Dougie MacLean on lockdown and live streaming: Part 1

Globetrotting performer and one of Scotland's finest singer-songwriters tells us how he has embraced technology to connect with fans around the world

It is arguably one of his most endearing songs. An emotion tugging, memory evoking journey of someone contemplating life, love and their sense of place.

'Caledonia' by Dougie MacLean was written very much in another life in mind. It went on to become a favourite of the late-night whisky fuelled voices, was lauded by advertising execs and covered by other performers over the years. But in these days of lockdown if you study the lyrics, they could readily have been written for the times we're going through as a people now too.

'I don't know if you can see / the changes that have come over me / In these past few days I've been afraid / that I might drift away

'So I've been telling old stories, singing songs / that make me think about where I came from / And that's the reason why I seem / so far away today.'

It's likely many of us will have pondered the question 'What if … ?' as we hide from the Coronavirus. Entertaining ourselves by picking up books or instruments or clicking on videos and live streams of those talented enough to do so.

Among them, Dougie himself, 65-years-young, who with help from his ever-capable wife Jenny and technical whiz family, has mastered video and online technology. The result being their broadcasting of live shows into the homes of hundreds of thousands around the world from their base in Dunkeld in Perthshire. Having cracked half a million views and streams already, he's already on course to hit seven figures by the time lockdown ends.

He's not charging for tickets; all the associated costs are quietly and humbly being borne by him. Don't ask him about that, he just shrugs it off. His view instead is that it is currently his way of giving something back to all those who have not only helped give him a career but are caring for those around us.

'It's been a very strange time, but it's been a wonderful thing to be able to do our wee show for people,' he says when asked why. 'Every Easter I do a couple of shows locally and we had a couple planned nearby. But as things got stranger and the warnings came about large gatherings, we decided to postpone. Rather than disappoint everyone we set up a wee stage in my old school. I had the cameras anyway because I've been doing the odd live stream over the years, so we set them up.

'The day before we were going to do it my son Jamie, who is very clever, came over and said dad you should keep doing this – it would be good for folk. So he set up an automated system – we've got four cameras – and wrote a bit of code that afternoon and coded it into the system that we use. Normally it's my daughter Julia who does the vision mixing for us – so Jamie called it the auto-Julia – and we put a sign on the button. Next day was the lockdown, we just started doing them, and the response to the first one was amazing.'

His Facebook page and video channels were flooded with thousands of messages expressing gratitude, so they decided to continue, not really knowing what might come next.

'We thought well, obviously people are enjoying it,' he says, 'so we'll just keep doing them as it's a nice wee distraction for everyone. I thought how lovely it would be to do it for all the care workers, the NHS people who are out there, because they are all giving us something and this – the music – is the only thing I can give them. It's such a horrendous situation that people are having to put themselves into doing their job and you feel helpless not being able to give something back, not just to them, but all the people out there who are frontline during these crazy times be that doing the bins, supermarkets and so on. It's been good sharing with people and helping in these troubled times in whatever little way I can to keep people buoyant and positive.'

For a man who has toured the world, playing sell-out concerts, music festivals and even staging his own annual gathering, he admits performing to an empty room has been surreal.

'It's very bizarre. One of the things I did was actually put three or four rows of chairs out, and because its reasonably dark in the old schoolhouse I actually pretend that there's an audience there. Then you start to think of this audience being a global audience that you are playing to.'

There's also something very personal about these gigs too. Not just tricks of the light or how shots are framed. This is very much Dougie's musical home. As he explains, 'It's a wee village of ten houses and I grew up here, my grandfather was a shepherd in the hills above here and my dad worked on the land. This is where all the kids went. In the 1960s they started closing all the rural schools down and it lay empty for years and I always used to drive past it and say "that would make a great recording studio one day" when I was in my twenties. Then I was lucky that I managed to get to rent it to begin with, then I was able to buy the wee teacher's house and the actual school building where I've made all my records over the last 40-odd years and it's been a huge part of the music we've made.

'I've been so lucky to get it, given the family connection. It's kept me very grounded; it's a real cornerstone because I've travelled a lot in my life but I always came back to Butterstone and it's been brilliant to make you realise what's really important. Considering it's the old village school that I went to as a kid, and that my father went to in the 1930s, I love this idea that it has a new purpose and is broadcasting my wee songs all over the world.'

It's not just the bricks, stone and mortar finding new purpose though. The new routine of 'Dougie Day' is also helping anchor lives adrift if the messages he has had are anything to go by. And he will continue to look at other ways to keep things fresh for them.

'It's amazing,' he says, 'I'm absolutely blown away by the feedback. So many people thanking me for cheering them up in these times. What's been interesting too is that we've been doing it every second night so it's provided a wee bit of a routine and they look forward to it and it helps them get through the monotony of having to stay in their house, especially people who might not have a garden or what not.

'I often think of people who are living in flats or have lots of kids who can only go out once a day. We think things like this might help. I try and keep a sense of humour, try not to make it too heavy and you've probably seen my 'tattie face' character which has been great fun. We've had some brilliant comments.'

Read Part 2 of this interview. Dougie MacLean performs every two days from 8pm on his Facebook, YouTube and Vimeo.

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