Donnie with guitarLet’s start at the beginning. Donnie Munro was born on the 2nd August 1953 in Uig on the Isle of Skye. He was brought up with his parents in Portree as well as spending time on his grandparents’ croft. During his days at primary school he came into contact with a wee boy called Calum Macdonald. Although it was not known at the time, their paths would cross later in life in a major way.

Donnie went to Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen, before moving on to Moray House in Edinburgh, where he attended a post-graduate teaching course. Donnie would return home to the Isle of Skye during the holidays and it was on one such occasion that he went along to see a local band called Run-Rig. The band included his old pal from primary school, Calum Macdonald. Their friendship grew and, about a year after this meeting, Calum and his brother Rory asked Donnie if he would like to become the singer for Run-Rig. That was the start of a long and successful career with the Band for Donnie. He taught art at Inverness Academy, Leith Academy and Tynecastle High School (Edinburgh) before Runrig became a full-time occupation in the early 1980s.

In 1982 Runrig, as they were now known, turned professional. Donnie and the Band became one of Scotland’s most popular acts. During the height of their success Runrig albums would outsell all other artists in Scotland – yes they were, in Scotland, bigger than anyone else. He was elected as Rector of Edinburgh University in 1991, where he was very much respected by all and took his duties as rector very seriously. 1991 also saw the band perform to an audience of around 50,000 on the banks of Loch Lomond at Balloch Castle. It seemed castles and Runrig just went together. The band also undertook a mammoth tour of both Europe and Scotland, including taking the full live performance to the Western Isles. As they said in the video “Wheel in Motion” – “We did not want people in Lewis or similar to see a cut-down version of the show.” That summed up Runrig – always putting their fans first whenever they could.

Donnie had always been a supporter of the Labour Party in Scotland and, after the untimely death of Labour Party Leader John Smith, he decided to stand for the UK Parliament. During 1995 speculation was rife about Donnie leaving Runrig to pursue his political career, but it took until May 1997 for any official word. His last CD recording with Runrig was the Mara album. So in 1997, with the UK general Election looming, Donnie made one of the hardest decisions of his life and left Runrig to stand for the Parliamentary seat of Ross, Skye and Inverness West. But the fans were not prepared to let Donnie slip quietly away and the highlights of his final year with the Band were 3 concerts at Stirling Castle. Anyone who was there or has watched the video will know that for everyone those concerts were very emotional. Unfortunately the Parliamentary seat Donnie pursued went in the end to the former Liberal Democrat Leader Charles Kennedy, but not without Donnie running him very close to the end. Donnie has presented many radio shows over the years including a spell at Scot FM as well as in more recent years spells at the BBC’s Radio Scotland.

