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Dougie MacLean puts 50 years in music down to ‘rural stamina’ from growing up in Perthshire

The Caledonia singer is celebrating a half-century in the music world with a hometown show at Perth Concert Hall.

Dougie MacLean has been writing, singing and performing for 50 years. Image: Rob McDougall.
Dougie MacLean has been writing, singing and performing for 50 years. Image: Rob McDougall.

Some stars get sick of their most famous song, but not Dougie MacLean.

The Perthshire native, who wrote “Scotland’s adopted national anthem” Caledonia, has heard his hit song played at countless weddings, funerals, and football games.

And in the 41 years since he released the homesick ballad, it’s been covered by just about every artist to come out of Scotland, including Paolo Nutini, Amy MacDonald and Callum Beattie.

But as he prepares to celebrate an impressive 50 years in music with an intimate hometown show – Songmaker – at Perth Concert Hall, Dougie reveals he is “still very proud of the wee song”.

“I sing it often,” smiles Dougie, 69, as he launches into the well-kent tale.

“I wrote it on a beach in Brittany. I was doing a lot of busking, travelling with three Irish guys from Belfast, and we all felt homesick.

Dougie MacLean on stage. Image: Supplied.

“I finished the song in a youth hostel at about 4am and then played it to the guys the next day. That was the final straw, we were all on the next train home.”

Dougie shares that Caledonia is a special song which allows him to travel back in time to that younger self.

“It’s lovely because I can revisit the young 20-something that wrote the song,” he explains. “It’s quite nice, as an older man, to be able to revisit your youth like that.”

‘I don’t feel like an old person’ says Dougie

A long time has passed since Dougie sat on that French beach, but he’s as busy as ever when I call him at his home in the Old Schoolhouse at Butterstone, where his wife and manager Jenny can be heard pottering in the background.

“I don’t feel like an old person at all,” he chuckles. “I’m 70 this year, which is a bit scary. Because I see people who are 70 and we’re all old people!

“But I’m as busy as I’ve ever been,” he continues. “I’m just back from Australia and I’m going to America next year to play at Carnegie Hall with a of bunch of other Scottish musicians.”

Plus, of course, he’s got his Songmaker shows, which celebrate his half-century in the industry with performances of beloved gems from his back catalogue, including Thundering In, Turning Away, The Gael and of course, Caledonia.

He’ll be joined by “people I’ve worked with” including Perthshire piper Ross Ainslie, Dougie’s son Jamie MacLean, and guitarist Martin Hadden, who was in Dougie’s very first band, Puddock’s Well.

“I wanted to keep it quite personal, rather than getting big stars involved,” says Dougie. “Just my real band and the real people I’ve worked with, so it’s quite intimate and fun.”

What’s the secret to 50 years in music?

Indeed, when asked the secret to his longevity – 50 years is no mean feat – Dougie values one thing over all other: authenticity.

“When I started performing, you know, I was not a natural performer,” he admits. “I’m quite shy, and in the beginning it was quite intimidating.

“It’s one thing to write a song, another to sing a song. And another thing entirely to perform it on stage and get an audience to connect with it.

Dougie MacLean is coming to Perth Concert Hall with his Songmaker show. Image: Sean Purser.

“But I got some advice near the beginning of my career: Just be yourself.

“As soon as I started to go on the stage being who I am, which is a country boy from Perthshire, it changed everything. Because then there’s a kind of authenticity to your performance which isn’t showbiz, and that gives you confidence.

“It was a brilliant thing to learn early on, that being yourself is OK.”

‘Songwriters can take themselves too seriously’

And for Dougie, that authenticity and sense of ease and fun is something he thinks the modern music scene could use more of.

“I think that’s one of the things that’s kind of gone,” he observes. “I’m a bit of a hermit now right enough, I’m not going to gigs and things as much as I used to, so maybe I’m not qualified to say.

Dougie MacLean with longtime duo partner Ewen Sutherland, 2010. Image: Rob McDougall.

“And it would be very hard now as a young musician to do what I did, because in the age of the internet, there’s just so many people writing and singing songs.

“But I do think it can all be taken a bit too seriously. Songwriters in particular can take themselves too seriously!”

Rural living ‘keeps me grounded’

For Dougie, living in the area of Perthshire where he grew up has been helpful in keeping him “very grounded”.

He now lives in the schoolhouse where his father got his education, from which he broadcasts a web-show, Butterstone TV, with a concert each week.

“I’m really enjoying doing the broadcasts, because I don’t have to go around looking for the hotel after the gig!” he jokes. “I just come through and have a dram in front of my fire, which is good. It’s a nice model for an older musician because touring’s hard, you know.

Dougie MacLean near his home at Butterstone, Perthshire. Image: Supplied.

“And I was lucky. I had a lot of energy for it in my youth, and even in my 30s and 40s. But it can be very tiring.”

And he thanks his “rural stamina” for his ability to keep going on the road to “pay the mortgage and clothe the kids”.

“That was one of the things that probably helped me, because I’m a country boy, you know?” he explains. “I worked on farms and things when I was young, driving tractors and stuff. So I was quite resilient when when things got tough.”

From the stage to the greenhouse

As well as writing, playing and broadcasting, Dougie has been enjoying keeping bees at his home, fixing up old Honda motor scooters, spending time with his grandchildren and – to his own surprise – gardening.

“When I was growing up, I had no interest in gardens. And then eventually I got myself a greenhouse,” he chuckles.

Dougie MacLean says he has his rural upbringing to thank for his longevity. Image: Supplied.

“Now I’m I’m addicted to growing unusual vegetables tomatillos and Cape gooseberries and cucamelons. My late father was a gardener all his life – he’d be having a right laugh at me now in my greenhouse.”

For him, the aim of the game is to have a “complete life”, not be a celebrity.

“I just love to play, and I love to sing,” smiles Dougie. “And luckily I’ve got a bit of a knack for it.”

Dougie MacLean: Songmaker 2024 is at Perth Concert Hall on Saturday July 6.

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