Dougie MacLean’s heart and soul connection to Caledonia
The view from the family home of singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean encompasses more than just a few miles of rolling Perthshire countryside, it stretches back through time itself.
- Full feature in Issue No. 4
The grey stone cottage stands on the same spot where the 59-year-old renowned musician played as a boy, as did his father and his grandfather before him.
As you would expect from the man who wrote the haunting lyrics of Caledonia, which has become an anthem for Scots and their descendants around the world, this land has a unique place in his heart and soul.
“This is the old school and this is the field we used to play in,” said Dougie as he surveyed the landscape beyond the dry stane dykes that surround the former school house which was once the centre of a community. Even now you can almost hear the squeals of excited children running across the fields to play and explore.
“I quite fancy going across there with a metal detector as I’m sure there must be loads of pennies and things that have fallen from pockets” said Dougie whose eyes light up with pride as he talks about the house that has been a source of inspiration and sanctuary.
Over the years Dougie has been hailed as one of Scotland’s premier singer-songwriters. An exceptionally talented musician he is as accomplished on the fiddle, mandola, viola, bouzouki, banjo, digeridoo, piano and bass as well as the guitar.
The former member of the Tannahill Weavers and Silly Wizard has also enjoyed an incredibly successful solo career recording numerous albums and creating his own record label, Dunkeld records.
More recently he has found renewed popularity among a reinvigorated audience after “Caledonia” became an anthem for a new generation during the referendum debate.
Passionate about performing before live audiences Dougie and his wife Jenny have for the last 12 years brought folk music to an ever expanding audience in the form of the ‘Perthshire Amber’ festival.
What started as little more than a weekend get-together for Dougie and friends has turned into a major event run over a 10 day period featuring some of the country’s top musicians.
“I was trying to get some of them to come and see Perthshire because a lot of my songs are influenced by the landscape here… because I’m a country boy from this wee village and you can’t escape the fact that your surroundings would have an influence on the kind of songs that you write. It was a way to get the people to come and see the place where the songs come from” he said.
The festival, which brings in more than £1million to the local economy, doesn’t just incorporate music. There are also walks and talks that take people out into the landscape. Performances take place in cathedrals, castles, village halls and many other interesting venues providing a unique musical experience.
“It gives people an opportunity to relate the music to the place because music is not just written in isolation. It’s written with the background of what I grew up with and the way I relate to the world,” said Dougie.
Dougie has been at the forefront of innovation in the music world for many years. His latest venture is Butterstone TV, a family run affair with his son, daughter and wife Jenny.What started out as a way of broadcasting audio from concerts held in the pub he owned in Dunkeld to a worldwide audience has turned into a fully fledged internet television channel.
As success of the Amber festival grew and many concerts sold out Dougie wanted to let people watch the concerts live and Butterstone TV was born.Dougie now broadcasts live from his home studio every month to viewers across the world, including Russia, Japan and America. The channel now boosts more than 100 hours of material.
“It’s like being allowed access to a very small gig. I get a great kick out of thinking that as we’re sitting there in front of a roaring fire, singing with a few friends, there is someone in Russia, Florida or New York watching it. That’s mind boggling! We are beaming this around the world from my little village, the little school that I went to and where my dad learned to write on a piece of slate.”
Dougie also likes the idea that these performances from his home enable him to share his music on a very personal level with the audience.
“I remember singing a song about my father’s scythe and I was able to take it down from the wall and show those watching how to sharpen it. It was just brilliant to be able to illustrate what the song was about. I’ve been able to do that quite a few times, to bring things in that I can show to people, something that’s mentioned. That adds another dimension to the performance…that’s interesting”.Dougie is passionate about his environment and the value of being able to relate that to the songs he sings.
“I like a song that has a lot more substance to it,” said Dougie. “I don’t tend to write songs about cities because I don’t know much about them. I write about what I know and that’s when you get the good stuff.”
Dougie’s father was a gardener on a big estate in Perthshire and by his own admission he came from quite a poor family.
“We lived in a beautiful place but I had to go out and work on the fields from the age of 8, picking potatoes and raspberries, because mum needed the extra wee bit of money” he said.
“That money would help buy school clothes. I learned how to work hard and that’s one of the reasons I’ve survived the touring thing because it’s exhausting and needs a lot of stamina.”
Dougie believes he was lucky to have come from that kind of wiry rural background and feels it gave him skills he was able to apply to the tough life of touring across the world.
“If you had a puncture on the side of a freeway in America you could get out and fix it. It was never a big deal, you were able to do things for yourself. That resourcefulness comes partly from my rural background. It meant that when I was in my 20s and left the Tannahill Weavers and went busking across Europe, just me and my fiddle, I just took off into the middle of southern Germany. I wasn’t scared to go and do it”.
In many ways being brought up in rural Perthshire and having to fix, repair and use his initiative means he’s grateful for a very different education than that which took place in the school house.
“I had a really close family. Both my father and my grandfather would walk around with me, all around this area and tell me the stories of this place. I grew up knowing this place intimately,” said Dougie.
“You could take me blindfold three or four miles around here and I’d know exactly where we were, I’d know the best place to find hazelnuts, the best places to find trout in the burn. I think back then people were much more in tune with nature and all the little nuances.
“One of the problems of humanity now is that we travel all the time. We go away and we live in different places and we never get to know one place intimately so we’re always a bit lost, we’re always a bit disconnected and that’s the way the modern world works.”
Dougie is not just passionate about music and the land but also the people of Scotland who he feels are experiencing a new found confidence.
“Over the last 10 years I’ve seen a self confidence in the Scottish people,” said Dougie. “People are starting to rediscover their culture through folk music and poetry and dance and song. There has been a cultural revolution that has brought a self confidence which has now filtered into the political system.
“The rest of the world really loves the Scottish identity whether it’s music or literature, the history, the landscape…it’s just the idea that we are very welcoming, you can always get a cup of tea or a whisky… people love that kind of thing!
“I think Scots themselves are beginning to realise the rest of the world really thinks we are quite something”.Despite playing all over the world Dougie remains every inch a Scot who feels most at home among his fellow countrymen and the landscape of Perthshire especially.
“I relate to them, they understand my humour and my stories. I don’t have to explain anything to them,” he said.
“It’s who I am and it’s why I am the way I am. The language I use is the language of this place.
“I’m so lucky to have been able to live here for the past 40 years and to be a musician who traveled around the world. I think it kept me grounded.
“I feel really privileged that I was able to bring my children up here, and now my grandchildren, and make all my music in my old school while playing to people all over the world… all from this little part of Scotland”.