We are thrilled to welcome a special guest today, renowned Scottish singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean! Recently I phoned Dougie at his home in Scotland, just after he had returned from a concert tour in England and Wales, to ask a few questions on behalf of the Wenches. We spoke about music, creativity and songwriting from the perspective of Dougie's abiding love of things historical, particularly fitting for his first visit to our historical fiction blog… so please sit back and enjoy a chat with this talented and charming songmaker.
One of Scotland's most successful, respected and popular musicians, Dougie MacLean is highly acclaimed as a singer, songwriter, composer, performer, masterful guitarist, and fiddle player, and his songs are known worldwide, sung in pubs and at sporting games, and covered by other artists. From his home base in the village of Butterstone in the beautiful Perthshire hills of Scotland, he tours the world both as a solo performer and with his band. His moving songs, especially "Caledonia" and "The Gael" among others, have been recorded by hundreds of artists and some have been featured in movies and TV advertisements. His newest release, "Songmaker," is a DVD of several of his best-known songs, filmed in Butterstone. In September, Dougie will be touring the east coast of the USA, and in October he will host the sixth annual Perthshire Amber-Dougie MacLean music festival in Scotland. "A festival with vision and imagination…and great momentum!" — The Scotsman
Dougie, welcome to Word Wenches! You're probably best known for your contemporary songs, yet your music has strong ties to history, too. For example, you've done a CD of the songs of Burns and Tannahill, and you've recorded some traditional Gaelic songs as well as some 18th century fiddle tunes. And some of your songs have historical associations, including the very well-known "The Gael" (featured in the movie "Last of the Mohicans" — as well as a Nike commercial!).
Can you tell us a little about how you came to write "The Gael" ? (click here to see Dougie performing his original composition.)
Dougie: I wrote the song for the Loch Ness Monster Centre-– it was a commission for them. The monster in the loch goes way back to ancient Gaelic myths of seahorses (kelpies), and to write this little tune, I imagined a Gaelic community on the banks of Loch Ness, believing in such myths, and I thought about how real that would have been to them. I wrote several songs for “The Search,” the CD that contains “The Gael” and other songs about Loch Ness, including a song about the vigils on the loch in the 1960s. At the time I got right into the whole Loch Ness monster thing. I’m fascinated by man’s search for myth, and I was inspired by thinking of the Gaels back in ancient times, waiting for the monster to appear.
The movie—they were looking for a contemporary Scottish piece with atmosphere to suit the movie, and they had listened to a lot of dance tunes and that. “The Gael” is an ominous sort of piece, with ominous chords, dramatic. Michael Mann (the director) tuned into the emotional feeling of the song, and he must have felt the mood I had felt when I had written it. If it comes from the right place, the music encapsulates a feeling—Michael Mann tapped into that, with the tragedy of this story of the early Native Americans and so on. You have to get into that place for the emotions, the mood, to work in a song. (click here for the movie version of "The Gael.")
When I wrote "Caledonia" that was a much simpler thing, kind of communicating that sense of belonging, of home, and that’s kind of historical too, as you can’t live in a place like this without the history being part of what makes it home for you. I love this part of the world because I know there’s thousands of years of history here. In Scotland, we have a sense of our history, we’re emotionally connected to it, we’re aware of being part of the continuity of the place — like a higher sense of belonging. I’m in love with this place, and it’s historical memory that helps make you feel part of a place (click here to watch a live performance of "Caledonia").
Susan: Your music often evokes the deeper connections to our ancestors and historical legacies– do you consciously set out to accomplish that?
Dougie: Oh yes. I wrote a song about Mary, Queen of Scots after visiting Fotheringhay Castle, the remains of Fotheringhay where she was beheaded, and where her coffin lay for a year, as they didn’t know what to do with it, wanting to avoid her becoming a martyr and so on. There’s such a mood in that place, an amazing sense of history there. I was standing in what had been the great hall of the castle, where the platform had been set up for her execution. Terrible dark mood there. Fotheringhay is one of the spookiest places I’ve ever been, where a terrible thing in history happened–I mean, cutting off the head of someone else's queen! For the song, I wanted to communicate the mood I felt there.
