Arts and Media Correspondent BBC Scotland
It’s just after 9 am, on a crisp cold May morning, and I’m following a path made of heart shaped stepping stones through a wood on the outskirts of Edinburgh
Through the trees, I spot a group of photographers outside a bright pink stone building. It’s a shop, and an upside down shop at that, full of strange dolls, chandeliers and animations. It’s the work of artist Rachel MacLean who is standing in front of her creation in the same colourful outfit as her animated heroine Mimi, who emerges from the gloom inside.
My task is to oversee the recording of TV and radio onsite, with the help of my camera man Brian, and then edit it all into two minutes of television, or three minutes of radio in one of our studios at BBC Scotland. I’ve been arts correspondent for BBC Scotland since 1997, so I think I’ve got the hang of it now, balancing the demands of live and recorded news with the wealth of stories out there. I’m told often that I have the best job in the country, and I don’t disagree. There are few places on the mainland, or the islands where I haven’t been over the last 24 years. I’ve been to Botswana, Venezuala and New Zealand. I’ve interviewed Richard Gere, Judi Dench, Billy Connolly and Sean Connery, but I’ve also spoken to hundreds of people who you won’t know, but whose passion for performing, for writing, for painting was important to share.
I’ve always wanted to be a journalist. Since the age of 15, I’ve been badgering the editors of both local newspapers for work and eventually I wore them down. In the 1980s, local newspapers offered the best journalistic training available in that we wrote every part of the paper, from advertorials, to the front page story via court and council coverage, sports reports and arts reviews.
One of the editors was also in charge of the Glasgow Catholic Archdiocesan newspaper Flourish. He would attend editorial meetings, take on far too many stories and then pass them to me, which explained why as well as parish photocalls and fetes, I got to travel to London to cover an anti abortion rally and interview the guest speaker Enoch Powell. It was an early lesson in both achieving balance in a highly personal and politicised forum, and about tailoring your copy to a particular audience.
I continued to contribute to local papers while I studied for a degree at Glasgow University, where I also got my first taste of broadcast with GUST – Glasgow University Student Television – along with my first celebrity interview, Phil Collins. A year or so later, a speculative phone call to the Evening Times in Glasgow on the day their pop columnist quit, gave me the job every music mad student craves. For over a year, I wrote the Glasgow Live column, going to gigs, reviewing records (bizarrely still sent through the post in giant cardboard envelopes) and interviewing luminaries from the Glasgow music scene.
It was very informal. Few of the bands had record contracts, and were happy to do their interviews in local pubs or cafés, which I recorded in scribbled notes or on a small Dictaphone and filed once a week. Fame came sporadically – but dramatically – for many of the young musicians. I remember interviewing members of the band Texas in a bar off Argyll Street. The following week, I spotted the singer, Sharleen Spiteri at a gig in Glasgow Barrowlands, and moved in to say hello with a friendly hug, only to be prevented by a hulking great bodyguard. Sharleen gave a sheepish shrug. Everything had changed since the band got to number one with their single I Don’t Want A Lover.
Change has been the one constant in my career. I guess the last few decades have been something akin to the industrial revolution. Local newspapers were among the first in the 1980s to replace typewriters and hot metal with computers and digital design. I learned the old ways of page and paper layout, and headline sizing, the importance of deadlines and that “stopping the press” was only done in extreme cases, since it was expensive and time consuming as well as a literal process.
It wasn’t always easy. A night editor at the western mail in Cardiff, where I worked from 1993, used to challenge the late reporter to check facts in next day’s paper. From the ratio of sheep to people in wales, to the phrasing of a welsh language obituary, it all had to be done out of hours, and without the aid of the internet but I guess it teaches you to think on your feet.
In journalism college, we each had a “beat” an area in the city of Cardiff, which we were expected to walk around, make contacts and find stories. It’s a lesson which has never left me, and I still find ideas and stories while I’m out and about filming and recording around the country.
I came back to Scotland in 1997 to take up my dream job as BBC Scotland’s first ever arts correspondent. The job – and the artistic landscape – have changed dramatically over that time.
When I arrived, we were still based in Queen Margaret Drive in the west end of Glasgow. TV and radio had separate newsrooms in different parts of the building. Bi media correspondents like me had to run between the two studios, until someone came up with the bright idea of using the travel reporter’s microphone in the TV newsroom if there wasn’t time to run between the two places.
Footage was recorded on Beta SX tapes by the camera man, who could be joined by a team of people including a producer and a sound man. One of my first interviews at BBC Scotland – rather aptly with the writer Jack McLean – involved so many people, and lights, that there was barely room to move in his living room. Today, we tend to work with just one camera person, who will often edit the piece on location. The digital cards containing all our data now are barely bigger than an After Eight mint and are frequently lost in pockets and handbags, but always found in time for the edit.
Radio too has changed. When I first arrived, it was recorded on quarter inch tape, and edited using a chalk pencil, white tape and a razor blade. I can remember weeping on the floor of the correspondents’ room one Sunday afternoon as I tried to retrieve a few millimetres of tape which contained an errantly chopped breath. Over the years, I’ve moved from Uher recorder to minidisc to a small Nagra recorder to an app on my phone. Hopefully it all sounds the same in the end when it’s broadcast on Radio Scotland.
