Interview: Norman Maclean, comedian

Once known as the Gaelic Billy Connolly, comedian and musician Norman Maclean destroyed his life and his career through drink. Now sober and living on Uist, he is taking the first steps to rebuilding both

UIST seen from the air is a fragmented group of islands, the peaty surface pocked and ploughed by antler-shaped lochans, pale pools, inlets and bays. It's as if God dropped a landmass from heaven on to the Hebridean Sea, where it shattered into hundreds of shards and froze forever. It is a suitable home, therefore, for the alcoholic comedian and polymath Norman Maclean, "the Gaelic Billy Connolly", as he is often described, whose own life and career have been blown apart by his need to drink, and who now, at 72, is left gazing over the rocky topography of his own past.

No man is an island, they say. Well, Maclean is an entire archipelago – complex, multiple and subject to frightening storms. He is not a straightforward guy.

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Maclean grew up on Uist and in Lochaber, a bright child with a gift for languages and a taste for literature and music. In 1967, he won two gold medals at the National Mod – for poetry and singing. At one point it looked as though he would become a career intellectual, but heavy drinking meant his time at Glasgow University was not a success. He worked on and off as a teacher, but maintained another life as a jobbing musician. One night in 1975, booked to sing at a hotel in Oban, he found that the audience of English tourists had no interest in his Gaelic repertoire, so he filled time by telling jokes. This being a hit, a new career was launched.

For the next three decades, Maclean toured as a stand-up all over the Highlands and Islands. His material was observational, fairly smutty, with plenty of references to the specific region and culture, and taking full advantage of local prejudices. On Lewis he'd tell jokes against Uist. On Uist he'd make Barra the butt. He told some jokes in Gaelic, then repeated them in English, getting two laughs for the price of one. He also starred in the television comedy show Tormod air Telly, a programme so popular in its heartland that wedding receptions would be interrupted so whole families could sit down and watch.

Tormod air Telly was produced by Neil Fraser, whose son Robbie Fraser has now made Tormod, a fascinating new documentary about Maclean for BBC Alba – Tormod being Gaelic for Norman. "I remember seeing him perform a few times over the years and being hypnotised by the madness and power of his stage presence," says Fraser, who is 36 and part of a younger generation of Gaels in the arts for whom Maclean is a hero and influence. "It was so refreshing to see someone doing something vital and energetic and cool in the Gaelic world, such a contrast to the foostiness of the Mod, all those plooky, well-scrubbed kids forced to perform in echoing halls."

However, as Maclean's forthcoming memoir The Leper's Bell makes clear, his success was diluted and eventually washed away by streams of whisky. His addiction to what he calls "drug alcohol" has ruined at least one life – his own – and soured his relationship with two wives, his late mother and an estranged daughter who lives in Hong Kong. The title of the memoir is taken from something his mother, Peigi, said on her deathbed. In Gaelic, struggling for breath, she denounced him as a changeling, unclean, who should wear a leper's bell round his neck.

"Old mac na braiche, the son of the malt, was a good friend of mine for a long, long time," is how Maclean puts it now. "And then, as Joseph Heller would say, something happened."

On the day I meet him, earlier this month, he has been sober and living in South Uist for a little over 16 weeks, having been "rescued" from Glasgow, where he had been drinking himself to death. Marion Campbell, a teacher from the island, took him from the Southern General Hospital in Govan, drove him to Oban, made the five-hour ferry journey to Lochboisdale and arranged first medical attention then local-authority housing.

Campbell, a friendly and candid 44-year-old who is the partner of Robbie Fraser, picks me up at Benbecula airport and drives to Maclean's home – "up south", as they say here – through a howling gale. The flat island is as much manuscript as it is landscape, and Campbell reads it as she drives. "This is Stinky Bay," she says. "See that little white house there? That's where Norman used to stand looking out to sea for his father coming back from America."

Maclean first moved to Uist when he was seven, having spent his early years in the village of Strathan, at the head of Loch Arkaig. His father, Niall, was away working in the merchant navy during the Second World War. Campbell explains that Maclean and her own father, Calum, had been contemporaries on Uist, great pals and rival pipers. Her father died suddenly in 2005, and she couldn't bear the thought of his old friend gasping his last in hospital or unmourned in some dingy Glasgow flat, besieged by empties.

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Why Uist, though? What made her think this would be a good place for him? "Because people here love him," she says. "All his old buddies in Glasgow had either died or got fed up with him because of his drinking. But here we have a huge tolerance for drunks. Every family here has an alcoholic. People understand that Norman, having been an entertainer, would naturally be an alcoholic. Everyone's being really nice to him at the moment because they know he's trying to stay off the drink. But they'd be as nice to him if he was drinking. So I knew he'd be safe here."

