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Best Scottish Musicians: 10 Great Scots Who Made Their Mark
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List & Guides

Best Scottish Musicians: 10 Great Scots Who Made Their Mark

Defiant and outspoken, the best Scottish musicians have always had tradition, passion and national identity on their side.

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It’s fair to say the Scots don’t suffer fools gladly, and we should be very glad they don’t, for this single-mindedness has done the nation proud when it comes to creating some of rock and pop’s most impassioned and era-defining music. In celebration of their achievements, we sink a dram or two and honour the ten best Scottish musicians of all time.

10: Average White Band

Despite their self-effacing name, there was nothing mediocre about pioneering Scottish funk and soul outfit Average White Band. Formed in Dundee early in 1972, the group had talent to burn, and while their debut album, Show Your Hand, failed to make waves, they relocated to Los Angeles and took the US by storm when their second album, the Arif Mardin-produced AWB, and its memorable spin-off single, Pick Up The Pieces, both topped the Billboard chart.

Further releases such as Cut The Cake (1975) and Soul Searching (1976) were also big sellers during the group’s mid-70s heyday, and AWB later tapped into the disco craze, scoring a UK Top 20 smash with 1980’s Let’s Go Round Again. The band had their ups and downs (original drummer Robbie McIntosh died of a heroin overdose), and dwindling sales pushed them into splitting in 1983. However, their reunion for Atlantic Records’ 40th anniversary, in 1988, gave AWB a second wind, and their current line-up, featuring original members Alan Gorrie and Owen McIntyre, continues to tour. Their sleek rhythms and crisp beats have also been widely approved by the hip-hop community, and their catalogue has been sampled by heavy-hitters such as Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Ice Cube, A Tribe Called Quest and many more.

Must hear: Pick Up The Pieces

9: Gerry Rafferty

Though undoubtedly one of the best Scottish musicians, Gerry Rafferty had something of a chequered career. Born in Paisley, he loved both Irish and Scottish folk songs as a child before becoming an aficionado of The Beatles and Bob Dylan. His future career reflected his infatuations with traditional music and classic pop as he recorded a couple of folk-flavoured albums alongside future comedian Billy Connolly as The Humblebums on the cusp of the 70s, before a stint with fellow singer-songwriter Joe Egan as Stealer’s Wheel led to three albums produced by legendary US team Lieber & Stoller, and a huge hit with 1975’s Stuck In The Middle With You – later famously reprised on the soundtrack for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.

Rafferty’s profile was at its highest in the late 70s, when Baker Street, from his second solo album, City To City, smashed into the UK and US Top 10. Introduced by Raphael Ravenscoft’s instantly recognisable saxophone riff, the song remains a radio staple to this day (it had racked up five million plays worldwide by 2010), and its success led to City To City moving over five million copies – and knocking the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack off the top of the Billboard 200. There are other contenders among the best Gerry Rafferty songs, and the singer-songwriter enjoyed further success with his next album, Night Owl. During the 80s, he produced Richard And Linda Thompson’s cult classic Shoot Out The Lights, and co-produced The Proclaimers’ smash hit Letter From America. Rafferty died in 2011, but the posthumously released Rest In Blue album showed that he had plenty more to offer.

Must hear: Baker Street

8: The Blue Nile

Arguably Scotland’s ultimate cult heroes, The Blue Nile were famous for their gloriously introspective music – and for working at a snail’s pace. However, while the gaps gradually lengthened between their four albums, A Walk Across The Rooftops (1983), Hats (1989), Peace At Last (1995) and High (2004), the wait was always worth it, for each of their records contained timeless music which has grown in stature with repeated exposure.

Hailing from Glasgow, The Blue Nile’s classic line-up featured frontman Paul Buchanan along with Robert Bell and Paul Joseph Moore. The latter quit following the recording of High, and while Buchanan and Bell continued to tour sporadically until 2008, and have never formally announced a split, no further music has emerged under The Blue Nile moniker, and it is widely assumed the band are no more. Nonetheless, the notoriously reclusive Buchanan scored a Top 10 hit when he guested on Texas’ 2006 hit, Sleep, and again broke cover with his solo debut, Mid Air, in 2012 – an exquisitely stripped-back affair that, as always, makes the listener yearn for more from where that comes from.

Must hear: Sentimental Man

7: Texas

As the title of their debut album, Southside, hints, stalwart Scottish rockers Texas hailed from the south side of Glasgow. Co-founded by bassist Johnny McElhone (ex-Altered Images, Hipsway) and dynamic vocalist Sharleen Spiteri, the band hit the ground running when the album, released in 1989, sold over two million copies off the back of their international hit, I Don’t Want A Lover. The group’s ability to move with the times and reinvent themselves has, however, always kept them in the hunt.

After their initial brush with major stardom, Texas went one better with 1997’s White On Blonde: a sophisticated, soul-inflected set which went multi-platinum in the UK on the back of a quartet of hits. To their credit, though, the band have maintained their impressive strike rate during the 21st century, racking up further big-sellers with titles such as 2017’s Jump On Board and 2021’s Hi – the latter being their highest-charting album (UK No.3) since 1999’s The Hush. With total record sales of 40 million and counting, Texas have long since proved they’ve got what it takes to be ranked among the best Scottish musicians.

