says that Blair has got a very special relationship with the young folk he teaches at the school in Plockton. “There’s probably nobody I would say amongst the youngsters that commands the same level of affection as Blair Douglas – respect is one thing but when Blair Douglas walks in this building the whole place picks up. There are very few people that can work on the two levels of having respect and affection.”
Am Bràighe‘s Am Bayou was produced by MnE Television, and funded by Seirbheis nam Meadhanan Gàidhlig. The programme will be broadcast on BBC 2 Scotland on Thursday 5th January 2006 – 19.15 – 20.00.