Let’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.
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.