Luckily for all us fans, in 1999 Donnie couldn’t keep away from the recording studio and, with help from Chris Harley, recorded what turned out to be his first solo album, “On the West Side”, which was released in 2000. Donnie and Chris gathered a band together and went off and played live again to the fans long starved of that unique voice. The band recorded two live performances at Portree and Ayr, and used the material to release the second album from Donnie Munro – simply called “Donnie Munro”. More tours in Scotland and Europe followed over the years, as did a further batch of CDs. In “Gaelic Heart” he created an album he had long wanted to do. It was the chance for Donnie to perform some of his favourite Gaelic songs. Another studio album called “Across the City and the World” was recorded at the start of 2003. Donnie released a single to back up the Scottish Rugby Team’s World Cup hopes in 2003 which was entitled “Down Under”. Also in 2003 Donnie undertook a charity walk in the Himalayas for the Highland Society for Blind People, for whom Donnie is the President. Donnie also presented an evening radio show on Radio Scotland for a few weeks while the regular presenter was on holiday. In 2004 Donnie’s first DVD, “Fields of the Young” was released, along with another album bearing the same name. (Full reviews of Donnie’s solo work can be found elsewhere on this Website.) Also in 2004 Donnie performed the old Scottish favourite “Flower of Scotland” in front of the football Fans at the Scotland v Norway World Cup match in October. This led to Donnie appearing many more times at Hampden in 2005 where he would lead the Tartan Army in singing “Flower of Scotland”. The song was released as a single as part of a promotion involving the Daily Record and Morrisons on the Saturday of the crucial Scotland v Italy World Cup qualifier at Hampden.
During 2005 we saw Donnie go on a mini tour of Scotland playing at several venues around the country in May through to July. Donnie also made a number of personal appearances during 2005. In October 2005 we had the release of some of Donnie’s favourite songs on a CD entitled “Best Of”. This was a look back over Donnie’s career and contained some of the songs he has performed over the years. This was to be his final work with the German record label, Hypertension, as in January 2006 Donnie announced that he had signed a new deal with the prestigious Scottish record label, Greentrax. Fans were treated to bringing in the New Year of 2006 when Donnie appeared on BBC TV’s Hogmanay programme, where he led the 300,000 strong crowd in Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh in singing Auld Lang Syne – again this was a first for television. This was followed up some weeks later with two appearances at the 2006 Celtic Connections. The first was “Scottish Men” and the second, on January 20th, was a full Donnie Munro concert, which was recorded by BBC Radio Scotland and transmitted a week later. Donnie also returned in 2006 to his old secondary school, Portree High, where he performed on stage with former pupils in a special show to celebrate 100 years of Portree High School.
The “Donnie Munro and Friends” DVD was released in April 2006. This was a television show that Donnie had recorded back in 2000 and has become a must for every Donnie Munro fan. Dec 2006 saw Donnie’s album, “Heart of America”, win the Scottish Trad Music CD of the Year Award at the national awards ceremony in Fort William. Speaking of the award, Donnie said, “Receiving this award has been an absolutely brilliant bonus for me as a musician and writer and reflects so much on the fantastic work of the guys in the band and the input of my producer Chris Harley. After such a long association with Runrig , suddenly being out there on your own as a writer is a slightly scary place to be and to be recognised in this way by the fans and the industry is a tremendous honour.”
Early in 2008 Donnie embarked on a series of thematic shows looking at some of the powerful issues affecting different ethnic communities throughout the world but particularly with reference to his own historical background in the Highlands and Islands. Donnie said, “Through these songs I wanted to explore some of the great themes which have formed a part of our history and in particular are reflected in issues of migration, emigration and various forms of displacement. Heart of America was very much the catalyst for this project and it was fantastic to be able to present the show with such a wonderful array of musical talent at my disposal. Having the talents of Allan Henderson on fiddle, Sandy Brechin on accordion, Fraser Fifield on saxophone, The Glasgow Islay Choir, The Inverness Gaelic Choir and the Strings from the RSAMD all added to the sound of the Band was a fantastically exciting and rewarding project. I felt that, as the show was thematic and brought so many great players together, it really should be recorded and released as a live album under the title of “An Turas – The Journey”. I am delighted that Ian Green at Greentrax Records agreed to back the project. The resulting album is, I think, a very good record of that event and for me a great opportunity to listen to the wonderful contribution of all these great players. The songs for the show were chosen on the basis of contributing to the broad narrative and, as such, it gave me the opportunity to work through a range of material from my own writing, some from the Runrig days and some traditional pieces also. I am delighted to say that both the show and the subsequent album were received very well by both audience and critics alike. I am hopeful that the thematic approach may well be something to be explored further in the context of 2009 Year of Homecoming.” Following on from these shows An Turas was taken out on the road to various venues in Scotland and Denmark. It was recently announced that “An Turas” was the top-selling Greentrax CD of 2008.
Early April also saw one of Donnie’s major projects at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig come to fruition, with the opening of “Fàs” the new £8m Centre for Creative and Cultural Industries at the national centre. This is the latest phase in the development of Sabhal Mòr and a hugely important development in the cultural industries in Scotland. The centre is home to a number of important national initiatives including, Tobar an Dualchais/Kist O Riches (national language archiving and digitisation project in both Scots and Gaelic) of which Donnie is Chair, the new TV Production Studios which are poised to play a critical role in the development of the new Digital Channel, a visual arts studio (something very close to Donnie’s heart) and an artists in residence programme for a musician, writer and visual artist. For Donnie, all of these initiatives are crucial in supporting the wider educational life of the college and the cultural and economic development of the Gaelic language. Donnie said of his role at Sabhal Mòr, “The work of Sabhal Mòr has had such a massive impact over these last 15 years and being involved in its on-going development and future plans has been an enormously  positive experience.”
Over the last few years, in addition to his various music performances, Donnie has been extremely busy in his role as Director of Development, Fundraising, Arts and Media with Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the National Centre for Gaelic Language, Culture and the Arts, on the Isle of Skye and an important ‘collegiate partner’ within the new University of the Highlands and Islands.
Donnie has made it his business, since his involvement began back in 1997, first as a Patron, and then as Director of Development, to move Sabhal Mòr Ostaig from being perceived simply as a small peripheral specialist college to that of becoming the universally recognised National and indeed International Centre for the Development of Gaelic Language, Culture, the Arts and the Community.
Sabhal Mòr Ostaig ‘s mission from the outset has always been to link the regeneration of the language and culture to the wider economic development of the community and the wider area. Donnie said that much of this has been achieved by being radical, innovative and creative in our thinking and by nurturing and developing a ‘critical mass’ of highly creative people and of complimentary activity around Sabhal Mòr Ostaig’ s wider Higher Education and Research agenda thereby creating a real ‘energy centre’ in which a number of really important projects and initiatives have grown.
Donnie says of his involvement with Sabhal Mòr, that in many ways it has very strong elements of the work which Runrig undertook over many years, by being at the forefront, through music, of the regeneration of interest in the language and, in building the confidence in successive generations of young Gaels and Scots in their own language, culture and heritage and importantly being outward looking and taking that language and culture into the international arena – Donnie has always maintained that there can be no greater validation of a language, culture and community, than to have it placed, recognised and valued  as part of the wider fabric of what makes for the ‘international community’.
It is significant, in many ways, that Runrig and Sabhal Mòr Ostaig both came into being in 1973 and that both, in their own ways, started to address issues relating to the decline of the position of Gaelic language and the low self-esteem which had become part of the inheritance of successive generations of young Gaels who, until recent years, had been  denied access to their own first language in education and also denied knowledge of  the radical history of their own immediate ancestors, in places like Skye and Lewis, where the political activities of the men and women of the Land League movement, for example, became part of a ‘hidden history’.
So much of Runrig’ s early music was forged in that ‘furnace’ of social history at the centre of which was the issue of the language, which, by any measures, was by that time struggling for survival. Things have changed says Donnie and education policy is now more enlightened, Gaelic medium education is now becoming much more widespread and of course the advent of the Gaelic Language Act and the setting up of Bòrd na Gàidhlig, have all had their positive impact, placing Gaelic as an ‘official language’ of Scotland and with the equal status and parity in law with English Language

