Coinneach MacLeod: The Hebridean Baker TikTok star who is putting Scotland on stream

Author and cook Coinneach MacLeod is serving up a slice of the isles with his new cookbook and videos

Have you got a minute? We all have right now and maybe you’re already using it to watch TikTok. One of the fastest growing social media platforms with 689 million active users worldwide and massive with Generation Zedders, this feast of user-generated videos has anything and everything from helpful to hilarious.

Singing, dancing, DiY-ing and cooking, TikTokers can become overnight sensations like our very own Hebridean Baker, Coinneach MacLeod from Lewis who is cooking up a storm with a helping of island-inspired dishes. Served up with sides of stories, traditional music and appearances by Seoras the cute wee Westie, all packed into a tasty morsel of a minute, MacLeod is putting the Outer Hebrides on the international map.

From porridge with a spoonful of turmeric for a savoury breakfast to Croft Loaf, Cranachan Chocolate Bombs, Oaty Apricot Cookies, Heilan’ Coo Cupcakes, Granny Annag’s Christmas Cake and Aunt Bellag’s Duff, his home baking recipes have won him 135,000 followers in the past year, and no-one is more surprised than MacLeod.

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“I needed a creative outlet in lockdown and started posting recipes and maybe got two likes or one retweet, then I started doing TikTok and was getting half a million views, 90,000 people liking.

“I started last August and I’ve had ten million people watch my videos. For someone from a village of just 30 people, it's hard to put that into context,” he says.

Along with the recipes and demos come stunning views of the islands, music and stories of island life and culture, as well as appearances from his Westie - “of my 135,000 followers, maybe 70,000 are actually there for Seoras. I sometimes think my baking gets in the way of his global stardom”.

Such is MacLeod’s success, he’s now attracted the attention of a publisher and a cookbook of his recipes and stories of growing up on a croft in Cromore on the south east of Lewis, the youngest son of a fisherman and a weaver, is due out in September.

Catching up with MacLeod, I expected him at home in Glasgow or Lewis, spurtle in hand, but he’s a man of surprises and even in lockdown, demonstrates his islander globe-trotting genes.

“I’m in Mozambique right now,” he says, appearing on Zoom, all beard and smiles and crunchy-creamy-sweet cranachan accent.

Mozambique? Not Lewis then? How come?

“I work as a development officer in sport, so I travel to developing countries and work with the governments and the sports organisations to help grow the sports and health and well being, mostly football, basketball and tennis. I'm working in Mozambique for two weeks with the football federation. Sport’s a real passion of mine and I'm so glad I've been able to do it in a way that can make a difference.”

Coinneach MacLeod, aka The Hebridean Baker, stirs stories, music and Gaelic into his one-minute recipe demonstrations.

This is the first time MacLeod has been out of Scotland this year, but prior to that the 46-year old’s life was spent on the road, in Africa, The Caribbean, everywhere from Uzbekistan to Paraguay to Rwanda. With lockdown he was grounded between Glasgow and Oban with partner Peter MacQueen and Seoras and when MacQueen started cultivating the back garden for a TV series for BBC Alba, Peter’s Garden, MacLeod was pressed into service as a cameraman. With that in the can, MacLeod decided he needed a creative outlet of his own and The Hebridean Baker was born.

“We all have a bit of extra time on our hands and I've always loved baking, creating new bakes and taking recipes and giving them a wee kind of twist. I was trying to see if I could build a story in the 60 seconds and get a message across to people. I think it came from being very proud of where I'm from. The Outer Hebrides means so much to me and I've always tried to find methods to promote the islands and our culture, Gaelic and our identity,

“Becoming the Hebridean Baker has allowed me to not only show off my passion for baking - and that will always be as a home baker - it’s also allowed me to talk about the islands, give wee Gaelic lessons, talk about family and culture, all through the method of showing people how to bake at the same time. I'm so pleased it's resonated with so many people.”

The beauty of MacLeod’s TikTok recipes is they’re do-able, with a few store cupboard ingredients and family secrets, such as Peter’s granny’s spoonful of gravy browning in the Christmas cake, and the still to be revealed duff recipe used by 92-year-old Aunt Bellac. Also key is they’re designed to be made and eaten at home almost immediately by two hungry people and possibly their dog (especially if it’s roast chicken). And each comes with a Hebridean twist and a tale.

Almond & Pear Sponge

“I’ll be making the recipe but telling a story at the same time, so if it’s Atholl Brose, or 15th-century Bailey's, I’ll tell the story of the Earl of Atholl and the Lord of the Isles.”

