Obituary: Norman Maclean, scholar, entertainer and Gaelic legend

Norman Maclean
Norman Maclean
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Norman Mackinnon Maclean, born Govan, Glasgow, 26 December 1936; died Balivanich, Benbecula, 31 August 2017

Norman Maclean’s Facebook profile starts starkly: “Worked at innumerable employers.” He had, variously, managed a citrus farm in Florida; been on the South Georgia whaling; served – briefly – as Birgitte Bardot’s personal piper; taught mathematics at schools in Glasgow and Oban; and tried the hotel trade.

Brilliant and thoughtful, he was also a poet, novelist, playwright and a serious actor. Immensely well read, he was fluent in French, Spanish and Portuguese and remains the only person (in 1967) ever to win both the Mod Gold Medal and its Bardic Crown in the same year.

“Tormod,” though, as Highlanders knew him, is best remembered as an exuberant Gaelic entertainer – an assured television host; a brilliant piper; a sweet singer and a hilarious stand-up comic with a deadly gift for mimicry – whose material, if often risqué, was never unkind; whose admirers included Billy Connolly and Sean Connery.

Sadly, alcohol was a big problem for him. Drink derailed Maclean’s university studies – he scraped through with third-class honours; destroyed both his marriages; estranged him from his only child; rapidly vitiated his good looks; and, many believe, dashed real prospects of international stardom.

The tales are legion, and largely unfunny. Booze entailed his swift dismissal by Bardot – he drained the screen-siren’s St Tropez liquor cabinet and then made unwelcome advances. It cost Maclean a part in Bill Forsyth’s film Comfort and Joy.

He could rarely be relied on to turn up on time and sober for work. He managed to burn down his hotel and, as firemen fought the flames, pestered them for an ash-tray – and, by the mid-Eighties, Maclean was all but unemployable.

As his boozing permitted, and for many years, Norman Maclean was thereafter a Highland troubadour, stumping the glens and the Hebrides from this hotel to that village-hall, crooning and piping (he could canter about at no mean lick, playing intricate and note-perfect reels at the same time) but mostly, and with ocean-going charm, making you laugh till it hurt.

Norman Maclean was born in Govan on Boxing Day 1936. His father, Neil, was a docker from Tiree and his mother, Peigi, from Cnoc a Mhoine by Lochmaddy in North Uist. He was still not four when his mother fled Glasgow (and the bombers) in 1940, where they stayed with her uncle, a shepherd, in the extraordinarily remote Lochaber village of Strathan, then a tight-knit Gaelic-speaking community with a small school and a half-crazed teacher.

In 1943 they moved to Benbecula – where Maclean acquired English, from the Just William books – and upon Neil’s demobilisation from the Merchant Navy returned with his family to Glasgow in 1946, a small, thickly accented Highland boy. After a few playground beatings, Maclean was in a matter of weeks “fluent in Govanese”.

There was thus, he came to grasp, a central confusion of identity that fuelled his addiction. Norman Maclean never quite knew where he was from and felt lifelong at the margins of two different worlds – Highland and Gaelic-speaking, Lowland and Glaswegian – and not truly wanted in either.

He was of a generation of Gaels, too, who grew up to see the language and culture of their communities largely evaporate and were thus forced to apply themselves to careers in English: an unnerving, overwhelming experience that has driven many to drink.

Nor did Maclean truly know parental love. Though he lifelong and pathetically idolised his father – who died when he was 14 – the unpleasant, philandering “Niall Mor” was not worth it.

His embittered mother ended up cursing the day Norman was born, taunting him on her very deathbed that he was an unclean thing who should wear a leper’s bell. And the early death of his younger sister, Lorna – in 1969 – only hastened his descent into alcoholism.

He was “extraordinarily gifted,” recalls journalist and statesman Brian Wilson. “Fatally self-destructive, very funny and insightful. I remember being in his company once in Skye, in the Pier Hotel, when he went ‘on the drink’ after a good while off it.

“It was terrible to watch. He could not be restrained from driving back to Glasgow and was duly stopped on the Kingston Bridge. The cop asked him: ‘Where do you think you’re going?’ Norman replied: ‘To the moon, baby…’ ”Always a natty dresser, Maclean often affected the Americanisms of Raymond Chandler – but, despite his dreadful problems, there was a tenderness about him – a delight in other people – that he never lost. Nor was he in the least precious: one commission he vastly enjoyed was re-voicing Danger Mouse, for Scottish Television, in hilarious Gaelic.

“Brilliance is a word I think about when I think about Norman: brilliance both in the sense of greatness and of illumination,” mused his friend Jamie Chambers this week.

“Norman wasn’t ‘bright’ in the sense he was always happy or that he was always an emotionally easy man, but he had a luminosity, a brightness that comes as close to a truly universal quality as I’ve seen in my lifetime: something that communicated to everyone.

“Watching Norman interact over the years with folk from all over Scotland and the rest of the world, I have yet to meet anyone who he couldn’t make laugh, who wasn’t captured by his charm and wasn’t hanging on his every word minutes after meeting him.”

Norman was probably within weeks of death when in 2009 an aghast young couple swept him to Uist, finding him first a hospital bed and then local authority accommodation.

Months later he would publish his acclaimed autobiography, The Leper’s Bell. But Tormod had no domestic skills and, the following year, a local family – the Townsends – simply took him into their Grimsay home, where he became fast part of the furniture and adored by their pets.

By 2011 he was sober, happy – and he never drank again. The community embraced him. He came to faith in the local Free Church. Young folk all over the Uists sought him out as a mentor in singing, piping and acting. Scholars and academics beat a path to the Townsend door and Maclean shone with extraordinary new power, completing further memoirs and a sparkling trilogy of Gaelic novels.

Maclean had just finished a documentary for BBC Alba when, in August – now desperately frail – he faded into hospital, where he was at last movingly reconciled with his daughter.

Tormod cherished books, people, the sweet Hebridean dignity of his final years – and really good chocolate. He will be remembered with a smile, and with love, by thousands and as long as Gaeldom stands.

Norman Maclean is survived by his wife, Peigi Martin, from whom he was amicably separated; his first wife, Moira MacDonald, and their daughter, Temora.

JOHN MACLEOD