The survival of minority languages the world over, is however a major, complex and continuing issue to grapple with and one which sees many minority languages dying off (or perhaps more accurately being killed off) year on year. However, with Gaelic, the signs are positive, with the rate of decline slowing greatly and possibly being stemmed with the with ‘new speakers and learners’ of the language now contributing to an ever-increasing growth in numbers.

The fact that, through Gaelic medium education, it is possible for young Gaels and non-Gaels alike to study through the medium of the language at all levels of their education, right up to post graduate Masters programmes, is testimony to these changes and owes a great deal to the pioneering work undertaken by Sabhal Mòr Ostaig itself.  This Donnie says is entirely down to the vision of these early Trustees who, unsupported by any form of legislative framework, made that enormous ‘leap of faith’ in establishing the first Gaelic ‘seat of learning’ since the time of St Columba.

Donnie said, ’I have been very lucky to have been involved at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig during such an exciting and intensive period of development and to have been able to work with some fantastically innovative people who have not been afraid to take chances to achieve the wider aims and, to have been involved in something with such a positive agenda  and  ‘can do’ attitude, so much the hallmark of  SMO during these years – it is highly unlikely that the many or any of these exciting initiatives would ever have seen the light of day without that positive energy drive and commitment.

Donnie is particularly pleased to have seen the centre expand year on year during his time there and to have been instrumental in realising, much of the capital required to fund the development of all the various projects and initiatives and which has enabled a whole new modern campus to be created on the site.

Donnie was also heavily involved in the development of Ionad Chaluim Chille on Islay, and in initiating and creating a ‘sister campus’ on Islay, where the St Columba Centre, now exists on the the spectacular site looking out on Gart na Tràithe, near Bowmore Village. The centre now occupies an important position in the social, economic, cultural, educational, linguistic and artistic life of that island community.