Campbell pulls up in front of Maclean's pebble-dashed house. He lives in sheltered housing in the community of Daliburgh. Just across the road there's a sculpture of Christ with the sacred heart, Catholic statuary being a feature of South Uist, and nearby is the Borrodale Hotel, which Maclean visits most days for a restorative Irn-Bru. He avoids the temptations of the public bar and instead sits outside smoking Gauloises and contemplating Beinn Ri Oitir.

Maclean welcomes me into his home, and Campbell slips off to the shop to pick him up juice, fags and chocolate. As his memoir reveals, Maclean is a practised womaniser, and still gives off some seductive pheromone that has women keen to please him. "I'm the typical product of my environment," he says, sounding unabashed. "Spoiled. A Hebridean prince. Surrounded by females. Wives. Sister. Mother. I didn't have to do anything for myself. It has left me kind of handicapped now on my own."

He cannot cook a meal. But then, lacking teeth, he wouldn't be able to eat it anyway. Maclean is a lanky, swanky, Samuel Beckettish man, white hair Brylcreemed neatly to the right. His wardrobe will be familiar to anyone who watched light entertainment television in the 1970s. He's wearing a tangerine shirt, brown silk tie, slim-fitting brown trousers, argyle socks and cream slip-ons. His specs hang on a cord round his neck. "As you might have noticed," he says, "I have a strong streak of dandysme in me."

He smokes constantly, and seasons his English with a sprinkling of Gaelic and Gallic phrases. He is a chameleon who chooses his accent depending on his audience, and so today speaks in shipyard Glaswegian, but with an eloquence that would please Noel Coward. He also favours a sort of hard-boiled jive talk in which all doctors are "quacks", all women "dames", money is "dough" and men he does not like are dismissed with "Get more fibre in your diet, Jack".

The living room is newly painted by Maclean's wife Peigi, from whom he is long separated but on good terms. "In many ways, we have the ideal marriage," he says. "She's in Oban, I'm here." A bookcase is packed with everything from Gore Vidal to Gaelic songbooks, and a bagpipe chanter leans against the fire.

We talk about his move from Glasgow. Would it be melodramatic to say it saved his life? "It would be melodramatic, but I'm a melodramatic guy," he nods. "You're dead right. It was a life-saver – 16 weeks ago, I was lying in a hospital bed and I could only get out of bed with crutches."

He had checked himself into the Southern General. This was new. On his many previous stays in hospitals and addiction clinics, he had been nagged into drying out by friends, family and lovers. But now his heart and liver were troubled, and the strength that had carried him round the world's bars and barrios was fading. "What really made me stop drinking was incapacity." He has pins in the upper part of his left arm, and severed nerves in his right have stopped him from being able to play his beloved bagpipes. "And I had five smashed vertebrae in my spine. That's due to falling, outside and inside, through drink. I was really shattered, y'know? Uchd a'bhais, I was in the bosom of the death, really."

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The Leper's Bell chronicles many of Maclean's misadventures while under the influence. These include the time, in 1957, when he was engaged as personal piper to Brigitte Bardot but, on arrival at her villa in St Tropez, was sacked for lusting after his employer; he might have concealed these feelings, but Bardot's whisky made him devil-may-care.

A combination of drink and libido have often caused him problems. In 1991, having left Scotland with the vague notion of visiting Sean Connery in Mexico, he found himself naked and held at gunpoint by the singer in a mariachi band who was unhappy that Maclean had gone to bed with his lover.

These are colourful episodes fit for a memoir. Mostly, though, drinking has meant the usual grim erosion of friendship and trust. The key question is why did he drink in this suicidal way? Robbie Fraser believes his alcoholism is linked to what Maclean calls his "cultural schizophrenia" – his psyche being divided between English and Gaelic. "People of Norman's generation have watched as the language which swirled around the communities of their youth has evaporated," Fraser explains. "They've been forced, in the main, to apply their talents and intellects to careers in English. That is a situation that is bound to give even the most secure of people a sense of ontological instability, of being overwhelmed, of insubstantiality, of being caught in a phantom existence between two cultures. And that's why drinking is an endemic problem in the Gaelic world, just as it is for the Maoris, the Inuits and marginalised cultures the world over."

Though Maclean was born in Glasgow, he was evacuated to Lochaber in 1940 when he was three, and learned Gaelic and the language of rural life at the knee of his great-uncle Seamas, a shepherd with little English. There is an Edenic quality to this period of his life as he describes it in The Leper's Bell. It is written vividly and with love. Of all the heroes he had, Maclean says Seamas was "the ur-model" – "I wanted to be him. He is the voice that's in my head."

Seamas was a great raconteur who doted on his grand-nephew, referring to him as ghridhein nan daoin, beloved of men. One senses that if Maclean had stayed in Lochaber with Seamas he would have been all right. But instead he moved to Uist, where eventually he was reunited with his father.

