There’s many a promising student career been run aground by the siren lure of music, but it doesn’t often happen quite as fast as it did for the McCalmans. The trio’s original line-up of Ian McCalman, Hamish Bayne and Derek Moffat met in 1964 on their first day at Edinburgh School of Architecture, played their first gig within a fortnight – and you might say its members have been leading each other astray ever since.
Somehow (despite their many self-told tales of bibulous excess in those days), the McCalmans got it right early on – and have kept on doing so, throughout one of the most enduring careers in Scottish music. It’s a simple enough recipe, in some ways, using tried and tested ingredients: great singing, resonant harmonies, a diverse repertoire of potently melodic, traditional and contemporary songs, liberally seasoned with humour; served warm. But it’s a hard one to perfect – no matter how easy they might make it look.
The other key element, of course – and regardless of their still legendary fondness for a party – is the Macs’ famously consummate professionalism. It embraces every aspect of the gig, from punctual, hassle-free soundchecks to carefully constructed, continually renewed set-lists; from their unfailingly focused engagement with both material and listeners – capable of making the biggest concert-hall feel like the cosiest club – to the freshness of their jokes.
For while the band has long been established among the most important acts to emerge from the 1960s Scottish folk-song revival, absorbing and merging influences across the spectrum from the Corries to the source-singers, music-hall to protest songs, they never forget their role as entertainers. It’s this old-fashioned commitment to showmanship that underpins the McCalmans’ longevity, along with the sheer love of songs and singing that shines through every performance.
Another secret of their success must lie in the fact that there have only been two line-up changes in the band’s career, now into its fifth decade. Hamish Bayne left in 1982, to be replaced by multi-instrumentalist Nick Keir, and in 2001, tragically, Derek Moffat died of cancer at the age of 54. It was Derek’s insistent wish, however, that the band carry on with a new third member, and so Stephen Quigg joined to complete the current Macs line-up.
That same shared passion for song that distracted the McCalmans from architecture all those years ago has since taken them virtually all around the world, to share it in turn with audiences from the Faroes to the Falklands. Despite their one-liners’ increasing reference to disappearing hair and aching bones, the Macs’ unique blend of timeless musical virtues looks to have plenty more miles in it yet.