Since Donnie’s arrival at Sabhal Mòr, he has played a leading role in the development of the new Arainn Chaluim Chille campus, The Islay Centre, The Fàs Centre for Creative and Cultural Industries, currently home base for the Gaelic Drama Series, Bannan and the Skye-space TV Studio and a range of National Cultural Heritage Initiatives such as Tobar an Dualchais the major national digitisation and archiving programme and more recently the development of new Ionad Iain Nobhail building and, importantly, the development of the new  Kilbeg Village , which sees the first new ‘planned village’ to be built on Skye in more than 100 years now taking form providing much needed affordable housing for the area and with Gaelic language at its heart.

These developments, says Donnie, have contributed enormously to developing the critical mass of activity required to create a real economic, social and cultural ‘generator’ and have been achieved with the support of the Scotland Office, the Scottish Government, European Funding Programmes, HIE, HLF, AHRC, Highland Council and through building important ‘networks of support’ within the private and corporate sectors.

Donnie points out that this has not been an easy task but one which required great efforts, in having to raise and secure more than £40 million+ of additional funding over the last 12-15 years – no easy task in these economically challenging times.

The first phase of the Kilbeg Village development has now been delivered, on time and on budget, and a new planning application is now being prepared for the next Phase of Housing, along with plans for a Sports, Fitness, Health and Wellbeing Centre to be built on the site, serving the needs of Sabhal Mòr itself and those the wider South Skye Community along with those of the many visitors to the island each year.

In addition to these very physical tangible developments, Donnie is also very happy to have played a lead role in the development of the arts at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and of the Artists in Residence scheme which has been running at Sabhal Mòr during this entire period and which also includes the international ‘Jon Schueler Artist’s Residency’, which has attracted well over 1500 applications world-wide since its inception.

Donnie said that this type of activity ‘internationalises’ Sabhal Mòr Ostaig ‘s work and is indicative of the outward looking and visionary agenda which SMO has adopted from the outset.

In many ways, like Runrig, it is about taking what we have and sharing it, by placing it confidently at the centre of the international community and making sure that we build on our strengths and cultural uniqueness and that we confidently and with pride become a part of the fabric of that rich tapestry of a true internationalism.

Since his arrival at Sabhal Mòr, Donnie has continued to maintain his own music profile both internationally and domestically , both with his recording career and his live work both with the full band and his acoustic line up, and also, to have had a large part to play in the work of many  wider Gaelic Arts programmes , with projects such as , The Leabhar Mòr na Gàidhlig (The Big Book of Gaelic) Project which saw the work of Gaelic Poets, Calligraphers and Visual artists, from Ireland and Scotland brought together in a publication of great beauty and importance. Indeed, it has been described by some as a latter-day ‘Book of Kells’ – this work resulted in many learning packs used throughout Scotland’s and Ireland’s schools and the exhibition of the work toured internationally for over 7 years. Donnie was also involved with the International ‘St Kilda Opera/Ballet’, a Pan European performance and the Visual Arts Research Programme, ‘Window to the West’, with its programme of seminars, publications and exhibitions. He has also been involved with the organisation of the ORAN/SANG Conference on Gaelic and Scots Song with RCS, The Sorley Maclean Conference, the ‘An Linne’  Visual Arts Conference, with the Schueler Foundation and Crannog Concepts,  The Waxing Moon/Eallaich an Fhàis – a History of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Publication with Mainstream Publishers, the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig Annual Lecture Series, the radio performance of ‘The Pilgrim’ by Shaun Davey, ‘The Atlantic Corridor’ commission, with Carlos Nunez and Celtic Connections and many more arts initiatives. Donnie has continued to paint and exhibit throughout this period and undertaken many very high-profile events including the televised Ryder Cup Celebrations from the SSE Hydro in Glasgow and the recent Lorely Celtic Festival in Germany. Donnie has recently completed a short tour of Denmark.

Sabhal Mòr is a continuing success story and one which has seen the University College’s reputation in Higher Education, Academic Research and artistic and cultural development grow year on year. Donnie said he felt very proud and privileged to have been able to contribute to that very positive and developing narrative.

Donnie is a member of the Scottish Drama Training Network and has also recently been inducted as an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Incorporation of Architects Scotland, (FRIAS) for his services to Scottish Cultural Life, the Arts, Education and Development and for his role as an International Ambassador.