Niall Mr, a docker by trade, a drinker and adulterer by habit, died suddenly in 1951, shortly before his son's 15th birthday. Maclean remembers the first time he saw his father after the war; he tossed back his head with a glass between his teeth, drained it and spat the empty glass to the stone hearth, where it shattered. Maclean also recalls spying on him as he had sex in the machair with a local girl. Then there was a later occasion, in Glasgow, when Niall and his mistress took the nine-year-old boy for a day out and told him not to tell his mother.

So from the first, Maclean associated his father with alcohol and illicit sex. It makes sense, therefore, in the years following Niall's death in an industrial accident, that he would lose himself in booze and lust. It was a way of being with Niall by being like him. Maclean even wears a fedora, just as his father did.

The last conversation they had was an argument. Maclean corrected his father's English, mocking him for trying to speak in anything other than Gaelic. This has caused him a great deal of guilt over the years, and even now the self-loathing is evident. "He didn't know what a transitive verb was, and why the f*** should he?" he says. "This was the only endeavour in which I excelled him. So I wasn't slow in telling him he only had a tenuous grasp of English."

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Given this guilt, is it possible that Maclean's subsequent alcoholic self-sabotage was, on some level, a way of making sure he didn't ever excel his father? This question gives him pause. "Now, there's a twist. Let me just mull over that for a second. You're suggesting that the constant footering with the self-destruct button was a kind of penance?"

Yes, I say. "Uh-huh," he nods. "I've never been able to accept plaudits, and I'm not good with celebrity. I suppose the reason is I don't think I'm really worth it. So perhaps this was an attempt to render myself unequivocally inferior. I hadn't thought of that, but you're right. I never accepted success, and with the alcohol abuse, there's no doubt about it, it does make you an inferior person. So perhaps I've been paying for that remark to my father all my adult life."

Maclean's story, when you get right down to it, is all about love. He loved his father but didn't feel loved in return. His mother, he says, was just like him – bad at showing she cared. His wife Peigi told him recently that his mother had thought the world of him, but he finds it hard to believe. "I felt all my life," he says, "that my mother was my enemy."

Difficult parental relationships left him desperate for affection but frightened of true intimacy, hence his sexual promiscuity, and hence, too, his career as a performer. When the audience laughed and cheered, he knew they loved him in that moment, but that was as far as it went. Tomorrow would be another gig, another set of faces looking up at him; Spean Bridge, Stornoway, Dunoon, Durness – all those "stations of the cross", as he puts it.

Except, except... He's now back on Uist, where he has performed many times, and he finds himself among a people who seem to genuinely care for him and aren't shy of showing it. Wherever I go on the island, people speak of him with great warmth. A 30-year-old woman in a grocer shop remembers growing up hearing his comedy albums and being thrilled to meet him for the first time just the other day.

A 52-year-old man who works for the hydro-electric recalls with a laugh that Maclean and his own late uncle had been to the drying-out clinic together in Inverness, and that Maclean had subsequently mentioned this from the stage on spotting the uncle in the audience; he was a taboo-buster that way. "He'll never be forgotten in the islands, I'll tell you," says the man with some emotion.

Another islander, a man in his 40s living near the airport, remembers the impact of Tormod air Telly. "It made you feel you weren't lost in space, y'know? You weren't just a few Gaels sitting on an island in the middle of nowhere." Even the priest in Daliburgh has kind words for Maclean. And everywhere there are people to testify to his versatility with the bagpipes. He had been note-perfect even when running about the stage, they say. One man had seen him playing while lying flat on his back. These days, he is giving informal tuition to local children. He's also planning to help a local Gaelic singer in his preparations for the Mod.

Marion Campbell believes one of Maclean's problems in life is that he never had a calling; comic, teacher, piper, TV personality, wastrel, husband, father, son – he gave none his full focus and so his life slipped away. "It's only now that he's starting to feel he has a role – as a senior citizen in a community that loves him," Campbell tells me. "He came here drunk, sober, or letting people down by not showing up at all. But it didn't matter. He still remained their Norman, their kid."

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Maclean, for his part, has been surprised and moved by his reception as "prodigael" son. He didn't move to Uist as any great plan to reconnect with his roots and cure his cultural schizophrenia. He just wanted out of Glasgow. "I'd have gone to Leningrad," he admits. But still, Uist seems to be working out for him. He is writing a novel, planning to press the good Hugo Boss suit for a book tour, and even has hopes that he and Peigi may fully reconcile and, together, renovate an old croft they own in North Uist.

Of course, all this depends on his staying sober. He has had plenty of relapses before, but knows that if he falls off the wagon again, it may not be possible to put the pieces back together. Maclean, though, will make no promises. "All I can say to anybody who asks is that up until now it has been terrific and I'll not be drunk today," he says, the twinkle in his eyes signalling a punchline. "But I'm going to Glasgow tomorrow." r

The Leper's Bell: Autobiography of a Changeling (16.99, Birlinn) is published on 1 October and is being launched by Norman Maclean at a free event in the Piping College, Otago Street, Glasgow, at 7pm. Tormod is on BBC Alba on Thursday at 9pm