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Sunshine On Leith: How The Proclaimers’ Offered Light In The Darkness
JEP Live Music
In Depth

Sunshine On Leith: How The Proclaimers’ Offered Light In The Darkness

A ‘love song to Scotland’ that became an emotion-filled football anthem, ‘Sunshine On Leith’ is The Proclaimers’ defining moment.

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I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) may be the more infectious song, while The Proclaimers also boasted bigger hits in the shape of Letter From America and Let’s Get Married, but Sunshine On Leith, the title track to their 1988 album, remains the true beating heart at the centre of Craig and Charlie Reid’s work. Released as its parent album’s second single, the song initially charted just outside the Top 40 in the UK, but has since taken on far greater significance: not only adopted as the anthem for The Proclaimers’ beloved football team, Hibernian FC, and lending its title to a stage musical (later adapted into a movie) featuring The Proclaimers’ music, it has arguably risen above all others to become the Reid brothers’ signature song.

A “love song to Scotland”

When The Proclaimers entered the studio in early 1988, to begin recording the follow-up to their debut album, This Is The Story, they were about 150 miles away from Leith, a district in the north of Edinburgh that twins Craig and Charlie Reid called home. The now-defunct Chipping Norton Recording Studios, where they set up shop (also the birthplace of Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street and Radiohead’s Creep, along with albums by Duran Duran, Chris Rea and Dexys Midnight Runners) was in the Cotswolds, a region of England now largely known as a playground for the country’s political and media elite, but across January and February, the Reids would turn it into a laboratory for their unique crossover mix of folk-rock and traditional Scottish songs, delivered with a pop sensibility and bags of attitude.

Where This Is The Story had seen the Reids work largely as a folk-rock duo, with Sunshine On Leith they expanded their sound to include Fairport Convention’s Jerry Donahue (guitar) and Dave Mattacks (drummer), along with dextrous session keyboardist Pete Wingfield and contributions from Dexys Midnight Runners’ Steve Shaw (fiddle, mandolin and piano). But while this expanded sound fuelled upbeat songs such as I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) and I’m On My Way, Sunshine On Leith found The Proclaimers stripping things back for a heartfelt ballad that allowed the Reids’ songwriting to shine.

“We were singing about where we live”

Released as the first single from Sunshine On Leith, I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) hit No.11 in the UK, while topping the charts in Australia and New Zealand, paving the way for the album’s surprise double-platinum sales Down Under. But Sunshine On Leith, hailed by the BBC as a “love song to Scotland”, was a fittingly intimate song resolutely focused on home. From the very start of their career, The Proclaimers’ decision to sing in their native accents was “a conscious thing”, Craig Reid told Dundee newspaper The Courier in 2018, “because we were singing about where we live, our experiences, and it just felt stupid to sing in an English or American accent” – and nowhere was this more apparent than on Sunshine On Leith, which, while both giving praise and pledging devotion to a loved one (“Your beauty and kindness/Made tears clear my blindness/While I’m worth my room on this Earth/I will be with you”), was also unmistakably a hymn to their birthplace.

“It was a love song that became a terrace anthem”

Two years after the song’s release, Leith’s local football team, Hibernian FC, adopted the song as their anthem as they fought off a takeover battle from Wallace Mercer, then owner of local rivals Hearts Of Midlothian. Throughout the Hands Off Hibs campaign that followed, The Proclaimers stepped forward to help raise awareness and financial support for their team, providing equipment for rallies at Hibs’ Easter Road stadium and headlining an event at Usher Hall.

“Charlie Reid came over to me and my dad and said, ‘Listen, this rally at Easter Road, we’ll provide all the amplification, we’ll provide a marquee for the guests and we’ll also help you with anything you need at the Usher Hall,” Kenny McLean, son of campaign leader Kenny McLean, Sr, told Edinburgh News.

At the Usher Hall event, The Proclaimers’ performance of Sunshine On Leith became a defining moment that forever linked the song to Hibs’ history. “It was a love song that became a terrace anthem,” McLean said, adding, “It was at this time the song really started to resonate with the Hibs fans. It was always looked upon to me as the song that helped defeat Mercer.”

The Hibs won out and Mercer dropped the takeover bid. A year later, Hibs repaid their fans’ – and the Reid brothers’ – commitment by winning the 1991-1992 Scottish League Cup for the first time in two decades.

An anthem of endurance

Having helped lead their team to glory, Sunshine On Leith also earned The Proclaimers their own cup win when it beat out competition from other iconic terrace songs, such as Gerry And The Pacemakers’ You’ll Never Walk Alone], to be named the winner of BBC Radio 6 Music’s Football Anthems World Cup in 2018. By this point, however, Sunshine On Leith had found a new audience.

Picked as the title track for a stage musical based on The Proclaimers’ songs, which debuted at Dundee Rep Theatre in 2007 and, in 2013, was adapted into a film in which Craig and Charlie Reid made cameos, Sunshine On Leith has now become an anthem of endurance that, 30 years after helping the Hibs survive, was used to support another local institution facing a crisis. With the Covid-19 pandemic putting a strain on medical facilities around the world, The Proclaimers reissued the song on limited-edition clear-green vinyl and sold it through Hibernian Direct, with £14.50 from each of the 100 signed copies going towards Edinburgh And Lothians Health Foundation, the official charity of NHS Lothian.

Having once called Sunshine On Leith the best song they’d written, The Proclaimers, who’d originally sung it in praise of a saviour of a different type, were now using it to give thanks to those key workers who had saved countless lives throughout the pandemic. “The NHS is very much loved by both of us and we have much reason to be grateful to it,” the brothers said in December 2020.

In turn, football and music fans alike have much reason to be grateful to The Proclaimers.

Listen to the best of The Proclaimers, here.

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