Susan: Have you absorbed traditional music techniques and styles in your own songwriting and performing?
Dougie: Yes! My grandfather used to sing in the pubs and at home, and when he’d get enough whisky in him he’d sing in Gaelic and the tears would roll down his cheeks. I come from a musical Gaelic family, very much so, and I absorbed the patterns and the sense of melody in Gaelic tunes. My mother played the mandolin and my father the fiddle, and my grandfather was a singer–and I consider myself more a singer, as he was. When he would sing and cry, drinking the whisky, we children would ask what was wrong with Seanair (grandfather in Scottish Gaelic) and we were told oh, he was all right, it was just the mood of the song got to him. And that’s with me now as I make my own music. Sometimes I’ll try something new for Jenny and them here, and I’ll play the new bit and burst into tears. When you can tip the emotions over into that place, that’s good.
Susan: Your personal interests in history are varied — you dig your own peats for fuel and you've done a little excavating on your property on the Isle of Lewis. You've been involved with bottling your own whisky brand at Edradour, one of the most historically authentic small distilleries in Scotland. And you've explored MacLean genealogy (and were featured on the BBC for your work!). Can you tell us something about your interests outside of music?
Dougie: Well I haven’t cut peats yet this year! But making our whisky with Edradour, that’s been a great thing. It’s one of the finest small historical distilleries that we have here in Scotland. And it was interesting to recently learn that during prohibition in America, that the Mafia were in cahoots with small Scottish distilleries, Irish too. Edradour was shipping whisky to Newfoundland, and it was being smuggled to Chicago. The Irish and Scots were making fortunes during the American prohibition. Scottish ties to the Mafia–amazing!
Here near my home, there’s a wee burn called the Drouthy Burn, where my dad as a boy saw the remains of a very old still back there hidden among the trees. "Drouth" means thirsty or dry in Scots, and I can imagine the folks way back then saying, Oh, I’m off for the thirsty burn! And the still would be up there.
Susan: If you hadn't become a musician, would you have become a historian or an archaeologist?
Dougie: An archaeologist! I’d love to have been that. Though I continue to get into trouble on the Isle of Lewis, where I have a house, for rooting around old sites! I like to go to some of these places and take a few moments to visualize what was there before. Around here we have some remains of Roman camps in the hills above Butterstone and Dunkeld, and you can stand above and see the straight lines they built. The Romans got up this far, not much further. Here as I’m talking to you on the phone, I’m looking out the window at an old mound, the remains of Bishop Sinclair’s castle, back in Wallace and Bruce days. My dad remembered seeing ruins there and now it’s houses and cottages called Craigie Wallace and other references to Wallace. Archaeology is about trying to understand the past from what is left behind, bits and pieces and mounds and that. I love that.
Susan: What's next from Dougie MacLean?
Dougie: Well, there's the new DVD, "Songmaker," which was filmed here in Butterstone Studios in our school (note: Dougie’s home in Butterstone was once the village schoolhouse, where his father and uncles went to school, and which Dougie purchased several years ago to make into his home and a recording studio—a triumph for his Dad, who was a bit of a rascal in his boyhood and wished the teacher could have known who would own that school in the future!). We’ve got a film company now for videos, and it’s a great thing to do when I'm at home and not on tour. I’m writing songs with my son now and it’s an opportunity to concentrate on creativity. For creative projects, you know, you must keep yourself happy and not compromise what you do.
Dougie's new DVD "Songmaker" focuses on acoustic versions of some of his better known songs, filmed at Dougie's home in Butterstone and performed with various members of his band. There are also two bonus videos–one filmed in the Perthshire hills and one on the Isle of Lewis. To purchase the video along with CDs and other items, visit www.DougieMacLean.com.
Dougie will be touring around the UK in August (including in Edinburgh at the Festival Fringe on Aug. 14) and he will be performing on the east coast of the USA in September (see his concert schedule here).
Please take a moment to welcome Dougie by posting a comment below — and you'll have a chance to win some of Dougie's music! We'll draw a name at random from among those who post a substantive comment before midnight eastern time (US) on Friday, July 30.