The creative industries have changed too and are now worth more than five billion pounds to the economy. Whether working locally or internationally, there are thousands of artists, writers and performers flying the flag for Scotland and I get the same buzz I always did from spotlighting their work on television, radio, and online. And when they’re McLeans too…
Here’s a whistlestop tour of the McLeans I’ve met, the ones I’d like to have met, and the ones I’ve yet to meet. It’s not an exhaustive list – and I’m always open to invitations and suggestions.
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It was a particular buzz to meet Dougie Maclean for the first time.
His records were always on my turntable as a student and I was delighted Caledonia has made a comeback several times over the last 20 years. I’ve visited his home in Dunkeld a couple of times, and interviewed him at the BBC, alongside Jenny who is a wonderful artist and weaver in her own right.
Augusta Maclean uses found objects, photography and painting to create vast atmospheric landscape paintings. She’s now living in the Highlands near Loch Ness. She was previously artist in residence at St Vincent’s Chapel, Edinburgh.
Sonas Maclean is another Edinburgh College of Art graduate, although she’s orginally from Caithness where she learned an appreciation of the sea, the coast and the harbours which turn up in her paintings.
Will Maclean also has strong connections with the sea, although his were honed as a midshipman on HMS Conway in Anglesey in the 1950s, and further developed as a ring net fisherman in 1968. The resulting 400 drawings toured Scotland and are now in the permanent collection at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
Donald Maclean studied at Glasgow School of Art and began his career as a scenic artist and costume designer but after twenty years of working with Scottish Ballet, Scottish Opera and theatres across the country, he’s returned to his fine art roots with his bold and colourful paintings. https://affordableartfair.com/artists/donald-maclean
Bruce McLean is another Glasgow School of Art alumnus whose work frequently extends into performance. At St Martins School of Art in the 60s, his reaction to teaching at the time, was to make sculpture from rubbish. He later went on to become Head of Graduate Painting at the Slade.
His son, Will McLean is an architect who has worked on a number of projects with his father, including Dalry Primary School in North Ayrshire. He’s a writer too with a regular column in Architectural Design magazine – called McLean’s Nuggets, a name which never fails to make me smile.
Cat Maclean is another artist who started out in the film industry as a scenic painter and art director. She now works as a printmaker and painter producing art which like the films she once worked on, tell stories in their images.
Of all the American McLeans, the one who fascinates me most is Shirley MacLaine. Actor, author, activist, she was born Shirley Maclean Beaty – the Maclean was her mother, Kathlyn, a drama teacher from Nova Scotia. When she and younger brother Warren became actors, they both adapted their names, she to MacLaine, he to Beatty. From an endearing elevator operator in the Apartment in 1960 to a waspish dowager in Downton Abbey, there are few roles she hasn’t played in a 60 year career, and she hasn’t stopped yet.
The singer Don McLean is best known for his eight minute epic American Pie, which he wrote when he was just 24 years old. Academics have spent years mulling over its meaning. Their consensus, that it’s about the death of Buddy Holly – “the day the music died” may only be part of the story. When I interviewed Don McLean some years ago, conversation turned to his Scottish roots. His great great great grandfather John McLean came from Jura and moved to the US in 1775 when he was just 20 years old.
Don was just 15 when his father Donald died suddenly and he said he cried for years afterwards, blaming himself. Could that have been part of the sentiment he worked into the song? Whatever the answer, Donald Snr would have been proud of his son’s business acumen. Both song and songwriter were inducted into the Hall of Fame and having studied business at night school, Don has made an estimated $150 million over his career, including $1.2 million for the original manuscript of American Pie.
Other musical McLeans include Bitty McLean – born Delroy Easton McLean in Birmingham who got his nickname “bitty” from his stature and his break in music from UB40 who employed him as a sound engineer but allowed him to sing occasionally with the band. His big hits in the mid 1990s included a cover of Fats Domino’s It Keeps Raining (Tears from my eyes). His nephew is the singer Anthony McLean, who simply uses the name McLean.
Roderick MacLean was a poet, whose literary reputation was overshadowed by his attempt to assassinate Queen Victoria in 1882. His motive was apparently a curt reply he received to some poetry he mailed to the Queen. He was tried for high treason, found not guilty but insane and lived out his remaining days in Broadmoor. His case led to a new act of parliament and inspired another poem, this time by William Topaz McGonagall.
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A much more successful poet was Sorley MacLean, who reinvigorated Gaelic with a fusion of contemporary and traditional. Although his most influential work was published in the 1940s, it took till the 70s, when his work was translated into English, for him to reach a wider audience. He is commemorated by a stone at Makar’s Court outside the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh, which was unveiled in 1998 by Iain Crichton-Smith. http://www.sorleymaclean.org/english/
Brother Calum did his bit to preserve the language and the culture, travelling the Hebrides with his ediphone recording device in the 1940s. He was aware that many of the songs and stories he had grown up with had never been written down and would be lost within a generation. “I realise that we are 60 years late in beginning this work of collection,” he wrote in 1945, “but we may be able to save at least some of the traditonal lore before it dies out.”
