I think I’d be fully run out of Scotland if I didn’t give tribute to the identical twins Craig and Charlie Reid, better known as those veritable National Treasures, The Proclaimers.
The Proclaimers have been unmistakable for their ridiculously catchy folk-rock sound and unabashed Scottish brogue since their raucous “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” became a US hit in 1993. “(500 Miles)” was actually recorded and released in 1988 on the brothers’ second studio album, Sunshine on Leith, but its inclusion on the Benny and Joon film soundtrack in the early 90s propelled it up the popular music charts and forevermore into the public conscience. “(500 Miles)” reached #3 during its’ six months on the US Billboard Singles Chart. Meanwhile, another single from that album, “I’m On My Way,” saw a revival in its popularity when featured in a pivotal scene of the 2001 animated feature Shrek.
With these songs in mind, it was somewhat shocking to learn that the Reids performed in punk bands prior to striking up a duo together in 1983, but perhaps it’s less surprising considering the context and times in which they grew up. Although raised although raised in Edinburgh, Cornwall, and Auchtermuchty (in Fife), the twins were born in Leith in 1962, and one imagines that place left an impression for them to have hearkened back to it for an album name.
A port town north of Edinburgh, and technically within that city’s council area, Leith lies on the Firth of Forth, the estuary where the River Forth flows into the North Sea. Not surprisingly, it has an extensive history as an important shipping station. It’s thought to have been in existence since 1128, the year that Holyrood Abbey was authorized for construction by royal charter; its medieval history is fascinating, with the port being of great prominence. Despite a long history of use, the docks suffered a dramatic decline after the Second World War, developing a seedy and dangerous reputation that frequently follows in the wake of industrial decline.
What the Reids’ early experience in Leith was I don’t know, but its dystopian, drug-induced, and senselessly violent depiction in Leith-born author Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting makes it seem pretty grim. The drug trade, historically strong in port cities, exploded in the 1980s, when cheap opium became available from Paikistan. Easy availability of the drug collided with a sense of inter-generational addictions, disenfranchisement, boredom, and frustration felt especially amongst the labouring class, now vastly unemployed and resident in social housing which had effectively turned ghetto. However dire, in the 1980s Leith also began to pivot, resulting in a sort of renaissance. De-industrialization and slum clearances gave way to gentrification, with old industrial sites refurbished into affordable housing and spaces suitable for small business. Numerous civil-servant offices were relocated to the Leith Docks in a somewhat-unrealized effort to further bolster the area. The once-polluted Water of Leith was cleaned up and flanked by a public walkway; Trainspotting tours available showcasing the film sites; and, it would seem, the sun at least somewhat shone upon Leith.
Today shipping continues to be a major underpinning of Leith’s economy, having handled 1.5 million tonnes of cargo in 2003. Meanwhile, the poignant song “Sunshine on Leith,” is played at the opening of Hibernian Football Club matches, perhaps pre-emptively mellowing the crowd of any game-inspired hooliganism. “Sunshine on Leith,” the album, was adapted for the stage for the Dundee Repertory Theatre in 2007, taking an unrelated storyline and advancing and embellishing it with songs from the record, in the manner that Mamma Mia! draws on ABBA’s catalogue. In 2013, the stage production was adapted to celluloid, in a feel-good film of the same name; although The Proclaimers appear in a cameo, the cast performs the songs.
As to the Reid twins, they’re still going strong. They completed a two-year tour at the end of 2013, and in 2014 recorded their 10th studio album, due for release shortly. They are ardent supporters of Scottish independence, at times engaging in activism for the Scottish National Party. They brought the word ‘haver’ to the greater world, which if you’re still wondering, means senseless talk, babble.
It’s no surprise that their popularity endures. To quote David Tennant on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island discs, “They write the most spectacular songs, big hearted, uncynical passionate songs.” That’s a rare enough thing in modernpop music, and something of which I think Scotland ought to be proud. We can all do with more sunshine sometimes.
Next post we’re back to counting down the Huffington Post’s self-proclaimed Canada’s 100 Best Songs Ever. Stay tuned!