MacLeod is someone who starts off telling one story and segues into another then dances back to the first, so there’s no shortage of tales to accompany the recipes in the cookbook.

“There will be stories about Harris Tweed and the islands and Gaelic, or just even just fun stories. There's a chapter, I think it's called something like lobsters and lambs, and I sat there thinking, what am I going to talk about, lambs, sheep, lobsters... I won't spoil it but the ending is about that I can officially tell you my father gave the Queen crabs. There’s a bit of a story in between, but that's the final line.”

He laughs.

“The stories are about my upbringing and the islands and people along the way, be it somebody in the village or The Queen.”

As for the recipes In The Hebridean Baker cookbook we can expect home bakes and hearty fare such as his Norwegian rhubarb and caraway cake or lobster mac(Leod) ‘n’ cheese, with Mull Cheddar and Peter’s family’s lobsters. MacLeod’s mantra is “Everything is better homemade” topped with a supplementary, “You never get fat on homemade food.” He’s not entirely sure about the veracity of the latter - “my cakes are pretty hearty and wholesome with sugar and butter,” he says, but the way he says it, we want to believe.

Coinneach MacLeod, a hit on TikTok as The Hebridean Baker, here with his trusty sidekick Seoras the West Highland Terrier, is working on a cookbook which will be published in September by Black & White Publishing.

“I grew up in a village that had no shop for a loaf of bread or anything so if you didn’t have the cow or the hens and didn't know how to make butter you would have to wait a week or two until my father came home from the fishing. My baking very much comes from making do with what you had. If you had a bountiful crop of potatoes, for the next couple of months you ate a lot of potatoes.

“My goal here is not to make Michelin star chefs out of my followers but to make really nice, simple recipes that people will really enjoy. So if you’ve got your aunty coming round for tea in the afternoon she’ll go ‘oh, that spiced tea loaf is tasty’. Or if your pals are coming for dinner, what looks like a fancy dessert is actually only four ingredients and the flavor comes from the whiskey or the marmalade. Homemade is always something I love.”

From the beginning, baking on TikTok, MacLeod realised that elaborate and complicated would not a happy Hebridean Baker make.

“Big elegant cakes with ten tiers and swirls and icing - I thought, hold on, who’s going to eat these? So intentionally my recipes would be for two hungry people and that resonated. We make the cake, we cut it in half, eat it, and the next day make a new cake. Peter complains that he's put on quite a bit of weight since the Hebridean Baker started, but he and Seoras always get a nice treat.”

Funnily enough it was a fellow Lewis islander’s progeny who inadvertently catapulted MacLeod to international fame, in the form of Donald Trump, when he attempted to ban TikTok in America. (Trump’s mother emigrated from the island to the US. “No relation though,” says MacLeod)

“Unbeknownst to me a journalist from Elle magazine wrote an article saying if that happened she’d miss the Scottish baker and suddenly I had an extra 80,000 followers from North America. She said I talk the way a warm piece of Scottish shortbread should talk,” he laughs.

“I think what resonated was I was a positive person and wanted to teach about the islands and Scotland, and did it in a nice way. And the accent has become something crazy. I get people asking me to make happy birthday videos for friends or read poetry. A lady in Minnesota asked me to read her husband's favorite poem for his Christmas. It's wonderful because many people, even in Scotland, might not know what a Hebridean accent is. Now people around the world know what somebody from the Hebrides sounds like, what the language of Gaelic is, what our traditional recipes are.

“People, even from home say ‘we knew you were from Lewis, but we didn’t expect you to sound so like you’re from Lewis, as if you’ve just left the croft the day before’. It's not an accent you lose. When you're from Lewis, this is your accent.”

MacLeod counts himself lucky that the feedback he gets from his posts has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Sometimes I’ll get 3,000 messages overnight about a bake and I reply to every single one. Because if a person has made such an effort to write and say that looks so tasty, I love your accent, Seonas made me laugh, or I was feeling sad until I saw your video, how can you not just say thank you. It's warming my heart so much, the messages from all around the world.”

Laudable but replying to 3,000 overnight messages, surely that way madness lies?

“Yes, it’s quite a commitment I have to say Janet. It does take up quite a bit of time. Multitasking is definitely a skill, sadly for somebody who doesn't mind laying on the sofa and watching the TV every so often… well, not anymore. It’s changing my life really.”

“Last year if you had told me I was going to be releasing a book and that on the front cover, I wouldn't be wearing any pants - because I'm wearing my kilt - I’m not sure what kind of book I would be releasing! But that I’m releasing a cookbook, it’s kind of unbelievable.”