His work was the foundation for the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh, which was further expanded by Hamish Henderson and the American folklorist Alan Lomax, and now holds more than 9,000 field recordings.
Alistair Maclean was one of the most popular and prolific writers of the 20th century. Many of his novels were made into films including the Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra and Where Eagles Dare. Critics could be sniffy – but he sold over 150 million books worldwide, making him one of the best selling authors of all time.
Another author was Norman Maclean. His family – on his father’s side – came from the isle of Mull. His most famous work A River Runs Through It, was written in the 1970s after he retired and was encouraged to write down the stories he liked to tell. It was adapted into a film in 1992 starring Brad Pitt and directed by Robert Redford. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_River_Runs_Through_It_(novel)
Duncan McLean has not only made his own name as a writer, but helped others get their work published. He was co-founder of the Edinburgh based Clocktower Press, a small but influential publishing house whose early booklets included an extract from writer Irvine Welsh of what would go on to become Trainspotting. Now based in Orkney, he hopes to kickstart Northern Isles writing with his latest imprint, Abersee Press. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duncan_McLean_(writer)
McLean Stevenson – actor, best known for playing Lt Colonel Henry Blacke in MASH. The McLean connection was his mother Lottie Bell McLean but he also used it as his professional name because of his upbringing in McLean County, Illinois. A further legacy of the name is that it coined a phrase still used in American television. “McLeaning” refers to cases when a character is killed off because the actor decided to leave the show as McLean Stevenson did with MASH in 1972.
Similarly written out of history is James McLean, a former timber merchant who is responsible for the founding of the McLean Museum and Art Gallery in Greenock – which is home to 300 Scottish paintings and is definitely one of Scotland’s best kept secrets. The museum recently had a two million pound revamp and a new name – the Watt Institution – after the much more famous inventor who also lived locally. James McLean still gets a cameo in the museum he founded. There’s a portrait and a marble bust of him, as well as a memorial in the local cemetery.
Alick Maclean was a composer and conductor – whose father Charles Maclean was director of music at Eton College. Alick wrote a number of operas with librettist Sheridan Ross and from 1912 until 1935, he conducted the Spa Orchestra at Scarborough. There’s some wonderful newsreel of him conducting the orchestra in 1932 in the British Pathe archive.
Alejandro Maclean was a Spanish TV producer and aerobatics pilot. Nicknamed “the flying matador”, he inherited his name and his love of planes from his Scottish grandfather and got his first plane at the age of 18. He died in August 2010 when his plane crashed to the ground while performing a training exercise.
Douglas Maclean, was a silent film star, who went on to write and produce films in the sound era. Born in Philadelphia, he had Scottish ancestry. His first film was the 1914 production As Ye Sow, and he went on to appear in a number of films, often billed as “the man with the million dollar smile”. He made only one “talkie” in 1929 before retiring from acting.
The Gaelic voice of Danger Mouse – Donnie Murdo? He was a McLean too. Norman Hector Mackinnon Maclean – Tormod MacGill-Eain – was a Gaelic novelist, poet, musician and comedian who provided the voices for a number of children’s programmes. He was the subject of a BBC Alba documentary Tormod and the star of the film Blackbird which was screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2013.
John Maclean – another Edinburgh college of art graduate – and founding member of the Beta Band, directed music videos which came to the attention of Michael Fassbender. He went on to appear in a short film, and then Slow West in 2015, which won the grand jury price at Sundance Film Festival. The film is the story of a young boy who goes from Scotland to the Wild West at the end of 1870 and although it was mostly made in new Zealand, a few scenes were shot in Achiltibuie.
There are a few John Macleans in the world of arts and entertainment, so to differentiate, some have adapted their names with a flourish, like The Juan Maclean – an American electronic musician.
And of course, who can forget the fictional action hero John McClane, played by Bruce Willis, in five Die Hard films. Apparently there’s a new one coming soon.
Meanwhile, I’m back at Jupiter Art Land where Rachel MacLean is showing me her latest work. Commissioned by the sculpture park, because it’s outside, she’s been able to continue working on it throughout lockdown. It’s part of a wider celebration of Rachel MacLean, who despite only being in her 30s, is one of the UK’s most prolific artists. The work on display includes Spite Your Face, a short film in which she plays all the characters including a Pinocchio like figure who rises to power through telling lies. It was shown at the Venice Biennale in 2017.
Not that she’s resting on her laurels, she has other work lined up for the year ahead, including taking versions of the Upside Down House to high streets across Scotland to allow young people who helped inform the original project, to discover and express their identities. She’s also backing a campaign launched by Jupiter Artland this summer which aims to support teenagers with mental health and body image issues.
No time for me to hang around for coffee and croissants. It’s time to go back to the office to edit the piece for tonight’s Reporting Scotland, as well as preparing some interviews about companies registering for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. It’s still one of the most interesting and varied jobs I’ve ever done and I’m proud to be the person telling those stories to our listeners, viewers and readers of the website.