Must hear: I Don’t Want A Lover

6: Big Country

From Dunfermline, Fife, guitarist Stuart Adamson first came to prominence with memorable Scottish punk outfit The Skids. Signing to Virgin Records in 1978, the band quickly notched up a string of Top 40 hits, with Adamson’s impassioned lead making for a crucial element of the group’s best songs, among them Charade, Masquerade and their storming signature hit, Into The Valley.

Impressed by his virtuosity, John Peel even referred to Adamson as “a new Jimi Hendrix” while he was still in The Skids, but the guitarist really came into his own when he moved centre-stage and formed Big Country with Bruce Watson, Mark Brzezicki and Tony Butler in 1981. Famous for pioneering a distinctly Scottish guitar sound, with Adamson and Watson using effects such as the MXR pitch transposer and E-bow to create a distinctive, keening tone which frequently drew comparisons with bagpipes, Big Country were huge during the mid-to-late 80s, racking up sizeable hits with their first three albums, The Crossing, Steeltown and The Seer, and performing their signature hit, In A Big Country, at the Grammy Awards.

During 1988, the group became one of the earliest western bands to go behind the Iron Curtain and tour in the USSR, and while they declined as a commercial force during the 90s, they still released critically acclaimed records such as The Buffalo Skinners and Driving To Damascus before Adamson tragically took his own life in Honolulu, Hawaii, in December 2001.

Must hear: In A Big Country

5: David Byrne

Questions may be raised over why influential ex-Talking Heads frontman David Byrne features in a list of the best Scottish musicians. While he is synonymous with New York City’s post-punk scene, Byrne was actually born in Dumbarton, on the north bank of the River Clyde, in 1952. His family crossed the Atlantic when Byrne was two (initially moving to Canada, then the US), but he retained his British citizenship until 2012, when he became a dual citizen of the UK and the US: a situation prompted by a slightly an awkward conversation at a polling station.

“I’d been occasionally voting before that,” Byrne admitted in an interview with The Guardian. “I naively thought it was legal and they never cross-checked. Then eventually they looked at my ID and said: ‘You can’t vote!’ So I said, ‘OK, I’ve gotta go through this whole thing now.’”

Must hear: Once In A Lifetime

4: The Proclaimers

Synonymous with the Edinburgh suburb of Leith, bespectacled singer-songwriter brothers Craig and Charlie Reid are children of punk, with their worldview initially set by their mutual love of The Clash, Sex Pistols and The Jam.

They carried their love of social commentary married to great tunes into their own music when they formed The Proclaimers in 1983, building up a dedicated following north of the border, before a demo album overseen by Kevin Rowland of Dexys Midnight Runners, led to a UK tour in support of The Housemartins and, finally, a deal with Chrysalis Records.

The duo’s debut album, This Is The Story, went gold on the back of their spirited, unemployment-related hit Letter From America, while their tremendous second album, Sunshine On Leith, contained their signature song, I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), which peaked at No.3 in the US. Meanwhile, the song Sunshine On Leith has itself gone on to become an emotive anthem for the Reid brothers’ hometown, and stands as one of the best football songs to boot. have retained a huge following since, and acclaimed recent albums such as Let’s Hear It For The Dogs and 2018’s Angry Cyclist show they remain as relevant as ever.

Must hear: I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)

3: Rod Stewart

The former Faces frontman and distinguished solo star is technically Anglo-Scottish, because he was born in Highgate, in north London, and grew up in The Big Smoke. However, Rod Stewart’s father, Robert, was 100 per cent Scottish, so he qualifies for a place among the best Scottish musicians. Besides, Stewart is a lifelong Scotland supporter and fan of Celtic, and he also lived in Scotland for a time.

Despite his roots, Stewart is still a little surprised when the public assume he’s a fully fledged Scot. “All I am is very proud of my father, who was Scottish, and the wee bit of Scottish blood I have in me,” he said in 2015. “It’s a spiritual thing for me.”

Must hear: Sailing

2: Primal Scream

Bobby Gillespie was involved in several of Scottish rock’s most important skirmishes during the 80s and 90s. Originally doing a stint with underrated Factory Records outfit The Wake, he then played drums with the classic early line-up of The Jesus And Mary Chain, responsible for 1985’s Psychocandy album.

By the mid-80s, however, Gillespie moved centre-stage with his own outfit, Primal Scream, whose brief, spiky song Velocity Girl is credited with launching the NME-sponsored C-86 indie-pop movement. With 1989’s Loaded (Andrew Weatherall’s radical reworking of their song I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have), they tapped into club culture and, in 1991, their dance-infused Screamadelica album changed the notion of indie-pop forever.

Must hear: Loaded

1: Simple Minds

It’s been quite a ride for Simple Minds. Initially rising from the ashes of frontman Jim Kerr’s punk outfit, Johnny And The Self-Abusers, the group remained an (albeit large) cult concern for their first five years, releasing widely hailed albums such as Empires And Dance, Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call, with the acclaim then translating into sales from 1982’s New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) onwards.

Simple Minds’ commercial peak came in the mid-to-late 80s, when much-loved hits such as Don’t You (Forget About Me) and Alive And Kicking, and the multi-platinum albums Once Upon A Time and Street Fighting Years, reserved the group’s place at rock’s top table. Quality albums such as Graffiti Soul and the aptly-titled Big Music have underpinned their resurgence in recent years and – for both their immense catalogue and their apparent invincibility – Simple Minds are more than deserving of topping this list of the best Scottish musicians.

Must hear: Waterfront

You know the best Scottish musicians, now find out more great musical exports, in the shape of the best Irish musicians.

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