Authenticity was absolutely the order of the night on the HebCelt main stage on Thursday — traditionally the quietest night of the festival and you can’t get much quieter than one man and his guitar.
But when that man is Dougie Maclean — national treasure, folk hero and adopted Leodhasach — one man and his guitar is all you need. Despite the size of the crowd, he easily brought them with him.
I have to say, I’ve got a great affection for Dougie. I love his music and he was the first person I ever interviewed as a journalist.
That was 19 years ago and I’ve never forgotten how nice he was. I caught up with him again last night and he was just as nice as I remembered. More of that later, though.
When he came on stage with only his guitar for company, I did briefly wondered whether he would be able to keep the crowd’s attention. They were a big audience, despite it being the first night of the festival. But right from the off, he was teaching choruses and leading a singalong.
It had just gone 8pm and the tent was in good voice. It wasn’t always the right voice — “that’s a beautiful tune, just not the same tune as mine… let’s try it again” — but there was enthusiasm and a nice atmosphere.
It would be hard not to like Dougie. He tells stories and cracks jokes — “if you’re going to take a picture, take it now because I’m looking my coolest” he said, when he took out his harmonica — and generally has a great line in banter.
He played the didgeridoo, too, and when he was explaining how to do circular breathing (in and out at the same time), said conspiratorially: “It makes you feel really good too…”
There’s something about Dougie Maclean that reminds me of a Native American — it might be that association with the film Last of the Mohicans, which features his incredible track The Gael – but it’s also about how in tune he is with places and peoples.
Many of the songs he played last night were of places, like the one about being in the shadow of a volcano about to erupt in Anchorage. “If I can see a volcano that’s about to erupt from my hotel room, then I am too close to a volcano that’s about to erupt!”
He has a house in Lewis — at Reef in Uig – which he has owned for 25 years and one of the songs he played, Feel So Near, was inspired by being there on a windy winter’s day.
Out of the window he saw a caravan — there are lots of them at Reef — go tumbling past, head over heels, across the machair.
“I feel so near to the howling of the winds / I feel so near to the crashing of the waves…” There were plenty folk in the audience could relate to that as we sang along.
The ultimate Dougie Maclean place, though, is Caledonia and what a HebCelt moment that was.
“I was told if I didn’t sing this I’d get lynched,” he said beforehand, to a big roar of appreciation, before laying down the singalong gauntlet. “I’m just back from the Tiree festival and the people of Tiree sang this fantastic. So we’ll see how good you are…”
I’m old enough to remember that Tennent’s advert — it’s part of the Scottish iconography — and there were lots of iPhones out capturing this festival moment. But I also remember what Dougie told me about writing “that wee song” back in the day when I interviewed him.
He was 18 and back home after a spell of travelling. “I’d been travelling the world trying to find myself”, he said to me, “but there I was the whole time, beside the fire with my baffies on.”
I was privileged enough to be able to catch up with him during a signing in the merchandise tent and managed some quick chat while he blethered to fans and posed for pictures (I managed to get one too, which I was chuffed about).
I told him I had never forgotten what he said about the inspiration for his most famous song and that I could relate, having found my way back to Lewis after years away.
“Aye,” he nodded, wisely. “I had a friend who was working in London, making tons of money. Then he heard my song. ‘You bastard!’ he said. ‘Now I’m back in Glasgow, making crap money’…”
He said not to quote him on that… (sorry Dougie) but it’s too good to leave out!
He described HebCelt as “brilliant”, saying: “I was at the first one and it’s grown and grown and grown. It’s brilliant and it’s brilliant for the island.
“Caroline and her team do a fantastic job, particularly with the vagaries of the Hebridean weather.”
He said the gig had been “lovely”, adding: I wouldn’t have expected anything less from the wonderful Lewis people of the festival. There was a great atmosphere in the room. It’s a great thing when you get people singing together like that.
“It’s what I do; it’s why I do it. I’m the last of a dying breed of troubadour”.
He described himself as “an old hippy”, one man and his guitar, travelling around, getting other people to sing his songs with him. I had to ask him who won the sing-off. Us or Tiree? “You were both equally good,” he said diplomatically.
When I asked what he thought about Lewis, he said: “I love Lewis. Somebody said to me, it’s a very thin place. The difference between the living and the dead is very small here. Out on the west coast, it’s a very spiritual place. You feel in touch with the land and the place, so it’s beautiful.”
That idea is also conveyed beautifully in Feel So Near. And it’ll no doubt be my Dougie Maclean thinker for the next two decades.
I was so preoccupied talking to Dougie that I missed Tide Lines on the Islands Stage — I’d missed Eleanor Nicolson too, unfortunately — but got it on good authority that they’d gone down a storm.
My friend Jane was impressed by them and taken with the fact they were able to work unexpected songs like Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off into their set.
They really reminded Jane of that ‘big Scots band’ sound, if you like — the sound of Big Country or Runrig. And she thought singer Robert Robertson had shades of Stuart Adamson or Donnie Munro, depending on the song.
I’m sorry I missed them and will make a point of catching them the first chance I get. I was also sorry to miss Eleanor, a young singer-songwriter from the Isle of Lewis whose star keeps on rising.
She had a good band up there with her, on the Island Stage, too. It would have been good.
But back to the main tent and the Peatbog Faeries brought it home. I first got to know them when they played the festival in 2004 — my official review of that is still available on the HebCelt website, by the way (find it here) — and I was blown away then, as now.
I love their distinctive Celtic dance fusion. They’re top class trad players but the vibe is completely contemporary. I don’t know how many acts could blend pipes, a whistle, fiddle, drums and guitar with heavy synth and have it work so well.
I got in cahoots with fellow journo Eilidh Whiteford for the Peatbogs and we shared some thoughts.
“I prefer them to the Chilli Pipers,” I confided — although I was very impressed with them at HebCelt last year — and Eilidh totally agreed.
It’s that whole authenticity of the Peatbog Faeries, who come from Skye. They have taken pipe music into a different setting but always kept its integrity. As entertaining as the Red Hot Chilli Pipers are, they are a bit too pastiche for me.
You could never say that about the Peatbog Faeries. The piping is classic but, oh man, the funk. The groove. The complete cool.
They played Spiders towards the end of their set and the blend of whistle and fiddle with the heavy, heavy synth was incredible. It was powerful and the great lightshow made it altogether pretty trippy.
“Mind blown?” asked Eilidh. Mind blown.