Remembering Norman Maclean

Norman Maclean (26 December 1936 – 31 August 2017),

I knew Norman Maclean for the last seven years of his storied life. I first met him – a dapper, remarkably erudite elderly gentleman – sitting on the sofa in Mike and Peigi Townsend’s house in Grimsay in the late summer of 2010. It was the first of many pilgrimages I’d make as part of one of the most rewarding, inspiring creative collaborations and friendships of my life. Since that first meeting in 2010 I’ve completed two films with Norman, and have two more in the pipeline (an original screenplay myself and Norman co-wrote together, and a feature documentary about storytelling) which Norman completed his contributions for late last year.

In writing here, I don’t intend to provide an overview of Norman’s eventful and very resonant lifeor his significance for Scottish culture (those can be found in Peter Ross’ obituary in the Times –  Norman’s own writings in Eavesdropping on Myself and The Leper’s Bell, and the section dedicated to Norman in Timothy Neat’s Voice of the Bard), but rather pay personal tribute to a friend that I loved.

One of the overriding feelings I’ve had since I heard the news we had lost Norman last Tuesday afternoon, is that of a deep, excoriating dullness; as if the existing spectrum of possible colours has somehow been narrowed. Part of me, like the young protagonist in the film I made with Norman in 2013 also has a sense of anger, frustration and of something unfinished: a need to rage, no matter how uselessly, against the overwhelming nothingness that follows in the wake of losing someone as intensely valuable as Norman.

Brilliance is a word I think about when I think about Norman: brilliance both in the sense of greatness and of illumination. I doubt if there was anyone who encountered Norman that didn’t come away with the impression he was stone-cold brilliant in the rarest of ways – ‘a man you don’t meet every day’ as Sheila Stewart used to sing. Norman wasn’t ‘bright’ in the sense he was always happy or that he was always an emotionally easy man, but he had a luminosity, a brightness that comes as close to a truly universal quality as I’ve seen in my lifetime: something that communicated to *everyone*. Watching Norman interact over the years with folk from all over Scotland and the rest of the world, I have yet to meet anyone who he couldn’t make laugh, who wasn’t captured by his charm and wasn’t hanging on his every word minutes after meeting him.

Something I’ve read a lot about in accounts of Norman’s life is that he didn’t reach his full potential, that somehow he ‘didn’t quite make it’. Whilst it’s true Norman never broke Hollywood, or appeared in Lord of the Rings as a CGI dwarf, or that he ended up with a stable seat in a particular institution doing one particular thing, I do wonder whether, in considering the enormous impact Norman has had upon Scottish culture, we should reevaluate what it looks like to be ‘successful’. There are large parts of Scotland where almost everyone you meet has a story about Norman Maclean: travelling from Lochaber to Mallaig, from Inverness to Assynt, from Oban to Lochboisdale to Lochmaddy to Stornoway – I’d wager there are very few people who would not only be able to tell you exactly who Norman Maclean was, but also share a ‘Norman story’ of their own.

The same goes for many parts of Glasgow, and no doubt many of the other parts of the world upon which Norman left his considerable mark. I’ve been told stories about Norman in pubs, in aeroplanes, on boats and in the back of ambulances. It therefore amuses me that someone who achieved such ubiquity and widespread adoration would be considered someone who *almost* made it. In an institutionalised history of Scotland, Norman may be an ‘almost’ – the ‘Gaelic Billy Connolly’ – but in a people’s history of Scotland, Norman Maclean is a contemporary folk hero, a giant.

To hear Norman talk was to get a sense of an immeasurable depth of consideration – a depth both of his own imagination, intellect and wit, and of the considerable, divergent traditions he drew upon. Norman liked to cite John Lorne Campbell’s notion of the ‘vertical consciousness’ of the Gaels (the sense of a depth of historical context), and when he spoke I heard both the vertical, the horizontal, and something else still beyond that. When Norman presented something it came to you gleaming, like a treasure, from the vast expanse of his combined memory, intelligence and imagination. In Norman’s words there was both the sense of ‘the Niagara’ (as Hamish Henderson liked to say) that accompanied densely ‘peopled’ discourses passed  hand to hand over the centuries, but also that spark of individual genius that folk must have heard in Burns, Calvino, or Hampate Ba – the ability to somehow reconcile an exceptional individual identity with a profound engagement with wider commonality and collectivity.

