Book review: The Leper's Bell

The Leper's Bellby Norman MacleanBirlinn, 288pp, £16.99

THERE is a curious anecdote in Norman Maclean's lively autobiography, The Leper's Bell. A west Highland musician friend of Maclean's had recently returned from entertaining Billy Connolly's guests at the comedian's Banffshire mansion. Connolly had asked the musician if he knew a man called Norman Maclean. The musician admitted that he did. "That was one funny guy," Connolly said. "You know how you Teuchters aren't noted for your humour – but that Maclean was a genuinely funny man."

This is now a fourth-hand story, and therefore possibly inaccurate. But if there's truth to it, the wonder is not that Connolly found Maclean funny, nor that he spoke of Maclean in the past tense (for very good reasons, Connolly would not be the only person to assume that our hero would fail to greet the 21st century).

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The surprise is that Billy Connolly, who is himself funny enough to float a country, thought that Highlanders are not. At the risk of cultural stereotyping, Scottish Gaels are very witty indeed. They are short on slapstick and pawky one-liners, but without much apparent effort most Gaels can make themselves, and anybody else lucky enough to be in the vicinity, laugh out loud.

As a rule of thumb – which is intimately connected to the strength and resilence of oral culture – the further north and west you travel in Scotland, the wittier the inhabitants get. By the time you reach the Uists you don't need to turn on a television. The jokes are waiting at the bar. Norman Maclean, as he knows, is simply on his day one of the smarter repositories of Highland wit. But on his day, Maclean could be just about anything.

He was born in Glasgow in 1937 to a Uist family. Three years later, following the outbreak of the Second World War, he was evacuated from Clydeside to stay with relatives who were working on Cameron of Lochiel's estate at the head of Loch Arkaig. It is sobering (or it should be) to be reminded that in the middle of the 20th century monoglot Gaelic speakers such as Maclean's older relatives could survive and thrive on the Scottish mainland without ever needing more than a couple of words of English – and that a five-year-old could attend the primary school and be greeted there by a Gaelic-speaking teacher.

Maclean's great-uncle James, who was the shepherd on that Lochaber estate, was unable to understand the wartime BBC radio broadcasts. Seumas would occasionally, inevitably, bump into stag-hunters on the hillside and had learned to forewarn them with three words of Beurla: "No England here." So much shrinkage, within one modest lifetime. By way of Lochaber and extended spells in the Western Isles, Maclean returned in the post-war years to become a Glasgow Gael. "I was constantly negotiating between the Highland and Lowland cultures," he writes. "This dexterity bred distance, if only to mask insecurity."

Whatever its effect on the young Maclean, there can be little doubt which culture triumphed at his internal negotiating table. Highland won hands down. The rest of his life can be read not as a balancing act between the Gaidhealtachd and the Central Belt, but as a courageous and principled, if sometimes over-emotional, crusade to restore the Gaelic talents and virtues of his childhood.

The crusade took several forms, for this is a man with so many gifts that he can be forgiven for not knowing which of them to employ in any given week. He is a talented piper and singer, a seriously good writer in two languages, a teacher, a traveller, an actor, a stand-up comic and the pre-eminent Gaelic television entertainer of his generation.

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You did not need to be a Gaelic speaker to tune in to Tormod air Telly in the late 1970s and recognise a unique form of greatness. Like the band Runrig at the same time, Maclean offered the fleeting illusion that the Scottish Gaidhealtachd had come to terms with the modern media world and was capable of accommodating it on the media's own terms.

If it did not and could not, that was surely partly because so small a culture cannot be expected to produce more than one Runrig and one Norman Maclean in the space of a couple of decades.

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The Leper's Bell is an honest account of Maclean's journey through the second half of the 20th century. It involves a good many women, including a rare (for both parties) chaste encounter with Brigitte Bardot, and virtually all the prominent Gaels of his time. You could read The Leper's Bell just to be reminded of how many Gaels still illuminated the whole of Scotland at the end of the second millennium. It also involves drink. Maclean has been addicted to what he calls "drug alcohol" all his adult life. He has been in and out of more Priories than a medieval bishop. He does not pretend to be a functioning alcoholic. He has been warned by no less an authority than the aforementioned Billy Connolly that drink would stand between him and the fame and fortune which would inevitably fall into a sober Maclean's lap. But by the final pages of The Leper's Bell, Maclean, now in his eighth decade and looking every month of it, calls a truce with his addiction. It has won many battles. It is not naive to suggest that he has won the war. Drug alcohol has landed its heaviest blows on this man but he is still walking and still working. In his seventies he is publishing important Gaelic novels and a 300-page English memoir. We could all wish for such a maturity.

He is also planning another tour – a comeback tour? – of his favourite venues, which are mostly of course in the north and west of Scotland. You should jump at the tickets. Even if you can't understand a word of his language, Norman Maclean will make you laugh louder and longer than almost anybody outside that Banffshire mansion house.