1) My mother's melodeon 

WHEN I was about four years old, my mother sat me down, put her melodeon in my hands and showed me how to play the scale. 

She had learned as a young girl and could play beautiful Gaelic waltzes. I have such a vivid memory of it. I had a good ear, so once I knew the scale I could play the waltzes myself and as young as I was, I would be given the melodeon to play them at parties.

There was always music playing in the house and my dad played a little bit of fiddle, but what I remember most from those early days is my mum’s melodeon playing. If she hadn’t taken the time to do that, who knows how different my life would be?

The National:

2) My father's mandolin

MY father had always wanted a mandolin, so my sister and I took ourselves off to Perth to buy one for his birthday. I was at Blairgowrie High School by this time, and I realised that I could transfer what I learned on the melodeon to this new instrument.

At school I met a guy called Ewen Sutherland who played a 12-string guitar and I was absolutely fascinated. I told him I had access to a mandolin, and we 
decided to get together and form a duo. 

We would only have been about 14 or 15 years old at the time, but he had already been out playing, particularly songs by The Corries. 

We started playing around all the Scottish Women’s Rural Institutes and then we played for skiers in the Angus Hotel in Blairgowrie and for skiers in Glenshee, but had we not met and started the duo I might never have been able to transfer what I was learning at home to the stage. We even ended up on Grampian Television, playing The Road and the Miles to Dundee.

Our parents were all very supportive of everything we did. Ewen’s dad even used to drive us around to all our concerts. We were lifelong friends after that – Ewen sadly passed away in 2017.

The National:

3) Becoming a driver

GROWING up in the country, passing your driving test is incredibly  important. My dad was a gardener and we lived in a “tied house” on a huge country estate that had a lot of private roads, so I saved £30 from my berry-picking money and bought an old A35 van. The floor was more rust than floor – but it started! I was only 16 but my dad could show me how to drive up and down the private drive.

When I was 17, I passed my test and I was off. If I hadn’t, life would have been very different. Friends of mine who grew up in the city sometimes didn’t sit a test until their 30s or 40s but I couldn’t even get to Blairgowrie on my own without passing my test.

The National:

4) Running away with the band 

AT school I had been channelled into doing a building course, which I absolutely hated and left pretty quickly. So at the age of 20 I was working as a gardener in Duthie Park in Aberdeen (below) and had my own wee flat there. I was playing music around the pubs and happy enough.

My friends and I decided to head over to the Kinross Folk Festival that year, bringing our instruments to the campsite. When I was standing in Kinross High Street with my fiddle, a van pulled up and Roy Gullane from the Tannahill Weavers (left) got out. He said they had lost their fiddle player, and did I want to join? They were heading off to Germany in the next day or two. 

My friends were all back at the campsite and when I got back, I asked them what they thought I should do, and it was unanimous. “Do it – or you’ll always regret it.”

So I returned to Aberdeen that night. I quit my job, gave up my flat, and within a couple of days I was with the band. I was also at the wheel of the Tannahill Weavers’ van, as the only driver, and heading down the motorway to Germany. See how useful learning to drive can be?

The National:

5) C For Caledonia

AFTER a few years with the Tannahill Weavers, there was a bit of a falling out, so I decided to leave. Their manager was a Glasgow guy called Alan Roberts, who called and asked me if I wanted to come over to Germany and form a duo with him.

By this time I was playing guitar as well as fiddle and Alan, who had been a banjo player, showed me a different tuning that he taken from the banjo called C tuning. That absolutely changed my life. For the past 30 years I’ve played my guitar and written a good percentage of my songs in that tuning.

While I was practising, I wrote a song called Caledonia, so you can imagine how different life could have been if Alan hadn’t turned me on to C tuning. 

I had started writing the song in his house, but it was finished on a beach in France when I was knocking about with a great bunch of Irish guys.  The first time that I actually performed it would have been in West Berlin in the late 1970s. 

Alan and I were doing a concert as a duo there and while it wasn’t the first of my own songs that we had done together, it was the one that got the greatest response. 

6) Meeting Jenny

I MET my wife Jenny in Norwich, when I was doing a concert at the arts centre there.

Not too long after that I made the decision to go out and perform solo for the first time.

That was the point when I really put the fiddle on the back burner and concentrated on writing my own songs. 

By this time I had done an awful lot of gigs and I did have some following, but I needed someone else to convince me that I could do that on my own.
Jenny did that for me.

I was probably about 27 so I had a fair few years behind me and it was time to do something different, but I know so many musicians who didn’t, and I think it’s all to do with confidence. I really do put that down to Jenny.

The National:

7) Coming home

JENNY and I toured Europe in a campervan that we also lived in. We had been doing it for months and one night we found ourselves on the island of Texel, which is just off the northern tip of the Netherlands.

We had four days to wait until the gig. The island is absolutely beautiful, but it was winter, it was pouring with rain, we were living in the van and we were pretty skint.

That night I said: “Let’s go home.” We had been doing it for far too long. It was time to make a change, so we started the long journey back to Scotland that same night.

I remember thinking that we probably had just enough money for the petrol to get back, but if we ran out I would phone my dad from the closest phone box. The van broke down on the motorway in England somewhere.

We were in the AA, who arrived, put the van on the back of a truck and drove us all back to Dunkeld. We arrived back home in Perthshire safe and sound. And we’re still here.

8) Think Aborigine

JENNY is Australian and after a while we started to make connections that made going to tour there possible. I managed to get an Australian Arts Council tour of the Northern Territories, up in Arnhem Land. 

I would fly in little four-seater planes and land on dirt runways to play in these mining towns in the middle of nowhere. There were also people from the 
Aboriginal missions at the concerts. 

I was there for about two weeks (pictured below) and I spent a lot of time in these Aboriginal missions, playing fiddle to the children in the schools and on a beach in Darwin witnessing Aboriginal ceremonies and learning a lot about the culture. 

They are the most amazing people. I remember being told they don’t have a word for tomorrow – they think it’s arrogant of us westerners to think that there is 
necessarily a future. 

The past (dreamtime) is very important to them, they live in the present, but the future doesn’t exist. I also learned to play didgeridoo when I was up there. 

When I came back to meet Jenny in Brisbane, she reckoned the experience really had changed me. Since that time when things have got tough, we say “let’s think Aborigine” about this.

You can get too caught up in the future and sometimes forget to stay in and appreciate the present.

9) Buying my old school

WHEN we first returned to Perth we had found a lovely little place to rent but I kept driving past the schoolhouse, where I went and where my dad had gone in the 1930s. Every time I thought what a fantastic place it would be to live – we could even build a studio there. 

At first we rented the building, then managed to buy it. That was the start of working independently and, very gradually, successfully. In the early 80s it was almost unheard of to be a musician who had their own studio, made their own records, had their own publishing and managed their own concerts. I still had to go to London with my master tapes to get them cut as there was nowhere to do it here.

If we hadn’t managed to buy the school and schoolhouse, I don’t know what would have happened. Jenny has carried on with her artwork as well as running the business side. We’ve made more than 30 albums, filmed and edited DVDs, and recorded music for film and TV here. 

10) Having children

WE had two, Jamie and Julia, and now have two grandsons aged eight and four. Apart from the absolute joy of having them, there’s nothing finer for keeping focused. 

I often wonder – if I hadn’t had the children would I have put myself through such difficult tours across America and other countries? I might have walked away from some things.  

Jamie still lives a few miles away and Julia is in Dunkeld, so we’re all still really close. I’ve worked out that there have been seven generations of MacLeans at Butterstone. I would say that’s been partly responsible for my longevity (45 years) as a performer and songwriter – it’s very grounding.