Norman was a deeply complex man, and I was sometimes left wondering how much of Norman I knew, and how much of himself he wanted us to know. A ‘chameleon’, a ‘cultural schizophrenic’, an ‘archipelago’ – this sense of multifacetedness and plurality is always there in accounts of Norman and in his own accounts of himself. I was always aware, in the 7 years I knew him, of the moments when the bravura performance ended, and Norman would slip away quietly out of the door. I remember sitting with him, still in his tux, quietly at the bus-stop outside Edinburgh Filmhouse where, moments earlier, he had completely upstaged my film with his bombastic appearance afterwards at the Q+A. I loved both those people – the immaculate, irreverent, incendiary performer on stage, and the quiet, awkward man at the bus stop.

Like many aspects of Norman, as I knew him, these two people were conflicted and yet inseparable. In a candid moment (not a rare occasion for Norman), he once mused to me that perhaps the reason he felt so drawn to performance, was that it allowed him an immediate degree of intimacy and connection with people he sometimes found difficult in other circumstances. ‘I like them to love me, and then I like to leave’, he said. Well Norman, you’ve left, and here we are – so very many people who love you, left wanting more.

Those of us who feel deeply invested in the notion of a ‘folk culture’ here in Scotland, whatever that might be, are continually faced with how best to understand an ongoing experience of loss. It would seem an occupational hazard if you place a high value on traditional culture that you must continually face the fresh loss of a beloved ‘tradition bearer’. Folk like Norman (and Sheila Stewart before him) had, for me and so many others, a towering cultural significance, standing as they did at the prow of such considerable memory and experience. Faced with the inevitable loss of such icons and figureheads, it would seem easy to fall into an elegaic or plangent way of seeing, as I have regrettably done myself at times; to resign oneself to the sense that an ‘authentic’ culture and the authentic folk like Norman who carry and embody it are constantly being lost.

John Caughie, among others, has provided a necessary counter to this preoccupation with Celtic twilights, calling for a ‘straightforward anger at the continued romance with loss and lost pasts’ in Scottish consciousness. Whilst I agree with Caughie, it’s difficult at a moment like this to think beyond such an elegiac structure of feeling, when someone of such demonstrable value has been so completely and conclusively lost to us all. And yet, we must – both for Norman and for ourselves – for it would seem essential to think beyond conceptions of Scottish culture premised entirely upon the ‘backwards glance’, as Raymond Williams put it. For whilst Norman had a deep engagement with tradition and the past, he was simultaneously a deeply cosmopolitain, contemporary citizen of the world.

In this respect he continues to represent many of the qualities I feel a 21st century Scotland should be aspiring to. Norman was both local and worldly, and engaged both with tradition and modernity at the expense of neither. He may have had a deeply resonant relationship with the past, but he was also intensely invested in the future. His perspective straddled different classes, different languages
and different lives, at once divided and unified. Norman’s Scotland, and Norman himself were not homogenous or ‘pure’, but open and welcoming to the dizzying unruliness of contemporary life.

During his last 5 years or so, I was constantly struck by the investment Norman seemed to be making in the future, in terms of how much of himself he gave to others, particularly to the younger generations like myself who came on pilgrimages from Balivanich, from the Scottish mainland, from the Central Belt, from London, and even further afield to sit at Norman’s knee, students at the table of the great bard. Young pipers, gaelic scholars and poets, upcoming producers, and filmmakers were all granted an audience with the Bodach, and I have no doubt each and every one came away with the same new gust of wind in their sails that I did. Thinking of the generosity with which I saw Norman give away his insights and energies makes me think of a story Jess Smith told me of Sheila Stewart, accosting a heckler who challenged her approach to sharing culture: ‘”Lassie, see when I die… it’s going to be an empty coffin because every bit about me I’m going to share with the world, because the world should have it.

So many of us who knew Norman have been gifted with an earful of his brilliance, his brightness – be it an idea, a word of advice, a story, a song, or something else. We all carry small pieces of that brightness with us now, like torches to be passed on, and continually re-lit. We have simply enormous shoes to fill, and whilst none of us will ever be Norman Maclean (noone will ever be Norman Maclean except Norman Maclean), it is up to each one of us to decide how we can best carry that brilliance forward into new futures, new Scotlands.

