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June 30, 2016

Long before he developed a second career as the notorious foil for Phil Cunningham’s onstage stories, Fergie MacDonald had regal status.

As the Ceilidh King, Fergie took the authentic, raw and right ceilidh dance band style to village halls across the length and breadth of the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Fergie and his band were stars.

Although he was born in Glasgow, Fergie grew up on a Moidart croft. Money was tight but thanks to his father’s expert marksmanship, there was usually rabbit or venison on the table. Fergie inherited his father’s eye for a target and would go on to represent Scotland at clay pigeon shooting, as well as bagging a Christmas meal from Kelvingrove Park’s duck pond as an impoverished student.

He was also quite an athlete in his youth, winning track and field prizes at many Highland games.
Music was Fergie’s passion, though. Listening to radio broadcasts by Jimmy Shand, Bobby MacLeod, Jimmy Cameron and the Wick Scottish Dance Band he tuned into the sound of the accordion. At local dances, the young Fergie would sit all night listening to Farquhar MacRae playing his button key melodeon with the Roshven Ceilidh Band.

Eventually, at the age of fourteen, Fergie acquired his own accordion. It was, it turned out, the wrong kind – a piano accordion. This, however, was the start of an adventure that would lead to more tales than the Brothers Grimm – or even Fergie’s great friend Phil – could ever muster.

There are stories of bands being stranded on sandbanks. Dances were hastily relocated down the coast as Fergie’s band led the passengers in a party on the ferry and missed their stop. Fergie’s band even trailblazed the ‘hyping’ of their music onto pirate radio through requests from a certain Willie John MacPhail, whose itinerary bore a marked similarity to the band’s own. 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. During a year off from school through illness, he really began to progress, learning tunes by playing ‘78s’ repeatedly on the family’s wind-up gramophone. His dedication paid off when his hero, Farquhar MacRae, invited Fergie, who was still at school, to play his first engagement, a dance in Glenuig.

When Fergie went to Glasgow, actually to study physiotherapy, his music career really took off. His band became resident at the hugely popular Saturday dances in the Highlanders’ Institute and from there Fergie went on to become one of the great heroes of Scottish music, even topping the Scottish pop charts with his signature tune, Loch Maree Islands. Wherever ceilidh music is being played, Fergie’s masterful musicianship and infectious style remain the benchmark, and Fergie will forever be known as the man who gave ceilidh music to the world.

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