Contrary to the TikTok tendency to cram content into a minute slot, MacLeod takes the opposite approach.

“People presume you have to do everything very fast, rush and talk very quickly but I want to slow down and allow people to enjoy themselves and relax for those 60 seconds.”

“I take a lot from the Danish concept of hygge, you know comforting and wholesome and in Gaelic there's a lovely word blàths, which means warmth and contentment. There's a saying 'beiridh blàths air luaths’, there is a time for everything. So give yourself a wee bit of time to enjoy your life when you’re looking out the window or planting your potatoes. I think that's what I've been trying to portray and using baking as the conduit. It's a lifestyle expression I'm trying to get across.”

One recipe which may not find its way into the book is a MacLeod family favourite, as his three big brothers, Domhnall, Murdo and Colin, aren’t so sure it’s for wider consumption.

“I was joking with my brothers because a real treat when we were growing up was my mother’s ceann cropaig, sort of a Hebridean version of haggis using the intestines of fish instead of the intestines of sheep. You mix those up with oatmeal and bake it in the fish's head. To me that is the most delicious dish in the world, but my brothers were like, ‘don't put that in your book, you're going to scare people off! Keep it nice, things that people would actually want.’

“So even though there are some very quirky classics that maybe we would have at home, what I have chosen for the book are mostly classic bakes given a Hebridean or Scottish twist.”

Growing up in the Hebrides is fascinating for those who didn’t and as we rediscover Scotland post lockdown, interest in the islands is growing.

“For me growing up in a village with 30 houses and the closest shop 30 miles away was the biggest adventure. Maybe I would go to Stornoway twice a year. It was like going to Las Vegas. This seemed completely normal. I guess you don't know what you don't know.”

“What I've tried not to do is paint the absolute perfect picture postcard of Lewis. It's hard living there; the lifestyle is difficult. It was a traditional upbringing. My father [Domhnall Iain] was a trawler fisherman and my mother [Ciorstaidh Anna], before she had four boys, was a Harris Tweed weaver, which is why I’ll be having some tweed in the photos in the book.”

“I was brought up with my father leaving on a Sunday night to go fishing out on the North Sea for a week and my mother working really hard looking after the sheep - 400 or so, that’s 350 lambs - and looking after the house. She was the best person in the village, man or woman, for making peat stacks. People would stand watching her making the peat stacks in awe. They were just the best. Even in the worst 100 mile an hour gale my mother’s peat stacks would stand firm. She had a wonderful reputation for many things, but that was the one she was most proud of.”

“So the environment was one of hard work. Not that it wasn't fun, but that wasn't the default, that wasn't the immediate thought every morning, how to have fun. It was more ‘what work has to be done that day, are we cutting the peats, are we going out with the sheep, what are we doing today?’”

While MacLeod’s three older brothers all went into the traditional industries of the island - fishing, weaving and crofting, he felt from a young age that he might not follow them.

“I was going to have a different adventure,” he says. “I remember when I was 12 my father took me out on the fishing boat, because it was assumed that I would become a fisherman like my brothers, and let's just say it didn't go so well. I lasted a day at sea and then pleaded with him to come back ashore to drop me off, much to his HUGE disappointment that his youngest son was not going to be a fisherman.

“When I got home I said to my mother, ‘Mam, I am NOT going to be a fisherman.’ And she looked at me in that ‘well what else can you do?’ way. ‘What other jobs are there?’. Everybody's sons became fishermen or weavers or crofters. I told her I was planning to move to Paris, I don't know why, maybe I said Harris but she thought I said Paris. I always knew I had different adventures in me.”

“Maybe I was a little afraid of hard work at the time. I don't know a job that is harder than being a trawler fisherman in the North Sea. I’m very proud of all of my family who have done this, but I knew I had different adventures in my life ahead. And I think I’ve made the right decision.”

We’ll eat to that.

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MacLeod’s mantra is “Everything is better homemade”.
Coinneach MacLeod tracking down recipes for his TikTok videos and cookbook.
Homemade bramble whisky from The Hebridean Baker, a labour of love that requires daily stirring while it matures.
A collie puppy eyes MacLeod's Clootie Dumpling/Duff
Spiced Tea Loaf
Uisge Beatha Ice Cream
Cranachan White Chocolate Bombs
Coinneach MacLeod with his Jura Truffles
Coinneach MacLeod The Hebridean Baker
Coinneach MacLeod The Hebridean Baker
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