My father-in-law recently told me that in Judaism, it is considered that people die twice – once when their physical body dies, and once when they are forgotten. If all of us who loved Norman continue to pass on some degree of that immeasurable brilliance that he in turn passed to us, then Norman Maclean can never die. We should see that it is so.

Comments (12)

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  1. Alastair McIntosh says:

    What a beautifully written obituary. He was a good friend to us at the GalGael Trust in Glasgow, and would indeed regail us with JL Campbell’s observation on the vertical (historical) consciousness of the Gael, in counterpoint to the merely horizontal shallow consciousness of the world reduced to one homogenous market level playing field.

    He helped us to understand ourselves. That gift – of an expanded and more deeply grounded personal and collective consciousness – is the mark of a true bard, a shaman-poet such as speaks to the people’s innermost needs. He was a conduit of the cultural “carrying stream”. Thank you, Norman. Bless.

  2. David McCann says:

    Lovely tribute to a lovely man.
    Enjoyed many occasions in his company when he lived and worked in Oban

  3. 1314 says:

    ” ‘I like them to love me, and then I like to leave’, he said. Well Norman, you’ve left, and here we are – so very many people who love you, left wanting more.”

    Always stop while they’re still shouting for more – impeccable timing from Norman, as always.

    On the other hand –

    ‘noone will ever be Norman Maclean except Norman Maclean’

    busy folk buried them side by side
    little by little and was by was

    all by all and deep by deep
    and more by more they dream their sleep
    noone and anyone earth by april
    wish by spirit and if by yes.

    Women and men(both dong and ding)
    summer autumn winter spring
    reaped their sowing and went their came
    sun moon stars rain

    I dare say that, more than most, Norman appreciated the duality of ‘noone and anyone’ and the pre-occupations of ‘busy folk’.

  4. w.b.robertson says:

    I knew Norman very well for a few years in the early 1960s. I was a neighbour and he was teaching in what became a string of Glasgow schools. (in those days it was impossible for headmasters to fire any member of staff). Norman would sit in my living room and we would drink and talk. We both would, if necessary, sink whisky through the proverbial shitty cloot. However, he had one huge problem – drink. He had. at that time, a very patient wife and young child. One night he even stole his wife`s best coat to pawn. It is customary to say nice things about the dead. But let us not get carried away. His life was ruined by alcohol. And in his case it was a bloody waste of a great talent.

    1. S. Baillie says:

      That be as it may, he achieved and gave what he did despite his battle with the bottle. He was fully aware of how his addiction affected others and it weighed heavily on his conscience. But it’s not for us to gauge how much of his talent was wasted; that would be dependent on how of his talent Norman wanted to give. He may have given us all he was prepared to.

    2. Alastair McIntosh says:

      What’s worth adding to that, however, is that he was very open and honest about his alcohol problem. He did not (at least, not in his latter years which was when I knew him) shroud it in deceit: and that, at least, is a redeeming quality.

  5. J says:

    The last person to comment (W.B Robertson) clearly didn’t meet Norman recently in the later years of his life. To say that his life was a waste is insensitive and ignores the peaceful ending to an incredible life that Norman led. I knew Norman well over the last few years and he had made peace and reconciled with those close to him that he had hurt in the past. Love is about forgiveness, it is narrow-minded to judge a man forever on his past mistakes. The writer of this beautiful tribute understands the contentment and love that Norman experienced in the final years of his life. W.B Robertson I just felt like replying to your comment, as Norman was so much more than just the stereotypical talented man with an alcohol problem. He was a complex, sensitive man and his life was certainly not a failure or a waste. He inspired me greatly, and he was truly loved by those close to him for far more than just his ‘talent’.

    1. Temmy Maclean says:

      I am Norman’s daughter. I would love to hear any stories about his life you might be willing to share with me. I can be messaged on facebook – Temmy Maclean. I’d truly appreciate any information as unfortunately we were estranged for many years. Thank you.

      1. Alastair McIntosh says:

        Temmy, I don’t use FB. DM me on @alastairmci or email [email protected] and I’ll send you a scan of article about Gaelic Psalms in which I give a short Norman anecdote, and the Lochs News (Isle of Lewis) in which it’s just published have illustrated with his photo.

      2. Davie Wallace says:

        Hi Temmi your father was my teacher in Garthamlock Sec Glasgow in 1965. His classes were always full of humour and fun and we all had great respect for him. Fond memories

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