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‘He re-defined ceilidh music’: Tributes paid to the Ceilidh King Fergie MacDonald

The legendary accordionist, who died today, was a 'one off'.

Fergie MacDonald was known as the Ceilidh King
Fergie MacDonald was known as the Ceilidh King

Tributes have been paid to Scotland’s legendary Ceilidh King Fergie MacDonald who has died just a day short of his 87th birthday.

The renowned accordionist, who stayed in Mingarry in the west Highlands, had been playing music for more than 70 years and inspired generations of traditional musicians.

He had been undergoing treatment for prostate cancer since 2021.

An incredible life

Gary Innes, the host of BBC’s Take the Floor, said Fergie was a “one off” and a “remarkable character”.

Mr Innes, who had played with Fergie on numerous occasions, said: “It was always an absolute privilege to be in his company.

“To sit beside him on and offstage, hear him play, listen to his stories and learn what mischief he had been up to will forever live on as some of my favourite memories.

“Everybody that knew him have their own stories of Fergie, and each and every one of those stories end with everyone laughing out loud.

“He truly was a one-off. Musically he transcended generations and always brought people together.

“His music has been celebrated all across the world and his love for tunes and tune-writing will certainly leave a legacy in the traditional music world.

Fergie MacDonald died a day before his 87th birthday

“There is barely a dance or a session that doesn’t have at least one Fergie tune played at some point.

“They certainly broke the mould when making the Ferg and his impact and contribution to traditional music is quite simply immeasurable.”

Fergie made his last public appearance in September at an event to mark the retirement of renowned shinty broadcaster and historian Hugh Dan MacLennan.

Mr MacLennan said: “He re re-defined ceilidh music because of his individual style and his presence on stage.

“There can’t be many people who covered the miles Fergie covered doing gigs.

“He was a wonderful person and one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.

“I never left him without having a good laugh.”

An accomplished athlete before turning to music

Fergie MacDonald was directly descended from the Moidart MacDonald Clanranalds, whose family history weaves through the Battle of Sheriffmuir, the 1745 Jacobite rising, Culloden, and the Highland Clearances.

The young Fergie was an accomplished athlete, winning track and field prizes at many Highland games.

He began playing music when he was 14 when he got his first accordion.

But a career in entertainment didn’t follow immediately.

On demob from the Army, where he was a physical training instructor, he graduated as a physiotherapist.

Fergie with Gary Innes (left) and Hugh Dan MacLennan when he was presented with a caman on his last public appearance last year

He represented Scotland at clay pigeon shooting and his son John later became Scotland’s number one Olympic trap clay pigeon shot, competing for Great Britain at world cups, world and European championships and the Commonwealth Games.

Fergie also listed his other occupations or pastimes as band leader, hotelier, poacher, gamekeeper, red deer manager, singer, writer, composer, local historian and Highland Games chieftain.

He formed his first band in 1953 and cut his first record in 1962.

Four years later, the song Loch Maree Islands, written by Kenneth MacKenzie, topped the Scottish pop charts and became his signature tune.

Top of the charts, ahead of Rihanna

His accolades over the years included being inducted into the Scottish traditional music Hall of Fame.

His song The Shinty Referee was an international hit and reached the top of the iTunes World Music Charts – which at one point read: No. 1 – Fergie MacDonald, No. 2 – Rihanna.

In 2018 he published the book The Moidart Sniper, written with Allan Henderson, which told the story of his father John (Ton) MacDonald, a respected sniper with the Lovat Scouts Sharpshooters in the First World War.

In January 2020 he issued his 50th album and, during lockdown, made a CD with other musicians.

Fergie in the west Highlands where he lived

Despite cutting back on public shows in recent years, he was booked to play gigs, including the 25th anniversary Hebridean Celtic Festival and the Gig in the Goil, before they were cancelled during the pandemic.

In 2021 he was made an MBE in the New Year’s Honour List.

He marked the honour at a special concert in May that year when he became the oldest person to headline the Empire Theatre at Eden Court in Inverness.

In 2022 aged 85 he was a guest at the Hoolie in the Hydro, a night of Scottish traditional music in Glasgow’s Ovo Hydro.